As they set out on their quest to rescue a princess, Shrek tries to explain to Donkey that ogres aren’t what people think. They’re like onions, he says, they have layers. Not at all impressed, Donkey points out that cakes have layers and so do parfaits and they’re so much more delicious. No, says Shrek, onions.
Jesus tells a lot of stories that are like that. Not ogres, exactly, but certainly onions. Parables are layered stories and it’s very easy to just look at the surface meaning, but there’s so much more. I think Jesus taught in parables so much because of exactly that: they’re not just to make a simple point, but to make you think, to wonder more, to look deeper.
The parable of the mustard seed’s a great example. Sure, it’s a simple story about how a tiny thing can grow into something great. That much is obvious. But that’s not the only layer. And there are many layers, of course there are, because Jesus is talking about the kingdom of God.
In the gospel of Mark, Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming the kingdom of God is near. Then, as he travels around, he teaches people with these parables that begin “the kingdom of God is like …” And that’s how the mustard seed parable begins.
So the kingdom of God is something that starts as just a tiny seed and grows into something big, the biggest even. Sure. Layer #1. But. Here’s some more.
Layer #2: What’s the seed? Who plants it? Why? How- exactly – does it grow?
Layer #3: Why a mustard seed? It’s not the smallest of seeds, as he tells folks, it doesn’t grow into the greatest of shrubs with large branches, and birds would likely avoid it – why are you telling people that, Jesus? Also, to most of his audience, mustard would be known as a virulent and noxious weed that’s hard to get rid of. Does Jesus not know anything about mustard? Why offer this incorrect information? Is the kingdom of God like a weed?
Layer #4: We might see “mustard” quite differently today. While wild mustard is still a serious weed problem, we also cultivate it as a spice, an oil and for it’s edible greens. Depends on your perspective: problem weed or beneficial plant?
That’s lots to think about already. And theologians and biblical scholars have lots to say about it, lots that’s valuable and helpful and we can always learn more. But: Jesus didn’t tell the parable for scholars, he told it for ordinary people. Mark makes that clear: Jesus taught the people in parables and explained in more detail to his disciples.
No, I don’t think for a moment that Jesus kept “secret knowledge” just for his closest followers, nor do I think it’s to justify the need for priests – or pharisees, scribes or other “knowledgable” religious leaders. It’s so we, ordinary people, will think about it. We might look to others for help, for their knowledge and wisdom, but we’ll still think about it for ourselves, be discerning and try to find our way through the layers and closer to the kingdom of God.
That’s the point. Jesus never clearly defines or describes the kingdom of God. Instead, he offers us a living example and a way to discover for ourselves. We each have a journey to travel and it’s best when we travel together, but it begins with peeling back the first layer.