Jesus’ Big Mistake

The Kingdom of God is like . . .

A group of parables attributed to Jesus begin with this phrase, a simple comparison or simile. But things are not always as simple as they appear.

A comparison represents two unlike things as alike or similar. A is like B. The first item A is in some way unknown, while the comparative item B is better known. A hearer or reader* must figure out how two unlike things are alike.

In the simile, “crazy like a fox,” the attributes of “fox” help explain what “crazy” means. “Crazy” and “fox” are both known, but “fox” adds some new dimension to the understanding of "crazy.” The person who appears to be crazy is actually shrewd. This simple example is semantically complex because in the comparison, “crazy” shifts from a literal meaning to a metaphorical meaning. Such semantic shifts take place commonly today as they did in Jesus’ time. Often we are unaware of what is happening.

The kingdom/empire of God/god/YHWH is like a leaven** which a woman hid in three measures of flour until it was all leavened (Matt 13:33 and Luke 13:20–21).

The A item (basileia/kingdom/empire) and the B item (leaven) are known, but B illuminates A in some new way. Rather than engage in a complicated discussion of how to translate baseleia tou theou, let us say the A item is an imperial reality that belongs to a deity. How is that divine imperial reality like leaven?

Dough Fermenting

Leaven is fermented batter, or dough in the process of decay. It takes only a small amount to achieve its goal. But the primary metaphorical implication of leaven in the ancient world derives from how they understood its activity as corrupting the bread. The fermentation swells the loaf like a corpse swells up if not properly cared for. Think road kill and you’ll get the picture. Leaven corrupts a lump of dough.

Paul’s use puts the metaphorical structure of leaven on full display. He argues against allowing false teaching to infect the community: “Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?” (Galatians 5:9 KJ) A little bit of leaven corrupts the whole.

When we apply this metaphorical structure to the parable’s A term, the divine imperial reality corrupts everything it touches, like leaven. An audience’s task is to work out the implications. The point is to provoke an audience into creating meaning, or as C.H. Dodd noted in his famous definition of a parable, “to tease the mind into active thought.” It requires an imaginative interpretation.

There can be no literal interpretation of this or any parable because that would rob it of its metaphorical possibilities. Also, there cannot be a single simple meaning, because meaning is created in an audience’s imaginative interpretation.

The metaphorical implications of the parable’s B term, leaven, conflicts with the metaphorical implications of the A term, the divine imperial reality. Divinity implies goodness, not corruption. Therefore, the parable presents a new view of God. An audience must reimagine who God might be and how God is acting. How is God’s action corrupting? How does it corrupt everything (“until it was all leavened”).

The conflict between the A term (the divine imperial reality) and the B term (leaven) creates cognitive dissonance. That cognitive dissonance is the parable’s purpose from the teller’s point of view. An audience must resolve the cognitive dissonance. Two choices emerge:

1) Accept the implications of the parable as valid and thus experience a NEW divine imperial reality. The shocking dissonance between the A and B terms is the experience of the divine imperial reality.

2) Reject the parable as invalid and allow things to remain the same.

Option #1 explains the behavior and experience of those who followed Jesus and created a new community around him. They experienced the divine imperial reality as not bound by a purity code. God was unclean, blasphemy for the observers of the Levitical purity code. For those who accepted the parable, God is on the side of the poor and the outcast, women are not automatically unclean, and they can eat with anyone, even a sinful woman. The normal divine imperial world has been overturned. The implications were shocking and the possibilities are endless.

Option #2 means rejecting the parable as an invalid expression of the divine imperial reality. The old, traditional view of the divine imperial reality remains intact. Among those who chose this option, some walked away, some became opponents, and some saw Jesus as demonic.

A third option avoids both of these drastic consequences—reverse the semantic direction and allow the A term to determine the meaning of the B term. This is the option the Christian tradition chose. It could not accept the parable’s implication that its God is associated with the unclean, so the church reinterpreted the parable in reverse semantic direction. The A term interprets the B term. Thus, the normal association of leaven with uncleanliness and corruption was ignored and Jesus’ shocking parable became a satisfying example of how, from a small beginning (the leaven), a large outcome (the loaf) could result.*** The parable thus foretold the emergence of a great thing (the church) from a small beginning (Jesus and his disciples). This third option carries the distinct advantage of trivializing Jesus’ role and magnifying the church’s glory.

In this third option the Christian tradition doubled down on the default, everyday understanding of the divine imperial reality and forfeited Jesus’ vision of a new divine imperial reality.

Jesus’ parables counterposed a new experience of God, an experience that thwarted the default. In Jesus’ parables, God changed sides. Contrary to the wisdom tradition, riches were no longer a sign of blessing. Jesus congratulated the poor, announcing theirs was the divine imperial reality.

Jesus’ big mistake was the symbol he chose to stand in for the experience of God, basileia tou theou, the kingdom or empire of God. It was not an obvious choice, which might explain why he chose it. It does not occur in the Hebrew Bible or at Qumran. It does become prominent in the later rabbinic tradition. In A Marginal Jew, John Meier, like many scholars, equates it with the more common “Day of the Lord,” and thus understands it apocalyptically. But there is no justification for this. If that was what Jesus intended, he could have used that phrase, which was much more common and well understood. Why adopt an uncommon phrase with no lineage in the tradition?

Perhaps Jesus made this choice because he was going for something new and different; because it was not clear and obvious, which explains why scholarship has not been able to solve the puzzle of the meaning of basileia tou theou.

But Jesus’ gamble failed. The implications of kingdom or empire and God are too strong. They imply “power” and “rule,” and “all-good,” “ruling over all.” It asks a lot to understand either empire or God like the corrupting activity of leaven. To accept the parable’s implications would overturn kingdom, empire, and God, placing the audience in a terrifying new reality.

Jesus’ parables engage critical thought, difficult in any culture, but especially so in an oral culture. Oral cultures lack the advantage of abstraction that literate cultures enjoy. Oral cultures think concretely. Jesus attempted critical thought through storytelling, a mode that does not lend itself easily to analytical reasoning. But it does have several advantages. Stories are easier to understand than abstractions. Abstraction also tends to limit possibilities for meaning. That is its purpose, whereas storytelling opens new possibilities. In story, the responsibility for meaning-making lands on the audience. Meaning is not single and simple, but multiple and even infinite.

Jesus took a risk with basileia tou theou, the kingdom or empire of God, as a new way to understand the experience of God’s action. One could say his gamble did not pay off. The church has preferred and continues to prefer a more comfortable God from that of Jesus. And yet the parable still remains for those with ears to hear. Maybe it’s not too late for new possibilities still on the horizon.


* Jesus spoke to an audience, we moderns read. The dynamics and hermeneutics of hearing (orality) are different from those of reading (literacy). But that is a topic for a different day.

**Several modern translations have used “yeast” instead of “leaven,” since modern readers are more familiar with yeast. But yeast has none of the metaphorical implications of leaven.

***Gospel of Thomas 96 is the earliest example of this interpretation: “The Father’s empire is like [a] woman who took a little leaven, [hid] it in dough, and made it into large loaves of bread.”

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