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Metaphors are deceptively simple things.
The straightforward language of metaphor cloaks an incredibly complex system of associations, comparisons, and, sometimes, value judgements about the world. Somehow, the human brain is able to compare the two parts of the metaphor, identify which two things are being compared, and draw the correct inference for the successful communication of meaning. More incredibly, these calculations are nearly instantaneous.
Metaphors are also particularly helpful when you’re trying to describe something that’s mysterious, or radically new.
Metaphors push the boundaries of language to their limits, they stretch language to be able to communicate more than it could before. This might be why the Bible is brimming with metaphor. In Mark 4:30, for example, Jesus asks, ‘‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?’’
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus’ parables depict fields, farmers, workers and widows — the daily world of his recipients. He used this everyday world to gesture towards the mysterious, in — breaking reality of God’s kingdom into to the present.
In Mark 4, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed, ‘‘which, when it is sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade’’ (4:31-32).
Hidden within this metaphor are theological truths about the kingdom of God, but you have to slow down to see them. One of the lessons here is that you can’t judge by appearances; what appears insignificant now may later be profoundly important. Perhaps another lesson, then, is that the coming of the kingdom takes time — it won’t happen overnight.
Alternatively, in light of the climate crisis, perhaps we can also see an ecological message here: the outworking of the kingdom includes working towards the flourishing of all creatures. This is represented in the parable by the birds of the air who nest in the branches of the mature tree. The flourishing of the earth includes biodiversity and wholeness. It includes all creatures having a place of safety to live and raise their young.
Indeed, one of the surprising things about metaphors is their incredible adaptability — their figurative nature means that they are able to speak to new situations in a way that prose speech simply cannot. It’s quite likely that this parable would not have been understood in ecological terms in the past, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a valid reading. It means that the parable is able to speak to the needs and concerns of a new generation.
If we were translate this parable into our contemporary, antipodean society, to what would we compare the kingdom of God? That leads to a harder question: what actually is the kingdom of God? That’s difficult, but it’s something like a mustard seed, or a sower sowing seed, or a treasure hidden in a field. Or perhaps it’s like a kereru spreading the seeds of native trees, or a cabbage tree thriving in the extremes of scorching summers or freezing winters, or pounamu, a treasure to be given and received as a gift.
- Katie Marcar is a Teaching Fellow in Biblical Languages in the Theology Programme at the University of Otago.