Taken In Hand
Speaking in Parables
‘Parabolē’: a comparison; a simile; a pattern; an emblem; a precept.
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed which a man takes (‘lambanō’—takes in the hand) and sows in his field.
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman took (also ‘lambanō’) and mixed with a bushel of flour, then waited until the whole batch of dough rose.”
Two things struck me in the Gospel reading for today. The first was the word “parable.” We don’t really use that word nowadays to mean “a simile,” but we do use it in a mathematical sense to describe a curve with certain properties, and we also use it as an adverb (parabolic, parabolically) to mean speaking in a roundabout way, or to describe a story with more than one meaning.
Then there is the verb that’s hidden in the familiar parables about the mustard seed and the yeast in the bushel of flour— “lambanō, “to take in the hand.” I couldn’t help being reminded of the phrase, “to take in hand,” meaning to mentor a person who’s gone off on the wrong track, or to undertake a job that requires corrective action before a successful outcome can occur.
So if we adjust our understanding of the meanings of those words, we get a picture of Jesus presenting a pattern to be followed, or an actual recommendation of a certain kind of action. The simile is not about the mustard seed, or the yeast! No, it’s about the action of the man who takes the mustard seed and sows it, knowing perfectly well what kind of big, hearty plant will grow from the little seed he takes in his hand and sows. It’s about the action of the woman who takes the yeast and mixes a little bit of it into a whole lot of flour, knowing perfectly well that this little bit of sour, fermented goop will be enough to make twenty loaves of bread rise and double in size.
The comparison being made is not about the mysterious properties of objects like seeds and fermented dough. No, it’s about ways of being in the world, a comparison that likens the kingdom of heaven to the actions of the man and the woman, both of whom take something “in hand” with a confidence born of experience; an inherent understanding that certain results can be generally relied on. The kingdom of heaven is like that confidence. Or maybe it’s more like the cumulative and shared experience that gives rise to that confidence; or perhaps it’s like the trust that lets one person pick up a tiny seed and plant it in the ground just because someone else told them that a big tree will most likely grow from it. Or, it could be like the intuition we all have that tells us that these improbable things are possible; an intuition based on our being embedded in, and part of, the world and all its myriad things.
A Parable then, is a story about The Way:
the way to go, the way to be, the way to do things—
The Realm of Heaven
is a Way of doing things.
A Way that stretches back to the Beginning
and forward to the End.
A Way that rises high above the air
and dances on the wind.
A Way that hides deep below the earth
in motionless silence.
A Way that takes things in hand
and knows where to put them.
A Way that lies hidden
under and above
and all throughout the world.
A Way that is like a million other things
and unlike them all.
Distinct but diffuse.
Dark but daylit.
It comes and goes,
but always waits
while Something grows.