Jesus has to leave the synagogue to speak to the crowds outside who have flocked to hear him. He gets into a muddle with his parables, but they go down a storm anyway.
Thomas, Saturday July 8
There was almost a riot at Capernaum’s synagogue today, but in a good way, not like last week at Nazareth. Capernaum is good because it has the biggest synagogue in the area, and the fishermen disciples are known there, and Jesus has always been well received there. Anyway, there must have been at least twice as many people outside, pressing to get in, as there were inside the building.
Jesus started off in his favourite way by analysing the law and the scriptures with the elders, who were much more receptive to his thoughts than the Nazareth lot. Even though they disagreed with him, it was a good-natured debate. But the people outside couldn’t hear, so eventually I persuaded him to go out and speak to them. He needed to move on from debating with experts to addressing crowds of ordinary people, and he couldn’t get a more supportive bunch than this.
Outside, screwing up his eyes in the blinding sunlight, he seemed unsure how to begin. He cleared his throat and looked at me.
“What is the Kingdom of God like?” I prompted in a whisper. He still hesitated but someone in the crowd picked up my question and repeated it in a loud voice. Suddenly it was more like a discussion again, and Jesus was off.
“What is the kingdom of God like? It’s like, um…a mustard seed.” Oh Jesus, I thought to myself. We’ve prepared entire sermons and lists of sayings, and now yet again you’re making it up as you go along.
“Yes…you see, the mustard seed is the smallest seed in the world, yet when you plant it, it grows into an enormous tree, and birds build their nests in it.” His audience looked confused but started discussing it between themselves.
“Tell us more, Master,” called another voice that sounded suspiciously like Peter’s. Others in the crowd joined in the request and Jesus raised his hand to quieten them.
“The kingdom of God is like…A man goes looking for fine pearls, and when he finds one that is unusually fine, he goes and sells everything he has, and buys the pearl.”
More confusion and discussion, followed by another request for more, this time by someone sounding very like Simon. You couldn’t complain about a lack of effort from the disciples. They kept this going for a while, Jesus sometimes using prepared lines and sometimes making up new ones. When he had run out of examples he went back to teaching about divorce and adultery, which were always popular topics. You could hear people gossiping in little groups about the extramarital affairs of people they knew, and what the punishments would be when certain people found out. Eventually he had to send everyone away, promising to come and preach to them again soon.
Later, when we were alone again at Magdala, Jesus said to me, “Well, what do you think? Did you like my parables?”
“I’d much prefer it if you stuck to what we’d prepared. You run a risk that no one will understand what you’re on about. The idea with parables is to use illustrations to help people understand the truth more easily,” I said.
“Oh no.” Jesus wagged his finger at me. “I’ve been thinking about that, and I’ve concluded the whole point of parables is that nobody understands them, even though they are hearing the truth.”
“What’s the point of that?”
“I’m not quite sure,” he said. “Maybe it makes them think I know more than I really let on. Maybe they like a bit of mystery in their religion. People do. They will spend hours trying to work it out and still come back for more. I can always explain them to you and the other disciples if you like.”
“No thanks,” I said. “I understood exactly what you were saying, though it’s no wonder if most people were confused. I mean, whoever heard of a mustard tree, so big that birds make their nests in it?”
“Yes, that was a bit of a whopper, but they seemed to swallow it,” he said. “I was simply trying to make a point that the greatest things, such as the coming of the Kingdom, can develop from the tiniest…”
“I know what you were trying to say, but I think we need to rewrite that one for another time. And what about the fine pearl? Again, the point you are trying to make is clear enough to me, but what collector in his right mind would sell absolutely everything to buy one pearl? He wouldn’t be a rich collector any more, he’d be completely impoverished and would starve. In that case the pearl would be effectively worthless to him, and he’d have to sell it again. OK, I know that once you get to the Kingdom of God you will find all the good things you were looking for, but that’s what makes the parable a bit dodgy.”
“Exactly. So no one can make sense of it. That’s what I want to achieve. That’s how I like it,” said Jesus. I put my head in my hands. Maybe his family were right, and he was completely mad. He had taken my idea of bringing the message to life with simple stories based on everyday life, and was doing the opposite.
“OK, let’s forget that for now,” I said. “What you must agree is that you have already outgrown synagogues for your teaching. We need to look at arranging some open air meetings, maybe with a stage or something so all the people can see you. I’ll have a think about it, and you need to start learning some of the stuff we’ve written so you can keep going for longer.”