The Tales the Carpenter Told

The kingdom of God is not built, but planted.

Todd Brewer / 7.14.22

Jesus’ father was a carpenter. Presumably his father was a carpenter as well. And his father before him. We might well imagine a few generations of tradesmen, passing their sophisticated engineering knowledge down from father to son: how to hang a plumb line, sharpen a hand saw, or level a wall. Jesus, likewise, would have learned the highly specialized craft from a young age. Alongside the usual religious education for children, Jesus and his siblings would have at least helped his father in the family business. If your roof caved in from a windy storm, Jesus would have been handy with a bow saw. Everything changed, however, when Jesus turned thirty. Leaving behind his auger, Jesus went into the kingdom of God business.

But as mysterious as Jesus’ sudden career change was for his family — and they were none too pleased (see Mark 3:21) — it is more surprising that this traveling preacher famed for his analogies refrained from using imagery from the family business.

Jesus told parables about bakers, widows, fishermen, travelers, tailors, merchants, and shepherds. But not carpenters. The imagery Jesus routinely employed in his teaching was agricultural. Seeds that spout, sowers who sow, and farmers who rest and harvest. Jesus had owned a hammer, but never spoke of nails or lathes.

Was Jesus simply pandering to the masses? When in Rome, as they say … or in this case, when surrounded by farmers, talk about their day jobs. Much ink has been spilt on this idea: Jesus the founder of contextual ministry. As though the crowds were all ignorant yokels and Jesus was constrained by the limitations of his listeners’ education. 

No, if Jesus had wished, he could have easily compared the kingdom of God to the building of a viaduct and everyone would have been familiar with the imagery. No one was left scratching their heads when Jesus compared those who obey his words to someone who builds their house on a rock.

I suspect Jesus told parables about farming because he found the language better conveys the nature of the kingdom. Carpentry and other building projects produce a static, final product of questionable permanence. Even with vigilant upkeep, the slow creep of decay will eventually render even the most beautiful of structures a pile of sticks and stones.

Imagine, for a second, if Jesus had used the family business in his parables. These teachings would inevitably produce within Christianity a paradigm of work, placing the spiritual burden squarely on the shoulders of Jesus’ followers. After all, bricks do not assemble themselves. A ship that is not maintained will eventually sink. The business of building requires hard work at every stage of the process. Work to gather materials, work to construct, work to preserve.

If Jesus had wanted to start a new Jewish sect that stressed the benefits of hard work, perseverance, and dedication, he had years of relevant life experience upon which to draw. But the tales Jesus told did not derive from the construction site, but the land itself.

When viewed collectively, the agrarian parables of Jesus so often seem to go out of their way to avoid discussing the hard work of farming. In the parable of the sower — Jesus’ first parable — he himself is the sower and his listeners are the soils. Jesus does the work and everyone else simply receives the word he sows. This theme of personal passivity is then picked up in Jesus’ subsequent parable, where the growth of the seed occurs by itself and without the knowledge of the sleeping farmer. In the following parable, the mustard seed becomes a tree, emphasizing the disproportionate growth of the kingdom.

And yet somehow preachers and readers of Jesus’ parables routinely turn their applications upside down, emphasizing how “we” as the seed need to make sure our soil is tended to. That we need to make sure we are not the rocky ground or the thorny ground and stay connected to God by way of personal devotional practices. That our growth in God is actually all up to us. How quickly we can turn the gospel into law and Jesus’ parables into something terrible (someone should really do a podcast about this!). More than any other genre of teaching, the parables are the most prone of any to be contorted and twisted into our own image. We fill in the gaps of parables or place them in foreign theological or historical contexts.

Turning Jesus’ agricultural parables into lessons on the virtues of hard work actually brings them far closer to the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas than they do to Matthew, Mark, or Luke. It is Thomas that casts the reader as the protagonist who plows a field and finds buried treasure (Saying 109). Thomas’s Jesus extols as blessed “the one who has worked and found life” (Saying 58). And when Thomas records the parable of the mustard seed (Saying 20), it is the reader who must work the metaphorical soil in order to produce great branches. Thomas fills in the details about effort and striving that the canonical gospels seem to consciously omit. But unlike contemporary preachers, Thomas says the quiet part out loud: only those who are worthy will find life, only those who work will one day find rest. You only get out what you put in.

By contrast, the canonical gospels’ theme of passivity coincides with an almost hyperbolic productivity. More than quid pro quo, Jesus’ agrarian parables contend that abundance comes solely from God’s hand. The inert soil that receives the word produces an unimaginable abundance. The harvest of wheat is not threatened by weeds. The tiny mustard seed grows so large that the birds of the air (the gentiles) can rest in its branches.

For Jesus, seeds and plants synthesize the paradox of productivity and passivity. The kingdom of God grows without collaboration or consent, and yet the workings of God in the world involve real people — repentance, freedom, and changed lives. The life-giving activity of God creates something where there was once nothing, unencumbered by human vacillations and limitations, and to miraculously transform the world.

Walking around the Sea of Galilee, Jesus would have surely observed the radical transformation of the landscape through the seasons. Noticing how the brown barrenness of winter gave way to verdant green, an idea takes root. The kingdom of God is not built, but planted. 

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