Parable and Kingdom
Jesus taught, strikingly, in parables. Indeed, we associate parables so closely with him that it might seem as though he had created the parable. Rather, he made brilliant use of a genre which was already of long tradition. But, what precisely is a 'parable?' A parable is a brief story with two levels of meaning. For instance, at first sight, the Sower looks like an agricultural vignette. Its true meaning, as we shall see below, has to do with reception of the gospel message. Similarly, the Prodigal Son is not a story featuring an indulgent father; it is meant to illustrate God's boundless mercy towards sinners. More than that - for there is the other son - it was intended by Jesus as a challenge to those who could not stomach such mercy (as we shall see in a later article). Always the second level of meaning is the essential one. The purpose of a parable is to challenge decision and invite action.
A Story with two Levels of Meaning
By Jesus' day the parable had become a familiar form in rabbinical preaching. It had a history, as witness Nathan's clever parable in 2 Sam with a hapless David toppling into a parabolic trap (12:5-7). In chapter 11 of 2 Samuel we read of David's adulterous affair with Bathsheba (later to be mother of Solomon) and of his nasty cover-up murder of her husband Uriah, an officer in his army. The prophet Nathan challenged the king; he did so in parable. The gist of it: A poor man had a single pet lamb; his rich neighbour had flocks and herds. When a traveler came to the rich man he purloined the poor man's lamb to prepare dinner for his guest. David was angry: "'The man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity." Nathan said to David, "You are the man!"' (12:6-7). Parables are weapons. Not crude sabers but subtle and penetrating rapiers.
In general, biblical parables drew material from daily life and followed set meanings: vineyard, sons, servants represented Israel; king or father meant God; feast indicated the messianic age; harvest the judgement. When Jesus chose to speak in parables he was following a convention familiar to his hearers. Jesus, of course, addressed his contemporaries. It is no longer possible for us confidently to situate any parable precisely in the historical ministry of Jesus. One cannot really get back there. But each parable does appear at a particular place in each gospel. We can recognise its literary setting and ask what it is doing just there. This is not to say that the gospel setting of a parable exhausts the potential of its challenge. The parable of the Lost Sheep is an apt illustration'.
This parable is found in Lk 15:3-7 and Mt 18:12-14. In Luke, Jesus is on the defence: 'Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable' (Lk 15:1-3). The Lost Sheep is Jesus' response to his opponents: God has profound concern for sinners and rejoices in their return. This is why Jesus sought them out and associated with them. In Matthew 18 the setting is quite different: Jesus is addressing not his opponents but his disciples. (In point of fact, he is addressing Matthew's community). Here the lost sheep is the 'little one' (18:10) - the weak and vulnerable Christian who needs loving support. The parable is the Lord's admonition to a Christian community - in particular, to its leaders. The Lost Sheep fits both, quite different, situations.
Many gospel parables explicitly teach something about the kingdom of God. Note, for instance, Mk 4:30 - 'With what: can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?' The expression 'kingdom of God' was not current in Judaism at the time of Jesus and was not widely used by early Christians. 'Kingdom of God' occurs predominantly in the synoptic (the first three) gospels and then almost always on the lips of Jesus. It was evidently central to Jesus' proclamation. Hence, one might say that all his parables, even when there is no reference to the kingdom, illustrate some aspect of that teaching. The kingdom of God was simply Jesus' special way of speaking of God's purpose for humankind. In the Our Father he taught us to pray: 'Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.' We ask our gracious Abba/Father to establish his lordship on earth. That is why 'reign’ or 'rule' is a more satisfactory term than the traditional 'kingdom.' God's lordship is not domination. It means that all men and women should live in peace and love as truly his children.
Jesus preached the kingdom: he preached that God is the ultimate meaning of this world. The 'Rule of God' does not signify something 'spiritual' outside of this world; it is not 'pie in the sky.' Jesus was supremely concerned with our real world. When he preached the kingdom of God he envisaged a revolution in the existing order. He made two fundamental demands: he asked for personal conversion and he postulated a restructuring of the human world. Conversion (metanoia) meant changing one's mode of thinking and acting to suit God's purpose for humankind. It would be a new manner of existing before God.
God's rule becomes real only when it finds expression in human lives. It found expression in the life of Jesus. He 'went about, doing good.' In preaching the rule of God Jesus was defining God. He was proclaiming a God bent on the salvation of humankind. That is why he announced good news to the poor - the needy of every sort, the outcast. That is why he was friend of sinners, why he had table-fellowship with them. These aspects of his teaching and praxis figure prominently in his parables.
The Sower (Mark 4:26-32)
Because we can no longer determine the setting of the Sower in the ministry of Jesus we cannot be sure of its original meaning. What is beyond doubt is that, for Mark, it is a parable of the word. It is likely that this, too, was Jesus' intent. There is notable emphasis on hearing: 'Listen!' (v 3), 'Let anyone with ears to hear listen!' (v 9). On the other hand, the parable might be characterised as a parable of the soils; it is where the seed falls and what happens to it that are decisive.
The first part of the Sower (vv 4-7) is negative - the grain and seedlings and young plants perish; the second (v 8) is positive - the rest of the grain flourishes and the yield is startling. The farmer sowed haphazardly: on the path, on rocks, among thorns - also, happily, on fertile soil. Not a bright farmer! Jesus' audience would have chuckled. Here is the incongruous, a feature of several parables. It effectively attracts the hearer's attention - as in the joke form. The story had something other than farming in mind. It was about the hearers of the word - represented by the different soils. The hearer was exhorted to receive the word in faith and keep it with steadfastness.
The explanation of the Sower (vv 14-20) is a commentary which takes up and explains the key phrases of the parable. Its language shows it to be a creation of the early Church, and it reflects the missionary experience of early Christians. Noteworthy is the attention to the various types of soil. But this was already a feature of the parable. The seed is the gospel preaching. The word is sown in the hearers: it is 'seeded' in them. Four categories of hearers are distinguished in terms of where the seed had fallen: 'on the path,' ‘on rocky ground,’ ‘among thorns’ and on 'the good soil’. The fate of the word was different in each case. The explanation is there because Christians had, perforce, to acknowledge that few had taken to heart Jesus' word. They asked the question: Why such a gulf between themselves and those who would not see? They found an answer in this parable. How could they have expected it to be otherwise? Think of what happens when the sower scatters the seed. Not every seed bears fruit. Much is lost for one reason or other. This understanding then led them to delineate the forms of resistance to the word. Many people were like those on the path: the word did not reach them, as though it had been swept away at the very moment of receiving. Or, many people seemed like shallow growth: they were ready to receive but were unable to persevere. Or, many people were like seed under thorns: they heard, but the word lost its significance because they were choked by cares and distractions. The major concern of the explanation was the structure of human life itself. The shallow mind, the hard heart, worldly preoccupation, persecution - these were precisely the obstacles which frustrated the growth of faith. The explanation presupposed a time when Christian faith was tested by such factors. Is our situation so very different? The explanation offered warning - and encouragement (v 20). And Mark presented it as a word of Jesus. It is a word of the Lord to us.
Growing Seed and Mustard Seed (Mark 4;26-32)
The parable of the Seed Growing to Harvest (4:26-29) is proper to Mark. It seems best to take it as a parable of contrast between the inactivity of the sower (after the initial sowing) and the assurance of the harvest. The sower goes his way; the seed sprouts and grows without him taking anxious thought. It is God who brings about the growth of the kingdom. Paul had learned the lesson of the parable: planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth’ (1Cor 3:6). It may be that, originally, it was Jesus' reply to those who looked, impatiently, for a forceful intervention of God; or it may have been meant to give assurance to those of the disciples who had become discouraged because little seemed to be happening. Mark surely takes it in the latter sense. Jesus encouraged his disciples: in spite of hindrance and apathy the seed was being sown. Its growth is the work of God who will bring it to harvest.