Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Reign of God and the Parables of Jesus: Getting the Story Right, Part 1

By John Armstrong @

In the first installment of this series of articles we saw that the central question posed by the ministry of Jesus had to do with the reign of God. Jesus came to make that which was wrong right, to bring the victory of Yahweh. He began a redemptive process, through his death and resurrection, which will culminate in the final manifestation of his kingdom at the end of this age. We are living in the already part of this kingdom. The not yet, or the final expansion and expression of that kingdom, is still to come. This should fuel optimism in an age of Western moral confusion and growing pessimism. The story is not over. The final chapter will yet be written and it will be glorious when it is.

The theme of the kingdom, and thus of God's reign on earth, specifically works itself out in story form in the New Testament. This happens in a number of literary genres but it is most clear in the parables that Jesus tells in the synoptic Gospels. I believe that these stories should form our core vision of the reign of God and therefore they should powerfully inform how we understand what Jesus is doing in this present age. When we limit these stories to a single meaning, and interpret them far too rigidly (the single intent method), we miss the very intention that Jesus had in telling them in the first place. Let me unpack this a bit for you.


Biblical scholar, Phillip A. Cunningham, notes that "By attempting to reconstruct the original setting and significance of the parables, it becomes evident that they can be grouped according to several overarching themes" (Jesus and the Evangelists, University Press of America: Lanham, Maryland, 1993, 146). Cunningham groups many of the parables into the larger category of "Parables of God's Reign." He then breaks these down into several sub-categories that I will borrow somewhat freely with a few twists of my own. Cunningham argues that even if future research indicates that a particular parable does not fit into the category we assign it to, this would not fundamentally alter the larger thesis behind the points I will make.


The way in which Jesus announced the kingdom was intended to primarily promote joy, not fear. The coming of the kingdom is a consequence of the love of God for people because "God is love." God desires that all people come to this event; even those previously excluded or considered outsiders. Those who will initially benefit from this kingdom will be "the lost sheep of the house of Israel," but the benefits will not stop there at all.

Consider the parable of the generous employer in Matthew 20:1-16. The "surprising twist" here is that the payment practices of the owner are shocking, unexpected in every way. In fact, if we read the story honestly we tend to think this is not right. The punch line of this story occurs when those who began work early in the day complain that those who came late in the day were paid the same wages. The workers who served all day were complaining about what all good religious people tend to complain about-how can tax-collectors and sinners be a part of God's reign? Why should Torah-observant Jews be put on the same level as these outcasts and lawless folks who had no relationship to the covenant? Jesus' response is to highlight the owner's unbelievable generosity.

It seems clear to me that this parable was addressed to good religious people who had a bad attitude about God's generous response toward the wicked. The point is repeated by the later evangelists who use this story to refer to the admission of Gentiles, the new "latecomers," into the kingdom of Jesus and his Church.

The fact that God loves all people, even the most sinful and the obvious religious outcasts, is very powerfully illustrated in several other parables; e.g. the two sons (Matthew 21:28-32), the lost sheep (Matthew 18:12-14; Luke 15:4-7), the two debtors (Luke 7:41-43), the lost coin (Luke 15:8-9), the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), the wicked tenants (Mark 12:1-11; Matthew 21:33-44; Luke 20:9-18), the Pharisee and the tax-collector (Luke 19:9-14).

Jesus understood that in the coming reign of God all Jews must be reunited into one new people and that God's limitless mercy and love would draw into this one people the unrighteous Gentiles as well. The remaining story of the New Testament makes it quite plain that this became one of the most pressing issues in the development of the early church.

This issue remains a pressing one to this day. Wherever race, ethnicity or some non-core issue keeps Christians from unity in a congregation, or even beyond, they miss this mark of Jesus' reign. This is why Paul writes:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew not Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.
Galatians 3:26-29

Any human barrier we construct that hinders people from joining us in worshiping the one God and Father of us all, namely those who seek God's kingdom in Jesus Christ, is a scandal. Indeed it is a great heresy. I hear so much talk today among conservative Christians about heresies, but almost never do I hear them consider that this is a real heresy, whether it appears among Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox Christians.


The announcement that the reign of God was near was met with two kinds of response. Some people were filled with joy and hope, and thus received the kingdom with faith. Others were led to scorn. How could God bring in his glorious kingdom through this carpenter from Nazareth, a backwoods place if there ever was one? There are at least six parables that illustrate this point but I will focus only on one, the parable of the mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32; Matthew 13:31-32; Luke 13:18-19).

Jesus seems to be saying that the reign of God will begin in a small and inconspicuous way but the ultimate impact will be universal and huge. Just as the tiny mustard seed can produce a large and life-giving tree, or as a little leaven leavens an entire batch of dough, so Jesus' activities will produce cosmic results that will be beyond the imagination of even his most devoted followers.

The parable of the sower (Mark 4:3-8) illustrates this same point, or so it seems to me. The surprising twist here is that the sower is not very interested in how he scatters his seed but that it be widely scattered. Only a small portion of the seed sown will produce a harvest, but what a great harvest it will be. The crop that comes in will be thirty, sixty, and a hundred fold in size. Though moderns can picture an immense harvest from a small amount of seed no one in the first century could have even conceived of such a thing.

The same truth is brought out in the two parables about prayer in Luke 11:5-9 and Luke 18:1-8. Those who persist will find that God will vindicate his people by his reign. Will not the righteous judge, in contrast to the wicked judge in the story, bring about his universal reign of justice, even quickly? Despite appearances, God's reign is coming and will someday be openly revealed to all.


The reign of God has already come and is coming in fullness and glory. Those who pursue it with their whole heart are those who know that God loves sinful people and that sinners matter deeply to God. They are also a people who realize that God's reign is advancing throughout the earth, right now, even while they sleep, even when things seem quite to the contrary. They are a people of unbounded hope because they know that the righteous judge will do right. They also know that his will is being done on earth as well as in heaven.

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