Chapter 5: The Kingdom in the Parables

Understanding the Kingdom of God
by Georgia Harkness

Chapter 5: The Kingdom in the Parables

As any good concordance will indicate, many references to the kingdom of God are ascribed to Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. On the basis of these sayings it is possible by some selectivity to defend any of the four major types of understanding of the kingdom outlined in chapter 2. Taken collectively they justify what was affirmed in chapter 3 as primary notes in the meaning of the term: the ultimate sovereignty of God; the acceptance of this sovereignty through human response and obedience to God’s will; and a final, victorious consummation of the total process. Thus the kingdom is above, within, and at the end of human history, with the end meaning both goal and fulfillment.

These notes I believe to have been basic to the thought of Jesus, which he conceived as a whole without any one, two, three or abc differentiations. But stated thus for theological analysis, the concept still lacks concreteness. This concreteness Jesus supplied for his own time in the parables, and if we can discern the timeless meaning in these matchless stories, we are in a better position to find it for our own.

1. Why the parables?

And what is a parable? It is neither a simple figure of speech nor an allegory, which is sometimes confused with it. An allegory is an extended simile in narrative form with a point for point meaning to be drawn from each of its parts. A parable is a short story drawn from common life which is intended to convey a moral or religious truth. Each parable has a single focus, and distortion occurs when we try to treat it as an allegory.

The parables of Jesus have special importance to our theme for several reasons. In the first place, they are probably the most authentic of all the sayings ascribed to Jesus. This is not to say that we have here a stenographic, verbatim account of just what he said. Yet, based as they were in familiar life situations, they were easy to remember. They were doubtless told again and again in the early church, as today one remembers the illustrations in a sermon, and thus found their way into not only the oral tradition of the church but the earlier written sources of the Gospels. We may perhaps question some of the interpretations inserted by the Gospel writers, but there is no serious reason to doubt that in the main the parables themselves are authentic.

A second reason for the importance of the parables is their uniqueness, which gives further evidence of their originality. In the Old Testament there are allegories, fables, and plenty of similes and metaphors, but only two real parables: Nathan’s story of the poor man’s one ewe lamb (II Sam. 12:1-6) and Isaiah’s parable of the unproductive vineyard (Isa. 5:1-7). In the New Testament they are found only in the Synoptic Gospels. With such metaphors in John as the "bread of life" and "vine and branches," these passages lack the narrative quality which would make them parables. There is some difference of opinion among scholars as to whether stories found in rabbinic writings before the time of Jesus constitute parables, but no less an authority than Joachim Jeremias makes this positive statement, "Jesus’ parables are something entirely new. In all the rabbinic literature, not one single parable has come down to us from the period before Jesus." He says further that in comparison with Paul’s similitudes and the rabbinic parables that appeared later, the parables of Jesus are distinctly different. "Comparison reveals a definite personal style, a singular clarity and simplicity, a matchless mastery of construction. The conclusion is inevitable that we are dealing with particular trustworthy tradition. We are standing right before Jesus when reading his parables."1

An element in the nature of this difference has a bearing on the message of Jesus as a whole, and the kingdom in particular, and thus forms a third reason for their importance. Jesus loved nature and thought of everything in nature as made by God and part of God’s good world. One looks in vain in Paul for any such sensitivity to nature’s beauty or the goodness of small things throughout God’s creation. Says C. H. Dodd, the other major exponent of the parables:

This sense of the divineness of the natural order is the major premise of all the parables, and it is the point where Jesus differs most profoundly from the outlook of the Jewish apocalyptists, with whose ideas He had on some sides much sympathy. The orthodox Rabbis of the Talmud are also largely free from the gloomy pessimism of apocalypse; . . . but their minds are more scholastic, and their parables often have a larger element of artificiality than those of the Gospels.2

A fourth reason, already intimated, for giving special attention to the parables is that they reflect the bearing of the kingdom on the conditions of everyday living in human relations. The setting, to be sure, is first century rural Galilee with its small towns and open farm and grazing land rather than contemporary urban America. Jesus never gives us abstract theologizing about the nature of the kingdom. But here we see what the kingdom means for daily living in terms of its worth which calls forth quest, the conditions of its entrance, the call to continuing obedience, and the assurance of divine control and concern which undergird hope.

In what follows, no attempt will be made to cover the more than forty parables which are found in the Gospels. Those which will be looked at bear most directly on Jesus’ understanding of the kingdom. Some of them state this directly in such words as "The kingdom of heaven is like...." In others the relation is only by implication. Some of them seem to contradict each other. Yet if what is looked for in them is not logical consistency but a life setting that deals both with existence in the kingdom in the present and an expectation of its coming, there is wholeness and unity. What I shall aim to do in this chapter is call attention to this unity which becomes more evident as the parables are viewed together, but from several angles of Jesus’ thought.

2. The worth of the kingdom

Jesus never leaves his hearers in any doubt of the supreme worth of the kingdom to their lives. This is evident from its centrality in his total message. Its superiority to physical needs, even to very real ones for which God has concern, is expressed clearly in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:25-33). Its antithesis to the lust for material gain comes out in the striking hyperbole which loses all its meaning if it is lamely literalized. "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matt. 19:24. See also Mark 10:25 and Luke 18:25.).

Particular references to the worth of the kingdom are fewer and briefer in the parables than to other angles of it, though it is presupposed in all of them. Perhaps Jesus took this for granted and felt no need to keep talking about it. Its explicit affirmation is limited to two verses in Matthew 13:44-45.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.

Both these parables have their setting in the Galilee of Jesus’ day. Burying a treasure in order to guard its safety was a natural thing to do when the houses and shops had flimsy walls and insecure doors, and there were no bank vaults. "The protection of wealth by burying it in the ground was a sort of ancient equivalent for the modern safety deposit box.’’ 3 Though it is unlikely that buying pearls was a common practice in Jesus’ home or among his neighbors, there were undoubtedly pearl merchants among the caravans that came through on the well-traveled road between Damascus and Egypt.

It is easy to raise some puzzling questions about these two swift glimpses into the mind of Jesus. What about the honesty of finding another’s hidden treasure, carefully concealing it from everybody, and then by buying the field making a good rake-off at the owner’s expense? Is Jesus trying to tell us to throw prudence to the winds and sink everything in one deal? We have seen this work havoc and cause long drawn-out suffering that could hardly be God’s will.

Doubtless there were dishonest and imprudent people in Jesus’ time, but here he is not trying either to commend or to rebuke them. Let us remember that a parable is intended to convey only one point and not try to allegorize it by reading extraneous matter into it. With this procedure it is clear that the point in both these parables is not something about economic ethics. It is the supreme worth of the kingdom of God and hence the need to orient one’s life and dedicate one’s self completely toward this goal.4

But what is this goal? It is the supremacy of love in all of life, for God is love. To be sure, no mention is made of love in this particular passage. But we cannot leave it out when the life, the ministry, and the message of Jesus are so completely centered in it. Life in the kingdom has no place for halfway measures; it costs all that we have, and this supreme requirement is the love of God and neighbor. We enter the kingdom by accepting God’s rule and with it the demands of love in all our relationships.

The unfinished tower and the king going to war without counting the cost is another pair of parables accenting the worth of the kingdom. They appear only in Luke 14:25-33, but with a tangent passage in Matthew as Jesus gives instruction to his disciples (10:34-39). The dominant note is the call to complete self-renunciation if one would become a disciple, hence the worth of that to which Jesus summons his followers. These parables expand and supplement the message of the treasure hidden in the field and the pearl of great value and form a corrective if one is needed. Should one assume from these briefer parables that joyous possession makes no further demands, this error is here decisively corrected. However essential the first step, it is never enough. Evangelism in both the conventional and the charismatic churches of our time might be greatly vitalized if this were taken more seriously.

But are not the demands too severe? And what about love? Can we suppose God requires a Christian to "hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life" (Luke 14:26)? Again we see the perils of literalism. More than a few in Christian history have felt impelled by these words to sever their family ties, with the result of cruelty to those nearest and otherwise dearest, sometimes with the distortion of their own personalities. Granted that a hard decision must sometimes be made between loyalty to family and loyalty to some other God-given duty, we cannot suppose that the God of infinite love asks us to disregard human love and its obligations. What Jesus seems to be saying here, again in a striking hyperbole that his hearers would have understood perhaps better than we, is that his followers must ever be on guard lest a human good draw us away from following the highest goodness.

What of the mockery that ensues when one starts to build a tower and is unable to finish it? Since the Greek word for tower can mean any high or expensive building, it is a synonym for anything important. But it is concrete imagery that is not basic to the parable. The point still holds that acceptance of the rule of God is of supreme importance even if retreat brings not mockery but approval, as it often does in current secular society. Such approval is apt to increase the difficulty of authentic discipleship, and elsewhere Jesus gives the warning, "Woe to you, when all men speak well of you" (Luke 6:26). Whether mockery or popularity results from retreat, the cost of discipleship is steadfastness in bearing the obligations of the rule of God.

Nor should the common tendency to allegorize mislead us in what Jesus says about the king’s inadequate preparation for war. This is not designed to be an argument for military preparedness! On Palm Sunday morning Jesus wept over Jerusalem because the people knew not the things that make for peace (Luke 19:41-42). But in driving home a point he adopts a setting for it with which they are all familiar. The point is the costing nature of membership in a higher kingdom than that of any earthly power.

Luke places directly after these parables the word about the savorless salt, with which Matthew ends the Beatitudes. Its meaning is clear enough to sting. One way in which the judgment of God works is that inner depreciation of selfhood which comes from surrendering high goals for low and self-centered aims.

3. The conditions of entrance

The parables already glanced at give witness not only to the supreme worth of the kingdom but to its cost in self-dedication. This is the primary and inclusive condition of entrance into and of life within it; that is, of living a Christian life. But at once the question arises, "Is complete self-dedication ever possible?" There are those in our time as in the past who hold that when radical conversion is followed by sanctification, now more commonly called the baptism of the Spirit, Christian perfection ensues. An honest look within, even to say nothing of the fruits observed in the lives of others, makes this a very doubtful conclusion. Being finite and fallible human beings, we need to guard against the conclusion that there is no self-centeredness left in us.

Yet what is possible is to make self-dedication to the rule and will of God a matter of firm decision and a lifetime goal. This seems to be what Jesus meant by entrance into the kingdom of God. And to do this, certain attitudes are essential. Foremost among these are faith, repentance, and humility.

Faith requires trust in God and the recognition that our ultimate destiny is in God’s hands. The kingdom of God is God’s gift, not a human achievement. It is God’s initiative, born of the love that is the source of divine grace, which opens the kingdom to all believers -- which is to say, to those who will meet the conditions for entrance into it.

Such faith is basic to the doctrine of justification by faith, which was first spelled out by Paul and never stated by Jesus in theological terms, yet was presupposed in all he said about the kingdom of God. It is to distort it and advocate what Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a now classic term has called "cheap grace’’ if no human cost is taken into account.5 Yet to assume that we "build the kingdom" is equally a distortion.

The parables which best illustrate the divine initiative that stems from the yearning love of God for every person, whatever one’s moral status or station in life, are the trilogy of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost boy, ordinarily called the prodigal son. Whether the three were spoken by Jesus in quick succession we do not know, but Luke’s arrangement of them in chapter 15, constituting the entire chapter, places them in an arresting juxtaposition. The first two have the same point, but since the third deals specifically with a human situation it takes a somewhat different turn.

The stories gather meaning if seen in their setting (Luke 15:1, 2). The preaching of Jesus was attracting tax collectors and sinners, and he was even eating with them, which was shocking to the respectable religious leaders of his time. To eat together has long been a primary symbol of fellowship and hence of division when a cleavage, racial or religious, intervenes. The Pharisees and scribes were much disturbed, and these parables are Jesus’ answer.

The point is clear that God is eternally seeking to save the lost, and the sinner is as much the object and recipient of the love of God as the righteous. This is both the ground of our faith and the solvent of man-made cleavages. These parables vividly affirm God’s concern for all persons, whatever their goodness or badness or station in life. On this certainty we can rest our faith.

The third parable accents most the need of repentance, though joy over the penitent sinner appears in all. A sheep or a coin cannot repent, but a son can, and his repentance is spelled out dramatically. Here is clearly suggested the need of appropriate human response as well as of divine caring. It was when the boy "came to himself" and said, "I will arise and go to my father," that he found himself willing to say, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son" (Luke 15:17-19) It was then that the redemption took place.

There is no specific mention of the kingdom in connection with these parables. Yet they are nonetheless parables of the kingdom, and the call to repentance is sounded so often elsewhere that we must believe Jesus considered it a basic condition of entrance. It begins in Mark with the preaching of John the Baptist and quickly appears in the message of Jesus. "Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel’ " (Mark 1:14). The call to repentance continues throughout the Synoptics, drops out in John, and reappears in full force in Acts and the Letters. It must have been a dominant note in the thought of the early church.

To comment on our current situation, the failure to take sin seriously and with it the need for repentance is one of the major weaknesses of modern society and with it the modern church. This is not to say that sin and penitence are the only notes that need to be sounded; there is need of a positive upbuilding of personality. Yet to a great extent either conventional decency or psychological adjustment has become the goal most put forward, with little sense of the need of recognizing one’s guilt before God. So serious is this and so adverse to full personhood that the nation’s outstanding psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, has recently written a book with the arresting title, Whatever Became of Sin? 6

Because God is supremely good, our sin matters greatly in the sight of God. Though repentance can never assure us of moral perfection, it is a prime requisite to the obedience demanded by God’s sovereign rule. But it is not the only requirement.

That penitence and humility are closely linked is evident in the familiar parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee was no doubt a good man. Most of them were, in spite of the invectives found in Matthew 23 which have given them a bad reputation. The trouble was that they were too well aware of their own virtue and did not hesitate self-righteously to announce it. As for the tax collector, he may or may not have feathered his nest in collecting the taxes -- Jesus is not discussing the nature of his infractions -- but he had the honesty and the humility to say, "God, be merciful to me a sinner!’’ and to open his soul to the grace of God.

This parable appears only in Luke, but immediately after it stands an incident which is a parable in action and which has been preserved also in Matthew and Mark (Luke 18:15-17; Matt. 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16). This is the bringing of little children to Jesus that he might touch them, somewhat as people today like to have a political candidate kiss their babies. When the disciples rebuked them, he rebuked the disciples. "Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." This, of course, does not mean childishness, but a childlike openness and trust.

The theme of humility appears again in the parable of the chief seats at the wedding supper. The pretentious must take a back seat while the humble are called to a higher station (Luke 14:7-11). Jesus with prophetic intensity condemns any act that is ostensibly religious but has as its main incentive human approval. The severity of the woes pronounced upon the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23 may have become exaggerated in the transcribing. (I am inclined to think they were, but they are a true enough reflection of what Jesus thought about religious pretense and hypocrisy.) Hence, the need of humility, openness, and sincerity if one would find a place in the kingdom of God.

4. Life in the kingdom

No sharp distinction can be drawn between the requirements of coming into the kingdom of God and those of life within it. The Christian life, like any other, experiences change, but change within continuity. Yet life within the kingdom, or the accepted sovereignty of God, has in it an important note sometimes underprized by those who place primary stress on a radical conversion. This is the call to sensitivity and service to every human need.

Foremost among the parables which emphasize this aspect of life in the kingdom is the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). With a clarity not easily misunderstood, it begins with a restatement of the two great commandments, then gives a graphic picture of neighborliness in a situation of response to human need that transcends any man-made lines of division. Christians have often failed to act in accord with it, but seldom if ever does one question its authenticity to the mind and spirit of Jesus.

With much the same thrust, despite its linkage with an apocalyptic concept of divine judgment, is the presentation of the separation of the sheep from the goats in the last judgment (Matt. 25:31-46). One’s place in the kingdom is then to be determined by his ministry to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the imprisoned. The King will say, "’Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’’’ It is not clear whether Jesus is here identifying himself with the King or expected Messiah, but it is clear that here he discloses his interests and priorities with an unmistakable directive for life in the kingdom. Strictly speaking, this is an apocalypse rather than a parable, but it has great value in showing that to Jesus an apocalyptic kingdom would be meaningless without human service as its precondition.

There is a trilogy of parables given in rapid succession in each of the three Gospels, and surprisingly in the same order, which does not often occur. These are the parables of the wedding guests who need not fast while the bridegroom is with them; of putting a new patch on an old garment; and of putting new wine in old wineskins (Matt. 9:14-17; Mark 2:18-22; Luke 5:33-39). The setting given applies to all of them. The disciples of John and the Pharisees were fasting; those of Jesus were not. The people wanted to know, "Why so?’’ The reply of Jesus by the three parables suggests the need of freshness, vitality, authenticity of personal experience in contrast with a mere maintenance of traditional patterns. But note that Jesus does not say that the innovative should be sought simply because it is new, or that life should be celebrated in a service of worship simply for enjoyment.

5. The parables of growth

Turning to the parables of growth, we find a number of them. But these are not parables of the individual’s growth in the Christian life. This was not the familiar concept then that it is today and was not accented by Jesus; nor in the Bible as a whole, though we find suggestions of it in the Letters in injunctions to "grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ" (Eph. 4:15) and to "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (II Pet. 3:18). It is not surprising that in a time when there was no such knowledge of the processes of human development as we now have, little attention was given to what we must now consider vital to Christian nurture.

Yet there are important parables of growth which the evangelists have given us as spoken by Jesus. They refer to a corporate increase in acceptance of his message, and hence a growing response to the kingly rule of God. Matthew has arranged them together in chapter 13, each preceded by "The kingdom of heaven is like" or some equivalent phrase. There we find the parables of the sower, the tares, the mustard seed, and the leaven (Matt. 13:18-33) Mark alone has a fifth in the earth bearing fruit of itself (4:26-29). The sower and the mustard seed are in all three Gospels; the leaven in Matthew and Luke; and the tares in Matthew only. This amount of inclusion indicates that all the evangelists took seriously the parables of growth.

To see to what these parables were pointing, it is necessary to take into account the situation within which the evangelists compiled them in the latter part of the first century. The church by this time had grown considerably, and no clear distinction was drawn between the church and the kingdom. Even though it was recognized that the time of the coming of the kingdom was in God’s hands, it would not have occurred to these writers that the kingdom could come apart from the church. Yet it had become evident that within the church, as within the world, there were both wheat and tares, good people and bad, and this had brought to the fore the issue of weeding out evil elements. Furthermore, the expected end of the world with a catastrophic last judgment had not occurred; some explanation needed to be found and encouragement given as the waiting continued.

The parables of growth were an answer to these problems. This is not to infer that the writers made them up and then attributed them to Jesus. There is as good reason to suppose that these were in the oral and written sources as any of the others. But the evangelists apparently adapted them to their times. In the process the parables of the sower and the tares became allegories, with extended point for point explanations added which probably were not in the words of Jesus.

This process of addition and adaptation may explain why Mark at the end of the sower parable, but before its explanation, includes some cryptic words attributed to Jesus explaining why he spoke in parables. "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven" (Mark 4:11-12). But if Jesus desired anything in his ministry, it was that people should perceive and understand his message, turn, and be forgiven!7 He was no purveyor of esoteric doctrine, nor was Christianity simply another mystery religion like many of that day. Whatever mystery of the kingdom existed then and the mystery still persists, else there would be fuller agreement on it -- the purpose of Jesus was certainly to clarify and not to obscure his message.

With this understanding of the setting, the parables of growth are a natural part of the teaching of Jesus about the nature of the kingdom. With sure insight he linked aspiration with action in ‘’Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth." He doubtlessly foresaw and at times felt in his own labors frustration and discouragement, and the parables of growth were promises of hope. One might see little immediate fruit of one’s labors, but if one sowed the seed with fidelity and waited in faith, God would give the increase.

Let us now look briefly at each of these parables separately. The point of the parable of the sower, if we may bypass the details of the allegorical explanation, is that the seed is the gospel being proclaimed by Jesus; the soil is the Christian who is called to witness to it and to live by its demands under many thwarting circumstances. Not all sowing will bear fruit, but some seed will fall on good ground and bring forth a rich harvest as the reward of faith and steadfastness. The harvest is the coming of the kingdom of God.8

The tares -- or weeds from which we have made a verb out of the need of weeding them out -- are the ever-present forces of evil. These are familiar enough to be consistent with any interpretation of the kingdom, whether apocalyptic, prophetic, realized eschatology, or existential decision. They stand for the evil forces enticing Christ’s followers away from the gospel, the church, and the kingdom. We are not to suppose that Jesus was counseling his disciples to be indifferent to such evil or acquiescent in it; his entire ministry looks in the opposite direction. What it probably means is that it is impossible to have a "pure" church and offenders should not be purged, their final judgment being left in the hands of God.

The mustard seed may not literally be the smallest of all seeds; this need not trouble us. The point of the parable is growth from small beginnings to great expansion. This hope of great things yet to come through God’s action in spite of the world’s resistant forces must have nourished Jesus himself when faced with opposition and apparent defeat, and it was a note greatly needed by his followers. It goes without saying, perhaps, that this has been a perennial and is still a contemporary need of Christians.

The leaven is paired with the mustard seed as an assurance of the growth of the church and the spread of the gospel through witness to and acceptance of God’s kingly rule. When Paul and the rabbinical writers speak of leaven, they use it as a symbol for evil influences (I Cor. 5:6-8), and Jesus himself elsewhere warns his hearers to "beware of the leaven of the Pharisees" (Matt. 16:6; Luke 12:1), and in Mark, of Herod also (Mark 8:15). The use of leaven in the parable to describe the growth of the kingdom suggests that God’s power transcends that of any countervailing force.

The parable of the earth bearing fruit of itself, or as is sometimes said, the seed growing secretly, has the same note of growth toward the harvest as do those of the sower, the tares, and the mustard seed. Yet a note that is implicit in the other parables of growth here becomes explicit. Growth indeed requires human effort; the seed has to be scattered on the ground. Yet the growing power is there in the creativity God has placed within it. Jesus appears to be saying that the kingdom will come in due course by God’s action; his followers may wait in confidence that a power not their own is at work in the process.

This is not to suggest that Jesus spelled out, in a philosophical system, the thought of a divine energy at work in the world. It is certain that he did not, though the germ of it is there in his thinking of God as the Creator whose presence and care are manifest in even the smallest things of his creation. The parable is distorted if we try to read out of it a doctrine of inevitable progress; yet it is quite in keeping with the process theology of today which sees a forward movement through the tender and loving concern of a transcendent yet immanent God.

Obviously all five of these parables are designed to give encouragement and hope. But how do they bear on our present understanding of the kingdom of God’?

In the earlier part of this century such sayings of Jesus were often cited to reinforce belief in an evolutionary progress toward a better world. This took various forms. The coming of the kingdom was conceived by some, though not by its major exponents, as a gradual growth in goodness on earth until it would finally fruit in a utopian perfection. Many who did not go this far stressed the need of human effort to build the kingdom, with a strong emphasis on the need to attack and eliminate the social evils of war, injustice, and oppression. For this reason it is often referred to as the social gospel kingdom.

I do not believe that this is what Jesus was saying when he spoke the parables of growth. Some now call them parables of contrast to avoid this interpretation. An evolutionary optimism leading eventually to a perfect society would have been inconceivable to Jesus, and if he could have conceived it he would have rejected it. His apocalyptic expectancy is in the background even where it is not so expressly stated as in the parables of the last judgment or the tares.

But does this mean that we must accept his apocalyptic imagery to find value in the parables? And does it mean that we are on false ground to stress human responsibility for the advancement of the kingdom? And does it cancel out a social gospel? The answer to all three of these crucial questions is an emphatic no!

If the reader has gone along with what has been said in the earlier chapters, Jesus was an apocalyptist in the currents of his time, but this never contradicted his main message of the love and saving power of God and the need to love and serve one’s fellows in obedient response to the call of God. If this is accepted, it follows that the kingdom does not come automatically or even supernaturally, but it advances through the creativity of God as Christ’s followers accept their responsibility as God’s servants. Then, a social gospel in the form of the call to increase both love and justice in human society at manifold points is not only acceptable but imperative. Every one of the parables of growth then falls into place.

6. The parables of judgment

We come now to a group of parables in which Jesus’ apocalypticism is more clearly evident than in those previously examined. Yet even here they say something to us that is of permanent worth and truth, whether or not we adopt their apocalyptic framework.

Let us first look briefly at some miscellaneous parables of judgment introduced by the words, "The kingdom of heaven is like. . ." There is, first, the parable of the dragnet (Matt. 13:47-50). All sorts of fish are gathered in. Jesus was never a purist as to those to whom the gospel should be preached, and the bad might be gathered with the good. Yet at the close of the age there will be divine separation. The reference to the furnace of fire and to men weeping and gnashing their teeth, which reappears in several of the subsequent parables of judgment, is straight out of Jewish eschatology. There is no certainty that Jesus used these words, in fact there is the probability that he did not. In any case, they are so at variance with his understanding of God as a loving Father that it is tragic that they have so often been taken literally.

We come next to the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:23-35). This is also a parable of judgment, though its eschatological note appears only in the last sentence of it. Unlike the words just cited, this is fully in keeping with the words of the Lord’s Prayer. God forgives without limit the penitent sinner; he asks that we forgive also those who wrong us. An unforgiving spirit merits divine judgment.

The parable of the great banquet, which in somewhat variant forms appears in Matthew 22:1-14 and Luke 14:12-24, has as its theme the divine invitation which must be accepted without excuses. The invited guests are left out of the feast by their self-centered preoccupation with lesser concerns; the poor, the maimed, the blind, the lame, those in the byways and hedges are sought out and welcomed. This may be a dig at the self-righteousness of the religious elite, and especially in its form in Luke it may be taken as a vindication of the mission to the Gentiles. Yet probably its primary note is the then familiar symbolism of the heavenly banquet and the modes of response to it. In this setting it is another way of putting the basic and initial call of Jesus, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

We look now at a sequence in Matthew 24 and 25 where there is a vivid account of the end of the age and the troubles just preceding it. The parables of crisis here are those of the thief in the night (24:43-44); the faithful and unfaithful servants (24:45-51); the wise and foolish maidens (25:1-13); the talents (25:14-30); and the last judgment (25:31-46). Mark and Luke have also a parable of the waiting servants (Mark 13:33-37; Luke 12:35-46) which may be a variation of that of the faithful and unfaithful servants but is not identical with it. The note that is sounded in all these parables is the need of watchfulness and fidelity in view of the coming of the Son of man, yet the uncertainty of the hour in which this will occur.

The varieties of interpretation placed upon these parables epitomize the entire problem of the kingdom of God with which this book is concerned. C. H. Dodd from the angle of realized eschatology and his conviction that Jesus believed the kingdom had already come in his own person interprets them as originally spoken by Jesus to refer to the crisis connected with his own death and resurrection.9 Others who believe that Jesus could not have said these things attribute them to the early church and the error of the evangelists in presenting them as his words. Those who believe that Jesus was an apocalyptist accept them in the main as authentic, but with wide variation as to whether we should expect from them a literal second coming. The ordinary Christian in one of the mainline churches, more inclined to look to the Bible for directions for living than concerned with problems of textual criticism, is apt to draw from them only an injunction to fidelity and perhaps a warning to be ready to die, since death may overtake one at any moment. If he is a member of one of the Pentecostal or Adventist churches, or a literalist in any of the others, the series of woes and warnings in Matthew 24 are a sure sign in our troubled time that we are living in the last days and Christ is coming soon.

The position which has been defended in this book is that Jesus was influenced by the apocalyptic expectations of his time and probably did speak some such words as these, expecting an imminent day of the Lord which did not occur. His followers, still expecting its occurrence, passed them on with their own interpretations. This does not detract from his divinity or uniqueness as the Son of God or as the Son of man, if we see in the latter term not a supernatural heavenly messenger, but the humanity which is essential to any true incarnation. Jesus was apocalyptic, but so much more than that that this element becomes wholly subordinate to his revelation of the nature and will of God. Thus his apocalypticism was unique in that it was suffused with moral and spiritual, and thus with prophetic, elements.

We see this blend of an apocalyptic framework with a prophetic message most clearly in the parable of the last judgment or the sheep and the goats. But it is evident in all the others. Let us now look at them in succession.

The parable of the thief coming in the night with the householder unprepared is a very brief one occupying only two verses and appears in nearly identical form in Matthew 24:43-44 and Luke 12:39-40. Since Paul uses the same figure of speech when he says in I Thessalonians 5:2, "For you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night," we may conclude that this entered the thought of the church very early. In Matthew it is preceded by a section which sounds the note of preparedness by a backward look at the unpreparedness at the time of Noah and the flood and a forward-oriented prediction of the hour when two persons will be in the field or grinding at the mill, one taken and the other left. The setting in Luke ties it in with the reward of faithfulness given to the servants whom the master finds waiting for him when he comes home from the marriage feast.

The parable of the faithful and unfaithful servants is also found in both Matthew and Luke, directly after the reference to the thief at night (Matt. 24:45-51; Luke 12:41-48). In each case the story begins with the question, ‘’Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time?’’ It continues with the reward of the good and the punishment of the bad servant. But the endings differ. In both, the unfaithful servant is "cut in pieces" according to both KJV and the New English Bible with this as a marginal reading in the Revised Standard Version -- a fate hardly consistent with the spirit and message of Jesus, and we are under no obligation to believe that he ever said it. Matthew follows this with his being put with the hypocrites; there men will weep and gnash their teeth -- an obvious reference to hell. But Luke in a milder vein differentiates between those who know and those who do not know the master’s will and ends with a great word in the best prophetic tradition, "Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required" (12:48).

The parable of the ten maidens (Matt. 25:1-13) better known as the ten virgins, is the first of three longer parables in the sequence which Matthew provides, and it is found only in Matthew. Also, it is the only one of this group which is expressly introduced by a comparison with the kingdom of heaven, though all in this sequence are sufficiently in the same vein to indicate that to the writer, the coming of the Son of man, on the day of the Lord, was to be the coming of the kingdom

The one point of the parable is the need of responsible alertness. There is no evidence of positive moral turpitude on the part of the foolish maidens: they were simply not wise enough and did not take pains enough to be ready. Nobody else could make amends for their negligence. No censure is placed on the bridegroom for keeping them waiting until midnight -- it was their business to be prepared, and since they were not ready, the door was shut.

It is, of course, easy to turn this into a bit of simple counsel that one should always think ahead and be ready for emergencies. But to do this is to miss the point of the parable. The early church was waiting for the parousia. A good many years had gone by since the death of Jesus, and he had not yet returned. The church needed reassurance that he would still come in spite of the delay, and those becoming lax needed to be prodded. They needed to know that nobody else could make the preparation for them, and there was no second chance beyond the "great day." This parable in its time served all these purposes.

As the point of the parable of the ten maidens is responsible alertness, so that of the talents is responsible use of what has been entrusted to us by God. The modern use of the word talent as a special gift or capacity is drawn directly from the biblical parable of the talents, where it meant a sum of money of about one thousand dollars, and in either case it should be viewed as something held in trust.

As Jesus originally spoke the parable, it may have had no eschatological flavor. But as Matthew has used it (25:14-30) and Luke in his similar parable of the pounds (19:11-27), it has taken on this connection. It need not trouble us that the man going on a journey is represented as a hard man driving a shrewd bargain for his own gain, for the parable does not focus on the character of God or of Christ. Its intent is to say that while waiting for the Master’s return, Christians should be active, use their talents instead of hiding them, take risks, be about the Master’s business.

There may also be a reference to the Jewish leaders, whether in Jesus’ time or later, who viewed their function only as preserving the law rather than bringing about change. In any case, the current Jewish idea of Gehenna is evident in the end of the story with the injunction to "cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth." This, if nothing more, we may regard as Matthew’s contribution to the story.

The climax of the series is found in the great picture of the last judgment. Here, as was noted earlier, the apocalyptic and prophetic notes are most fully blended. The setting is apocalyptic. The story begins with the great assize "when the Son of man comes in his glory," and it ends with the decisive verdict of assignment either to eternal punishment or to eternal life. But midway the mark of the kingdom is humaneness, loving service, a deep concern for human need. One’s final destiny hinges on feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the destitute, caring for the sick, showing solicitude for the prisoner. In different words, but with the same spirit, there is reflected here the message which Jesus took from the prophet Isaiah and made the keynote of his ministry, "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted" (Isa. 61:1). Furthermore, it is in keeping with his conception of his own messiahship, or at least of a special vocation from God, as he states it in response to a query of John the Baptist, "Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?’’ The reply he gives is, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them" (Matt. 11:3-5).

These parables of judgment enunciate a very important aspect of the message of Jesus and of Christian faith as a whole -- namely the reality of judgment as well as mercy in the nature of God and the nature of the kingdom. But what kind of judgment, and how does it come upon the sinner? This still looms as a large question to which some attention will be given in later chapters.

We cannot here give special attention to each of the parables of Jesus. But enough has been said to indicate their trend and various essential aspects of the kingdom in the mind of Jesus. Altered though these stories doubtlessly were during the years between the time when Jesus spoke and the evangelists wrote them, the message is still discernible. From them we glean what has previously been indicated as basic notes in the understanding of the kingdom: the timeless kingship, or kingly rule, of God; an ongoing and present kingdom to be entered and lived in by accepting God’s sovereign rule in obedient response; and a final victory of God which is in God’s hands, though he calls us to labor in faith and love for its coming. Thus, the kingdom is both presence and promise; both within and beyond human history; God’s gift and man’s task; we work for it, even as we wait for it.



1. Joachim Jeremias, Rediscovering the Parables (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1966), p 10.

2. C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1938), p. 22.

3. Albert E. Barnett, Understanding the Parables of Our Lord (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1940), p. 63.

4. Dodd says that these parables do not emphasize the value of the kingdom, since Jesus’ hearers already knew this, but the sacrifice by which it is acquired. (Parables of the Kingdom, p. 1 12). This seems to me an unwarranted assumption and a false disjunction.

5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1959), pp. 37-49.

6. Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin? (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1973).

7. Morton Smith in The Secret Gospel: The Discovery and Interpretation of the Secret Gospel According to Mark (New York: Harper & Row, 1973) endeavors, on the basis of a manuscript fragment believed to be a copy of a letter from Clement of Alexandria, to prove that Jesus was a magician who taught such a secret gospel. This then becomes "the mystery of the kingdom," with baptism as its initiation rite, and Christianity becomes a mystery religion. This seems to me completely unpersuasive.

8. The allegorical interpretation given in the Gospels makes the point of the parable the different modes of reception of the word of God. Jeremias points out that this gives the parable a psychological slant, whereas its original reference was probably to the harvest at the end of time. Whether the setting is present or future, the parable in either case has to do with one’s place in the kingdom. Cf. Joachim Jeremias, Rediscovering the Parables, pp. 64, 119 f.

9. The Parables of the Kingdom, chapter 5 and especially pp. 171, 174.