The Parables of Jesus (Part 1)
Having studied the sayings of Jesus, it is now time to turn our attention toward the longer illustrations and parables. There are two areas which need to be examined: (1) parables related to the Kingdom of God, and (2) parables with an eschatological aspect or dimension. There is a good deal of overlap, but it is important to keep these two areas distinct. Just because Jesus may refer to the Kingdom in a parable, does not mean the thrust of the parable is eschatological per se. As we have seen, his use of the “Kingdom” expression and image is more complex than that.
According to the basic meaning of the Greek word, a parabolh/ is something “cast/thrown alongside”, i.e. placed alongside—an illustrative story or comparison, used as an aid in teaching. Jesus’ parables, as recorded in the (Synoptic) Gospels, tend to be relatively short stories, sometimes taking the form of example covering just a sentence or two. Again, I will begin with the Synoptic parables, represented by the Gospel of Mark, before turning to those in Matthew and Luke. There are relatively few Markan/Synoptic parables; most notable are those which occur in Mark 4 par.
1. The Kingdom of God (Mark 4:1-34 par)
If we begin with the core Synoptic tradition, as represented by the Gospel of Mark, there is only one section (chap. 4) which brings together a sequence of parables by Jesus, and these have the Kingdom of God as their primary theme. This is clearly expressed by the formula in verse 30:
“How may we say (what) the kingdom if God is like, or in what (illustration) cast alongside [i.e. parable] should we set it?”
The sequence of parables covers 4:1-34, which may be outlined as follows:
- Narrative introduction (vv. 1-2)
- The Sower (vv. 3-20):
—The parable (vv. 3-9)
—Jesus and the disciples (vv. 10-13)
—Explanation of the parable (vv. 14-20)
- The Lamp (vv. 21-25)
—which includes an exhortation and reward-saying (vv. 23-25)
- The Growing Seed (vv. 26-29)
- The Mustard Seed (vv. 30-32)
- Narrative conclusion (vv. 33-34)
Matthew and Luke have modified or developed this tradition in different ways. In Matthew (chap. 13), the Markan setting is maintained, but the author has included other parables and sayings which enhance the eschatological thrust of the section (cf. below). By contrast, Luke (8:4-18) has a simpler/shorter version of the Synoptic material, and sets it in a different context (cf. 8:1-3, 19-21). The essential theme, in both the Markan and Lukan versions, relates to the success of Jesus’ ministry—i.e. his proclamation of the good news (of the Kingdom) and the response (of his disciples) to this message. Many commentators feel that in the original context of the parable of the Sower—the parable itself, more than the explanation—had an eschatological emphasis. In spite of the initial obstacles, and lack of response, Jesus’ mission would take root, and from the first disciples, the message would quickly spread to a much wider audience, before the end comes. This is certainly suggested by the language in verses 8, 20 (cf. the parallel in v. 32), though it must be admitted that the emphasis in the explanation (vv. 13-20) is rather on the character of the different kinds of soil as representing different responses to the Gospel. The context of Luke’s version brings out the focus on discipleship even more clearly. Even so, an eschatological thrust by Jesus is likely, given the Kingdom-parables which follow in Mk 4:21ff par. We may consider the brief parable of the Lamp in vv. 21-25, which appears to be made up of several sayings which may originally have circulated separately, but certainly fit together here as a unit:
Beyond the obvious reference to heavenly reward, implying an end-time Judgment setting, the eschatological emphasis may also be seen by the ‘explanation’ of the illustration in verse 22:
“For there is not any(thing) hidden, if not (so) that it may be made to shine forth; and (has) not come to be uncovered, so that it may (now) come into (the) shining (light)?”
This idea of the uncovering of secrets implies the end-time Judgment by God (indicated by the divine passive here), when all things will come to light—on similar passages in the New Testament, cf. John 3:19-21; 1 Cor 4:5; Eph 5:11-14. In this context, however, the saying must refer back to verse 11 and the “secret of the Kingdom” (cf. the next section below). It is the secret(s) of the Kingdom of God which are to be revealed at the end-time. They had been kept hidden (by God) previously, so they would not be uncovered until the present time—i.e. the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. Luke has another form of this (or a similar) saying in Lk 12:2-3, where the emphasis shifts from an eschatological warning (v. 2) to a directive to the disciples to proclaim the secret, i.e. of the Kingdom (v. 3). In Paul’s writings, and elsewhere in the New Testament, this revealing light is identified precisely as the Gospel message of what God has done in the person of Jesus (Lk 1:79; 2:32; Acts 13:47; 26:18ff; 2 Cor 4:4-6; Eph 3:9; 2 Tim 1:10, etc).
2. The “Secret of the Kingdom” (Mark 4:11 par)
Central to the sequence of parables in Mark 4 is the exchange between Jesus and disciples in vv. 10-13, preceding the explanation of the Sower parable (vv. 14ff). I give these verses in a chiastic or bracketed outline form:
- Question of the disciples to Jesus, i.e. asking him about the parables (v. 10)
—Declaration: The disciples are given the secret of the Kingdom (v. 11)
—Scripture citation: The secret of the Kingdom is (and has been) kept hidden from others (v. 12)
- Question of Jesus to the disciples about their understanding the parables (v. 13)
- Question of the disciples to Jesus, i.e. asking him about the parables (v. 10)
The apparent difficulty of Jesus’ quotation from Isaiah 6:9-10 has been overplayed in the past, tripping up commentators. Luke (8:10) has effectively removed the main problem by eliminating the second portion of the citation (v. 10). The thrust of the citation is that God has intentionally kept the “secret of the Kingdom” hidden from people until the moment it is to be revealed by Jesus and his followers—and only by them. As indicated by the outline above, this establishes the contrast in Mk 4:11-12, between Jesus’ close followers (who are given the secret), and all other people (from whom it remains hidden). I have discussed this passage in a detailed study on the use of the word musth/rion (“secret”). There are contemporary parallels to this expression (“secrets of God”) in the Qumran texts—1QM 3:9; 16:11; 1QS 3:23; 1QpHab 7:8, etc. The Qumran Community believed that they (alone) represented the faithful ones of Israel, who would play a central role in the end-time appearance of God (His Kingdom and Judgment), thought to be imminent. In this, they shared much in common with the earliest Christians, who inherited a significant portion of their eschatology from Jesus himself; on this, cf. the recent articles on the eschatological sayings of Jesus, and also the upcoming study on imminent eschatology in the New Testament.
3. Seed/Harvest Imagery in the Parables (esp. Mark 4:26-33 par)
A third aspect of the sequence of parables in Mark 4 to note is the repeated use of seed and harvest motifs, brought out even more vividly in Matthew’s version (cf. below). In addition to the parable of the Sower, we have the two Seed-parables in 4:26-33. Of these we notice especially:
It is this last point which needs to be expounded further, as verse 29 serves as the climax to the parable of the Growing Seed (vv. 26-29). It also continues the image of the Kingdom of God as something hidden—adding this aspect (cf. vv. 11ff, 22, and the discussion above) to the earlier Sower paradigm:
The seed, earlier identified as the “word of God” and the proclamation of the Kingdom, works in a hidden manner, unseen and unknown to the man sowing who otherwise goes about his daily business. Yet the seed has a special power all its own, intrinsic to its very nature:
“Moving (it)self, the earth bears fruit—first (the) green (sprout), then a standing head (of grain), (and) then full grain in the standing head.” (v. 28)
Though hidden, this growth is both natural and expected; and, at the end of its period of growth, the time for harvest comes:
“But when the fruit gives along (its sign), straightaway (the man) sets forth the (tool for) plucking, (in) that [i.e. because] the (time for) reaping [qerismo/$] has come to stand alongside [pare/sthken].”
Many translations simply read “…the harvest has come”; however, I have translated the verb pari/sthmi according to its fundamental, literal meaning (“stand alongside”), to bring out more clearly the eschatological connotation, an emphasis which is inherent in the very harvest motif being employed. For the traditional use of harvest imagery to convey the idea of the end-time Judgment, in particular, cf. Joel 3:1-13; Isa 27:11-12; Matt 3:12 par; Rev 14:15ff; and also Matt 13:30, 39 (below). It was a natural image, as it clearly expresses the end of a distinct period of time—i.e. the agricultural season. The verb pari/sthmi connotes two eschatological concepts:
- The sense that something is close by, or near to taking place—i.e. the imminence of the end-time Judgment
- A usage similar to that of pa/reimi (“be [present] alongside”), which is the basis for the noun parousi/a (parousía), a technical term for the end-time appearance of God and/or His chosen representative (i.e. the return of Jesus, in early Christian usage).
4. The Parable of the Tenants (Mark 12:1-2 par)
This is the other parable in the core Synoptic tradition which has a distinct eschatological emphasis. Its location in the Gospel reflects two themes implicit in the parable: (1) the impending death of Jesus, and (2) the coming destruction of Judea/Jerusalem. The second of these features prominently in the “Eschatological Discourse” of chapter 13 par, while the first is the subject of the Passion account which follows. However, unlike the similar parable in 13:32-37 (cf. below), only the climax of the “Wicked Tenant” parable here refers to the end-time. In this regard, the image of the landowner who “went away from his people” (v. 1) can be somewhat misleading, when compared, for example, with Luke 19:12ff par. Here the man who ‘goes away’ is not Jesus, but represents God the Father, who gives over control of his land to ‘tenant farmers’. These people mistreat the landowner’s messengers (i.e. the Prophets), and, eventually, decide to kill the man’s son (Jesus) when he comes as a representative. The judgment/punishment for this deed will take place as soon as the landowner (God) returns/appears; the implication is that it will occur very soon after Jesus’ death:
“What then will the lord of the vineyard do? He will come and make the(se) workers of the land suffer (great) loss [i.e. destroy them], and he will give the vineyard to other (worker)s.” (v. 9)
If the landowner initially went “away from his people” (vb. a)podhme/w), when he comes back to his people it will be to punish the wicked ones. The end-time Judgment is clearly in view, but also the more specific idea of judgment on Israel (esp. Judea and Jerusalem) for their treatment of the Prophets, including John the Baptist and Jesus (who is also the landowner [God]’s son). As harsh as this sounds, and as uncomfortable as it might make Christians today, it is clearly part of Jesus’ teaching, being found several other places in the Gospel tradition—Matt 23:29-39; Luke 11:47-52; 13:33-35; 19:41-44; cf. also Paul’s words in 1 Thess 2:14-16.
The parable of the Pounds/Talents (Matt 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27) has a similar framework, but appears to deal more directly with the idea of Jesus‘ departure and return. It will be discussed in the next part of this study. Another parable similar in tone and emphasis is found at the conclusion of the “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13:32-37 par), and will be discussed in the study on the Discourse itself. It is worth mentioning here the same issue as in the Wicked Tenant parable, only modified and addressed specifically to Jesus’ disciples, who function as the servants left in charge of the owner’s estate. They are urged to act responsibly, in a righteous and faithful manner, realizing that the owner might return at any time.
Part 2 of this study will examine the specific parables in Matthew and Luke (but not Mark) which have an eschatological aspect or emphasis.