Parables of the Kingdom

Jesus’ parables — analogies that explain the Kingdom of God — are one of the hallmarks of his teaching. A picture is worth a thousand words, as they say, and the pictures Jesus uses do much to open our minds to the nature of life with God. (Of course, as Jesus pointed out, if we don’t have eyes, ears, and hearts attuned to God, the images will hide more than they reveal.)

Today’s Gospel reading is a bit curious. Here Jesus’ parables are not the slowly unfolding stories we know and love — the Parable of the Sower, the Prodigal Son, the Vineyard — but rather a rapid-fire collection of short pictures without much comment.

Jesus here compares the Kingdom of God to:

  • A small seed that grows into a large and fruitful bush;
  • A smattering of yeast that leavens a whole batch of dough;
  • Hidden treasure, or a fine pearl, that costs everything the buyer has, but is entirely worth the cost;
  • A net cast into the sea that is indiscriminate in what it catches, only sorting the good out from the bad later;
  • A collection of fine ancient and modern art proudly put on display.

While some of these parables, such as the mustard seed and the yeast or the treasure and the pearl, make similar points, as a collection, they express different truths about the Kingdom of God: In God’s Kingdom, even the humblest beginnings can come to great endings; God’s Kingdom costs us everything but is of infinite value; God’s Kingdom welcomes the good and the bad alike, and we can’t tell the good from the bad until after it’s all said and done; God’s Kingdom is precious. If we bring in some of the other parables, we can add: In God’s Kingdom, people who have made big mistakes are welcomed with open arms; in God’s Kingdom, blessing is scattered everywhere in the hope that it will grow somewhere; in God’s Kingdom, the party will go on whether you choose to go or not. And on and on.

The Kingdom of God is too big to be contained by a single metaphor. This may seem obvious, but we’re really good at forgetting this. In one of my first (and most popular) posts on this blog, I explored the huge number and diversity of images through which our Scriptures explore the ideas of sin and salvation. Sin isn’t just understood as rule-breaking as both Christians and non-Christians alike so often assume, but also as trespassing, blindness, hunger, debt, separation, bondage, slavery, ingratitude, and disjointedness. It’s actually a far richer and more nuanced idea than the legal metaphor suggests. And if we focus too narrowly on this one analogy, we miss out on so much, and distort the idea in the process.

The flip side of this focus on the legal metaphor for sin is that, particularly in the West, theology has tended to understand salvation almost exclusively through the image of payment of a price. While the image is certainly biblical, this hyper-focus on this one biblical metaphor ignores so much — even most — of what our Scriptures say about salvation. It is not only like the payment of a price, but also like the forgiving of debt, entering the Promised Land, the return from Exile, the release from slavery, a wedding banquet, the victory over death, food and drink, and comfort.

The point is that these big ideas of our faith — the Kingdom of God, sin and salvation — are too big, bold, and beautiful to be contained or constrained by any one metaphor. In this way, they are just like our God-talk itself. We need all these analogies and symbols to understand our faith. We need all of these perspectives to understand our God. If we grasp too tightly onto one of them, we risk missing the point entirely.

With all this in mind, I’d like to end today’s post with a challenge. Over the next few days, meditate on these diverse metaphors and contemplate how you’ve experienced each in your own journey of faith. How have you experienced sin as alienation? As bondage? As hunger? As being disjointed? How have you experienced salvation as a return from exile? As forgiveness of a debt? As new life? How have you met God as Father? As Mother? As a Strong Tower? As a Whirlwind? (And so on.)

And specifically today, as we ponder the Gospel reading and Jesus’ parables more generally, how have you experienced God’s Kingdom in your life as a priceless thing that has cost you everything? As something small that has had immense consequences for everything else? As being so big and broad in its embrace that you’re surprised by who it might bring in? As unconditional love? As a wedding feast?

An exercise like this may shake up our faith a little bit, but in all the best ways. I am convinced that the more we actively engage with the variety of images our Scriptures use for God, God’s Kingdom, and salvation, the more we will allow God to escape the mental box we’ve put God in, and the deeper our relationship with God will be. And after all, that’s why we’re all here, isn’t it?

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