Wherever one might be in declarations of belief, God is so often not the God these declarations expect, and often it is shocking to discover it. God comes near and offends our sense of understanding; God affronts our categories and overturns our sense of familiarity. Jesus of Nazareth does the same; quite particularly so in the language of the parables. With his stories, he offends the believing and unbelieving, disciples, scribes, and crowds alike. With the same stories, he continues to jar hearers awake and move followers near.
The Greek word for parable literally means “a placing beside.” It is a comparison of one thing beside another, an association of pictures that teaches. In a wider sense, the parable is a figurative discourse, a riddle full of light and shadows. In his parabolic language, Jesus vividly lays a full and layered picture beside us: The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed; it is like yeast, or a mustard seed, or a master who prepared a great banquet. His comparisons often offer simple scenes or everyday images, and yet they are bafflingly difficult. How on earth is the kingdom of heaven like a seed?
We are pulled into a parable on multiple levels. At the narrative level, there are countless nuances and peculiarities that compel us to listen and question. We react to the characters before us—to the foolish prodigal son and what almost seems a foolishly loving father, to the master of a great banquet and the guests that cruelly shun him. But we also react to the character of God on some level, his kingdom and its economy. Just what kind of a kingdom is this? How is this forgiving, welcoming father like God? How am I like this wasteful son or this frustrated older brother? And how, then, does this image call me to live? We are jarred awake by a story; but so we are moved to reckon with its implications.
In other words, we are moved to reckon with nothing less than the kingdom itself and the one proclaiming it. The parables were not just spoken by anyone; they were spoken by Jesus of Nazareth, whose preaching fulfilled the ancient cry of Isaiah and the promise of a savior:
“[T]he people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”(1)
As with his preaching, the parables of Jesus call hearers to respond to the presence of God today, the kingdom in our midst, the person standing before us. We are remiss to interpret the parabolic language of Christ apart from his entire ministry, his shocking narratives apart from his shocking death, or the peculiar notion of the kingdom he describes apart from the unfathomable notion of his resurrection, which touches both this world and the next. And like Isaiah before the throne, our visions of God can be undone by the God in our midst.
God will not let us remain blinded by our ideas of who God is. A prayer by Walter Brueggemann expresses the power of our expectations and the danger of clinging to them:
We are your people and mostly we don’t mind,
except that you do not fit any of our categories.
We keep pushing and pulling and twisting and turning,
trying to make you fit the God we would rather have
and every time we distort you that way
we end up with an idol more congenial to us.(2)
The parables draw pictures that, like Jesus, turn everything upside down, exposing idols that look curiously like us. It is in the light of his words that we see the insufficiencies of our own perceptions and the incongruence of our behavior. Like the one who voiced them, the parables order a mandatory reframing of perspective. “Thus it is with the kingdom of God,” Jesus declares, and he overturns our worlds and kingdoms like the money-changers’ tables. Jesus calls those who will see to see, and sometimes it is a call for a different way of thinking. Other times it demands an entirely new frame of reference. But he is always calling. For who God is in our minds must always be shattered by who God is.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Isaiah 9:1-2, Matthew 4:16.
(2) Walter Brueggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003), 35.
"A Slice of Infinity" is aimed at reaching into the culture with words of challenge, truth, and hope. By stirring the imagination and engaging the mind, we want to share the beauty and truthfulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
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