The Kingdom of God in Matthew 21:43

This is the third and final blog in this series of reflections on the Parables of Jesus.  Part 1:    Hearing God Through the Parables of Jesus       Part 2:  The Parable of the Sower

Jesus uses parables as a teaching method to point to a future reality: the Kingdom of God which is to come.   The parables are signs along the way to help us find our way to the Kingdom and to recognize our destination.

But a parable also reveals to us how different the Kingdom of God is from what we might imagine – in fact the parable expands our imagination so that we truly see how the Kingdom of God is not merely the best of human imagination, but it is totally different from how humans would imagine it.  The Kingdom is truly God’s and heavenly and not just the product of human aspiration, intelligence or creativity. 

Jesus told many parables about what the kingdom of heaven is like.   There are many things we might think about when we think about God’s Kingdom.  We might think the Kingdom of God is something which comes in total power and transforms the world permanently.  Or it is the end of this world and the establishment of God’s glory.   Or it is the Judgment Day and the end of all things.  It is the final destruction of all evil and of death.   It is the fulfillment of all God’s promises and the wiping away of every tear, sorrow, sighing, and suffering.  It is the totality of God’s glory and the end to all that is sinful, evil and wrong. 

Let us consider what Jesus says in Matthew 21:43  – 

” Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.”

The context of this saying is that Jesus just told the parable of the householder and the unruly tenants.   Additionally the chief priests and the Pharisees clearly perceive that Jesus spoke this parable about them (they do form an allegorical understanding, they realize they are the wicked tenants in the parable).  However, what they fail to understand is in what manner this parable is a sign of the Kingdom of God.  Their minds have moved far away from God’s Kingdom, and they are now filled with hatred for Jesus because they fear He is simply trying to turn the crowds against them.  So they have ears but cannot hear for their minds are filled with their own understanding of the parable, rather than allowing the parable to reveal the Kingdom of God.  In fact their hearts and minds have been narrowed by a legalistic and literalistic reading of the Torah.

Jessus asks them, “Have you never read in the scriptures…?”   Of course they read it, countless times.  But they didn’t understand it, or apply its meaning to their lives.   They have eyes to read it, and ears to hear it proclaimed in the synagogue, but they are blind and deaf to its meaning and purpose as they have hardened their hearts and stiffened their necks by making their own interpretation of the Scriptures as more important than the Scriptures themselves.   So though the Kingdom of God is essential to them, they have blinded and deafened themselves to the Kingdom by the very way they interpret the Scriptures.

Read again Matthew 21:43 above.  

Note some strange things about the Kingdom of God:

It something which can be taken away from you.

You can have it and lose it.

It is something which can be given to someone else.

And you can be excluded from having it.

Others can have it, but you will not. Or you can have it and others might not.

The Kingdom really belongs to those who produce the fruits of the Kingdom, not to those who have been entrusted with the Torah.

What is this kingdom of God that it has these characteristics? 

What does this one scriptural verse reveal to us about the Kingdom of God that we don’t get from the other parables of the Kingdom or from the prophecies of the Old Testament?

The Kingdom of God is a whole lot stranger than we imagine, for the description is almost that it is something small, that can be handed around, given and taken away.

Parables are given to make us think – to stretch our imaginations so that our hearts and minds can better experience and understand the Kingdom of God; or perhaps more correctly to prepare our hearts and minds to be able to see the kingdom even when it appears so differently than we imagined.   The parables help prevent our spiritual lives from being limited by our own imagination, reason and intelligence.

Sometimes like the disciples we are too quick to want someone else to tell us what the parables mean.   But the Word of God contained in parables was proclaimed by Christ to the crowds, to the public, to the world, to all who have ears to hear.   Before leaping to someone else’s conclusion about a parable, see in you can hear the Word of God.  What is God saying to you?

Don’t rush to look at the footnotes in the Orthodox Study Bible.  Those footnotes are not the Scripture.  Let the Word of God dwell in you, and grow in you, and grow the Kingdom of God within you like a mustard seed producing a huge bush.

Don’t be eager to give the parable over to someone else to explain or understand, for that is like having the Kingdom of God taken away from you and given to someone else to produce its fruits.   Let the parable dwell in you richly, productively, abundantly, fruitfully.   Let it grow slowly, and allow it to produce an abundance of fruit in you.

Be the farmer and gardener who takes weeks, months or even years to cultivate fruit from the garden of your heart.   Don’t be quick to seek answers, take the time to form the questions which need to be asked.  To gather fruit from the orchard, you have to do a lot of work – to fertilize and water the trees, and to protect them from insects, disease, and drought, to restore them after storms, to prune the wild branches.  

That is the way we need to approach the parables of Jesus.  Yes commentaries might help us gain some insight into the parables, but we have to let those parables speak in and to our own hearts.  Otherwise, when we let someone else formulate the meaning for us, the benefit from the joyful fruit of the Spirit, while for us the Word and Spirit remains outside of our experience.   We certainly should listen to others experience, that is what being part of the Church is about – to gain the wisdom of all of those who have experienced the fruit of God’s Word and Spirit.  But then we have to let those seeds sprout and propagate in our hearts, and we have to work the soil of our hearts.   That is why we read the Scriptures to this day, and don’t assume that just because someone else gained fruit from the Scripture that we should be satisfied with that.  God’s Word is a seed to be sown in each heart, and to produce the fruits of the Kingdom, so that we will be given that Kingdom by God.

The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13)

In the first blog in this series, Hearing God Through the Parables of Jesus, I offered a few introductory thoughts about Parables and how truly hearing them is to understand and interpret their meaning.  Here I offer a few comments on parables by focusing on the story of the Sower from Matthew 13.

In the Gospel According to St. Matthew, after listening to their Lord tell the Parable, the Twelve Disciples do not let on if they are puzzled by the meaning of the parable of the sower, but “the disciples came and said to him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?'”    What puzzles the disciples is why Jesus speaks in parables at all; why does He use parables to teach the crowds, the others, those who aren’t part of the inner circle of chosen disciples, them

We do not know if  the disciples themselves understand the parable.   Interestingly, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus proceeds to explain the parable to the disciples, not to the crowd.   Jesus realizes the disciples are saying in a way to avoid embarrassing themselves, “we don’t know what you are talking about.”  In the Gospels, the disciples not understanding the sayings of Jesus is fairly commonplace, and they are sometimes embarrassed by their failure to comprehend.   Before Jesus explains the parable to His disciples, He answers their question (“why do you speak to them in parables?”) in the terms in which they asked it.

And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.  For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.  This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.  With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says: ‘You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive.   For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.’  But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.   Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”   (Matthew 13:11-17)

The explanation of Jesus touches upon the heart of His message in the Pharisaic world of 1st Century Judaism – you think literally following the Torah is the way to salvation, but your way is in error and has caused you to be deaf and blind.  You are following your own ways and own interpretation, but I am here to heal your eyes and ears and hearts and minds so that you can find the Kingdom of God.  The Jews thought they had found the way – strict adherence to the Torah according to their own interpretation of it.  Jesus says your way is narrowing your mind, hardening your heart and causing you to be deaf and blind to what God is doing, to God’s love and God’s path to the Kingdom.

After talking about why He teaches in Parables, Jesus does explain the Parable of the Sower to His disciples; He sees their question about the crowd as really their own question – what does the parable mean?  In Luke and Mark’s Gospel (Luke  8, Mark 4) it is much more clear that the disciples do not understand the meaning of the parable and Jesus explains the meaning precisely because they have not comprehended it.  As Jesus asks the disciples,   “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” (Mark 4:13)  It is the meaning of the Parables, their interpretation which is essential to Jesus.

 In Mark and Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus does proclaim the parables to the masses of people, not just to the disciples, but His explanation of the parables, he apparently offers privately to his inner circle of disciples.  There is a public proclamation – the evangelization, the preaching, but then there is the teaching, the explanation which is given to those who have ears to hear – those who care and want to know what the meaning of the parable is.  “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; [34] he did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything”  (Mark 4:33-34).

It is interesting that neither St. Paul, nor the Acts of the Apostles ever mentions one of the parables of Jesus.   In the New Testament writings outside the Gospels, the public proclamation – the evangelization and preaching, does not include the parables of Jesus.   There is a difference between the preaching and the teaching of the Church.  What is proclaimed to attract others to the Faith is one message; but that Good News is further explained in the teaching of the Church, which includes the Parables of Jesus.   The Parables belong to the teaching of the church, to the disciples, and those who have ears and are willing to hear.   For those who reject the Good News of God’s Kingdom, the Parables will be of little value for they point to and reveal the Kingdom of God, the very thing non-believers already reject. 

Though St. Paul never mentions the Parables, there is in his writings a very close parallel to the parables in his reference to speaking in tongues.

1 Corinthians 14:19-25 (RSV)  [19] nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue. [20] Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; be babes in evil, but in thinking be mature. [21] In the law it is written, “By men of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” [22] Thus, tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers. [23] If, therefore, the whole church assembles and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? [24] But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, [25] the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.

As the disciples and the crowds struggled with understanding the parables, so to St. Paul sees the people in his generation wrestling with something equally incomprehensible – the speaking in tongues.  It is the understanding, the interpretation, the meaning of either parables or tongues which is most important for the church.  But whether listening to the Parables of Jesus when He was preaching, or listening to the speaking in tongues, the difficulty lies not just in hearing the sounds, but in realizing what these sounds mean and what they are revealing to the hearer.

Next: Part 3 The Kingdom of God in Matthew 21:43

Hearing God Through the Parables of Jesus

This is the first in a series of three reflections on the Parables of Jesus.

When reading the Parables which Jesus tells throughout his earthly ministry, it is important to have some sense what a parable is and how we should try to understand it.  A parable and a miracle story are different from the point of view that the miracle is based in an historical event, while the parable is a story with a message.  A parable can use a historical event as part of the story, but the parable is not dependent on the story being historical fact.   A miracle on the other hand is truly special because it is an unusual and perhaps unique historical event – something unexpected that goes against what we would consider to be the normal order of events.  In the Gospels, both parables and miracles serve a purpose of being signs of the Kingdom of God; in other words, their significance lies not in the miracle or parable itself, but in pointing out to us something beyond our historical frame of reference.  A miracle and a parable are efforts to reveal to us the Kingdom of God.  If we seek Jesus out only for a miracle or to hear His wisdom, we in fact are limiting His power and mission, and failing to see what He was trying to point out to us or to point us toward.  A miracle and a parable both can somehow help us have a better life in this world, but their purpose is to point out life in the world to come.

A Parable and an allegory are not exactly the same thing, though in history the two have been intertwined and sometimes the words have been used interchangeably.  In an allegory proper, each name or noun stands for something else (King = God, seed = the word of God), and we read the allegory to help us understand some other reality (so we hear a story about a farmer but realize it is telling us something about  a prophet).  On the other hand, in a parable, one has to read the entire parable and look for meaning in the entire story not just in each separate word.  In a parable, a seed = a seed, a king = a king.  The meaning in a parable is found not in replacing each word with another word (like solving a code), but the meaning is revealed in the “big picture” of the entirety of the story.  

A parable invites interpretation.  For though the parable can stand alone as a story and be sensible, its purpose is to get the hearers of the parable to discern what the purpose, meaning or moral of the story is.   So the parable always points to some reality and meaning beyond its details.  In Jesus’ teachings, parables like miracles are signs of the Kingdom of God – they point to the reality, and help reveal it to us.  In Luke 19:11, we are told the parables were told precisely to refute the idea that the Kingdom of God was to appear immediately, the parables are the signs that point to a future reality, which was just beginning to appear.  The parables point to the coming Kingdom because the Kingdom has not yet arrived – they point to the Kingdom already given yet which is to come.  A parable helps point beyond a purely literal reading of the text.   The significance of a parable, as versus an allegorical parable, lies not in decoding what each noun stands for, but in sitting back and contemplating the entire story and trying to see what is the story revealing.

Though the Gospels have Jesus telling parables, Jesus sometimes interprets the parable allegorically (as he does, for example with the sower and the seed in Mark 4).  And since Jesus Himself did it, so too did many early Christian preachers apply allegory to most of the parables of Jesus.  And while this is a possible way to understand the story, we need also return to the fact that the Gospel says these are parables not allegories and so we should also consider the stories as such.

In Matthew 13, after Jesus tells the parable of the sower and the seed, Jesus invites his hearers to contemplate what they had heard:  “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”   And even this statement is a parable – for all those who came to listen to Jesus had ears, but Jesus is saying hearing isn’t enough, one has to interpret and understand and comprehend the meaning of the parable.

Sadly, it is possible to understand to whom a parable is directed, and even to understand the purpose of the parable without understanding its meaning and power.  ” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them”  (Matthew 21:45).   They could understand that the parable was directed to them and even against them and yet could not hear what the parable was really saying and so be moved toward God.  They did not bother to try to comprehend the parable’s meaning because they had already rejected the parable teller and parables as a means for conveying God’s truth.  The opponents of Jesus were firmly embracing the Law and a very literal interpretation of the Torah, and so their hearts were not opened to revelations of the Kingdom of God.  This is also a warning for us post-Enlightenment Christians and are penchant for reading the Bible only literally, always seeking sound bites, and trying to proof text everything.   When our approach to Scripture is limited in this way, we limit the power, beauty and creativity of God, and we miss the signs of the kingdom which are evident in the big picture of the parables, longer biblical passages and entire books of the Bible.

Next:  Part 2   The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13)