While every story is different, there are some themes that repeat themselves in multiple narratives. Themes like redemption. Themes like hope. In the musical Les Miserables, the people sing a song of freedom, the hope of a revolution:
Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again.
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drum
There is a life about to start when tomorrow comes.
Though separated by both time and geography, we might imagine this same song on the lips of Jesus’ earliest followers. They yearned for a king. They yearned for an end to the tyranny of Roman imperialism. What they got was a traveling teacher who spoke of his kingdom through a series of cryptic stories we call “parables.” The word “parable” literally means “to throw alongside of.” If you were an engineering major, you might recognize the word as related to the term “parabola”—the arc formed when you throw a ball or launch some sort of projectile. The idea, of course, is that truth gets tossed out not in some direct way, but rather it gets communicated a bit differently—a bit more subtly.
Because ancient biographers didn’t care about chronological sequence, it’s hard to pin down an exact order to the parables Jesus told. But the parable of the sower seems to offer some key to the interpretation of the rest:
Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2 And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3 “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil.6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” 9 And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:1-9)
Now, these types of agrarian images weren’t uncommon for either the Jews or the Greeks. But Jesus is apparently using them to communicate the truth about his kingdom:
10 And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12 so that
“they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.” (Mark 4:10-12)
It’s a little strange, isn’t it? To obscure the truth seems counterproductive—unless your kingdom isn’t meant to come by force. Pastor and author Tim Keller once noted that while yes, there were certain things that Jesus said that are easy to understand, but Jesus said many things that we might liken to hard candy. Try and bite into them, and you chip your teeth. But savor them for a while, and you will taste their sweetness. That’s what many of Jesus’ parables do for us. We’ll spend the rest of the week unpacking the parable itself, but for now we can spend some time wrapping our heads around the nature of “the kingdom.”
Most people have no trouble knowing whose kingdom they belong to. Most kingdoms come through force—or at least through power and compulsion. For example, tax season or jury duty can serve as a simple reminder that your citizenship to the United States comes with certain responsibilities. But though his followers yearned for revolution, Jesus’ kingdom—that is, the rule and reign of God—came not through power but through weakness.
In Edward Shellitto’s 19th-Century poem “Jesus of the Scars,” he uses the final verse to contrast the ways of worldly (or even religious) kingdoms with the kingdom of God:
The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
Vulnerability precedes victory. To follow Jesus is to step into a world of both thoughtfulness and obscurity, a world where a crown of thorns precedes a crown of glory. Each of Jesus’ parables reveals something about God’s kingdom—the great story of God told in the short stories of Jesus’ parables. And he invites you and I to journey with him as we learn our place in this greater story.