Prodigal Parables

In a previous post we discovered how scholarship casts fresh and revealing light on the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus. In a similar vein, revisiting his parables in a clarified historical context can illuminate even more about Jesus and his message. Reading the parables in the context of post-exilic first century Judaism brings them to life in unexpected ways.

Parables are short, allegorical stories designed to engage their hearer’s imagination and challenge patterns of thought. In this way they are not unlike apocalyptic texts, except that they feature decidedly mundane subjects and imagery. Jesus tells many parables throughout the synoptic gospels (though he tells none in the fourth). Most involve a king, boss, landlord, or other authority figure dealing with his subjects, employees, or tenants. Others involve characters discovering or losing valuable treasures, family drama, and lots of agricultural metaphors. Despite their diversity, according to Jesus himself, all of the parables serve the same purpose: to reveal “the secrets of the kingdom” (Matthew 13:11). What does that mean? Great question! But first… 

Traditional Christian Readings of the Parables

In the Christian paradigm in which I learned to read the Bible, the parables were primarily about church, evangelism, and the second coming of Jesus. These three themes informed our reading of the New Testament in general, and the parables seemed to fit as snugly into our model as anything else we read. Here are three quick examples of parables and their traditional church interpretations.

1. The Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” He hired some workers for a set wage and hired additional workers throughout the day. At the end of the day he payed all the workers the same wage as the original crew, who then became angry and demanded to be compensated for the longer hours they worked. The boss replied, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me, or do you begrudge my generosity? And so the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

In church this parable is about evangelism, salvation, and the second coming. Jesus sends Christians out as “workers” to make converts, but they shouldn’t be proud or expect favoritism because they worked harder or won more souls than anyone else. Likewise, just because a sinner repents at the last second doesn’t make their portion of God’s grace and salvation any smaller. The “practical takeaway” is that the Christian needs to get to work, because the master of the house could return at any moment.

2. The Sower (Matthew 13:1-9)

“A sower went out to sow seeds.” He planted some on a road, and birds ate them. He planted some among rocks and they grew quickly but withered for they had shallow roots. He planted some among thorns, which choked and killed them. Still others he planted in good soil, and they grew into an abundant crop of grain. For many Christians this parable is a training manual for evangelization. When you present someone with the gospel message, their heart will be like one of these types of soil. Some will have only shallow faith and will soon fall away. Others will be attacked by unfriendly forces. And some will take the message deep into their heart and be transformed by it. As evangelists, it’s our job to recognize the different soils and respond appropriately.

3. The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)

“There was a man who had two sons.” The younger son took his inheritance and left home to party and live free. When his money ran out, he hit rock bottom and ended up feeding pigs. He decided to return home and beg his father to let him be a servant. Instead, his father accepted him with open arms, restored all his privileges, and threw a party. For Christians, the meaning is clear: there is no sin so bad that we cannot repent, and when we do, our Heavenly Father will be waiting for us with forgiveness, acceptance, and all the privileges of salvation.

There is much to admire and meditate upon in these traditional Christian takes on Jesus’ parables. Their focus on the generous and forgiving nature of God and the transforming power of the “good news” is commendable. At the same time, a deeper and more precise historical context amplifies some aspects of these stories that are otherwise easy to miss.

The Parables and the Kingdom

While Jesus does indeed establish a community of followers and charge them with being agents of his gospel, the immediate context of these parables is not church or evangelism, but Jesus’ prophetic preaching to his Jewish friends and neighbors. This was his message to his own people, and it centered around the “kingdom of God.” As Jesus himself has already suggested, this phrase is the key to unlocking the world of the parables.

For Jesus’ Jewish family, “the kingdom of God” (or “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew’s version) refers not to a locale or a dimension, nor to a place where we go after we die, but to a reality that is both present and future, as political as it is spiritual. It is literally “the reign of God,” “the kingship of God.” To paraphrase N.T. Wright, it is what the world looks like when God is on the throne. This hope goes back to the time of David, when Jews believe God promised to establish an eternal kingdom of peace and justice based in Jerusalem. But war, exile, and constant oppression at the hands of enemy kingdoms seemed to dash those dreams. When Jesus stood before his countrymen and declared “the kingdom of God is at hand!,” he was claiming not only to herald but to embody the fulfillment of this dream, at long last. This was and still is the “good news.”

Let’s reconsider the same three parables within this clarified context:

1. The Workers in the Vineyard

Jesus wasn’t the only one in his day talking about the kingdom and its coming, though he certainly declared it in the most urgent and positive terms. His political opponents had their own ideas about what would please God and bring about divine rescue, and it usually had something to do with shunning sinners or being religious in public or killing lots of Romans. These visions of the kingdom saw a society divided by class, purity, and nationality, and they insisted that God’s favor reinforced the same divisions. The parable of the vineyard invites those mired in divisive and self-destructive agendas to imagine a world where everyone is accepted and blessed, regardless of their unworthiness in the eyes of others. Jesus dares his hearers to think, even for a moment, that God might be this generous and benevolent, and that this might be what “the kingdom is like.”

2. The Sower

This is one of the few parables for which Jesus offers an explicit interpretation, in Matthew 13:18-23. He says that the “seed” is the “word of the kingdom,” and the soil is the mind and heart of the hearer of the good news. Whether or not the news “bears fruit” depends on many factors. Is the hearer open and willing to imagine a peaceful and equitable kingdom like this? Or are they too distracted by the concerns of the world or disheartened by the evil around them to even hear it? Are they the kind of person in whom the generosity and equity of the kingdom can “take root”? Most notably, the parable is not primarily concerned with how someone else might react when we tell them about the kingdom, it’s about how I, the reader, will react. The challenge isn’t so easily sidestepped or deflected.

3. The Prodigal Son The Two Sons

The young son is Israel, leaving the comfort and care of the Father’s house to suffer and slum in pagan lands (i.e. with pigs). When he returns from his exile, Father waits for him with open arms and full acceptance. But that’s not the end of the story. There is an older brother, and he is outraged and affronted to see his rebellious brother celebrated and rewarded while his own righteousness is taken for granted. The older brother is also Israel, he represents her self-appointed religious watchdogs, those who would condemn their neighbors as “sinners” and judge themselves worthy of God’s favor. They cannot abide a God who rescues the undeserving, and cannot accept a kingdom where the younger son is welcomed without punishment.

The Secrets of the Kingdom

As instruction manuals for evangelization, the parables gave us marching orders but they seldom hit us in our own hearts. In fact, if we weren’t careful, they might lend themselves to the “us vs. them” mindset which Jesus so emphatically rejected, and an exclusively “other worldly” spirituality somewhere in the future. In kingdom context, they offer an urgent challenge that is both personal and universal. Jesus invites us to join him in imagining a world in which God’s favor rains down upon the worthy and the unworthy alike, where the seed of the kingdom can  take root and grow a bumper crop, and where all of the Father’s children are welcome in His home. The secrets of the kingdom are not a ticket to heaven and membership in an exclusive religious club. They are generosity, acceptance, and equality. The challenge of the parables is whether or not we can accept Jesus’ suggestion that this is what God and His kingdom really look like.