“He was teaching them many things in parables” (Mark 4.2). Jesus did not invent this method of teaching. In fact, it has its roots in the Old Testament, in books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. A parable is, basically, a larger version of a kind of figurative language called a simile. A simile is a comparison that normally uses the word “like” or “as.” For example: “Life is like a journey” or “He is as busy as a bee.” We hear this kind of language in the proverbs of the Old Testament (life “flees like a shadow,” Job 14.2), but a parable is a proverb that has been lengthened into a short story.
The idea of using a comparison to teach is actually quite simple. It is, in fact, fundamental to learning. Some scholars have suggested that all learning takes place by analogy. We learn new things by comparing them to things we already know. By using parables, then, Jesus was making sure that the message of the kingdom was being communicated in such a way that it could be understood.
Yet at precisely this point the parables of Jesus take on a strange kind of twist. Learning by analogy only works when someone is willing to see the comparison. Sometimes two things really are similar, but we cannot see the similarity because we have been trained to think or to look at things in a different way. Our preconceived ideas of how things are or ought to be can therefore stand in the way of our ability to see when two things are similar. It takes a special kind of clarity for a person to ignore their preconceived ideas and to see the similarities between two things.
In other words, our own preconceived ideas can actually hinder us from seeing truths that are presented as analogies. Because we do not expect two things to be similar, we do not look for any similarities between them. In a sense, we cause ourselves to be “blind” to truths that are right in front of us.
Many of the Jews of Jesus’ day had preconceived ideas about the coming kingdom of God. They had a picture in their minds as to what it would be like. But when Jesus came along announcing that the kingdom of God had arrived, it looked nothing like what most people were expecting. Why people were expecting something different is another story. For now, however, I wish to point out that these false expectations created the very situation described above, where people were not likely to “see” something because of their own preconceived ideas.
This is where the parables of Jesus took on a special role. Jesus’ parables were designed to break through the preconceived ideas and the misconceptions, and to present the truth about the kingdom of God. And as it turned out, on the one hand the truth was nothing like people thought it would be. On the other hand, the truth was as simple as some ordinary, everyday scenes.
“The kingdom of heaven is like …” were the opening words of many of Jesus’s parables. In fact, we can assume that these words are in background in every one of Jesus’ parables, whether they are explicitly stated or not. What is surprising, however, is the content of these parables, and especially the strange things the people in the parables do. For example, one of the most familiar of Jesus’ parables is the Parable of the Sower. A man sowing seed in ancient times was nothing unusual, but throwing seed everywhere is a strange practice indeed. Seed turns into food for survival. Therefore you take care with seed to plant it only where it is most likely to grow well. But the man in parable throws it everywhere, even on rocks and by the road. So is the spreading of the news about the kingdom of heaven. It is for everyone, everywhere. However, not everyone will accept it. The “seed” (the word) will only bear its good fruit when it comes into a receptive heart.
Or think about the Parable of the Good Samaritan, possibly the most well-known of all of Jesus’ parables. Everyone in the ancient world knew that Jews basically had no dealings with Gentiles, and they certainly had no dealings with Samaritans. Jews stuck together. So a man gets mugged on a journey, and his fellow Jews who come by the scene do nothing to help him, not even the ones who were looked upon as being the most “religious” or “righteous” (priests and Levites). No, in Jesus’ story it is only a hated Samaritan who does the right thing. He crossed the ethnic boundary of his day and showed extraordinary charity toward a Jew. Such is the ethics of the kingdom of heaven. It is a kingdom in which the words “love your neighbor” have no preconceived boundaries attached to them.
Perhaps most surprising of all is the Parable of the Pearl of Great Price. A pearl merchant “sold all that he had and bought” a single pearl that was “of great value.” Think about that. “All that he had.” House, chariot, horse, ox, clothing, dinnerware, sickle, the wife’s jewelry – everything. At the end of the day he was homeless and penniless. But he had a pearl. Does that sound like a rational person to you? Have you ever seen an item in the store that you would be willing to give everything you had just to have that one item? I haven’t, and I’m guessing you have not either. A sane person would not do something so radical. But this man did. Crazy? In the eyes of the world, yes. But that’s how valuable the kingdom of God is! It is worth the loss of every worldly thing. If we lose homes, families, possessions, etc. in this life and all we have to our name in the end is that we are citizens of the kingdom of God, then we have come out ahead. Such is the message of the parable.
Sometimes the “radical” thing about one of Jesus’ parables is the comparison itself. “The kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea, and gathering fish of every kind” (Matt 13.47). The kingdom of God is open to everyone. Such was not the Jewish expectation, however. Many of them envisioned a kingdom for Jews only. The idea that the kingdom could be like a net that gathers in Jews and Gentiles without distinction would have been a strange, if not shocking, idea to most of Jesus’ hearers.
These radical features in the parables point to the surpassing value and greatness of God’s kingdom, and how different it is from any worldly kingdom or situation. It so far surpasses any worldly thing that it is worth doing “extreme” things (in the world’s eyes) to be part of it. Of course, for people who know the value of the kingdom, these are not considered to be extreme things at all. For such people, the kingdom is worth it, and more.
There are at least two simple lessons that come from all of this. First, the kingdom of heaven is what God says it is, not what we say it is. We must be open-minded and open-hearted enough to let God’s message about the kingdom control its character and life, and not impose our own wishes or preconceived ideas upon it (and yes, people still do that even in the 21st century AD). We must continue to let the parables speak their radical message to us. Second, we must be willing to live and act in a radical way for the kingdom. The world will think we are crazy for being so devoted to it and so sacrificial for it, but that is because they do not see its surpassing value. If you know what the kingdom of God is, then you will be willing to do whatever it takes to be one of its citizens.
I encourage you to read the parables of Jesus, and as you read forget about what you think they say. Just let them deliver their message. I believe that you will, 2000 years after they were first spoken, still be surprised at the message they convey.
Here is a link to an explanation of how Albert Einstein discovered an important property of light, simply using analogy (a “parable”):