Book 2: Who in the World was Jesus: An Encounter for Brave Hearts

Lanham, Maryland: Hamilton Books, 2019.

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1. The Parables

In this second book in this series on the Jesus of history I investigate the message of his parables. I choose to start my study with the parables because most scholarship deems them the shortest path to hearing the authentic words of Jesus and revealing his message and his conception of the rule of God (or as the Gospels would have it “the kingdom of God”). Parables are little talks that Jesus invents to illustrate what he understood as God’s rule, how it works, and in what ways it appears.

Jesus spoke in parables because he was part of a story telling culture.

Stories have the greatest potential for getting people to look at a situation in a different way i.e., they enhance the possibility of transformation of the self. He recognized that stories could have the psychological effect that would alter the heart and mind of the people. His parables drew on the very stuff of life, particularly the milieu in which he lived. They connected directly with the experiences of the people and their encounter with their environment.

            The parables reveal that Jesus was not just concerned with transcendental matters, one’s eternal destiny, the future, or “supernatural” aspect of the kingdom of God but with the historical fate of his people and the nation. He addressed his contemporaries, the majority of whom were peasants with their “backs against the wall,” living on the edge, and whose existence was fraught with anxiety about survival. The nation was infected with hatred of the Roman occupation and seething with resentment for its affront to God’s majesty who alone was supposed to be King of Israel!  So it is not surprising that the nation fumed with revolutionary fervor aroused by the desecrating paganization of the Holy Land. The people interpreted the presence of Roman polytheistic and idolatrous temples and their devotees as sacrilege. These negative forces divided the nation, pitted brother against brother, and created an environment of competition and antagonism. The burning issue for the society as a whole was God’s kingdom, as variously as it was conceived, and how to establish it.

2. Social Values

            Patriarchy, honor and shame, limited good, and cultic purity were bed-rock values of this society. Furthermore, the society was structured on the basis of corporate personality and the patron-client relationship. These values and structures lent the society a certain rigidity which predisposed those who would effect a renewal to act within certain fixed ideas. So Israel’s crisis was understood totally in terms of the Roman occupation.

3. The Aim and Message of the Parables

a. The Kingdom of God

Jesus saw clearly where these revolutionary attitudes and postures would end: in the destruction of the nation. So his parables were told to bring the nation back to its roots: their God of steadfast love, faithfulness, forgiveness, and compassion all of which characterized his true kingdom. He concretized the life of the kingdom in his common meals with sinners. So the kingdom for him amazingly involved corruption because it included sinners just as leaven totally “corrupts” a lump of dough.

In these provocative parables he clothed the kingdom with flesh and blood stories calling on contemporary images from the culture but also rooted in Israel’s Scripture. They were arousing stories generating curiosity and thoughtful reflection. To the consternation of many a hearer, the parables found the kingdom’s presence in surprising and unexpected circumstances and human activity (Luke 10: 30–7; 18:1–8; 16:1–8). It was uncontrollably free and so could appear under whatever guise God would choose. His paradoxical proclamation of the kingdom of God was both summons and threat, warning and promise, consolation and challenge.

For Jesus, God’s kingdom was a divine action and pure gift that comes without human striving but requires human activity: this paradoxical nature of the kingdom is graphically illustrated in the act of sowing: a person sows but it is God who gives the growth (Mark 4:3–8). The kingdom meant the opposite of internalizing the endemic social value of limited good which motivated hoarding one’s abundant harvest for oneself like the “Rich Fool” (Luke 12:16–21) or ignoring the poor and destitute whose presence was so obvious lying, as Lazarus did, before the gate of the rich (Luke 16:19–31). Nor did it mean the practice of a stringent application of justice but rather the generosity of the master who paid a day’s wages even to those who worked only an hour (Matthew 20:1–16).

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

So the kingdom involves role reversal: the master will serve the slave (Luke 12:37). But Jesus does not only reverse the role of masters but also demanded that the lowly peasant also forgive as he has been forgiven (Matthew 18:23–35). The kingdom means competition ends, hatred of enemies ceases, and forgiveness of debts thrives. It means not sitting in judgment on others because true piety is not merely rejoicing in God’s blessing of chosenness but the constant consciousness that, when all is said and done, the human being stands before God as a beggar (Luke 18–14). So Jesus calls for solidarity between all levels of society. It is, of course, based on an inner revolution brought about by entering the kingdom of God by fellowshipping with Jesus.

The kingdom is a great treasure and a boundless joy when people find it, or rather, when it finds them (Matthew 13:44). It is nothing that is to be kept for oneself but demands a sharing of the joy (Luke 15:4–7, 8–10). It places everything else in the world in its proper perspective because one now has “treasure in heaven”  which is not subject to decay as are the treasures of this world (Mark 10:21). The kingdom is about an ardent concentration on God’s passionate and merciful love of his people (Luke 15:11–32). It is about translating his love into an outgoing mindfulness for the common weal (Luke 10:30–37) rather than plotting violence against Rome. Revolution will not bring in the kingdom. It meant expanding that magnificent oriental and village value of hospitality to the world (Luke 11:5–8).

For Jesus the kingdom is double-sided. It is both present and future expressing the reality that God is not part of the world but transcendent and so not an object of speculation.  In this way he affirms the biblical and Jewish understanding of God. So Jesus is no gnostic who transmits some secret knowledge. Even a child can grasp the wonderful grace of the kingdom (Matthew 11:25). Rather, his parables portray God as the One who lays claim upon a person. So God, though transcendent, is not far away, withdrawn into some mythological, heavenly realm. But he is present as his kingdom expands and grows. Through the agency of Jesus, his proclamation, his healings, exorcisms, and parables God is present creating a new community of concord and reconciliation.

b. Jesus and Apocalyptic

Nor is Jesus an apocalyptist with a focus only on a future redemption. His parables hold together in tension the present and the future. The kingdom is surely present now (Luke 17:21) but the fullness of its reality lies in the future (Luke 11:2). The parables make the kingdom present and reveal its presence in the oddest and even perplexing circumstances and people: a mustard plant rendering a garden unclean visualizes the kingdom; a conniving steward evokes the Jubilee (Luke 16:1–8; a nagging widow portrays the kingdom’s justice (Luke 18:1–8).

So Jesus does not adopt any apocalyptic scenarios nor, above all, the triumph of Israel over the Gentile world and that world’s consequent consignment to everlasting perdition. Though his mission was primarily to his own people his message embraced the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s promises. It is my opinion that he envisioned their inclusion by means of God’s prevenient grace which prepared a place for them in the kingdom based on their behavior toward Israel. The Son of Man invites the Gentile nations to “. . . inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (the parable of the Great Assize, Matthew 25:34).

The parable of the Unjust Steward is another deconstruction of popular apocalyptic. Everyone in the parable acts in a fraudulent way but in the end everyone celebrates a Jubilee and delights in a partnership of joy. Jesus proclaims completely new standards of power, justice, and who are insiders and who are outliers: the master abjures the use of power and lets his steward’s swindle stand and everyone reaps the harvest of debt forgiveness. With this parable Jesus calls on his auditors to give up their theology which wreaks divine vengeance on Israel’s enemies and, contrariwise, to celebrate their God of mercy and compassion.

c. Jesus’ Self-Understanding

The parables also give us an insight into Jesus’ own self-understanding. The parable of the Sower (Mark 4:3–8) reveals how Jesus experienced the various ways his message was rejected and/or accepted. In the story of the Patient Farmer (Mark 4:26–9) Jesus’ expresses his patience and waiting for his message to be received and grow and blossom among his people (Mark 4:26–9). This story also reveals his compassion for his nation and his craving for a positive response. For him the kingdom was a joyous affair especially when the seemingly lost members of his people were found and responded positively to the preaching of the kingdom and joined him at table (the parables of the Lost Sheep (Matthew 18:12–4) and the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8–10). He identified with society’s rejects as he encountered the pejorative judgments of the “insiders” (the parable of the Great Feast, Matthew 11:1–10). In the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11–32) the father who shames himself, inviting the contempt of his fellow villagers, reproduces some of Jesus’ contemporaries response to him. In the parable of the Two Sons (Matthew 21:28–32) he agrees with his detractors who accuse him of disobedience but asserts paradoxically that he is really God’s obedient son who ultimately is serving God’s will. In that rejection the cross is already intimated.

4. An Urgent Call

The kingdom is an urgent affair. When it dawns, repentance will no longer be possible and those who have rejected it will be consigned to judgment. Jesus makes the urgency in responding positively to the kingdom crucial in the parables of the Fig Tree (Mark 13:28–9), the Fishnet (Matthew 13:47–8), the Talents (Luke 19:12–27), the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1–13), and perhaps pre-eminently in the parable of the Thief (Luke 12:39–40). God’s intervention is at the door and people must re-orient their lives now or face the consequences.

The parable of the Returning Demons (Matthew 12:43–5) is a horrific indictment that the nation had been invaded with the worst of seven demons. This demonic possession entailed the people over-emphasizing  its separation from the rest of the world; the increasingly belligerent attitude toward Rome; the exclusive concern for obedience to the exclusion of mercy (Matt 5:7, 9:13); fantasizing about an apocalyptic divine intervention which didn’t include a sense of also standing under God’s judgment themselves; rebuffing the prophets that were sent to them; and sitting in judgment on one another rather than nurturing brotherly love.

And then there was the penchant of some to accuse him of demon possession when he was the one who was attacking Satan’s kingdom and binding the “strong man” (Mark 3:27). Here Jesus stands out as one of the prophets of old who called the nation to account in their life before God. He wasn’t characterizing everyone but these attitudes and behaviors were general enough and had invaded enough minds that Jesus could with integrity characterize the nation as being demon possessed. This is a prophetic-like hyperbolic invective meant to arouse the consciousness of the people.

5. Turning the World Upside Down

Jesus inverted the character of the nation by establishing an alternative kingdom, the very kingdom which was the subject of his proclamation and ministry. He creates a counter-Israel, as it were, headed by himself as king. His kingship, however, is one of servitude: a true shepherd of the people who sought for the lost and the outcasts who then sat at his table (Luke 19:10).

He called an inner core of disciples, the symbolic twelve in number representing the twelve tribes of Israel.  In this counter-kingdom people served one another and were not to lord it over others. His kingship is universal. It extended through all the world including his “brethren” (i.e., the Jews) who hunger and thirst, live as strangers, are naked, sick, and imprisoned and beyond them to those who serve them by providing food in their want, clothe them in their need, and visit them when ill or imprisoned (the parable of the Great Assize).

This alternative kingdom did not mean that Jesus was turning away from or opposed to his own people, rather he made visible the kingdom to which he invited his nation to enter. It was like the desperate cry of the prophet yearning for his people to turn and avoid the disaster which hung like a sword of Damocles over their heads. He wants to save them from disaster. Jesus’ words and actions were both an invitation to his people and like a lover’s quarrel.

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