I just posted an article imagining a modern parable: The Kingdom of God Is Like an Autostereogram. Today, I am going to write about actual parables that Jesus told. Matthew 13 contains a bunch of them, and they individually and collectively tell a story about the kingdom of God.
Interestingly, Jesus ties the teaching of the law into becoming a disciple of the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 13:52) We don’t normally associate the precision of a code of laws with the imprecision of parables. It’s almost like a left brain/right brain kind of association.
We tend to categorize and distill things down into neat packages, like a code of laws, but parables don’t seem to fit into our neat packages. Laws and parables seem, at first blush, to be polar opposites, but they aren’t. In fact, the Mosaic Law, which informs the Judeo-Christian tradition, isn’t (perhaps) what we think it is.
We think of the Law of Moses as a code of laws, a list of prescriptions, of do’s and don’ts that must be followed precisely. The Pharisees in Jesus’s day also viewed the Law that way, but Jesus took them to task for it:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You tithe mint and dill and cumin, but have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done without leaving the others undone (Matt. 23:23)
Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone. (Luke 11:42)
The Mosaic Law wasn’t (isn’t) simply about following a prescription or recipe to achieve eternal life. The Law was meant to point to something, to point beyond it to God and His purposes.
Jesus said the Law (and the Prophets) “testify” about him! (John 5:39) On the road to Emmaus after he rose from dead, Jesus explained to some of his followers how Moses (the Law) and Prophets were written about him. (Luke 24:27) (Wouldn’t you like to be a fly on that wall?!)
Wait a minute! Does that mean we don’t need to follow the Law? What about the Ten Commandments? Why did God get so angry at the Israelites for not following the Law?
Jesus told the Pharisees they should do both: follow the Law and not neglect the “weightier matters” of the Law (justice and mercy and the love of God). What does that even mean? Why would he say that?
I will give you “my” answer – the way I understand it – informed by the totality of Scripture. In the process, we will see that the Law and the parables Jesus used are really more similar than dissimilar.
My writing today is inspired by Matthew 13 and a series of videos put out by Michael Jones on his YouTube channel, Inspiring Philosophy.
I have embedded three videos at the end of this article that go in depth into the character of the Mosaic Law as wisdom literature, and not a prescriptive code of laws as many suppose.
The Law, in some ways, is more descriptive than prescriptive. Paul describes the Law as guardian or tutor. (Gal. 3:24) The Law wasn’t meant to be a universal moral code applicable to all people at all times. It was meant to advance the understanding of the people of Israel in their knowledge of God and His purposes.
This doesn’t mean that the Law was defective; it just wasn’t the whole picture. It was a movement in the direction of an ideal, but it wasn’t the ideal.
The Law was an object lesson for the people of Israel and all of us who came after them. They learned its lessons by trying to observe it, and we learn from their example.
The Law was advanced for their time beyond the moral boundaries to which they were accustomed. It took them farther than they had gone, but it wasn’t perfect. It didn’t have to be.
When Jesus confronted the Pharisees, who were proud of their abilities to keep the Law, Jesus moved the bar. It isn’t enough to refrain from doing evil; if we even entertain hatred, disdain, lust, greed, or other sinful thoughts in our hearts, we have failed the law. It isn’t enough to love those who love you; you must love those who hate you to be perfect. (Matt. 20-48)
In this way, Jesus revealed that the Law was designed to show us that we don’t measure up, and we can’t measure up on our own. (Romans 5:20) Paul says, the Law helped us to understand our condition (our inability to live up to the standard of God.) (Romans 7:7) The Law showed us that we can’t live the ideal life apart from God.
The Law is just a shadow, not the reality, of the kingdom of God. (Heb. 10:1) The reality of the kingdom of God is God, Himself. What we need is God and God’s solution to sin, which is Jesus.
The writer of Hebrews says, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” (Heb. 1:3)
We learn that God didn’t want mere obedience, and He was willing to overlook failure in order to have relationship with the crowning work of His creation – humans. In fact, He set us up for failure in the Garden by planting one tree there that was forbidden and giving us a choice.
He certainly knew we would fail the test. That was His plan. By the exercise of that one choice, human beings, who were created in God’s image, were subjected to futility and the inevitability of sin and death (Romans 8:20), but God also put eternity in our hearts. (Ecc. 3:11) That would be the itch that would lead us to the one choice that would bring us into eternal relationship with the God who made us.
God made us like Him (created in His image (Gen. 1:27)), but the prospect of being like Him, tempted us to think we could get along with out Him. (Gen. 3:1-5) God already created us to be like Him, He wants us to be like Him, but the temptation for beings like us is to usurp the privilege for our own ends.
If we were allowed to have eternal life in pursuit of our own ends, we would irretrievably mess up the creation God made. We could have been set eternally in opposition to God, who is the author of life itself, and love and everything good. That would not have been a good result (to put it mildly).
God didn’t allow that to happen, but He needed to set us up for His ultimate goal, which was to make us exactly like Him, but in submissive relationship with Him of our own free choice. Thus, he created a world in which we could have a taste of goodness and an itch for eternity, but all of it is doomed to futility, failure, pain and struggle without His help. (That is what Ecclesiastes is all about.)
He created a world in which we would not be programmed, coerced or required to choose Him, but choosing Him would be the one choice that would set everything right within us and in our relationships with others. Choosing Him would be the one choice that would lead to eternal life in healthy and right relationship with God.
But, isn’t this article supposed to be about parables?
Well, yes, it is, so I guess I should get to them.
Jesus spoke in mostly parables to the crowds that gathered to hear him. The Law provided a prescription, but it wasn’t a prescription for eternal life, as some religious leaders supposed it was. The parables (like an autostereogram) were designed to hide the meaning of the message in a story so that we would have to see beyond the story, itself, to understand the meaning.
This was actually the point of the Law also! The Law was also intended to point beyond itself, but many (or most) people saw the Law as an end in itself and a way for them to achieve to eternal life on their own. They missed the whole point of it!
All the parables in Matthew 13 are about the kingdom of God (heaven), and some of the parables in Matthew 13 involve seeds. The metaphor of a seed demonstrates how God intends the kingdom of God to work on the earth.
The Kingdom of God gets sown, and it grows in good soil, but not in bad soil. (Matthew 13:1-8) The point of the Law was to soften the soil of our hearts, but it didn’t always work like that. We hardened our hearts. Despite the candid truth (that we don’t measure), we continued to think we could and continued to try to earn eternal life by our own actions.
The condition of our hearts and our readiness to receive the message is the soil. As with any soil, our hearts can be conditioned to receive the seed. Soil can be plowed; the rocks can be removed; the weeds can be pulled; and it can be watered to allow the seed to grow.
Some of these things are in our control, and some of things are not. God made sure that there are plenty of “opportunities” for the conditioning of the soil of hearts to happen, but the softness or hardness of our hearts ultimately boils down to our response.
The parable of the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31-32) suggests that message of the kingdom of God may seem insignificant. It may seem unimpressive. If we take it in, allow it to be “planted” within us and let it grow, however, it becomes like a tree that supports life. This parable suggests the interconnected and communal aspect of the kingdom of God.
Similar to a mustard seed, Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” (Matt. 13:33) Only a little bit of yeast is able to cause a large amount of dough to rise to fullness. The yeast is invisible and unnoticeable in the dough, but it is essential in the making of bread.
Like the mustard see, we may be tempted to dismiss the kingdom of God as insignificant. Like the yeast, we may not even notice it when it is doing its essential work in our lives and community.
Insignificant as it might first appear, and unnoticeable as it might be to anyone who isn’t aware (or mindful) of the yeast in the bread, the kingdom of God is invaluable. Thus, Jesus said that people who are living only for this world seek after the things of the world,
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)
If we are not looking for the kingdom of God, though, we are not likely to appreciate it or receive it and embrace it. If our hearts are hard, we won’t understand it. If our hearts are shallow, it won’t take root within us or survive the heat of difficulty. If we are too distracted and allow the cares and worries of the world to grow in our hearts, the kingdom of God is apt to be choked out within us.
The value of it is immeasurable, however, so we should guard it, protect it and cultivate it at all cost.
Jesus told two other parables that are recorded in Matthew 13 – the parable of the good seed and the weeds (Matt. 13:24-29, 36-43), and the parable of the fish in the net. (Matt. 13:47-50) These parables deal with the kingdom of God on the grand scale.
In the “parable of the weeds”, Jesus explained, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom.” The weeds are “the people of the evil one”.
Jesus said the weeds would be allowed to live with the wheat because ripping out the weeds would risk ripping out the wheat. Thus, the weed would remain to the end, but then they would be gathered and burned.
Though Jesus doesn’t say it, the suggestion is implied that all of us are one or the other. There is no other category given. God’s purpose is to establish His kingdom filled with people who have received Him, who have allowed Him into their lives and who have embraced the relationship God desires with us.
The parable of the net is the same thing: the kingdom is like a net let down in a lake that catches “all kinds of fish”. The good fish are collected, but the bad fish are thrown away.
Our lives are not our own, though we often think of them and act as if they are. At the end of the day, we may be the captains of our own souls, but our fate is not in our own hands.
We were created by God, and we live at His good pleasure. We didn’t create ourselves. We do not have life within us, let alone eternal life. We have nothing that God has not created and given us.
[E]very teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old. (Matt. (13:52)
The Law of Moses and the parables of Jesus are meant to bring us to these realizations – that we owe everything to God and, without God, there is nothing worth living for. They work together. They are not in tension with each other.
These meaning and purpose of the Law and the parables of Jesus are “hidden” to the people who do not want to be beholden to a Creator, to the people who desire to live under the delusion that we can be “like God” without God. To those who seek, who spend the time, incline the heart and strive to understand, though, the kingdom of God is revealed as a pearl of the greatest price.
The following three videos unpack the misunderstood purpose and aspects of the Law of Moses.