Over the past few months, I’ve been studying the parables of Jesus via two books, one (by Jeremias) that I’ve owned since college and the other (by Wehrli) that I picked up on a used book display more recently.(1)
Chapter 7 of Wehrli is “Entering the Kingdom,” a major theme among the parables. He notes that a contrast exists in the parables. On one hand, the kingdom of God is a wonderful gift, given to all kinds of people without regard to their merit. On the other hand, the kingdom demands absolute commitment and unconditional surrender, “one hundred percent of our loyalty and being” (p. 69).
Wehrli gives several examples. For instance, the parable of the hidden treasure (Matt. 13:44) and the pearl of great price (Matt. 13:45-46). Whether the kingdom is stumbled upon or searched for is not the point; the point is that the kingdom demands our utmost commitment. Also, we should consider that cost beforehand, as in the parable of the costly tower (Luke 14:28-30) and the parable of the rash king (Luke 14:31-32). The parable of the talents, which has different details in its two versions (Matt. 25:14-30 and Luke 19:11-27), stress the need to venture for the kingdom, while the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20, Luke 8:4-15) teaches the need to have faith as one shares the good news of the kingdom, even though the odds for success may seem slim.
These parables of Jesus are stressful! No disrespect to Wehrli (a distinguished teacher and leader at Eden Seminary, where I'm an adjunct), but commentators like him are likely to reiterate Jesus’ claim: we need absolute obedience, we need to surrender to God, we need to give all our loyalty to God. But this approach to the parables simply raises all kinds of practical questions. Short of becoming renunciates, how do we give all our loyalty to God? What do we do? How can we ever measure up? Even someone like Thomas Merton, who did indeed give up all that he had, struggled with these questions.
For those of us who do want to be disciples and take these parables seriously, we might second-guess ourselves and worry whether we have ever done enough to be Christ’s followers. Or, we feel haughty and proud of the extent of our surrender (perhaps introducing a kind of professionalism into our discipleship) and then look down our noses on the lack of quality of someone else’s commitment.
Neither are good responses. Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees is not that they’re Jewish leaders but that (as depicted in the gospels) they display an attitude that is never uncommon among any group of religious people. But if we always feel self-condemnatory, like the sorrowful publican of Luke 18:9-14, we neglect the Bible’s frequent admonitions to “be not afraid” and have peace in our hearts (Matt. 28:10, Luke 2:10, Luke 24:38-39, John 14:27, John 15:11, John 16:33, John 20:19 and 26, Rom. 5:1-2, Phil. 4:7, and others).
I think we really have to connect these kingdom parables of Jesus with the famous “love” passage of 1 Cor. 13:1-7. As Paul writes there, even loyalty to the utmost extent gains nothing if not motivated and guided by love. Our obedience and loyalty to the kingdom is never separable from the love that we show----and love is something in which we’re always growing, through the grace of God.
But we also have to connect these parables to what Walter Brueggemann calls God’s “massive fidelity (hesed) to those who are willing to live in covenant”(2). Jesus’ parables of the kingdom are, after all, based upon the Old Testament expectation of God’s kingdom that is in turn connected to God’s covenant with his people Israel. As the kingdom is eventually preached to the Gentiles, we Gentiles too become recipients of God’s unswerving loyalty: thus, according to the covenant relationship, God demands loyalty in return.
But God knows us. God knows that we are dust (Ps. 103:14), and because we are dust, God shows us abundant mercy. That word hesed translates as “fidelity,” or “steadfast love” or “lovingkindness”: the kind of love that is faithful and (ultimately) tender, a divine love which reaches into human existence, becomes involved in our pain and struggles, and remains more committed to us than us to God. Loyalty to God's kingdom involves carrying that love into the world, while trusting (as in the parable of the sower) that God's power is at work in our meager efforts.
Commitment to the kingdom is always a two-sided thing. We’re human, we always struggle, we fail every day. Jesus' demands elude our best efforts. But "best efforts" isn't the point; grace is. We know that there is plenteous grace, forgiveness, and fierce love for those who know their need for God, who seek God with humble, loving hearts.
1. Eugene S. Wehrli, Exploring the Parables (United Church Press, 1963), and Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus by Joachim Jeremias (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972).
2. Walter Brueggemann, “The Book of Exodus,” The New Interpreter’s Bible (Abingdon Press, 1994), 842.