Preaching the Parables of Grace

After I began writing this series on the parables of Jesus, as interpreted by Robert Farrar Capon, it occurred to me that I had not shared his rationale for the threefold structure he adopts. As you might recall, he divides the parables into three groups: kingdom, grace, and judgment. Probably best to let him speak for himself.

Looking at Jesus’ parables as a whole, I find that they can be divided into three consecutive groups. The first group consists of what I call the parables of the kingdom, namely, the parables that occur in the Gospels prior to the feeding of the five thousand (that is, before Matt. 14, Mark 6, and Luke 9). I have already dealt with these in The Parables of the Kingdom. The second group, which I shall call the parables of grace, includes all the parables, acted as well as spoken, that the Gospel writers place between the feeding of the five thousand and the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (the latter occurring at Matt. 21, Mark 11, and Luke 19). The final group, the parables of judgment, consists of the remaining parables, almost all of which the Gospel writers place between the triumphal entry and the beginning of the passion narrative (at Matt. 26, Mark 14, and Luke 22).

While all such divisions are to some degree arbitrary, it seems to me that this one has the merit of relating Jesus’ parables to the development of his thought about the nature of his messianic mission. Consider, for example, my choice of the feeding of the five thousand as the point of transition from the parables of the kingdom to the parables of grace.

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus presents himself as a fairly standard-issue messianic claimant. He exorcises demons, he gives sight to the blind, he makes the lame walk, he heals lepers, he restores hearing to the deaf, he raises the dead, and he proclaims good news to the poor. Not only that, but he teaches as one having authority in himself, and not as the scribes and Pharisees. In short, he appears as the kind of wonder-working rabbi to whom at least the common people flock enthusiastically. Even at this early stage, however, he also indulges in certain unmessianic actions that inevitably upset the religious authorities of the day. He breaks the sabbath, he associates with tax collectors and prostitutes, and, in general, he sits conspicuously loose to the law-abiding expectations that the Jewish establishment had for any proper Messiah. Indeed, even before he presents his parables of the kingdom, the Pharisees and the Herodians have already begun to think about killing him (Matt. 12, Mark 3, Luke 6).

Still, there is an element in his thinking—namely, the centrality to his mission of his own death and resurrection—that has not yet been clearly formulated. True enough, the early kingdom parables (especially those that employ the imagery of seed being put into the ground) are not incapable of being given a death-resurrection interpretation; but in telling them, Jesus does not yet seem to be talking about his own dying and rising. These early parables focus chiefly on the paradoxical characteristics of the kingdom; they portray it as catholic rather than parochial, actually present rather than coming at some future date, hidden and mysterious rather than visible and plausible; and they set forth the bizarre notion that the responses the kingdom calls for in the midst of a hostile world can vary from total involvement to doing nothing at all. But these first parables do not, in any developed way, enunciate the paradoxical program by which the kingdom is in fact accomplished, that is, by death and resurrection.

The development of that theme comes, as I see it, only in the parables of grace—and it comes after a series of events and utterances (Aland nos. 144-164) that show Jesus more and more preoccupied with death. Beginning with the death of John the Baptist (Matt. 14, Mark 6; cf. Luke 3), and continuing through the feeding of the five thousand (Matt. 14, Mark 6, Luke 9, John 6), the first prediction of his death and resurrection (Matt. 16, Mark 8, Luke 9), the transfiguration (Matt. 17, Mark 9, Luke 9), and the second prediction of his death and resurrection (Matt. 17, Mark 9, Luke 9), he gradually reaches a clear realization that the working of the kingdom is mysteriously but inseparably bound up with what Luke (9:31) calls his “exodus”—in other words, with the passion and exaltation that he is shortly to accomplish in Jerusalem.

Accordingly, I plan to argue that just as this line of thinking was bound to become manifest in Jesus’ actions from those events onward, so too it informed his mind as he developed his parables of grace.

(Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, pp. 156-157)

(Go to “Lost Sheep and Lost Coins”)

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