by Robert Farrar Capon
At the beginning of my study of Jesus’ parables I divided them into three groups: the parables of the kingdom, which run from the start of his ministry to the feeding of the five thousand; the parables of grace, which run from the feeding of the five thousand to Palm Sunday; and the parables of judgment, which are compressed for the most part into Holy Week. I want to add a note to that division now. If I were asked to assign a color to each of the three groups, I would call the parables of the kingdom green, the parables of grace purple, and the parables of judgment white. Consider.
The kingdom parables are green because so many of them are about growing—about seeds and plants. They are about the mystery of a kingdom already planted, a kingdom at hand, a kingdom in our midst—a kingdom, above all, that grows and prevails as a seed does: by its own sovereign power and not by any efforts of ours. In the parable of the Sower, for example (Mark 4:1-9), the seed sown succeeds in doing its proper thing despite the circumstances: what falls by the road successfully attracts birds; what falls on the shallow or the thorny ground grows as best it can; and what falls on the good ground bears fruit on the basis of its own peculiar power, some thirty-, some sixty-, some a hundredfold. Or take the Seed Cast by the Farmer on his Field (Mark 4:26-29): the man lies down and gets up night and day, but the seed sprouts and grows “he knows not how”—from an earth that “bears fruit of itself,” quite apart from his instrumentality. Or, finally, take the Yeast (Matt. 13:33): the woman puts it into three measures of flour at the very creation of the lump of dough and the yeast grows until the whole is leavened. Let us make green, then, the color of these early parables of the mysterious, already present, catholic kingdom of God.
Purple, though, for the parables of grace. Purple, because they are about passionate, selfless love (the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son); but purple above all because they are about a love that works by death. “Greater love has no one than this,” Jesus said, “that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Death is the mainspring of the parables of grace. For example, the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) is practically a festival of death: the father dies at the beginning of the parable by putting his will into effect; the prodigal dies in the far country when his life as he knew it comes to an end in bitter poverty; the prodigal dies again—fruitfully, this time—when he comes home, confesses that he is a dead son, and wisely leaves out of his confession the irrelevant, life protracting request that he be taken back as a hired hand; finally, the fatted calf dies to make possible the party that is the point of the whole parable. Or consider the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7): a lost sheep wandering in the wilderness is, for all intents and purposes, a dead sheep; ninety-nine abandoned sheep are, for the period of the shepherd’s absence at least, likewise in danger of death; and a shepherd who puts all of his efforts into a search for a single lost sheep virtually dies to the sheep-ranching business, exposing himself to the loss of all his sheep. Moreover, even the parables of grace that do not directly express this theme of love operating by death still embody it: they are, all of them, spoken by a Savior consciously on his way to die for love. Death, therefore—and in particular, death as the fountainhead of grace—is what colors these parables purple.
The parables of judgment, however, are white. I said that they were hot, not cool; and of all the colors that can represent heat, white is the hottest. Red-hot passion scarcely rises above the level of sexual excitement; white-hot passion is love to the ultimate degree. More than that, white is the color of light; in John’s Gospel it is precisely the light of the world, Jesus himself, who brings on the judgment—who provokes the krisis of the world. Jesus says, “This is the judgment, that light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.” But above all, the parables of judgment are white because, like white light, they contain all the colors of the other parables and will, if refracted through the prism of a sound interpretation, manifest them with perfect clarity.
If I have anything to contribute to the interpretation of the parables of judgment, it is my steadfast refusal to separate them from the rest of Jesus’ parables. I find in them, again and again, not only the green, growing, mysterious, catholic kingdom but also the purple, passionate grace that saves by death. Therefore I am convinced that anyone who interprets them as if Jesus had decided simply to abandon his previous palette—who takes the view, in other words, that Jesus had gotten over his penchant for painting kindly kingdoms and gracious loves and was now getting down to depicting the grim “final solution” in which God gets even with sinners by marching them into the gas chambers of an eternal Dachau—is making a crashing mistake. The Gospel of grace must not be turned into a bait-and-switch offer. It is not one of those airline supersavers in which you read of a $59.00 fare to Orlando only to find, when you try to buy a ticket, that the six seats per flight at that price are all taken and that the trip will now cost you $199.95. Jesus must not be read as having baited us with grace only to clobber us in the end with law. For as the death and resurrection of Jesus were accomplished once and for all, so the grace that reigns by those mysteries reigns eternally—even in the thick of judgment.
Accordingly, while I am playing my cards face up, let me give you what I consider to be the master key to the parables of judgment. As growth-in-a-mystery was the governing device in the parables of the kingdom, and as death-resurrection was the governing device of the parables of grace, so inclusion before exclusion is the chief interpretative principle of the parables of judgment. As a general rule—and especially in his specific parables of judgment—Jesus is at pains to show that no one is kicked out who wasn’t already in. . . .
I propose to show that judgment, as it is portrayed in the parables of Jesus (not to mention the rest of the New Testament), never comes until after acceptance: grace remains forever the sovereign consideration. The difference between the blessed and the cursed is one thing and one thing only: the blessed accept their acceptance and the cursed reject it; but the acceptance is already in place for both groups before either does anything about it. To put it another way, heaven is populated by nothing but forgiven sinners and hell is populated by nothing but forgiven sinners: the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the kosmos, not just of the chosen few (John 1:29); Jesus said, “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all to me” (John 12:32). The difference between heaven and hell, accordingly, is simply that those in heaven accept the endless forgiveness, while those in hell reject it. Indeed, the precise hell of hell is its endless refusal to open the door to the reconciled and reconciling party that stands forever on its porch and knocks, equally endlessly, for permission to bring in the Supper of the Lamb (Rev. 3:20).