By William M. Cwirla
Jesus taught the mysteries of God in parables, clever little stories rooted in everyday life that reveal the mysteries of the kingdom of God. The word “parable” means “to cast alongside.” A parable is a little “side by side” story, teaching the deep mysteries of God in earthy, human terms. Heavenly things are cast side by side with simple stories of sowers, seeds, sons, and shepherds. Lost coins, lost sheep, lost sons, and wedding feasts. Theology is analogy: “The kingdom of God is like. . .”
The parables of Jesus deal with three major themes: kingdom, grace, and judgment. (See Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, by Robert Farrar Capon Eerdmans, 2002) The coming of King Jesus brings the kingdom of God into the world. His kingdom is a rule of grace, God’s undeserved kindness toward undeserving sinners. This causes a crisis of judgment that divides saint and sinner, faith and unbelief, salvation and damnation, Law and Gospel. Viewed together, Jesus’ parables weave a tapestry picture of this kingdom of grace that brings the judgment of salvation.
The kingdom of God is like sown seed, present and active wherever the Word is preached. It is vulnerable and open to opposition and rejection. It can be choked, scorched, and gobbled up. It has enemies who sow weeds. But implanted in the broken hearts of sinners tilled by the Law, it bears the fruit of faith in love: 30-, 60-, 100-fold.
The kingdom of God is universal, catholic. Like a tiny bit of yeast, it raises up the whole lump of this world. Like a dragnet sweeping through the sea, it captures everything in its path and drags it to the shore: the good, the bad, the ugly. Only at the end, in the resurrection and the final judgment, are things finally sorted out, and we are not the ones doing the sorting.
The kingdom of God is hidden: buried seed, yeast in a lump of dough, a treasure buried in a field. You cannot see it; you must hear and believe it. It is actively present yet hidden “in, with, and under” the ordinary and mundane–water, words, bread and wine, the least, the lost, the lowly, and the dead of this world. Its beginnings are as tiny as a mustard seed, one solitary death on a Cross, but its endings are universal, embracing even the birds of the air. It’s of infinite value, worth “buying the whole field” in order to possess it, a pearl of such great price that one is willing to give up everything to have it. It is literally “to die for.”
The kingdom of God is a kingdom of grace where generously free Samaritans bend down to aid a broken man in a roadside ditch who has fallen among thieves. It is the seeking shepherd who seeks after the wayward sheep, the woman who turns her house upside down in search of one lost coin, the forgiving father who embraces the prodigal son who still reeks of the pigpen.
The grace of God’s kingdom is outrageous grace. “Love to the loveless shown.” “While we were yet enemies, Christ died for us.” Crooked stewards are commended for having the nerve to cash in on their master’s name and reputation in order to feather their beds. Eleventh hour hires receive the same day’s wage as those who have worked the whole day. Million dollar debts are forgiven. People, the good and the bad, the high and the low, those who have never been invited to anything in their lives are given honored seats at the wedding of the King’s Son and a wedding suit for free.
When this kingdom of God’s grace breaks into this world, it creates a crisis, a division, a judgment. A sharp dividing line is drawn between saint and sinner, faith and unbelief, Law and Gospel. Grace is gift, and gift is rejectible. “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs” (Jonah 2:8, NIV).
Judgment is exclusion of the included. Invited guests who refuse the grace of invitation receive outer darkness and endless gnashing of teeth. Faithless stewards lose even the carefully preserved coin they saved for judgment day. Unprepared bridesmaids find themselves locked out of the wedding feast where they have a seat. Sheep and goats who pastured under the same shepherd are sorted at the close of the day, not on the basis of what they’ve done but on the basis of what, or rather “who” they are.
Judgment comes without warning and suddenly, like a thief in the night, like a bridegroom at midnight, like the owner of the house returning to his servants at an hour only he knows. The posture of faith is to be awake, alert, watchful, and ready even as we go about our daily business. “Behold, I come quickly,” says the Lord.
Jesus’ parables can only be understood in view of His incarnation, death, and resurrection as the Savior of the world. He is the King, God’s grace manifest in our flesh, who came to be judged a sinner under the Law so that in Him we poor sinners might become righteous saints and live under Him in His kingdom.
Rev. William M. Cwirla is a “pastor emeritus” in the LCMS, having retired from congregational ministry after 30 years of service in one congregation. He has also served as president of Higher Things. He continues to pray, study, and write in retirement, and also speak, when coaxed out of the woods of Port Angeles, WA on the beautiful Olympic Peninsula where he resides with his wife, Karen. He is also an artisanal bread maker, gourmet cook, master of the grill, maker of fine wood craft, and musician.