Deciphering Dark Sayings

Parables are puzzling. Jesus employed them as instruments of divine obfuscation against those who would not hear plain speech. This is demonstrably true concerning the famous “Kingdom Parables” of Matthew 13. The only thing that is unmistakably clear in these parables is that the Kingdom of God wasn’t anything like they had imagined.

As we have sought to unscrew the inscrutable, our preferred hermeneutical approach to such passages might be called textus absconditus. Exegetes cleverly excavate the texts, loosen them from their contextual moorings and historical situations, make off with them under the cover of benighted Enlightenment assumptions, and hide them in plain sight as contemporary commentary. Such egocentric exegesis sees every text as primarily about the exegete; every pen-stroke a personal prophecy. Though it may seem like a novel approach, I would suggest reading these parabolic passages as though the original addressees were somehow connected to them. This would avoid the tendency towards chronological snobbery and perhaps achieve some measure of contextual fidelity.

Allow me to illustrate. Quite often, the parable of the wheat and the tares has been interpreted as a survey of the history of the Church. In this scheme, Jesus is the owner who sows wheat into the field (the world), the wicked one is also sowing but he sows tares into the Church, and thus the Church remains something of a “mixed multitude” until the consummation. In like manner, the parable of the mustard seed is also often viewed as a portrait of the history of the Church. The kingdom begins like a mustard seed in the ministry of Jesus; small but growing. As time progresses, that mustard seed grows into a large tree in which the birds find shelter. Likewise, the leaven and the loaves. The leaven is hidden in the loaf during the ministry of Jesus, and the rest of history sees the permeation of the yeast and the rise of the kingdom.

As an optimillennialist, such interpretations appeal to me. Furthermore, I think that the conclusions are true. The Church does follow these patterns throughout her history. These same patterns are often recapitulated again and again. A Protestant reading might say that Luther was another mustard seed who grew into yet another great tree. David Livingstone journeyed to Africa to hide three measures of leaven in the lump of the Dark Continent, and we have been witnessing the rise of Christianity ever since. It is not yet fully leavened, but it it well on the way. Every congregation can even be viewed as a microcosm that displays these parabolic patterns. For instance, Jesus sows wheat (true believers) into the field (the congregation), but the devil covertly sows his own subversive seed, and the two grow up virtually indistinguishable until the harvest at the last day. Some of the tares even make it on nominating committees and the boards of deacons.  Thus, these parables are regarded as symbols of God’s mysterious dealings throughout the ages.

But I think that there is another possibility. It just may be that Jesus is speaking primarily about the history of Israel that climaxes during his earthly ministry (like the rest of the book in which it is written). When we read the parables we assume that the ministry of Jesus is at the beginning of the parables. He’s the one sowing, planting, leavening, and so on. Jesus is the beginning of the story, and everything that follows is what happens after Jesus. Perhaps that is backwards. It may be that we should think of Jesus as the climax of the story instead.

Let me suggest a few reasons for advancing this preposterous proposition. First, think about who the story of the wheat and the tares concludes. It ends with a harvest scene in which the wheat and the tares are finally divided and separated. This is a theme already present in the ministry of Jesus. He has even observed that Israel is ready for such a harvest: “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest” ( Mt. 9:37 -38). We then see Christ bestowing authority upon the Twelve so that they may be harvesters within Israel – both bringing in the sheaves and dividing the wheat from the tares. For Jesus, the harvest is not off in some distant future, it has already begun. Indeed, it is one of the chief purposes of his ministry. His “fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his threshing floor” (Mt. 3:12). We see the chaff-consuming Christ at the end of the story rather than at the beginning because it is Israel’s story.

A second line of evidence comes from the parables themselves. Everyone recognizes that Jesus is the end of at least some of the parables because they make it very obvious. Perhaps he most explicit is the parable of the vineyard and the wicked tenants. The owner leases his vineyard to some tenants; he then sends his servants to collect the rent. The tenants respond with vitriol and violence; beating the servants and chasing them away. At the last, the owner sends his own son into the vineyard. Hoping to seize the vineyard for themselves, the wicked tenants kill the owner’s son. It’s clear that this parable is about Israel’s rejection of the prophets that have been sent to her throughout her history; the Son comes at the end of her history. The final act of the story is that of a judgment that crushes the rebellious tenants to dust, thus bringing about her final destruction. So there is already warrant for reading parables with a view toward Israel’s history and eventual demise.

Finally, this seems to be reinforced by the allusion in Matthew 13:34 -35. Jesus isn’t primarily foretelling a prophecy of the Church; he is retelling the history of Israel. Matthew, with his deft use of the Old Testament, explains why Jesus teaches in shady parables. Christ’s parabolic teaching fulfills what Matthew calls the “prophecy” of Psalm 78. Verse 35 is a quotation from the opening of Psalm 78. In fact, the “parables” or the “dark sayings” of Psalm 78 aren’t prophecies but histories: “which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us” (v. 3). Psalm 78 is a virtual tour through the annals of Hebrew history. The psalmist rehearses the events of the exodus, Israel ’s rebellion in the wilderness, the Lord’s miraculous provision in the desert of water, manna, and meat, and the debacle at Shiloh when the Philistines captured the ark. It’s about God’s faithfulness to Israel, and Israel’s forgetfulness of God. But the psalm concludes with the Lord awakening from his slumber, driving away his enemies, building a house for his name, and choosing David to shepherd his difficult flock. Psalm 78 is about God’s intervention in the history of rebellious Israel and His graciousness in giving them a shepherd after his own heart.

Matthew’s use of Psalm 78 suggests that the “dark sayings” Jesus is telling are the hidden things of Israel ’s history; the deep mysteries of covenantal faithfulness; the open secret that God will both judge and justify Israel for the sake of his own name. The temple must fall because of their unbelief, but God is building a lasting temple out of living stone. Jerusalem must burn because of their wickedness, but New Jerusalem shall rise like a phoenix from her ashes. After all, New Creation is built upon the rubble of the old heavens and earth. Welcome to life in the Regeneration.

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