Yung Suk Kim
The Nature of Jesus’ Parables
A parable (parabole in Greek) is a fictional story about everyday life; para means alongside, and bole comes from ballo (to mean “to cast”). Literally, it means a story thrown alongside of life. About one third of Jesus’ teaching in the synoptic gospels is done through parables and his teaching focus is about “God’s rule” (basileia tou theou) in the world, the recurrent theme of the gospels. Jesus’ parables invite the audience to see something radically different from the status quo of society or community.
Because of the parable’s nature as such, it has double-entendre. On the one hand, a parable must be easy to understand because it is taken from everyday life (as shown in the parables of the sower and the mustard seed). On the other hand, however, it is very difficult to understand because the parable involves figurative language which needs careful attention and skill from the reader.
Meaning of a Parable as Engagement
Since meaning of a parable is not self-evident and the parable is open-ended, hearers always have to struggle and interpret it for themselves by drawing on metaphors or symbols in it. For example, in the parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-20; Matt 13:3-23; Luke 8:5-15; Thom 9), there are at least four metaphors that we have to interpret: the sower, soil, the seed, and the harvest. The interpretive task and question is how can we relate God’s rule with each of these metaphors? That is, how can we understand a link between God’s rule and each metaphor? It is like swimming a deep sea where readers have to decide what to do and what to explore in such a place. What follows is an illustration of human transformation in the parable of “the seed growing secretly” found in Mark 4:26-29.
The Seed Growing Secretly (Mark 4:26-29)
Jesus’ parables are a perfect place for studying human transformation. At each step of metaphoric interpretation of a parable, our understanding and challenge about God’s rule is indescribably big. Mark 4:26-29 reads:
26 He also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,
27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."
In this parable we can identify several metaphors: the sower (someone scattering seed), the seed, the ground or the earth, and the harvest. One caveat is that this parable should not be read as allegory although such an interpretation has been popular and practiced for so long beginning with the early church. The reason is clear: allegorical interpretation of the parable deprives not only the diversity of meaning but very challenging metaphoric messages hidden in the story, which readers have to struggle to understand; that is possible only by readers’ engaging the parable.
First of all, we can think about God’s rule and its relationship with the sower, which, in theory, may be variously compared to God, Jesus, Jesus’ disciples, or to any person. But God and Jesus may not be a good option because verse 27 says the sower does not know how the seed would sprout and grow. Readers assume that God and Jesus must know how the seed grows. Then another option may be that Jesus’ disciples take the role of the sower, who plants the seed and waits patiently for the harvest. The transformative lesson is that the disciples have to endure until harvest while doing good works of planting. In addition, we may think of the sower as any person like a farmer, who may realize that he or she cannot have harvest without good weather. Here the transformation is the recognition that we cannot live alone without God.
Second, we can relate God’s rule with the seed, which is sown on the ground and grows. At least, there are two metaphorical relationships between them. On one level, the seed’s mystery can be looked at and the seed grows because of it. The seed is certainly not human-origin and it can be understood variously as God’s power, grace, word, or teaching. So the lesson about human transformation is that we depend on the seed as a source of life: God’s healing presence (not human-made presence), God’s grace (not human efforts), God’s word and teaching (not human wisdom or philosophy). Caution is that this parable assumes that the seed itself is good. In a real world, there may be bad seeds which may bear bad fruits. But that issue is not dealt in this parable. This means a parable does not deal with all situations; therefore, it should be interpreted in context, however complex or diverse it may be.
On another level, we may think about the seed’s sacrifice. The seed must die and bear fruit. Jesus teaches the way of the cross in Mark 8:34-38, and his followers (his disciples and the crowd) must deny themselves to follow him, taking up their cross: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). So the transformative lesson is: “Die like the seed and bear fruit.”
Third, we can relate God’s rule with the ground or the earth. Once the seed is sown on the ground, it sprouts and grows. The seed alone cannot do anything unless sown on the ground. It is the ground that accepts the seed and supports it with calmness and sincerity. In this sense, the ground is God-given blessing. In theory, we can think of various conditions of soil as shown in Mark 4:10-20, which is an extended interpretation of the parable proper in 4:1-9. But the proper context of this parable limits us to focus on the theme of God’s grace, which is compared to the image or metaphor of “the seed growing secretly.” That is to say, the ground represents the gift of God along with the seed. Once sown on the ground, the seed will sprout and grow. What we can do is to scatter or plant the seed and wait until the harvest. There are things we can do and there are things we cannot do. What we cannot do is God’s part. So the transformative lesson is turn to God for life. Our job is not to create or manipulate God’s world but to care for it.
As we see above, the meaning of a parable is not fixed but very invitational and challenging precisely because God’s rule involves complex realities and diverse ongoing participation. The other important thing is the fact that parables are open-ended, and therefore hearers/readers have to come up with their own responses to the unfinished or unanswered questions with metaphoric links in the parable. Readers are often surprised, challenged, and awakened to a new awareness of God’s rule or presence in the world. In this regard, the parable does something to us to the extent that we are asked to re-create our own transformative stories in accordance with God’s rule in the here and now.