Before going on to study the Kingdom parables I think it would be helpful to explain what a parable actually is. A parable is a story-telling or teaching device. The word parable comes from a Greek word that means to lay beside or to place alongside. The point is that in a parable you place a story or an idea (which is simple to understand) alongside a story or an idea that is complex or hidden. The simple story mirrors the complex one in order to make it understandable.
In Jesus' case He would lay every day stories that were easily visualized by the people He was teaching, alongside principles and concepts in the spiritual world, which could not be seen. His parables, using earthly objects and human situations, mirrored spiritual realities in the heavenly dimension.
In the New Testament Jesus spoke 43 parables. Of these, 13 were about the kingdom of heaven and were divided in the following way:
- 5 agricultural examples
- 4 examples concerning money
- 2 situations involving feasts
- 1 fishing story
- 1 example using cooking as its basis
These examples for parables were not only easy for the people of that time to understand, they were also adaptable to every culture and age. Every disciple, regardless of time or place, can relate to and learn from Jesus' parables about the kingdom. Let us begin, then, with two parables that use different images to make fundamental points about the kingdom.
The Kingdom is Like… Leaven
He spoke another parable to them, "The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened."
- Matthew 13:33
And again He said, "To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened."
- Luke 13:20-21
History of Leaven
Leaven was an important idea in Jewish life because bread was a main food item and leaven, aside from its use in making bread, was also used as a religious symbol. At that time, leaven was produced by mixing various plants or kernels of grain together and allowing them to ferment. In bread-making, leaven was usually a piece of dough left over from a previous batch of bread and left to ferment before adding flour.
The expression "hidden in the flour" means to add flour.
Three "pecks" of meal was about a bushel (56 lb), which was a normal batch of bread and baked products.
In the Old Testament, leaven was prohibited during the feast of the Passover (Exodus 23:18; 34:25).
Symbolically, leaven represented decay and impurity, and so an effort was made to avoid it during special feasts and offerings. In the New Testament Jesus used leaven as a symbol of corrupting influence as seen in the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders.
And Jesus said to them, "Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees."
- Matthew 16:6
The New Testament writers also used leaven as a symbol for corruption and evil influence (I Corinthians 5:6). When Jesus gives this parable, however, He does not use leaven as a symbol for corruption as had been done in the past. He compares the kingdom to the simple and common task of making bread. The leaven in the flour mixed together makes it rise, influences its growth, causes it to change its look and taste, and eventually prepares it for its final purpose: to be eaten, to provide life.
This simple and recognizable image is placed alongside the kingdom, and the reader is left to conclude that the kingdom is like leaven. The kingdom in the world is like leaven in the bread. It begins as something that is sour and dead (the cross of Christ; the humble death in baptism of every believer). When added to the world it influences its direction and growth, causes it change its look and taste and prepares it for its final purpose: the coming of the Son of God to judge the world.
No one parable teaches us everything about the kingdom; each one gives us one or two pieces of the puzzle. For example, the parable of the leaven gives us specific information about the kingdom:
1. The Kingdom is something that changes and evolves. We dwell in a kingdom that is in the process of change, so we must be prepared to change and grow as well.
2. The Kingdom affects everything else. The kingdom is not isolated; it is not a monastery or a bubble in which we live excluding everyone who is not within. The kingdom affects everything around it, everything that comes into contact with it changes for the good (conversion) or for the bad (rejection of Christ).
3. There will be an end. Just as the bread reaches its final stage and purpose, so does the kingdom. Other parables are left to give information about what that end will be; this one only states that there will be an end.
The Kingdom is Like… A Dragnet
47 "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea, and gathering fish of every kind; 48 and when it was filled, they drew it up on the beach; and they sat down and gathered the good fish into containers, but the bad they threw away. 49 So it will be at the end of the age; the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous, 50 and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
- Matthew 13:47-50
Fishing was a main occupation of these times and commercial fishermen would use large nets to harvest fish for selling at the market. The dragnet was the largest of nets weighted below and with corks on top. It covered about half a mile of water and picked up everything in its path.
In the parable the net is full and taken to shore where the fishermen would begin separating the edible, saleable fish from the worthless fish. The edible would be placed in containers to keep fresh in order to transport. The inedible were simply thrown away. The people of Jesus' day, especially around Galilee, had seen this happen all of their lives.
In this parable Jesus goes ahead and actually takes the comparison one step further in order to reveal the similarities that exist in the spiritual realm. He explains that this parable points to the end of the world and a time of judgement. Since He said that the kingdom is like a net thrown out to catch fish, the judgement here refers to the people, who are in the kingdom, the ones who have been taken in the net.
We know that the "net" is the gospel, which is cast out into the world bringing in all kinds of fish (people) into the kingdom. Jesus says that at the end of the world the angels will separate the true disciples (good fish) from the false disciples (bad fish). Angels do this – Matthew 25:32. The good go into the containers (the many rooms of the Father's house), the bad will be thrown away (into the darkness with bitter weeping). This parable about the kingdom teaches some very different lessons than the one regarding leaven. They do not contradict each other; they complement each other by adding more detail.
From the dragnet parable we learn:
1. All kinds of people are brought into the kingdom. We know now that the gospel is the means to draw all people into God's kingdom.
2. There is good and bad in the kingdom. People say, "I'm not going to that church because there are hypocrites there." They think that the true church is the perfect church. Jesus teaches that all kinds of people find their way into the kingdom - for a while.
The net brings all in. The requirements to be a member of the church allow for even insincere or evil people to be included if they want to. We ought not to be surprised or discouraged when we see someone naming the name of Christ but not acting like a Christian - Jesus said this would be normal.
3. The kingdom will be purified. When Jesus returns, not only sinners and disbelievers will be judged. God, through His angels, will remove all those from the church who don't belong there. We can fool society, we can fool the brethren, we can even fool ourselves - but we cannot fool God. God knows who are the true disciples and He will keep only these in the end. Of course, this is a warning to everyone at various levels:
A. For those who are not in the kingdom. Jesus spoke this parable, not to disciples, but to the crowds who came to hear Him speak. He made it clear to all that there was to be a dividing line between those who were in and those who were out (not all the fish in the sea were in the net).
Christianity is both inclusive and tolerant. Anyone can become a Christian and all Christians are to be patient and loving even in the face of another's weakness. But Christianity has boundaries set by God (the One who is allowed to do so and whose boundaries are always right and just). For example, God is the one who set the boundaries for marriage (Genesis 2:24) and no human court (e.g. U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on same-sexy marriage) can overturn His decision. Christians simply reflect what those boundaries are, they don't invent them!
Another set of boundaries set by God can be seen in the gospel message itself:
- If you believe and respond to it in faith - you're in the kingdom.
- If you disbelieve or refuse to respond - you're out of the kingdom.
He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.
- Mark 16:16
This is not intolerance or bigotry, it is God's boundary and those who follow Him also hold to the boundary He has established. Jesus demonstrates the idea of boundary in this parable; some are in the net, others are not. It is possible therefore to be left out if we so choose. Another warning:
B. Those in the kingdom. To those in the kingdom, but there in name only not in the Spirit (I.e. I'm a Christian but bear no fruit). Jesus warns these that they will not escape judgement. Some people think they can hide in the church. They believe that they can have just enough religion to keep them saved while still enjoying the world. This parable warns that there will be a sorting out within the kingdom in order to clean out the hypocrites and the dead wood. Jesus wants to offer God a "living" church, a kingdom alive in Christ when He comes. For this reason, those who are really of this world and insincere in their Christianity will be removed.
Finally, a word of encouragement:
C. To the true citizens of the kingdom. For those who know Christ; obey Christ; trust completely in Him; are faithful to the kingdom; growing in the kingdom - there is the promise of a better place. They will be kept for rooms in the mansion of the Father. Each of us has to determine where we are and where we need to be - this is the invitation or message of this parable.
- For some it may be the initial step of repentance and baptism to enter into the kingdom.
- For others it may be a recommitment and renewal to a deeper and more faithful discipleship with God to remain in the Kingdom.
- For most, this parable should be an encouragement to continue following the Lord as they have been; knowing that the reward is sure because the Lord who promises it is faithful to the citizens of the kingdom.