In this essay I will present the outlines of a new approach to theological language. This proposal for a post-metaphysical theology (i.e. a theology without univocal or transcendent ‘centers of meaning’) will be put forward by way of a radical unearthing of the original form of Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom of God. In uncovering the authentic power of the teachings of Jesus, as they have been recorded in the synoptic gospels, we shall find that a distinctive kind of paradoxical language is present within the deep structure of all the key parables and aphorisms of this first century Jewish sage. And in identifying the formal structure of Jesus’ extraordinary language on the Kingdom of God it will then be argued that this paradoxical logic connects the original teachings of the historical Jesus with the passion narratives that document central mystery of the Christ-event: the crucifixion and resurrection that transforms the historical Jesus into the Christ of faith. In revealing the paradoxical heart of the Gospel message and the Christ-event as a whole, we can therefore find a fundamental coherence between the original wisdom teachings of the historical Jesus (a paradoxical language that has been largely buried for nearly 2000 years) – and the declarations of the early Church on the Christ of faith. And finally, in disclosing the original form of Jesus parabolic language on the Kingdom of God, the following chapters will go on to show how the paradoxical secret at the center of the Christian tradition can effectively overcome the now exhausted search for ‘fixed centers of meaning’ that dominates traditional forms of philosophy, onto-theology and the metaphysics of presence in the historical development of the West.
First of all, as much modern scholarship attests, there are at least two things about Jesus of Nazareth that are beyond historical doubt: 1) that he was crucified and 2) he spoke in parables. And so irrespective of whether or not Jesus ‘rose from the dead’ after the crucifixion it is generally accepted by all historical scholars that he was a teacher who communicated his message primarily by way of parables. For instance, in the Gospel of Matthew we read: “All this Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed he said nothing to them without a parable”; or again in Mark: “He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.” Coming from the Greek word parabole, the primary meaning of the word parable is ‘comparison’ and it is well documented that the parables of Jesus were a teaching device that made comparisons between an eternal transcendent reality and the familiar everyday experiences common to the people of his day. As many of the parables recorded in the New Testament attest, Jesus often began his teaching with the comparison, “The Kingdom of God is like…” For the purposes of present study, then, our working definition of the word parable can be stated as follows: “A parable is a figure of speech in which a comparison is made between God’s kingdom, actions, or expectations and something in this world, real or imagined.”
However, before engaging this analysis of the parables, it is vital to recognize that none of the gospel writers were eyewitnesses of the parabolic speech acts of the historical Jesus. For the parables that have been recorded in writing and handed down in the synoptic gospels were originally oral texts that were created for the immediate historical situation in which they were delivered. This means that we have virtually no access whatsoever to the actual words spoken by the historical Jesus. Rather, the gospel accounts of Jesus’ parables that have been handed down to us are reconstructed from within the language tradition and the socio-political situation of the early Christian communities: communities that first documented their experience of Jesus approximately 40 to 70 years after his death. In this respect almost all of our knowledge of the parables of Jesus is little more than a historical-hermeneutic reconstruction of those original parabolic sayings that were recorded by his first followers, parabolic teachings that were “remembered, retold, and finally written down and circulated among the early Christian communities in the Hellenistic world.” And because the material attributed to Jesus in the gospels stems largely from the early Christian communities, even that which claims authenticity will have been edited and reinterpreted through many years of oral and written transmission in the early development of these communities.
Consequently, no single written text available to us today represents less than 40 years of oral transmission and re-construction of the parables that Jesus taught. In spite of this, it is the purpose of this chapter to argue that, however limited our access to the original context in which the parables were spoken by Jesus, the parables recorded in the synoptic gospels are so distinctive in their underlying structure that it seems reasonable to conclude that they survived this process of oral and written transmission with the dangerous memory of their original narrative form still intact. And in setting out the structural pattern that cuts across every single one of the 30 different parables that are examined here, it will be demonstrated that there is an distinctive logic to the language of Jesus, a systematic pattern within the parabolic system as a whole that can – and does – disclose the very nature of Jesus’ experience of God.
To begin this investigation of the parables, it must first be emphasized that Jesus of Nazareth is the one who proclaimed the Kingdom of God. Not only do many of the parables begin with an express, or implied comparison, “The Kingdom of God is like…” but they clearly have the Kingdom of God as their ultimate reference point. This basic starting point is unquestioned by Jesus scholars, although there has been vigorous debate regarding the interpretation of what this Kingdom means in the message of Jesus.
In 1927 a conference of English and German theologians it was agreed that the Kingdom of God was an apocalyptic concept in the message of Jesus, which means that for Jesus the advent of this new reality had already taken place for him, and that the Kingdom was ‘at hand’ in the here and now, thereby implying an immanent end of the world as the Kingdom of God breaks into human history. This apocalyptic understanding of an already present Kingdom in the ministry of Jesus is found in the Gospel of Thomas: “The Kingdom of God will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, “Look, here it is!” or “Look, there it is!” Rather, the Father’s Kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.” This view of the parables proclaiming an immanent apocalypse was supported by scholars such as C. H. Dodd and Brad Young in what came to be called a ‘realized eschatology’, an apocalyptic message that called for immediate repentance and submission to the will of God at the end of the world. However this view of Jesus’ preaching on the Kingdom of God changed after some heated debates to different versions of what is now called ‘eschatology in the process of realization’ which concluded that there was both a realized and an unrealized dimension to Jesus parabolic pronouncements. Scholars such as Norman Perrin upheld this emerging consensus in arguing that there was “a tension between the Kingdom as present and the Kingdom as future, between the power of God as known in the present and the power of God to be known in the future.” As a consequence the standard position held by contemporary Jesus scholars is an eschatology in which the parables of Jesus announced the advent of a Kingdom that was both already realized and still in the process of coming into being, both fully present in the words and deeds of Jesus and a future transformation of the historical world that is still ‘to come’. Whatever the case, the undeniable conclusion reached by all modern Jesus scholars, is that the parables of this 1st century Jewish teacher proclaimed one thing, and one thing alone – the Kingdom of God.
Before going on to investigate some of the more recent trends in parable scholarship, it is first necessary to represent in a general way the ‘brush strokes’ of Jesus style as a teacher of parables. In this way it will be possible to develop a kind of ‘voice print’ that can identify the significant speech forms that are characteristic of Jesus as a word artist, and thereby ascertain the distinctive nature of Jesus language on the Kingdom of God. For one of the key aims of this chapter is to contend that we are now able to detect the original logical form of Jesus parabolic language, and thereby distinguish the authentic teachings of the historical Jesus from post-Easter embellishments, insertions and additions. In fulfilling this aim it will be argued that the distinctive logical form present within almost all of the parables in the synoptic gospels can reveal the true nature of Jesus provocative language regarding the advent of the Kingdom of God.
There are a number of points in which the parables of Jesus show such originality and vividness that suggest to us that no one but Jesus could have created them. First of all we find such distinction in their ‘directness of address’ to their audience. Jesus often begins his parables with challenging questions, such as “Which one of you?” or “What woman?” or “Who then is the faithful and wise one?” which by engaging his hearers and putting them on the spot, make them ready for a response. Furthermore, the parables are themselves front and center bearers of the message of Jesus, so much so that the parable itself is the preaching, a communication of Jesus realization of the Kingdom which leaves little or no need to interpret, clarify of apply his teachings. For this reason, we find in the gospel accounts that he taught as “one having authority, and not as the scribes”, which gives further indication of the unique nature of Jesus parabolic teachings. Another point of distinction is that the parables of Jesus are not used for argumentation, philosophical dialectics or Socratic dialogue, so much so that there is little previous learning that Jesus’ hearers need to bring to the occasion of his teaching. And as we saw above, the parables are thoroughly theological or God-centered in announcing the immanent advent of the Kingdom. Importantly, however, while being God-centered the parables of Jesus do not get involved in descriptions of God’s attributes. God is rather an immediate and deeply familiar reality to Jesus that is disclosed through the use of striking but common place metaphors in a much more powerful way than ordinary propositional language about the nature of God. And the final point of distinction is that there is always an element of surprise or discovery in the way that the parables of Jesus end wherein the behavior described by the main players in the plot is almost always shocking, offensive or atypical.
This brief identification of the speech forms characteristic of the historical Jesus is also given solid support by James Breech, who carried out an 8 year investigation into all existing stories of late Western antiquity in a study that covered the historical epoch from the death of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.) to the accession of Constantine (early 4th century AD). At the end of this study Breech concluded that, “Jesus’ parables were dissimilar from all extant contemporary stories.” Breech goes on to contend that, “Jesus’ parables are utterly dissimilar from any other story known in Hellenistic and Greco-Roman antiquity, including the rabbinic parables.” As a distinctive and strikingly original literary form that is virtually unknown in the Old Testament literature – or anywhere else for that matter, it seems reasonable to conclude, then, that the parables of Jesus can offset much of the skepticism about the reliability of the gospel tradition while also giving written expression to Jesus own theology or God-view.
In essence, then, for Jesus the parable was a window on this new world that he called the Kingdom of God. And as we will see, in his eschatological proclamation of the reign of God, for Jesus the logic of life had been radically revised in order to bring about this altogether new figure of reality. In supporting this claim, it will be argued in what follows that throughout the parabolic teachings of Jesus found in the gospel parables we recognize a specific kind of language and a distinctive kind of logic, a way of thinking that we will call the “Logic of the Kingdom”. The Logic of the Kingdom in the parables of Jesus provides a formal structure that opens a door to an alternate construal of reality, a reality in which everyday expectations are turned on their head and regularly frustrated. For in presenting his parabolic teachings in this alternative wisdom-language, Jesus spoke about the Kingdom of God in a language that virtually nobody, including his disciples of many occasions – could quite understand. We see this cryptic approach documented in the gospel of Mark: “To you has been given the secret of the Kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables.”