by Brad H. Young, Ph.D.

The teaching of Jesus concerning the Kingdom of Heaven is carefully portrayed in the message of his kingdom parables.  Today, more than ever before, people are willing to re-examine Jesus's message of the kingdom.  Unfortunately, however, his teaching concerning the kingdom has been employed to support many diverse theologies, political systems, and end-time prophecy scenarios.  All too often Jesus has not been allowed to speak.  Instead, his teaching has been commandeered to support the plans and programs of others who have arbitrarily made Jesus agree with their own theories and plans.

Is it possible to listen to the parables of Jesus?  What is the message of the kingdom parables?  Is it possible to re-create the original setting in which they were spoken?  Early Jewish sources provide many insights into the original setting of the parables.  In fact, without a knowledge of the parabolic method of the Jewish sages in rabbinic literature, the message of the parables of Jesus will be lost in the multiplicity of modern interpretations and tendentious analyses.  Many are confused by the different approaches which are taken to describe the meaning of the Kingdom of God.  Certainly these numerous approaches cannot all be correct.

Is the Kingdom of God only to be revealed in the distant future?  Are the people of God able to establish his reign on earth by obtaining positions of leadership and power within the present political order?  Or is the Kingdom of Heaven a present reality?  To what may the Kingdom of Heaven be compared?  While Jesus does not give a dictionary definition of the Kingdom of Heaven, he does tell his listeners what the kingdom is like.  A careful study of the decisive technical term "the kingdom of heaven" in the teaching of Jesus will demonstrate that for the most part, the original meaning of the kingdom has been completely and routinely misunderstood.  The dispensationalists claim that the kingdom will not appear until the millennium, at the conclusion of the present Church age.  Johannes Weiss, the famous German New Testament scholar, and Albert Schweitzer, the well-known physician and theologian in his footsteps, claimed that the Kingdom of Heaven is an eschatological (end times) term which refers only to the future day of judgment.

C.H. Dodd is perhaps the most influential writer and New Testament scholar that ever considered the question of Jesus's use of the term Kingdom of God.  He understood that the Gospels speak about the reign of God as if it had been realized during a point of time in the ministry of Jesus.  Dodd tried to find a solution for the contradiction in terms which would explain how the kingdom can be both present in the ministry of Jesus and yet future.  He made use of the expression "realized eschatology," which described how the future kingdom could be seen in the work of Jesus in an "unprecedented and unrepeatable" fashion.  Thus the kingdom was still future, but was operative in advance during the ministry of Jesus.  However, this aspect of the kingdom, which could not be repeated, was only a foretaste of the future reign.

Dodd writes, "It [the Kingdom of Heaven] represents the ministry of Jesus as 'realized eschatology,' that is to say, as the impact upon this world of the 'powers of the world to come' in a series of events, unprecedented and unrepeatable, now in actual process." (Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, pg 41).

Dodd's statement is entirely incorrect.  In fact, it seems that the majority of the above-mentioned approaches (and many other interpretations which could be discussed) are completely mistaken.  The mistake is primarily that of Weiss, who sought to interpret Jesus's message only in the context of apocalyptic literature.  Here I will examine two partner parables of Jesus concerning the kingdom, in light of the important contributions of David Flusser and his new approach to the parables of Jesus, as well as R.L. Lindsey's suggestions concerning the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels.

Jesus uses word pictures to illustrate his message concerning the Kingdom of Heaven.  What is the Kingdom of Heaven really like?  The twin Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven illustrate the basis for Jesus's teaching concerning the Kingdom of Heaven.  Both parables appear in Matthew (13:31-33) and Luke (13:18-21), while Mark records only the Parable of the Mustard Seed (4:30-32).  Most probably Mark has abbreviated his source and has not retained the Parable of the Leaven.  Here we shall examine the text of Luke, which is more concise.
The element of the miraculous should not be forgotten.  The fact that a tiny seed can progressively grow into a tree was viewed as nothing less than miraculous.  The action of the leaven in the dough must have been considered a true wonder in the eyes of the people.  Nonetheless the major theme of both of these illustrations is growth.  The idea of a sudden total reversal of the present situation is not congruous with these parables of growth.  Jesus clearly teaches that a day of judgment and recompense is in God's plan, but he never connects the theme of the future judgment with the concept of the progressive growth of God's reign.  No, the kingdom has deeper implications.

In the land of Israel, the mustard seed is a very small seed which is about the size of a grain of salt.  It grows into a respectable-sized shrub.  Certainly birds are able to find rest upon its branches.  The mustard seed is further noted for its ability to take root in rocky, difficult-to-cultivate soil.  The seed will grow in between the stones of a building or of a mountain.  The natural growth process of the roots and the plant will literally move huge stones as it grows to maturity.  The simplicity of the parable cannot hide its depth and the powerful mental image it creates.  Nevertheless, one cannot fall into the trap of giving a special meaning to every detail of the parable.  The parable gives a picture of reality, but it is not that reality.  The parable teaches a message, and one must never try to allegorize every element of the image created by the parable teacher.  The one telling the parable must be allowed to communicate.  In the present case, it seems that Jesus alludes to images which appear in the Hebrew Scriptures (Ezek. 17:23 and Dan. 4:12, 21), but the image is created in order to communicate his specific theme.  Clearly the theme of these twin parables is a progressive pattern of growth.

The message of growth is strengthened in the second illustration.  Jesus depicts the process with which everyone who bakes bread or has observed the fermenting property of leaven in the dough is familiar.  The action of the leaven entirely permeates the three measures of flour (cf. Gen. 18:6).  Again, one must take care not to impose meaning upon each component of the picture of the parable.  In some contexts, leaven was synonymous with the evil within man's nature.  Hence Paul speaks about how "a little leaven leavens the whole lump" (Gal. 5:9).  He warns the Corinthians, "Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened" (I Cor. 5:7).  During the Passover celebration, all leaven was removed from the home, and even in the Talmud, the leaven was understood as referring to the evil inclination (b. Ber. 17a, and see also Mt. 16:6, 12, Mk. 8:15, and Lk. 12:1).

Nonetheless, the picture created by the Parable of the Leaven in the Gospels is completely positive.  The process of fermentation and growth of the leaven is like the growth of the Kingdom of God.  Rabbinic literature also demonstrates that a word picture, such as leaven in the dough, could also be employed for a positive image.  Joshua the son of Levi, the well-known rabbi from the transition period between the Tanaim and the Amoraim (circa 220), said, "Peace must be important, for peace is as important to the world as leaven to the dough.  Had the Holy One, blessed be He, not given peace to the world, the sword and the beast would have devastated the world..."  (M. Higger, The Treatises Derech Eretz, vol. 2, p. 248 and 84).  Peace is compared to leaven!  The permeating power of peace in the world can be compared to that of the leaven in the dough (see I. Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism series 1, pp. 51ff.).  David Flusser called attention to the important parallel in rabbinic literature which speaks about the study of Torah.  The Amoraic sage, Chaya bar Abba, taught that even if the people of Israel studied the Torah for the wrong reasons and abandoned observance of God's commands, that the leaven of the Torah, i.e., its inner force and power, would bring the people back to God (j. Chagigah 76c, chap. 1, hal. 7, Pes.K. 15:7 and par.).  In other words, they might study the law without the proper motivation.  Moreover, though they have studied it, they may in error forsake its practice.  But as long as the people do study the law of God, it will bring them back to the Lord.  The Torah has an inner force which is referred to as leaven.  The leaven of the Torah will bring the people to the Lord.

The Kingdom of God is not the future age.  It is not heaven.  It is neither the Church nor a denomination.  It is not given to men for their custodial care.  The Kingdom of Heaven is not political.  John Calvin may have felt that he had established the kingdom in Geneva, and some modern Christians may mistakenly believe that they can force God's reign upon others through the political system.  But Jesus did not view the kingdom as a political ideology or program.  According to the Gospels, Jesus teaches that the kingdom is:  1) God's reign upon men who have chosen to obey God's commands (e.g., Mt. 6:33);  2) God's power manifest in his redemptive purpose (e.g. Lk. 11:20);  and 3) the people who have become disciples of Jesus in the movement to bring God's redemption into the world (e.g., Mt. 5:3ff.).  The kingdom is a process which cannot be imposed upon men through political activism.  Men choose God's rule and accept his authority.  God moves in redemptive acts.  His kingdom is seen at the miraculous deliverance of the people of Israel from Egypt as well as appearing in the miracle-working power of Jesus and his followers.  Jesus taught that the "poor in spirit" make up the Kingdom of God.  Jesus's followers are those who mourn.  They are meek.  They hunger and thirst for God's righteousness and long for his salvation.  They are merciful and are pure in heart.  According to Jesus, the members of the kingdom are the peacemakers (see Mt. 5:3ff. and Lk. 6:20ff.).  Jesus taught that his followers must turn the other cheek and must go the second mile (Mt. 5:38-42).  The greatest in the kingdom are those who serve others and those who are willing to suffer in the interim in order to see God's higher purposes achieved.  Jesus believed that redemption was possible as men submit to the divine will and accept his yoke.  When hated men love, when persecuted men forgive, then the inner force of the kingdom is released, and it will indeed bring God's redemption.

Jesus taught about the kingdom in parables.  These sayings of Jesus have been twisted to conform with many diverse ideologies and political entities.  Nonetheless his parables clearly illustrate the progressive growth of the kingdom as it is compared to the miraculous power of a mustard seed and the unfathomable fermenting properties of the leaven in the dough.  His kingdom is not delivered into the hands of men to control the lives of others nor is it a future event reserved for the day of judgment.  The kingdom is a present reality for those people who choose to obey the teachings of Jesus, to accept God's redemptive power in their lives, and to exemplify the qualities of discipleship and servanthood in a hurting and needy world.  The kingdom is here.  It has arrived.  It is like a mustard seed that grows into a tree and like leaven that permeates the entire loaf.

Brad Young received his doctorate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1987.  His dissertation written under Professor David Flusser's supervision, was titled "The Parable as a Literary Genre in Rabbinic Literature and in the Gospels."  It will soon be published under the title Jesus and His Jewish Parables.

While at the Hebrew University, Dr. Young served as a graduate assistant to Professor David Flusser, Chairman of the Department of Comparative Religion.

Dr. Young has now taken up his new position in the Graduate School of Theology at Oral Roberts University, where he is the Associate Professor of New Testament Studies.  He continues to be involved in the research of the Jerusalem School and in the writing of the Jerusalem Synoptic Commentary.

Yavo Digest Vol. 2, No. 1, 1988

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