THE STORY OF YESHUA
by miriam berg
GENNESARET II -or-
THE PARABLES OF THE KINGDOM
After his tour of Galilee, visiting Nain, Chorazin, and
other cities and villages, Yeshua returned to the plain of
Gennesaret, and again he began to teach by the seaside.
This time too the crowds were so great that he got into a boat,
and spoke to the multitude who were gathered on the beach. His
teaching now took the form of parables, that is, short allegorical
stories illustrating some moral or spiritual truth. We may
believe that he did this because by this time he could see that
not everyone was ready to seek the reign of God, nor did everyone
understand what it meant. Earlier he had been confident
that people would at once grasp his and Yohanan's message, would
at once see the glad tidings as exciting as he did. He now knew
that was too sanguine; he could not even hope that he would
survive to see the good news very widespread. Were not the
priests and scribes and political lackeys all uniting against
him? So on this occasion, and many to come, he spoke to the
people in parables.
The parable was an old device. Amos and other prophets had
used parabolic images in their messages; it is found in
rabbinical literature as well. The fables of Aesop also
are examples of this form but less religious in theme. The Sufi
masters told many longer tales which also represent the search
for religious truth and enlightenment. And Zen Buddhism in
Japan uses this form in order to communicate its teachings which
it claims are not otherwise communicable! But Yeshua used this
form in a style which is characteristically his own; these
parables are known as the parables of the kingdom of God, since
that is their main theme or subject.
His audience was from an agricultural community, including
farmers as well as fishermen, and probably also tradesmen,
weavers, carpenters, all the folk who make a community work.
Therefore it is no surprise that his first parable
speaks of a farmer, or a sower, sowing grain:
The sower went forth to sow; and it came to pass,
as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside,
and the birds came and devoured it.
And other fell on the rocky ground,
where it had not much earth; and it sprang up at once,
because the soil was shallow;
and when the sun came up, it was scorched;
and because it had no root, it withered away.
And other fell among thorns, and as it grew
the thorns grew also, and choked it,
and it did not yield any grain.
And other fell into the good ground,
and grew up and increased,
yielding much grain; some thirtyfold, some sixtyfold,
and some an hundredfold.
Was this about the kingdom of God? or was it only a
reflection on his own experience: the birds standing for the
scribes and Pharisees who criticized and denied his teaching;
the rocky soil in which the seed grew up quickly standing
for those who followed him only because of his healings and
exorcisms, in whom his teachings had no root; the seed strangled
by thorns standing for those who heard his teachings, but became
discouraged at the demands he made on them, and could not give
up their attachment to material things; and finally the good
ground standing for those who heard the good news and tried
to "bring forth fruit," as Yohanan had put it.
Yeshua concludes with a famous adjuration: "Who hath
ears to hear, let him hear." In other words, if you
are really paying attention to my message, you will
understand my meaning. When the disciples ask why he is
speaking in parables, he quotes to them from Isaiah:
I am trying to teach you the truth of the
kingdom of God; but for the people, I must
speak in parables; because they may see,
but not perceive; and they may hear, but
The disciples confess that they do not understand the
parable, and Yeshua scolds them:
Do you not understand this parable? and how
then can you understand my other parables?
He then explains the parable to them, in the obvious
terms which we have already suggested.
Matthew tells us another parable about a man sowing
seed, but this time a different thing happens, so the
meaning of the parable must be different. It is known
as the parable of the wheat and the tares, or weeds:
The reign of God may be illustrated by a man
that sowed good seed in his field; and while he slept,
a vandal came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.
Then when the blade sprang up, and brought forth fruit,
there appeared the weeds also.
And the workers on the farm came
and told the farmer,
Did you not sow good seed in your field?
then from where come the weeds?
And the farmer said unto them,
Some vandal has done this.
Then the workers said to him, Shall we go
and pull up the weeds? But the farmer said to them, No, no;
lest while you are pulling up the weeds, you root up
the wheat also. Let both grow together until the harvest.
Matthew appends verses explaining that the tares will be
burned, while the wheat will be gathered into the barn. But
the point of the parable seems to be that both should be
left to grow together, not that one will be destroyed at
the time of harvest. The common interpretation of this
parable, that the burning of the weeds represents the end of
the world and the destruction of the wicked, as inserted by
Matthew, does not accord with the rest of Yeshua's teaching,
and was probably made up by later generations who did not
have the breadth of Yeshua's thought.
In both these parables Yeshua seems to be saying that
there are people who will reject the reign of God, or who
are antithetical to it. How do we square this with the
law of universal love he has given in the Great Sermon? In the
first parable, he seems to be saying: When you go out to help
others, or teach others, you will find that there are those
who do not accept you, or actively oppose you; but there are
those who do accept you, and rejoice in that. In the second,
he seems to be saying: There will always be those who follow
you and those who oppose you, or those who agree with you and
those who disagree with you, but you should let both exist in
your lives, even as God permits both wheat and thorns to grow
on the earth.
Mark tells a short parable in which Yeshua compares the
kingdom of God to the growing of plants upon the earth,
without anyone's really understanding how this happens:
So is the reign of God, like a man casting seed upon the earth;
and while he sleeps, the seed springs up and grows,
without his knowing how.
For the earth bears fruit by itself:
first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain
in the ear.
But only when the fruit is ripe
can he put out the sickle to harvest the grain.
In other words, you can plant the seed, but then you must
wait, because nothing you can do will bring the kingdom of
God any faster. Yeshua also compares it to the growing of
a tiny seed into a great tree:
The reign of God is like a grain of mustard seed,
which is the smallest of all the seeds that are
upon the earth; yet when it is sown, it grows up,
and becomes taller than all other herbs,
and it puts out great branches; so that the birds
of the skies can come and roost in its branches.
So Yeshua has told four parables, all about planting seed:
the first emphasizes the untoward influences the seed will
experience; the second emphasizes the need for accepting
those untoward influences; the third emphasizes the
inscrutability of its growth; and the fourth emphasizes
the greatness of the tree and the smallness of the seed.
Yeshua also tells the parable of the leaven:
The reign of God, it is like yeast, which a woman mixed
with three bushels of flour, and left it to itself,
till it was all raised.
Once again he emphasizes the smallness of the beginning
and the invisibility of the process. Matthew tells several
other parables not found in the other gospels:
The kingship of God is like a treasure hidden in a field,
which a man found, and hid so that only he could find it;
and joyfully he went and sold everything he had,
and bought the field for himself.
Again, the kingship of God is like a
merchant buying pearls; and having found one pearl of
great price, he went and sold everything that he had,
and bought it.
These two parables stress that the rulership of God is
the most valuable thing there is, so that one should give over
all one's possessions to gain it. Another parable from Matthew:
Then again, the kingship of God is like a net which is cast
into the sea, gathering fish of every kind;
and when it was filled, they draw it up onto the beach;
and then they sit down and pick out all the good fish,
but discard the bad fish.
This parable seems to tell us that not everything is of equal
value, and being under the rulership of God means that you must
select that which is good, in behavior or material things, and
reject that which is bad. Matthew gives an explanation that
this parable is about the end of the world, when the wicked
shall be cast into a furnace of fire with weeping and gnashing
of teeth. But this eschatological interpretation is probably not
from Yeshua himself, but was added by later generations, who
believed in all these punishments. Even Ezekiel, in the horrible
times of the exile, tells us that God says, Have I any pleasure
that the wicked should die? rather let him turn from his ways,
and leave his wickedness, and live.
Matthew credits Yeshua with another parable on this same
theme, told much later in his gospel, however. It is
heavily coloured by later theologizing, but, stripped of
the theology, it would read as follows, called the parable of
the sheep and the goats:
The kingdom of God is like a righteous king coming to judge
all the nations; and when they are gathered before him,
he shall separate them one from another, like a shepherd
separating the sheep from the goats, and setting the sheep
on his right hand, and the goats on his left.
And he shall say to those on his right hand,
Behold, you have been righteous; for I was hungry,
and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink;
I was a stranger, and you took me in; naked, and you clothed me;
I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison,
and you came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying,
Lord, when did we see you hungry, and fed you? or athirst,
and gave you drink? And when did we see you a stranger,
see you sick, or in prison, and came to you?
And the righteous king shall answer
and say unto them,
Inasmuch as you did it unto one of these my brothers on earth,
you did it unto me.
And he shall drive away the others from him, saying,
Inasmuch as you did this not unto one of these my brothers
on earth, you have not kept the law. And I tell you,
they shall be sent away for they are delivered unto Azazel;
but the merciful shall enter into the reign of God,
which is like eternal life.
The "righteous king" is probably a reference to Melchizedek,
whose name means "king of righteousness" in Hebrew; he is
mentioned in the book of Genesis as having brought gifts of
bread and wine to Abraham, but nothing else is known about him.
Azazel was the name of a Babylonian deity, thought to be a demon
dwelling in the desert. The name was used to refer to one of
the two goats which the high priest prepared on Yom Kippur, the
Jewish holiday called the Day of Atonement; the priest laid all
of the sins of the people on its head and sent it forth into the
wilderness as a sacrifice to Azazel. In later mythology, Azazel
was the angel who taught men the art of war and of making weapons
and shields, the secrets of witchcraft, and the arts of allure to
women. Finally God chained him to a rock, just like in the Greek
myth of Prometheus, to be destroyed in the Last Judgment.
But this parable shows that Yeshua's concept of the reign of
God was not a political rule but a state of being, a state
in which you helped everyone in need, be they Jewish or non-Jewish,
friend or enemy, haberim or amme ha'eretz. As brilliant
and poignant as the parable is, it contains nothing which cannot
be found in the Torah: open your hand to the poor and needy; care
for the stranger; care even for your enemy.
Finally, Yeshua asks his disciples if they have understood
all these things, and when they answered yes, then he told them
another little parable:
Therefore every student who has become a disciple
of the kingship of God is like a householder who
brings out of the treasure of his household things
which are new and things which are old.
Here Yeshua seems to mean that when you are under the
rulership of God you preserve that which you already have
which is good as well as developing new attitudes or behaviors
which are in accord with the principle of universal love.
But we now see that, despite Yeshua's high praise of
Yohanan, and despite the fact that he was baptized as a
disciple of Yohanan, Yeshua has come to have a different
conception of the kingdom of God from Yohanan. Yohanan had
predicted fire and the axe; Yeshua is teaching inwardness and
slow growth. Yohanan had referred to the "wrath to come";
Yeshua has spoken of the blessedness of the human condition
and the inclusiveness of God's love. This helps us to further
understand the doubts of Yohanan as expressed to Yeshua while
he was in Chorazin.
And we can also note, that so far at least Yeshua has not
said one word which describes himself as special, but
instead has sharply rebuked those who call him the "son
of God"; and in his parables he has spoken only of natural
processes, and in his sermons he has spoken only of ethical
and moral behavior which is after all deeply grounded in the
Hebrew scriptures, in the writings of the prophets. Noplace
has he used stilted phrases such as "bread out of heaven",
"living water", "door of the sheep"; or phrases such as
"eating my flesh and drinking my blood". Wherever the
gospel of John got these phrases, they can't be found in the
words of Yeshua, at least not so far.