Jesus announces the arrival of the kingdom of God, demonstrates it in his actions, and gathers a kingdom community. However, this kingdom does not look at all like what the Jews expected. Jesus himself does not look like the Messiah of Old Testament prophecy as popularly understood. The world itself does not seem much changed by what this prophet from Galilee is doing and saying. Jewish expectations seem doomed to disappointment yet again. For anyone in first-century Israel who takes the claims of Jesus seriously, perplexity and bewilderment reign.
We glimpse this confusion in John the Baptizer when he is in Herod’s jail. John has preached that the kingdom of God is near, the final judgment about to fall. The ax is already in the hand of the Messiah, John says, and he is about to chop down any tree that does not produce good fruit (Luke 3:9). John fully expects this prophetic message to be fulfilled. He explicitly identifies Jesus as the one sent by God to set these things in motion (John 1:29–34). Then Jesus announces the arrival of the kingdom—and apparently nothing major happens. John expects the Messiah to bring down the wicked rulers of the earth and to release their righteous prisoners (Isaiah 40:23; 61:1). Yet John himself remains rotting in prison while Herod continues his unjust rule and immoral lifestyle. Pagan Roman soldiers infest the holy streets of Jerusalem. Idolatrous Rome rules the world with impunity; oppression, injustice, and unrighteousness reign. Have not the prophets promised that the kingdom of God will come with justice, peace, and the knowledge of God? John wonders if he misunderstood everything. He calls his disciples and sends them to Jesus with a question: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Luke 7:19). Jesus answers by pointing to his miracles and his message of good news for the poor as signs that God’s redeeming power is present. Then he sends John’s disciples back with a promise: “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me” (Luke 7:23). No doubt John holds on to his belief that Jesus is the Messiah. But until Salome30 has his head cut off for her mother’s sake, John is probably p 146 still confused about the kingdom and about his own role in announcing its coming (Matthew 14:1–12; Mark 6:16–29).
It is just this kind of confusion that Jesus addresses in the parables. His disciples struggle to understand how the promises of the prophets are being fulfilled in Jesus. It certainly doesn’t look like what they expect. Throughout the Gospels it is clear that the disciples just “don’t get it.” Jesus’ parables are told to explain the “secret” of this kingdom that has appeared among them in such an utterly unexpected way (Matthew 13:11). The parables help those who receive Jesus’ word in faith to understand the nature of the kingdom as it appears in Jesus. At the same time the parables veil the truth from those who refuse to believe (13:12–17; cf. Isaiah 6:9–10; Acts 28:26–27).
Mark 4 and Matthew 13 offer an important selection of these stories. They are introduced with Mark’s phrase “The kingdom of God is like …” and Matthew’s “The kingdom of heaven is like …” (meaning the same; Matthew, writing to Jews reticent about using the name Yahweh, refers to God indirectly by naming the place from which he rules). In this series of parables, we learn the secret of the kingdom (pp. 145-146).