Sunday, August 22, 2010

Apocalyptic Parables

I know it is really trendy to whinge about N.T. Wright at the moment, but I really enjoy reading him and will usually find something interesting every few pages. If we can legitimately have (and we can) indigenous, feminist, post-colonial, queer, and postmodern readings of scripture, I don't see why some jolly Anglican bishop shouldn't get to put forth his own with out everyone getting in a tizzy because he isn't reformed enough (but Paul didn't MEAN that mummy!) or because he believes in the resurrection (but it's not HISTORICAL mummy!) or doesn't want to ordain gays (but it's not TOLERANT mummy!).  Honestly, get a grip, he's just some dude with a beard.  I digress.

 pic from here
An "aha" moment for me today was Wright's (NTPG) definition of Jesus' parables as apocalyptic, as against "earthly stories with heavenly meanings" or "stories making only one point" (p393).  He suggests that Mark's gospel is a "meta-apocalypse" as it "tells the story of Jesus telling the story of Israel by [apocalyptic] means" (p394).  For me this makes great sense and is a helpful way of steering between outright and uncontrolled allegory and the previously mentioned exegetical deadends.  Wright doesn't at this point mention a particular parable, I'm sure there'll be plenty in the next book, but the one that springs to mind to illustrate this is Mark 4:30-32 (pars. Matt 13:31-2, Luke 13:18-19).
And He said: "How can we illustrate the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use to describe it? It's like a mustard seed that, when sown in the soil, is smaller than all the seeds on the ground. And when sown, it comes up and grows taller than all the vegetables, and produces large branches, so that the birds of the sky can nest in its shade."   (HCSB)
To me there was no way anyone who had read the Hebrew Scriptures would not see in this an impossible to miss reference to Israel's story, in particular Israel's final vindication.  Don't see it?  Try reading Ezek 17 where the image of a tree sheltering birds is used as a parable of the hoped for restoration of Israel.  Or Ezek 31 where the same image is used to describe the extent and power of world dominating pagan empires.  Or even Dan 4:9-16 where the image is used to describe the reign of a world dominating pagan emperor.  (cf also Psalm 104)  Suffice to say, by preaching first, "the Kingdom of God is near," and then saying in a parable, "all the birds of the sky will nest in its shade," Jesus is signalling that the kingdom he is preaching is the fulfillment of the Jewish hope for Israel's restoration and that it will be a force that will grow to dominate the whole world.  The seemingly small beginning of Jesus and his raggedy disciples is going to eventually rival the greatest of empires.  The humble mustard tree (see pic above) is thus dangerously political and eschatological imagery with a clear meaning that should not be reduced to a single principle or a sentimental "heavenly thought."  By evoking such imagery Jesus is tapping into a deep well of deferred national hope and culturally embedded theological interpretation of history.

Surely on this one, Wright is not wrong?   :-)


  1. Good one, sir. That tree imagery is my favourite in one Scripture - a whole lot of the Bible uses or assumes this imagery. And yeah, the polemic against Wright is well-spotted. Anyone who's reasonably on-to-it is going to have multiple critics :)

  2. So how come no one ever takes the time to disagree with me? :-)


  3. Because you're always right, silly.

    Now, if you posted more about politics and economics... ;-)

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