The Eschatology Parables
“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” This morning I thought we could consider a set of parables often overlooked. We’re all familiar with the parable of the sower, the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the parable of the lost sheep. But there is a set of parables that are often passed over, known as the Eschatology parables - the parables concerned with the end of days. Much like any religious teacher, Jesus has a handful of topics he cannot help returning to time and time again. And this is reflected in the parables (the teaching stories) he tells, most of which fit into five subject areas; and those are: 1) the Kingdom of Heaven (how to recognise, see it, and hear it); 2) the journey of the lost one; 3) on love and forgiveness generally; 4) on the nature of prayer; and finally, 5) on Eschatology. And out of those five, the most prevalent, the topics which Jesus returns to most often in his parables, are the Kingdom of Heaven, and most of all, eschatology. And yet that prevalence is certainly not reflected in sermons preached subsequently throughout the world over the last two millennia.
Our reading was the Parable of the Budding Fig Tree (Matthew 24:29-35), one such eschatology parable. Jesus says in the same way that a fig tree becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, and so you know summer is approaching, so also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near; heaven and earth will pass away. So, this is saying that we can look at patterns in nature that help us recognise the changing of the seasons, the coming of the summer, and in the same way, there are patterns that we can discern on earth which can indicate to us that the most significant of divine events is about to unfold. So, the question then becomes: what is this eschatological event that Jesus believed the generation of which he was a part would see unfold, in which the Son of Man would come? And for those details we can focus back on the first part of the reading we heard. The Gospel writer quotes a passage that can be found in the Old Testament, in the book of Isaiah, which reads, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.” This is very eschatological and apocalyptic language, very much like the kind of stuff you can read in the Book of Revelation.
The sun darkening, the moon giving no light, and stars falling. If we were to look at the way this language is used in the book of Isaiah, we would see that this language is not used in any literal sense. It’s not actually concerning the sun and the moon, this is poetic language used to speak of great calamity on earth, great social and political upheaval, the falling of empires, and the like. So, the Gospel writer of Matthew is linking all this together, that there are signs on earth now (as in the 1st century) which indicate that the Son of Man would come, imminently, and that his coming would be into a tumultuous world, and we get another quote from the Old Testament, this time from the book of Daniel, which reads that they will see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven.” And this refers to a vision that the prophet Daniel had.
So, quick Old Testament recap: Abraham was called by God to the promised land, but the Jewish people ended up in Egypt, where they became slaves. But they grew into a large people group which Moses then eventually led in a convoluted journey through the desert, back to the promised land. Then there is a long period in which various leaders would rise to respond to issues in the country, known as the judges, before finally, Israel selected its first king, King Saul. Then came King David, then King Solomon. Then there was a civil war, and the country split into two nations: Judah and Israel. There followed a line of corrupt kings, and this where the prophets started to show up, calling the kings and the Israelites to return to God. Then Judah and Israel were invaded, and many Jewish people were taken into exile, and in exile they attempted to live by God’s ordinances despite being scattered, and despite being in a foreign land. All the while they were wrestling with what their relationship to God might look like now, now that they have been seemingly abandoned by God. And this is where the prophet Daniel slots in.
Daniel is almost certainly not an historical figure, so we can think of the book of Daniel as a piece of historical fiction, a piece of historical fiction which is wrestling with the very issues of exile I just mentioned - how do you reconcile being a follower of God to being subject to foreign customs, laws, etc… So, to explore that, the writer of the Book of Daniel imagines this young man, Daniel, who is a paragon of the Jewish ideal - a holy, wise, and upright man - and makes him a servant of the pagan king of Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar, because inevitably there is going to be a conflict of interest there, which makes this the perfect set-up to explore being a godly person in the context of exile. So then, various episodes follow that put this conflict to the test. The first is concerning food. King Nebuchadnezzar offers up the meat served in his palace to a pagan god, which in terms of Mosaic law is a big no no. So how will Daniel get around that? Well he just won’t eat meat. He’ll be a vegetarian, and avoid the pagan meat. This is acceptable, and works out fine.
Then next, King Nebuchadnezzar has a huge gold statue of himself created, and everyone was required to worship the statue. Daniel and his friends refused, and so Daniel’s friends were thrown into a furnace, and the friends walked around in the furnace but were unharmed because God protected them. Nebuchadnezzar is so amazed by this that he allows Daniel and his Jewish friends to carry on not needing to worship the gold statue. Over time, Nebuchadnezzar’s reign comes to an end, and other kings come along, and all the while, Daniel continues to be in service to the Babylonian kings, helping the kings in particular to interpret dreams and visions. But it’s not long before another king comes along, King Darius, who again requires everyone to worship him. And again, Daniel refuses, and this time is thrown into a pit of lions. And again, nothing happens. God protects him, and everything carries on as normal.
This, then, all concerns the monstrous oppression that the Jewish people were facing in exile, a living hell. It’s experienced internally as an existential hell, and this pain is articulated through the figure of Daniel, who cries out with outrage. He expresses this pain in apocalyptic terms, because it's only apocalyptic language which seems to carry the cosmic weight necessary to express the depth of their own experienced turmoil. Surely there will be a day, you can hear these individuals cry, when Israel’s barbarous oppressors will stand before the throne of God and receive the judgment they rightly deserve. After one such apocalyptic vision, which overwhelms Daniel and makes him sick, he’s lying on his bed for several days, and he sees the appearance of a man, a man who comes to him and helps him to understand, a man who would be to him a sign of hope. The Son of Man. What’s interesting about this is that it all concerns interior states. Daniel is having an interior experience of hell, and he’s having an interior experience of the one coming to soothe.
Two centuries later Jesus would identify himself with this figure in Daniel’s vision. He would perceive himself to be the Son of Man. He would be an external, physical manifestation of what Daniel experienced as an internal reality. So, returning to the question, what is this eschatological event that Jesus believed his generation would see unfold? There are several possibilities. I’m going to consider two of them. One common answer you get to this question, (the one I’m critical of that you find) particularly within Christian liberal circles, is that Jesus fully believed there would be an apocalyptic, history-ending, god-returning, heavens-opening event to end all events in the immediate future. And quite simply, although Jesus and his disciples believed this to be the case, he was wrong. He was part of a small radical Jewish sect that believed that the end was upon them, that that end would come in the first or second century, and it just didn’t.
I think this idea is appealing to liberal Christianity in particular, because it puts a glaring mistake at the very centre of Jesus’ entire ministry, which emphasises Jesus’ human fallibility. It makes him very much a product of how we perceive the first century - a bunch of people being swept up by primitive superstitions - and as such it affords us the right in turn to sift through Jesus’ teachings a bit more critically. Stuff concerning final judgment, or fire and brimstone, or the coming kingdom, can be skimmed over, and we focus instead on some of the practical elements of his ministry: a greater concern for the poor, the marginalised, and a focus on love and forgiveness in general. And where the coming Kingdom idea is shoe-horned back in, in liberal Christian terms, is through a political agenda, that the Kingdom of God on earth is akin to some coming global socialistic epoch. In this respect the Kingdom is not yet here, and so liberal Christianity can therefore claim to still be relevant, as a way towards realising that epoch. As far as I’m concerned, the gospel loses something when it is reduced to being merely a tool towards secular progress.
Before we consider an alternative, another interpretation as to what that eschatological event could be, let’s look at a couple more of these eschatology parables. Another one is the Parable of the Great Banquet. In this parable a king makes a marriage feast for his son and then sends out invitations, but those who receive the invitations make light of it, and they’re distracted by other things. When the king hears, he disinvites them, and instead throws the doors open to everyone else. Except, when the king finally arrives, he finds one without wedding clothes on, and has him bound and thrown back out into the darkness. So again, this is about the coming eschatological event – the coming of the king - and it’s making a few separate points. Those who are initially invited, but lose their chance, are those who are distracted by appearing to do what is right on earth. Their identities are wrapped up with the appearance of things. Most notably Jesus is referring, as he often does, to the Pharisees, but today we can just think of anyone who is more concerned with looking the part than attending to their own salvation, their own interior spiritual journey. And then the doors are thrown open, and everyone else is invited. Whether you look the part on earth or not is not an issue, and for them, the question just becomes the extent to which the wedding banquet, symbolic of the Kingdom of Heaven, is already rooted down within them, already part of their interior identity. And this rootedness within is symbolised in the parable by the guests having on their wedding clothes, or not.
And finally, we can consider the parable of the weeds among the wheat. A man sows good seed in his field, but while everyone was asleep, enemies came and sowed weeds among the wheat, so that as the field grew, the wheat and weeds grew together. So should we try and pluck out the weeds? No, because you will inadvertently pluck up some wheat. Instead just leave them be, and at harvest time, we will collect it all up together, then separate the weeds from the wheat, bundle the weeds together and burn them. Again this is eschatological in nature, and it's making quite a similar point to the Great Banquet parable. The wheat are those who have realised the Kingdom within, and the weeds are those concerned with the outward appearance of things, and their time untouched in the field is, as it were, their reward, but they’ll eventually be (at the great harvest) bound together and thrown out into the darkness, or burned up.
So, again this is all very much concerned with an unseen, interior reality. Either at the appointed time you will have already rooted the Kingdom within yourself, or you will lose your chance. It’s all to do with cultivating an inner space, and I think herein lies a clue as to what that eschatological event is. It is a victory within interior space. Like Daniel, who has his interior experience of hell, but also has an interior glimpse of what it might be like to follow the Son of Man internally, so we are invited to follow the Son of Man internally, to leave the worries of this world in this world, and journey with him along ‘the Way’. For as it is said, the Kingdom of God is found within. There is then a reorientation here. Remember that the Jewish people were waiting for a Messiah who would come and establish a Kingdom of God on earth, on this material plane, to defeat the Romans, and set up a little utopia. But the Son of Man comes out from the interior realm, not to establish an exterior kingdom (as everyone thought), rather he comes to lead us back into his interior kingdom, within.
The way Jesus inaugurates this Kingdom within, which I see as the very eschatological event which he is referencing throughout the parables we have been considering, is by radically disregarding the external plane, this false realm. He does this by taking on the very people who are most wrapped up with what is unfolding on the external plane, who believe themselves to be just and righteous - namely those coordinating and administrating what goes on at the Temple in Jerusalem. By upsetting, destroying, and undoing their efforts, he underscores the supreme importance of the interior realm. He forces those invested in the external realm to destroy him, which essentially proves his point, and inaugurates the Kingdom. Because to those who encountered Jesus, to his disciples, the Kingdom of God showed up as an unmediated reality within him. He was, as it were, full of God. It's easy to see why people called Jesus “Lord”, and why the misconception that he was God so quickly arose. But the fact that direct claims about the divinity of Jesus are absent from the synoptic Gospels is almost certainly a reflection of the kind of person Jesus was, someone not concerned with what people thought of him, and someone who discouraged speculation, not confirming anything until that moment that Peter discerned for himself that Jesus was the Messiah. But in terms of Jesus’ interior reality, call it the Kingdom of God, or call it Christ consciousness, this interior proximity to the divine, it is not simply the case that it is available to everyone, that proximity, that interior journeying. It is what being a Christian is.
By understanding the eschatological parables in this way, their significance is elevated. They are no longer an awkward side-note, that don’t really fit into how we understand Jesus’ mission, but rather they frame the entire thing. Why? Because there is a sense in which the eschatological event is always just before us, coming at an unknown time. Not as an event horizon that will unfold on the external plane, but within our own subjective self, and on that day will our identity be rooted in the Kingdom, or will it be rooted in the external appearance of things?