My pastor is currently leading a group of men in my church through a book by N.T. Wright called “Jesus and Victory of God“. Yesterday, some stuff hit me like a lightening bolt. It was one of those moments when it felt like I was able to perceive a concept that seemed to envelop my whole sense of reality. I’m not sure if I can figure out how to share it here; it was such an explosion of ideas that it’s as if they were blasted out of my brain and now I need to piece it back together.
We read the parables of Jesus today as if they are pithy, fables designed to teach us moral or doctrinal truths that we can apply to our personal situation. But Wright claims that Jesus’ parables were shared with first century Jews and were designed to communicate concepts of the destiny of Israel and the coming kingdom of God. They were describing how the prophecies of the exile period as well as the covenant promises of God were about to be fulfilled. For example, Wright brings out a whole new perspective for me on what the parable of the “Prodigal Son” was intended to communicate. He says that the Jews who heard this story would automatically understand that the young son who runs away to a far off country represents those who have been taken away into exile as a result of their rebellion against God. All through the history of the chosen people of God you see that there is a pattern of exile and redemption. Jesus parable shows that the kingdom of God is characterized by this pattern and that God’s redemptive mercy includes allowing the sinner to experience the exile in order for them to respond to the mercy of God. Exile is not a mistake, it’s just as intentional as the Father from the parable freely giving his son the inheritance that he knows will be squandered.
In another chapter, Wright shows how the parable of the Sower is also understood in the terms of first century Jews. They would not interpret Jesus parable through the lens of modern evangelism the way most of us read it today. The seed is the word of God, but to the listeners in Jesus day, they would not interpret that phrase as the Bible or the gospel, but as the prophetic word. The prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, etc.) sowed the seed on the bad soil; the word of God was rejected. The prophets were rejected and ignored and the exile came despite their “sowing the seed” of God’s warnings and promises (see Isaiah 6). Jesus was saying in his parable that the good soil is the dawning Kingdom of God established by the Messiah. He was sharing with his disciples that the kingdom is coming, the word would take root, and the exile (which had not fully ended) was about to be
So there’s this pattern in all of history, prodigals and prophets. The prophet is blessed by God to bring His word, His Light into the world. The prodigal has a hardened heart and God’s judgment sends them into exile in order to bring them to a point of repentance where the seed of God’s word can finally take root. This is like fractal geometry. It represents the patterns of God’s redemption both on a massive universal scale and on a micro relational scale as worked out in the lives of individuals. For disciples of Jesus, we can be prophets and prodigals in the same hour. We are constantly experiencing exile and restoration as we live for the flesh or live for the Spirit. We also see it in the grand scheme of the redemption of the human race. God ordained for Abraham to produce a nation that would be a prophetic voice to the nations. Israel was God’s chosen people to accomplish this task, but even the sons of Abraham had to be exiled in order to bring them back to a place of redemption.
What about Jesus? Jesus is the prophet who brought the word of the kingdom, but he was also driven out into exile. On the cross, Jesus experienced the fullest sense of exile that has ever been know. Forsaken by his Father, Jesus received the exile of the prodigal despite his innocence. He received that wrath that we deserved in order to fulfill the pattern that God had ordain in a way that would reverberate through time and space, restoring all things under his Lordship.