Parables vs. Promises

Happy Moltmann Monday! Today’s selection comes from God in Creation where Moltmann distinguishes the difference between a parable and a promise:

It is theologically necessary to view created things as real promises of the kingdom; and it is equally necessary, conversely, to understand the kingdom of God as the fulfillment, not merely of the historical promises of the world, but of its natural promises as well. There is more than merely a parable here. A parable points to something different, and presents the other thing by way of ‘the pointer’, the image. But a promise points towards its own fulfillment and anticipates a future still to come. The promise is caught up and absorbed in its fulfillment; when what has been promised is realized, the promise is discarded.

Okay, I don’t mean to pit parable and promise against one another. It’s not really parables vs. promises, like it’s a boxing match (though I couldn’t figure out how else to title it). The question is how parables relate to promises, and how they differ. Why does this matter? Well, because how we read Scripture matters, and how we interpret Scripture matters a TON. And we can’t be sloppy about confusing things like parables and promises, because they are distinct and have different purposes. They are both meant to instruct us, but not in the same kind of way.

Parables are meant to give us hints, to give us glimpses into something that is far too big of a mystery to state plainly. How do we describe the kingdom of God? Well, it’s so big, it’s so beautiful, that what we can do is hint at it, show little pieces of what it’s like so that we get an idea of it. It’s not unlike what I wrote about a couple of weeks ago when talking about praying in the name of Jesus. There’s an inhabiting, a presence-ing, that happens in a parable. It’s like a man who bought a field… It’s like a woman who has ten silver coins and loses one… None of these parables are meant to be turned into doctrines. They are not straightforward statements, so the last thing we’d want to do to honor what they’re trying to teach us is to turn them into that. We’d lose the hint, the glimpse, the intuition, the whole POINT of the parable itself. We can’t extrapolate one meaning from a parable’s message. They aren’t bullet points. They are doorways into another way of seeing the world.

A promise is something else entirely. A promise has, as a central part of its nature, something concrete and real and tangible to it. If a dad promises he’s going to take his kids to the park, that isn’t an idea of a world where dads take kids to parks. That’s a concrete declaration that this dad is going to take these kids to the park. If that never happens, it’s a broken promise. It’s a promise unfulfilled. Promises sometimes require us to wait. The kids might have to wait another hour while their dad finishes up the laundry; or another week until their dad is back from a business trip. For us, we might have to wait a very long time for God’s promises to come to fruition. In the meantime, we have hope, and we have trust, because we believe that God will, indeed and in fact, do what God said God would do. If God said God would take us to the park, God will. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but one day, we will get there. (How is it that the park has now become my metaphor for the kingdom? I’m not sure, but I kind of like that idea. The kin-dom of God as playground is one way to think about it, right?)

The reason I think this is interesting is that I think this is where so much talk about the future of God gets confusing. Some people, often more progressive/liberals, tend to veer only toward the parable, and consequently don’t really say anything concrete about what God will do in the future. Some people, often more conservative/evangelicals, tend to say only the concrete, and sometimes push even the parabolic into the concrete, in ways that really confound the mystery and the end-purpose of it all.

As is often the case, a third way is best, which seeks to hold both together. The parable reminds us that we know what the kin-dom is like, but we don’t know the specifics and can’t demand it to fit into doctrinal statements. The promise reminds us that, though we may not know exactly the what, we can, indeed, trust in the Who. As we seek to figure out what it means to walk toward the future of God, I’d love to see us become people who know how to dance well with both parable and promise, trusting that we are indeed moving toward something sure and true.

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