The focus on the poor that we find in the Gospels has generated considerable discussion and molded the missions policies of churches. Sadly, this has sometimes been to the detriment of the gospel. As Western Christians feel the heat of advancing secularism and the true church seems to be a smaller and smaller group of people, we need to take seriously something else—“smallness” in the life of Jesus. Doing so will reassure us that we don’t have to be big and influential to follow in Jesus’ way.
It’s hard not to see that much of the vivid teaching of the Lord Jesus relates to small and marginal groups. The text that jumps to mind and has sometimes been (sometimes incorrectly) called upon to justify smallness and “theologies of the little flock” is Luke 12.32: “Fear not little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The context of this exhortation is anxiety in face of temporal pressures and the attraction of the things “the nations of the world seek after” to alleviate such cares. What is in view is not primarily the smallness of the flock but the wonder of the kingdom the Father gives to a group of people that is insignificant in worldly terms. One commentator has pointed this out well by saying: “Although the faithful, especially as compared with the great nations of the world are few in number, and as regards their own power, are like a small flock of defenseless sheep, they should nevertheless have no fear, for their heavenly Father, because it is his good pleasure, has given the kingdom to those who seek it. In principle they already possess it and share in its blessing, but at the end of the age, they will receive its fullness.”1
In continuity with the Old Testament, the flock is the people belonging to God: there is one flock and one Shepherd-Ruler who appoints undershepherds to “feed his lambs” (John 10:16; 21:15). The flock is God’s eschatological people, purchased with the life of the Shepherd of the sheep, united in Him to receive the promise of the kingdom. It may be small, but belonging to God, it has a great future. So, it is not size that counts, but God’s good pleasure and His promise, which in covenantal terms is the reward given to faithfulness. Reflection on these perspectives is a timely antidote to the modern obsession with size and the erroneous idea that bigger is always better.
Likewise, it is striking how many of the parables reflect on situations that deal with small numbers of people, care for individuals, growth, and final fulfillment. In a sense, and quite naturally so, they were tailor-made for a small group that was destined to grow spiritually in a nearly imperceptible way. Think of the mustard seed, the wheat and the tares, the leaven, the net and the fishes, the lost sheep, the lost coin, the workers of the final hour and the sower’s seed. Other parables place individuals from certain despised groups in a good light, such as the publican and the Pharisee, the good Samaritan, the rich man and Lazarus, the unjust judge, etc.
The secret of the kingdom is its amazing finale that is given to situations that seem to be going nowhere. That inauspicious origins are no reason for despair was a guiding principle directing the life of the Master, who must have lived every day with discouragement and “the contradiction of sinners.” The grain of wheat falling in the ground, dying, but bearing much fruit is emblematic (John 12.24).
However, there is one awkward question that cannot be avoided. If the mission of the sower is to sow the Word, was not three quarters of it unproductive? Wouldn’t this justify pessimism? But that’s hardly the focus of the story. If it is true that the preaching of the gospel may often be apparently fruitless (Matt. 7:13ff; 22:14) the parable of the sower points to the wonderful productive force of the seed. God comes into the world through Jesus’ word like the seed in the ground. In spite of Satan’s opposition, the hardness of hearts, and the cares of the world, the word of Christ will grow like a crop and bear fruit.
Far from being discouraging, the Lord’s teaching encouragingly emphasizes the contrast between apparent insignificance in worldly terms and the miraculous outcome that epitomizes God’s way with the world. Against the background of the Old Testament, the remnant plays a part in the fulfillment of God’s promises as it anticipates the fullness of salvation. The accent is on God’s grace and judgment in the fulfillment of the divine purpose. This provides the backdrop to the gathering of the church, which “shames the wise and the strong” and “brings to nothing the things that are” because the source of its life is in Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 1:26–31).
The conclusion to Jesus’ teaching on the sower and the purpose of parables in Luke’s gospel is the illustration of the lamp on the stand and Jesus’ exhortation to “take care how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away” (Luke 8:16–18). Here the world’s haves and have-nots are reversed, because the having is related to the Word in the heart, the secret of the seed that bears fruit. This is a reminder of the importance of not only hearing the Word but also doing it.
What constitutes the vitality of a group, and particularly the Christian one, is the nature of its behavior. It is a source of influence, independent of social status, money, or dynamic leadership. In fact, the only real impact a group that is comparatively small within its context may have tends to lie in its behavior. This is a sobering thought for the church in the West today and its tendency to compromise the gospel with the powers that be.
Christian identity is defined in terms of origin, and the Christian community expresses this reality spiritually in newness of life. The key to the influence of Christian witness in society lies not in adapting to the world’s progress or making its teaching acceptable to current trends and even less to political correctness, but in its new lifestyle as a hospitable minority.
- Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on Luke (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1951), 359. ↩︎