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Pictures of the Kingdom

An Intergenerational Exploration of the Parables through Visual Art

The parables of the kingdom that Jesus told are word pictures that entreat the hearers to engage the imagination and visualize the story. German pastor Helmut Thielicke preached a series of messages on the parables that he called “God’s Picturebook.” In these stories Jesus would describe easily visualized, everyday scenarios—going fishing, asking a neighbor for bread, lending a hand, sowing seeds in a field, investing some money, hiring an employee, looking for a lost coin—to spark a conversation about eternal and universal truths. Our sermon series, “Pictures of the Kingdom,” keyed in on the visual nature of these parables in a number of ways, and we invited children to use their creative gifts to share kingdom truths with the congregation.

We used visual media in two ways: The church-school children were asked to create a visual work to depict the parable each week, while the adults in the sanctuary would explore an interpretation of a parable through the lens of a specific work of art.

The basic process was this: The children were called up to the front of the sanctuary, at which time I (the pastor) introduced the week’s parable. On some occasions I would paraphrase the story Jesus told. Other times I would simply talk about the main point of the parable (e.g., prayer, forgiveness) and place it in a contemporary setting. Then the children would go to their classroom with a teacher, read the parable, and discuss it while creating a picture of the story. Meanwhile, the rest of the congregation explored the parable through a sermon that interpreted the parable with help from professionally made art based on the text that was displayed on a screen. (The preacher should resist the temptation to turn this into an art history lesson. The parable and its message must be the main focus, with the visual depiction a lens through which to view the story.) Following the message, the children returned to the sanctuary and presented their creation, explaining any aspect of the narrative they felt important to share. The congregation was delighted as the children enthusiastically shared their thoughts on the stories. The six images they created were hung in the sanctuary to create a collage of the parables of the kingdom.

Two artistically gifted teachers were instrumental in making this an intergenerational experience. Evelyn Huizinga arranged for the art supples and led one creative session. Janette Seinen facilitated the creative process on the other five occasions. They found that one of the unexpected blessings of this activity was the time in which the children discussed the story as they were creating the work of art. The process of creation and spiritual exploration proved to be as meaningful as the resulting work of art. (See sidebar.) Our worship committee also helped to develop ideas for this series.

Using Images

The images referenced in this article can be found by doing an internet search using the artist’s name and title of the piece. As with all images, before using them for worship make sure they are in the public domain (as most of these are) or you have received permission from the owner. Permission information can usually be found on the artist’s/owner’s website. Do not copy and paste images from web pages that do not indicate that they belong to the artist/owner of the piece or that the image can be freely used.

First Week
Parables of the Growing Seed: The Kingdom
(Mark 4:26–32)

The Parables

The growing-seed parables launch the series by narrating the foundational truth of God’s kingdom: Like seeds scattered over the earth that grow into large plants, so the Word goes out from God’s heart into the world and will not fail to accomplish its purpose: his just and gracious rule over all the earth.

Picturing the Story

Although Vincent van Gogh never painted an actual mustard tree, he did paint over thirty images featuring a sower. He also painted a striking image of a tree similar to a mustard plant in The Mulberry Tree (1889). (All images can be found by searching Google Images.) It is a riot of brilliant colors—olive green, taupe, cobalt, pale yellow, butter yellow, blue, blue-green, sea green, chartreuse. It appears to be on fire and seems to radiate a living entity. In his many letters to his brother Theo, van Gogh expressed his deep faith in a God who had created the natural realm and who made his presence known through it. The kingdom is present in nature. We know that the artist was emotionally fragile, lived with a mental illness, struggled in his relationships, and was challenged financially his whole adult life (a prolific painter, only one of his paintings was bought commercially in his lifetime). In fact, The Mulberry Tree was created when van Gogh was a patient at a mental asylum. Not in spite of but through his struggles the artist believed he saw the kingdom all around in nature, and in his life he sensed the glory of God. In God’s providence, today thousands of people reap the benefits of van Gogh’s vision through his vibrant kingdom images.

Applicatory Thoughts

These two little stories hold within them a number of lessons about the kingdom. It begins small and grows large, beyond expectation. Who would have imagined that the life of a carpenter from Nazareth who died on a cross as a criminal would eventually bring salvation and transformation to billions of lives, affecting the course of history? The kingdom also grows gradually, from seed to germination, stalk, head, and kernel. We witness the kingdom over the centuries reaching many people groups across the globe. Also fascinating is that the kingdom grows automatically. In Mark 4:28, “all by itself” comes from the Greek automaton, a combination of autos (self) and memaa (to eagerly desire). Jesus never tells his followers to bring in the kingdom. He does entreat us to pray for it to come, to receive it, and to proclaim it when and wherever we see it.

Suggested Songs

“No hay dios tan grande/There’s No God as Great” Spanish traditional, LUYH 275, SWM 244
“The Kingdom of Our God Is Like” Webber, LUYH 118
“O Word of God Incarnate” How, LUYH 757, GtG 459, PsH 279
“Hear the Call of the Kingdom” Getty
“Build Your Kingdom Here” Rend Collective
“How Great Is Our God” Tomlin

Second Week
Parable of the Vineyard Workers: Grace
(Matthew 20:1–16)

The Parable

A landowner hires workers to labor in his vineyard. Some he hires early in the morning, others at noon, and still others late in the day. When the day is finished and the workers gather to pick up their pay, each worker receives exactly the same amount. Understandably, this upsets those who have worked for the full twelve hours. When they complain to the landowner of this ostensible injustice, he answers them in a way that reveals a key characteristic of the kingdom of God.

Picturing the Story

Rembrandt van Rijn’s Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard (1637) captures the moment the disgruntled employees are bringing their complaint. The benevolent owner is seated at the center of the painting, highlighted by rays of light streaming in from the window. His hands help tell the essence of the story: One is over his heart, the other open and giving, indicating the payment he has generously distributed to all employees. The workplace is filled with soft, warm, glowing light that reveals a place of blessing and prosperity for all who are part of it. This is the atmosphere of the kingdom, grounded in the owner who sets the tone for all the rest. From his heart emanates a prevailing spirit of benevolent grace. Rembrandt may have implied some humor in the story. Look closely at the facial expression of the owner. He seems a little surprised at the complaint being brought forward, as if to say, “I don’t understand your problem. I’m just being generous! Who would have a problem with that?” He seems to take delight, even glee, in being extravagant.

Applicatory Thoughts

The unexpected feature of this story is that all workers receive the same remuneration no matter their hours of effort. This clearly is not how one would run a successful business in the real world. But the point of the parable is just that: The kingdom of God is not like anything in the real world of business, ledgers, payrolls, time clocks, or pay commensurate with work rendered. Things are completely different in the kingdom. In Matthew this parable is bracketed by Jesus saying, “The last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 19:30; 20:16). This tells us, among other things, that the kingdom of God operates on truths foreign to human logic and the workaday world. In a phrase, we live in a place of grace. Our entrance into and citizenship in the kingdom has nothing at all to do with our efforts, work, or intentions; rather, it is based solely on the perfect person and work of Jesus and originates in the loving and benevolent heart of the Father, the owner and master of the kingdom.

Suggested Songs

“By Grace We Have Been Saved” Edwards and Whitfield, LUYH 675
“What Grace Is This” Gauger, LUYH 163
“My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less” Mote, LUYH 772, GtG 353, PH 379
“Cornerstone” Hillsong
“Covenant of Grace” Wallace

Third Week
Parable of the Friend at Midnight: Prayer
(Luke 11:5–13)

The Parable

The arrival of a guest late at night finds a host without food to offer his guest. This prompts the host to go to his next-door neighbor and ask for bread. Although the neighbor appears reluctant due to the late hour, he nonetheless gives his supplicant a few loaves. But is the neighbor as reluctant as we often assume? If so, what does this say about God when it comes to our petitions?

Picturing the Story

Eugene Burnand’s drawing of this parable, The Importunate Neighbour (1908), follows the common understanding of this story: that the sleeping neighbor is reluctant, even resistant, to help his late-night visitor. The windows are barred, the door is closed, and a single vine represents the scarcity of the homeowner’s benevolence. Consequently, the individual making the request is a timid, bowed figure who barely manages to knock on the door. In contrast, Jan Luiken’s portrayal, Parable of the Friend at Midnight (published in Bowyer’s Bible, 1795) depicts a neighbor who is eager to share. The door is open; illuminated by a candle, friend and neighbor are speaking face to face; not one but three loaves of bread are being offered; and a lush, bountiful tree adorns the doorframe. The artist evidently believed the parable depicted a friendly and generous God who is eager to answer the prayers of his children.

Applicatory Thoughts

In the Middle Eastern culture of the first century, to resist a request for food to help feed and entertain a guest is offensive. As Jesus tells the story, he says, “Suppose the one inside says, ‘Don’t bother me.’” The word “suppose” is key. Jesus is asking his audience to imagine a scenario they knew was unthinkable. Of course the friend would get up and give his neighbor bread—lots of it (compare with Luke 11:8, “as much as you need”). If this is so, how much more is your heavenly Father eager to answer your needs? In fact, he gives far beyond our requests. Luke tells us that God gives the Holy Spirit to all who look to him. He gives us the Comforter, the Counselor—he gives us himself. We ask for daily bread, and he gives us the bread of life. So never hesitate! Pray with persistence! Knock, and the door will be opened.

Suggested Songs

“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” Scriven, LUYH 897/898, GtG 465, PsH 579
“God Is So Good” Traditional, LUHY 777, GtG 658, SWM 21
“Come, Holy Ghost” Maurus/Benedict, LUYH 232
“Bread of the World” Wells

Fourth Week
Parable of the Unmerciful Servant: Forgiveness
(Matthew 18:21–35)

The Parable

A servant owes a king an incalculable amount of money but unexpectedly finds himself forgiven the complete amount thanks to the benevolence of the king. Also unexpectedly, the same servant soon demands a debtor repay him a paltry sum and shows no mercy when asked for more time to pay the debt. Once word came to the king that this servant had clearly missed the implications of being forgiven, the king summons the servant and holds him to account until the last penny could be paid.

Picturing the Story

Jan Sander van Hemessen depicts the parable in detailed, realistic style in Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (1556). The clutter of ledger books, writing instruments, records, coins, and money bags convey an interest in keeping a record of wrongs, underscoring the major transgression of the first servant. In the background an individual is being cast into a dungeon and the prominent finger of the king allows the viewer no mistake in perceiving that this parable is about the consequences of not forgiving. One of Gerard Dou’s depictions of forgiveness is more focused on the power of forgiveness than the consequences of living with an unforgiving spirit. Old Woman Reading (1631) pictures an elderly figure dressed in a cape of rich red, a color that in traditional iconography represents the blood of Christ and forgiveness. Her hand is exquisitely defined as it touches the text. She has absorbed the Word in a tangible way, received its message of forgiveness by the atoning blood of Jesus, and rests in full redemption, as suggested by the golden headdress that may allude to the helmet of salvation.

Applicatory Thoughts

The point this parable makes is hard to miss: Having been forgiven such an incalculable debt of our sins by a forgiving God (2 Corinthians 5:19), we in turn are called to exemplify the same spirit of forgiveness towards others (Ephesians 4:32). The challenge comes in putting it into practice. There is truth in the proverb “to err is human, to forgive divine.” The ability to genuinely forgive someone who has offended or hurt us requires supernatural strength. It is a divine act that manifests the reality that we have indeed been forgiven by God through Jesus. Authentic Christian community is possible only when we are able to forgive; without it we find ourselves in isolated, private prisons of begrudging resentment, anger, and guilt. To forgive as we have been forgiven opens the way to flourishing communion. Notice the communal context in which the Apostles’ Creed places the doctrine of forgiveness: “I believe in . . . the holy catholic church, the communion of the saints, [and] the forgiveness of sins.”

Suggested Songs

“Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive” Herklots, LUYH 638, GtG 444, PsH 266
“How Blest Are They Whose Trespass” Psalter 1912, LUYH 669, PsH 32, PFAS 32A
“Oh, qué bueno es Jesús/Oh, How Good Is Christ the Lord” Puerto Rican, LUYH 192
“A Debtor to Mercy” Kauflin
“Broken Vessels (Amazing Grace)” Hillsong

Fifth Week
Parable of the Talents: Stewardship
(Matthew 25:14–30)

The Parable

A landowner plans to be away from his estate and entrusts three of his servants with varying amounts of money. On his return he calls each into his office and asks how they fared with the responsibility. The first two report good returns for their efforts of investment and in turn are welcomed to share in the master’s happiness and given more responsibility. The final servant did not invest and in turn is reprimanded for his laziness and permanently cast out of the master’s presence.

Picturing the Story

The late-medieval Italian artist Giotto di Bondone has illustrated the call to serve the master, Jesus, in a painted portrayal of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata (c. 1295–1300). In this case, the seriousness of the call to invest one’s life in Christ is evidenced by stigmata, the wound marks of Jesus on the body of the saint. As the apostle Paul remarked that he bore in his body the marks of Christ (Galatians 6:17), so Giotto interpreted the call of the believer to involve a radical call to suffer with and for our Lord. Giotto’s vision of discipleship was somewhat revolutionary and indeed was a factor in the nascent Italian Renaissance. In contrast to Byzantine icons depicting Jesus as the sovereign ruler of the universe (Pantocrator), striking reverential fear and some emotional distance in the believer, Giotto’s portrayal of Christ and his followers conveys a more intimate and personal connection. We invest in the kingdom because we love the Master with intimate affection, and we can’t wait for his return!

Applicatory Thoughts

The three eschatological parables recorded in Matthew 25 leave us with little doubt that when Jesus returns he will be asking us what we have been doing with ourselves while he has been away. His question includes stewardship of the material possessions we have been entrusted with. Jesus spoke of money on a regular basis. He spoke of matters of the heart, and apparently felt that mammon—material things—was close to most people’s hearts. But Giotto reminds us that this parable about the second coming ultimately keys in on our relationship with the Master. While the third servant felt distance from him and thus did not invest (compare with Matthew 25:24–25), so the first two knew the master closely and were eager to serve and please him. Is it evident not only in the way we manage our money, but in all aspects of our lives—our words, actions, decisions, relationships, lifestyles—that we have been marked by the personal presence of Jesus?

Suggested Songs

“Take My Life and Let It Be” Havergal, LUYH 863, PsH 288, PH 391
“God Whose Giving Knows No Ending” Edwards, LUYH 876, GtG 716, WR 572
“We Give Thee but Thine Own” How, LUYH 877, GtG 708
“Establish The Work Of Our Hands” Keyes, McCracken, and Wardell

Art Activity with Children

Each Sunday we met with a group of children from pre-kindergarten through grade six. I set up two tables: a low one for smaller children and a regular-height table for taller children. We had a large variety of art supplies available for our creations: paper, fabric, glue guns, tape, felt pens, crayons, plastic leaves, glitter, scissors, and other odds and ends.

After going over the parable, I asked a few questions to make sure the children understood the basic point. I reminded the children that they were real artists with a job to do together. We were to come up with a plan to convey the parable on the canvas, with each child contributing. I encouraged them to share their ideas and not depend on me to tell them how or what to create. They had good ideas and were very confident with the idea of being artists.

The parable of the talents was a wonderful time for them to share what they were good at and to think of ways to please God by sharing those talents. How they played sports was important. Sharing clothes and toys with others was important. Together they concluded that everything—possessions, talents, skills, and abilities—were God-given and needed to be shared, not hidden away. The heading on the canvas read, “Use your unique talents to please God!!”

The parable of the vineyard workers has always been a bit troubling for me. I’ve worked twenty years for the Christian Labour Association of Canada, a labor union that works toward Canadian workers receiving fair wages. Why should part-time workers receive the same wage as the full time worker? The children did not share my concern but came to a lovely conclusion: “We all work hard and we all get different stuff. That’s okay. But when we get to heaven, everything is fair, so it doesn’t matter if they all got paid the same! Yes, in heaven everything is fair!” It is a lesson I will remember for a long time.

I loved listening to the children brainstorm ideas and suggest things they could add. “Can I draw the rich man?” “Can we make this canvas into a cartoon and each do one scene?” “I know how to use a glue gun and can get the background on nice and straight.” “Can I make a clock tower so everyone knows the friend came at midnight?” The children were serious about what they created and proudly carried the canvases back to show the congregation. The process of listening to the story, creating a picture, then explaining their creation was good not just for the children but for me and for the congregation as well. Children can be good leaders! When they stood in the sanctuary to explain their pictures it brought insight and delight to people of all ages. The children so freely gave their ideas and blessed others with their simple but profound understanding of God in their lives.
—Janette Seinen

Sixth Week
Parable of the Good Samaritan: Neighboring
(Luke 10:25–37)

The Parable

A traveler makes his way from Jerusalem to Jericho and is beaten up, stripped, robbed and left half-dead. In time three travelers come upon him. The first two, a priest and a Levite, pass him by for reasons not given. The third pilgrim, a Samaritan, upon seeing the assaulted man is moved with compassion and stops to help. He dresses the victim’s wounds, carries him on his donkey to an inn, and provides care until he recovers.

Picturing the Story

Most illustrations of this story in art history depict the moment when the Samaritan is on his knees helping the unfortunate traveler. Rembrandt’s etching The Good Samaritan (1633) departs from this tradition. He pictures the moment when the Samaritan is negotiating with the innkeeper for the care of his beneficiary. The artist may be hinting that caring for our neighbor may involve more than a one-time helping hand prompted by a momentary stab of pity. The good neighbor is in it for the long haul, committed to see his newfound friend back on his feet. It’s difficult not to notice the dog defecating in the forefront of the frame. What could Rembrandt possibly have been thinking? Impossible to say for certain. However, one could speculate that the artist was prompting the viewer to reflect on the messiness that can be involved in helping those in need.

Applicatory Thoughts

The question that prompts Jesus to tell this tale—perhaps the most well-known story ever told—was the question “Who is my neighbor?” In a day of globalization, the clash of cultures, building walls, religious and ideological tensions, and online bullying, this question indeed seems as pressing and pertinent as ever. While implicitly answering the original question in the parable (any human being in need is my neighbor), Jesus additionally challenges the lawyer who asked the question (and all who hear the story) with the call to be a neighbor. As the mongrel in the etching reminds us, doing so can be messy; it may and probably will entail getting our hands dirty. We may find ourselves answering a desperate phone call at 2 a.m., giving up “me time” to visit a lonely person, anguishing at the bedside of a cancer patient, helping a friend survive substance abuse, kneeling to wash dirty feet, or trying to pray with someone who has just suffered the untimely death of a spouse. When we have these encounters we experience the kingdom of God. Even more, we encounter the King (see Matthew 25:44–45).

Suggested Songs

“They’ll Know We Are Christians” Scholtes, LUYH 256, WR 595
“Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us with Your Love” Colvin, LUYH 299, GtG 203, PsH 601
“Take Us as We Are, O God” Daw Jr., LUYH 862, GtG 312, SNC 125
“You Are Lord” Kauflin