Parables: “They Answer A Question”

(Southern Baptists are studying the parables of Matthew’s Gospel in 2010, and as we’ve done for several years, I’m leaving a few thoughts on the subject and we’ll have some cartoons here…if I can get them done. I was making better progress on the drawings before retiring, and since then I haven’t had the time!)

Consult the various texts and commentaries on parables–there is no lack of them–and you’ll find scholars are not in agreement on what constitutes one. Is a parable a story and always a story, the way they appear so often in Jesus’ teaching? We think of “The Prodigal Son” and “The Good Samaritan,” two of the Lord’s parables that are so well-known they have contributed expressions to the everyday speech of cultures all over the world.

No one doubts that those are parables, but what about “You are the salt of the earth” and “you are the light of the world”? (Matthew 5) Are those parables, too?

What about “whoever hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock”? (Matthew 7:24) That’s not exactly a story, but more of a hypothetical situation. Most collections of parables include it.

At this point, my temptation is to issue something of a disclaimer and say, “Now, not being a Bible scholar, but merely a preacher of the Word, what I plan to do here is….” But it doesn’t work that easily, does it? I am a Bible scholar, and so are you.

The word “scholar” does not mean “expert” but “student.” And aren’t you and I that?

This may give me the right to express my opinion on our Lord’s parables, say, and that’s what I am about to do. It does not, however, automatically make those statements carry equal weight with either the more learned or the more thoughtful. Readers should take everything I say (and all the writings of the “experts”) to the Lord in prayer and not passively accept it as “gospel.”

That said, here are my two statements for today….

One: for our purposes here, the Parables of Matthew will deal only with stories Jesus told, and not with metaphors, similes, and suppositions. That will allow us to limit the numbers to something more manageable.

Two: I’m suggesting as a way of looking at Jesus’ parables that each of them answers a question.

Sometimes the question is evident such as in Luke 15 when critics attacked Jesus for “receiving sinners and eating with them.” He told the parable we call “the prodigal son” to say why was He doing that. (Because they are lost!)

Sometimes the question is unspoken and we have to do a little sleuthing. And that’s the fun part.

Take the seven parables of Matthew 13. And right away, we’re faced with a difficulty….

While most of the parables in this chapter are presented as stories, at least two are not. The mustard seed and the dragnet are statements of how things are and how they will be, but there is no semblance of a story. So, from the first, the Lord’s teachings refuse to be orderly sorted out and categorized. ( That’s not all bad; I like that.)

These 7 parables of Matthew 13 are called by various names, but are usually known as–

1) The parable of the soils.

2) The parable of the tares in the field.

3) The parable of the mustard seed.

4) The parable of the treasure in the field.

5) The parable of the pearl of great price.

6) The parable of the leaven.

7) The parable of the dragnet.

Oddly, the parables are not all equal. Our Lord clearly thought the first one was far more important and gave it much more time and space in His teaching. In the 58 verses of Matthew 13, Jesus gave more than one-fourth of the space to the parable of the soils, telling it and explaining it.

Also oddly, the Lord goes into detail explaining the first two parables, then hardly comments at all on the interpretation of the remaining five.

And while we’re on the subject….

How many times have we heard Bible teachers and professors say, “A parable has only one point. A parable is not an allegory.”

Jesus would be surprised by that, methinks. He gave quite a number of allegories in His teaching, yet He still called them “parables.” The prodigal son and the good Samaritan are clearly allegories (which means that there are numerous connections between aspects of the story and points Jesus wanted to make).

The greatest Teacher of all time taught by His own rules.

The first parable of Matthew 13 is clearly an allegory. This soil means this, this one means that, the sower is this person, and the seed represents that.

How scholars and professors can emphatically state that a parable has only one point (or even one “main” point) is beyond me. We get the impression they read where some learned doctor said that and said it so authoritatively they dare not argue.

I’m arguing.

All right. Here is my primary thesis in understanding and interpreting the parables of our Lord:

“Each parable answers a question.”

Parable one: the Soils

The question this answers is clearly: “Why do people hear the same gospel but respond in different ways?”

Quick answer: because they are different, their hearts are different, they are at various places in their lives, they do not all want the same things. Some people are wonderfully receptive to the Gospel and become outstanding and productive disciples. But others are shallow, distracted by the world, and given to impulsive decisions on which they never follow through.

Parable two: the Tares

“Why are there hypocrites in the church?”

Answer: The enemy put them there. But you are not equipped either to identify them–the carnal and the natural man of I Corinthians 1-3 appear much alike, but one is a stunted believer and the other unsaved–nor to uproot them. “The Lord knows those who are His,” we read in II Timothy 2:19. What separation is to be done, He will do it. The call for a “redeemed” or “pure” church membership is a noble one, but one should never be so naive as to believe he will build a congregation without the counterfeit work of the devil himself intervening.

Parable three: the Mustard Seed

“If the Kingdom of Heaven is so important, why is it often so undramatic, so small, so unimpressive?”

Answer: God loves to use little things. Zechariah 4:10 “Who has despised the day of small things?” We respond, “Our culture does. We like big things, impressive, dramatic, overwhelming.” Sadly, the church has bought into the cult of bigness. But think of the way our Lord shows a preference for small things: a Baby, a manger, a stable, Bethlehem, an unknown Jewish couple, Judea, a star, shepherds, foreign visitors, and such.

Parable four: Treasure in the Field

“So, just how valuable is the Kingdom of Heaven then?”

Answer: It’s worth everything. Do whatever you must to get into the Kingdom and the Kingdom into you.”

Parable five: Pearl of Great Price

“So, what should it cost me to get it?”

Answer: Note how many times in the gospels people “leave all” and get up and follow Jesus. It costs everything and is worth even more than that.

By the way, if you find the 4th and 5th parables so similar they seem to be saying pretty much the same thing, you’re not alone in that. But the Lord clearly meant them to convey different aspects of Kingdom-coming, so we’ve tried to find it.

Parable six: Leaven

“Is it possible to have the Kingdom inside you and keep it a secret?”

His answer: not for long. If it’s inside, it will soon become visible to the world. There are no secret disciples. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, it’s a contradiction in terms. “Either the secrecy will kill the discipleship, or the discipleship will kill the secrecy.”

Parable seven: Dragnet

“What will happen at Judgement?”

Answer: The verbs Jesus uses to answer include gathering, separating, discarding, and weeping.

My favorite thing in Matthew 13, however, is not a parable. It’s verse 52. (As a favorite professor of mine used to say, “The following is free information.” That’s another way of saying, “This is off the subject we’ve been discussing–or at least only remotely related.”)

“Every scribe who is instructed unto the Kingdom of Heaven is like a householder who goes into his treasure and brings forth old things and new.”

Or, if you like a freer statement of that, here is Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase from The Message:

“Every student well-trained in God’s Kingdom is like the owner of a general store who can put his hand on anything you need, old or new, exactly when you need it.”

General store, Dr. Peterson? I prefer to think of a treasure chest in the attic or even a safe deposit box at the bank.

Here’s what happens….

Every time old man Ezra goes into his attic and opens that ancient trunk, he finds all his old treasures. There is the deed to his property. Here is his mama’s wedding rings, a couple of brooches, and her string of pearls. There are some things from his father and a couple of CDs from the bank. But look–there is a hundred dollar bill. That wasn’t there yesterday! Oh well.

The next day, when Ezra goes into the attic to count his treasures, he finds a diamond ring that had not been there before. That sort of thing happens all the time.

Jesus was saying, “You take a scribe. No one knows the Bible better than these men. Now, instruct one of them into the Kingdom of Heaven.”

In other words, get him saved.

“Now, that scribe goes back into the Old Testament, which is his treasure. He finds all the old delights he has known and loved through the years, but every time he does, he sees something new that had eluded him before. He keeps making these wonderful discoveries about the Kingdom.”

That’s what happened to the Apostle Paul after his conversion near Damascus. And doubtless, this is why he spent the next three years with the Lord in or about the Arabian desert as he went back over all the Old Testament texts he had known and began to see them in a new light. That new light was the Lord Jesus Himself. (See Galatians 1:17-18)

Then, when Paul began preaching Jesus (“after some days,” is how Luke puts it in Acts 9:19), he was powerful and persuasive. He had insights into the Jewish scriptures that his audiences found overpowering and even devastating. (Acts 9:22,29) All he lacked, it would appear, was the kind of gentleness the Holy Spirit gives to those ready to receive it. And for that, more time was required, so Paul was slipped out of town and returned home to Tarsus to await God’s timing. That arrived with the revival in Antioch of Syria among the Gentiles. (See Acts 11:25, one of the most important statements in the history of this small planet.)

Good stopping point. More to come.

2 thoughts on “Parables: “They Answer A Question”

  1. I’ve been anxiously awaiting your thoughts on the Parables of Matthew! Thank you for your input. Looking with excitement for more!

  2. Bro. Joe,

    It never ceases to amaze me how God hits us right between the eyes sometimes. I often wondered why there are people in the church who clearly are not there for the right reasons, yet until tonight, I never realized that Jesus told us why. As you said, “the enemy put them there.”

    Thank you for making that parable come alive like I have never seen it before.

    Jay Culotta

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