The Parables of Jesus: What and Why

Scriptures: 1 Corinthians 2:6-16; Matthew 13:10-16

Today we begin a sermon series on the parables of Jesus. We’re not actually covering a parable today, but we are going to cover hopefully some background that will show you why he spoke in parables and the importance of parables.

When Jesus Christ came to earth, he did not simply arrive on a Thursday, die on a Friday, and rise on a Sunday. Rather, he lived for over thirty years as a full-fledged member of the human race. His earthly ministry is significant for a number of reasons, especially for his prolific teaching about the kingdom of God. In fact, many people who reject the Christian faith still have great respect for Jesus as a wise, virtuous, and gifted teacher.

One of the great theologians, Albert Barnes, who wrote a number of commentaries that I frequently use, said:

Our Saviour’s parables are distinguished above all others for clearness, purity, chasteness, intelligibility, importance of instruction, and simplicity. They are taken mostly from the affairs of common life, and intelligible, therefore, to all men. They contain much of himself: his doctrine, life, design in coming, and claims; and are therefore of importance to all men; and they are told in a style of native simplicity intelligible to the child, yet instructive to men of every rank and age. In his parables, as in all his instructions, he excelled all men in the purity, importance, and sublimity of his doctrine. –

Frequently people say that a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly truth, or a heavenly nugget in the center. Charles Spurgeon, a very well-known teacher and preacher in a large church in London, said:

He stood in the midst of Scribes and Pharisees, publicans and sinners, and preached the glad tidings…His preaching was full of parables, plain to those who had understanding, but often dark and mysterious even to his own followers, for it was a judgment from the Lord upon that evil generation that seeing they should not see and hearing they should not perceive.

Jesus Christ was the greatest teacher who ever lived, and he was the very incarnation of truth. It’s not something that I can hope to match in any way, shape, or form, but I hope I can be clear as we go forward, because the content of Jesus’ teaching is impeccable and of divine origin.

Jesus was a master pedagogue with an extraordinary style of teaching. Jesus’ contemporaries recognized his unique teaching abilities. In John 7 it says, “No one ever spoke like this man!” In Matthew 7 it says “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.”

Even as a child, in Luke, when his parents found him in the temple and they said, “Where have you been?” and he said, “Did you not know I would be about my Father’s business?”, it also makes mention of the fact that the people in the temple were shocked at the breadth of his knowledge and the authority with which he spoke. At twelve years old.

Jesus taught with a unique authority, and he used parables in a unique way, He was not the only one to use parables. Parables played a role in the traditions and teachings of the rabbis in Jesus’ day. Parables were a common vehicle for transferring a message.

That actually predates even the rabbis. There are similar kinds of things – although they’re not the same – in fables such as Aesop’s which have a moral to them, and a lot of the stories that are out there, the fairy tales and things like that.

(Fairy tales, I like to point out, are not what Disney puts out. If you ever read the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, they are grim reading. Because they served to teach a lesson, not so much to entertain.)

The parables were used to explain or illustrate the meaning of the Mosaic Law in the Old Testament, for instance. Jesus did not simply use parables to illustrate previous revelation, but he used them to give new revelation as well.

There are parables in the Old Testament, even. They are rare but they are significant. One of the best-known ones is after David’s sin with Bathsheba, the prophet Nathan confronted the king with a parable. Perhaps you remember, about the rich man and the poor man. The rich man had all these sheep and the poor man only had one. If you don’t remember it, go look it up. Or watch Veggie Tales “King George and the Ducky.”

David responded to the parable with outrage, not realizing that he himself was the perpetrator of the crime in the parable. Nathan’s parable was an effective teaching tool in a moment of crisis. It’s believed that after that is when David wrote Psalm 51.

So they were in use for a long time. Parables can clarify the meaning of what is being said, like preachers using illustrations or stories to enhance the listener’s ability to understand what is being said. As an aside, do you know how hard it is to find an illustration about illustrations? You’re going to get a lot of straight talk here, without any stories and things like that, because … it’s just not easy.

Parables can conceal the meaning of what is being said, though, as well. So they can both illustrate and make clear, or conceal, depending on the context and whether you can relate to it.

Jesus concluded the parable of the sower with “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Jesus beckons his listeners not just to hear the sounds that are being made, but to understand and embrace his teaching.

His parables penetrate the hearts and minds of some people but not others. To those who have ears to hear, parables bring a deeper understanding of the things of God, in particular, the kingdom of God. A large number of his parables were about that kingdom.

To those who do not have ears to hear, parables are instruments of concealing and obscuring the mystery of the kingdom of God. After all, if they don’t have ears to hear, they just hear this little story, and they don’t see the deeper meaning beneath it. They just see the surface.

But it’s kind of curious, why would he have to use parables in this way? Why not just tell them? Actually he did. He said, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” That was the first message he gave, when he began preaching after being baptized by John the Baptizer and coming back from the desert.

So he did have times when he spoke straight to them. He had times when he called this generation evil and desperate. He spoke scathingly of the Pharisees, who were the populists and prided themselves on their meticulous following of the law, but they had lost the spirit in fulfilling the letter. So there were times when he was very clear in what he was saying.

But parables were necessary at some times, to ease the way for either reaction. By nature, fallen human beings have no desire to hear or understand God’s words. When Adam and Eve fell, in the Garden of Eden, the primary reason is they wanted to be God. They didn’t want to follow what God said and what God decreed.

Even today, we don’t like to hear God’s words, because the authority behind them would mean that we’re accountable to somebody else other than ourselves. I think that is one of the great cultural missteps we have made in our prizing of individualism, which I also prize, and being self-sufficient. We don’t want to hear that we are responsible to anybody else. And we certainly don’t want to hear God’s words. Paul said we’re enemies of God, prior to knowing Jesus.

God’s words, then, bring salvation for those who believe and judgment for those who do not. In Isaiah 6, that’s one of the best stories I like. It has a vision of God. That’s where his robe is filling the whole temple, and you have all the angels around singing “Holy, holy, holy.” He says, “Who can I send?” and Isaiah says, “Send me.”

But then he doesn’t get sent to give the message you would think to the people. God commissions Isaiah to shut the people’s eyes, stop up their ears, and harden their hearts, and He promises that though most will be given over to their sinful desires and will be judged, God will preserve a remnant.

Why? I don’t know – if I were being chosen to be a prophet of God, I’m not sure that I would really want to know that that would be what I was doing. But we have to remember that we condemn ourselves. It wasn’t Isaiah condemning them. It wasn’t even God condemning them. It says in John 3 that we loved the darkness more than the light.

People condemned themselves by not accepting Christ as Savior. People condemn themselves by not accepting God’s law. We don’t need to be condemned by God. We do it ourselves. And what He does give us is an opportunity for redemption, for salvation, by showing us His mercy, because of His great love.

Christ’s coming is good news for some, therefore, and bad news for others. His first call was to repentance, as I noted earlier. Even in Matthew 10, he said that he came not to bring peace, but a sword, to set mother against daughter, father against son, brother against brother.

I speak of that sometimes when I note that he said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” I believe that I have spoken from this pulpit and I said that the peace of God is not the way we tend to understand peace. Peace does not mean a lack of conflict. Peace does not mean everything is hunky-dory, A-OK, and rose-colored glasses.

When Jesus speaks of “Blessed are the peacemakers” and the peace of God, he is talking about the assurance that God is in control, that we are in God’s hands, and that the future is decided by Someone who is so much greater than we are, and that we have eternity with Him. Knowing that, we have peace, even in the midst of conflict.

Jesus causes some to rise and others to fall. Christ is both the cornerstone of the church, and a stumbling stone for unbelievers, as it notes in several places in Scriptures. Jesus is the seat of salvation for those who love Him, and He is the grounds of condemnation for those who oppose Him.

We do a great job, mind you, of condemning ourselves. John 3 says that men love the dark more than the light. He said that Christ came to save and give eternal life to all who believe in him, but it also notes in the next verse that most people did not, and they stand condemned by their choice. We are of God and guaranteed His promises solely because of the mercy of God shown us in Jesus Christ. Without him, every one of us stands condemned.

Jesus’ use of parables, as we will see, reflects his two-fold mission of salvation and of judgment. There are elements of both in every one of them.

As we go through this series on some of the parables of Jesus (we couldn’t possible cover all of them), part of the challenge will be to “have ears to hear.” We need to forgo assumptions, and perhaps even traditional interpretations. Not that we maybe won’t end up there; but God’s word is good through all generations, and all times, and we may find ourselves adapting our understanding as we move through culturally limiting analogies.

One easy example of this will be next week with the parable of the sower. Here, we are primarily a farming community here, so the parable of the farmer is something most will understand, even if technology has changed how we do certain things.

Someone from the big city, someone who has never been out in the countryside, though, might find it more difficult to understand. Someone who has never seen a bare field that has been seeded and then seen things grow up. They haven’t seen how the sandy soil is different and how you have to grow crops differently. They haven’t seen the weeds that sometimes grow in with the crops. So they might not understand that picture of the sower. But we do.

Notice though, that it is our understanding that changes – not the Word of God. We always want to be certain we are not changing it to suit our own desires an agendas. As we grow in our understanding, deepen in our relationship with God, and mature in our faith, our “ears hear better” what God is saying, and our reflection of Christ improves. When that happens, then as Christ said, the kingdom of God is truly at hand.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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