Summary: First in a series of messages that examine Jesus' parables from the perspective of a minor or unsympathetic character.
Several years ago I came across a book by J. Ellsworth Kalas titled Parables from the Back Side. The author’s introduction to the book begins with these words:
Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt, as the saying puts it, but it often breeds something potentially worse, the glazed eye. We quote favorite sayings and truisms so easily that we don’t really hear them…The parables of Jesus are in danger of such treatment. We’ve read them so often, have heard them taught or preached of have so expounded them ourselves, that their majestic brilliance hardly fazes us.
So over the next nine weeks, I’m going to do my very best to help us take a fresh look at some of these very familiar parables. Like Kalas did in his book, we’re going to examine these great stories told by Jesus through the eyes of some of the minor or unsympathetic characters. By doing that I’m confident that without in any way taking away from the main point of the parables, we can enhance our understanding and deepen our ability to apply Jesus’ teaching in our everyday lives.
In order to do that effectively, we need to take a few minutes this morning to develop our understanding of the nature and purpose of the parables taught by Jesus.
What is a parable?
Our English word “parable” is actually a transliteration of the underlying Greek word:
para (“against/beside”) + ballo (“to throw”)
So a parable is a teaching aid that is cast or thrown against or beside the truth that is being taught. In a parable, the story is merely the means to help reinforce the truth being taught. Some have defined a parable as “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning” which is true, but that definition doesn’t really capture the fullness of what we find in the parables.
It is important to note that parables are different than either proverbs or allegories, two other literary forms that are also found in the Bible:
• Unlike proverbs, which are merely pithy sayings, parables always have a narrative that illustrates the truth being taught.
• Unlike allegories, which often use mythical or supernatural events to illustrate a point, parables use realistic events in the narrative. These are always events that either did actually occur or which could occur in everyday life.
We’re going to use the “Connections” time after the worship gathering to explore those differences in more detail.
Interestingly, the parables of Jesus are all found in Matthew, Mark and Luke. There are no parables in John’s gospel account.
Why did Jesus use parables?
Go ahead and turn in your Bibles to Matthew 13. In just a moment we’ll read the actual parable we’ll be studying this morning from that chapter. But since this is the first recorded parable in Matthew’s gospel, it apparently caught the disciples off guard a bit. So after Jesus told that parable, the disciples asked Him a question:
Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”
(Matthew 13:10, ESV)
In the next few verses, Jesus answers their question:
And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.
(Matthew 13:11-13, ESV)
In His answer, Jesus reveals 5 reasons for speaking in parables:
1. To reveal divine truth to the godly
“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven…
2. To conceal divine truth from the ungodly
…but to them it has not been given.
In verses 14 and 15, Jesus quotes from Isaiah 6:9-10 in order to describe the spiritual condition of the ungodly who have become so hardened that they are no longer able to see and hear spiritual truth. It’s interesting that all four gospel writers quote that particular passage and it is also quoted in the book of Acts.
3. To separate “truth-seekers” from “curiosity-seekers”
Later in the same chapter, we see the two responses of those who heard the parables Jesus told that day:
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.”
(Matthew 13:36, ESV)
The disciples, who were seeking truth, pursued the meaning of the parables. But the crowds, who were just curious but who really didn’t care about the truth, went away.