The parables of Jesus
People with a church background will sometimes raise the issue of Jesus' teaching methods, particularly the parables that seem to make no sense, parables such as the mustard seed. Why did Jesus teach in parables, particularly mysterious one? The answer is self evident if we ourselves understand what Jesus was up to.
Jesus was an exceptional teacher. He held large crowds spellbound for days at a time and drove his teachings deep into the memory of his listeners. The gospels, written some thirty to forty years after Jesus' crucifixion, bear testimony to the vast amount of material remembered by his disciples. One of his techniques to aid memory was his use of the "story". The Bible calls them "parables. In a modern sermon we would call them illustrations - a story, a picture used to drive home a truth.
Types of parables
1. The Kingdom Parables
These parables were presented in a mysterious hidden way to confound the crowds rather than instruct them. A truth was present in the parable, but it was hidden. The only way to decipher the truth was to come to Jesus later and ask for its meaning.
The message of the Kingdom parables was the gospel. Initially Jesus had clearly proclaimed the gospel by saying "the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the gospel", Mk.1:14-15. Outright rejection and political misunderstanding forced Jesus to proclaim the gospel in a mysterious way, a judgmental way. Kingdom parables served to confound the crowds with mysteries and so hide the truth from the blind, but provoke the seeker to seek, Mk.4:10-12, 33. So for the true seeker, the truth was not far away. "Privately to his own disciples he explained everything." Thus the Kingdom parables drew out from the crowds the true seeker after God. In these mysterious messages they found life everlasting.
Kingdom parables usually begin with the phrase, "the Kingdom of heaven/God is like unto..."
2. Teaching parables
Primarily these parables were directed to disciples for their instruction. They range from simple illustrations to drive home a stated truth, to more complex stories with a self-explanatory truth.
To understand the teaching parables it is essential to study the context of the parable. Why did Jesus tell the story? What occurrence prompted him to tell it? Who did he tell it to? Is the parable linked with some point of teaching? The context controls the interpretation of the parable.
The Kingdom parables
The parable of the sower (a parable about Kingdom parables) lets us into the secret truth behind these innocent stories. The Kingdom of God dawns in the proclamation (scattering) of the gospel (seed = gospel = Kingdom parables). People respond to the gospel (Kingdom parables) in different ways. With some people it's "in one ear and out the other". Some respond but fall away when the going gets tough. Others get stifled by the cares of the world. Some though go on to eternal reward.
The message of the Kingdom parables is the gospel:
i] The Kingdom of God is at hand.
The weeds in the field. The harvest is close, the Kingdom of God is at hand. Soon the judgment will be upon us when the true child of God will be separated from the false.
The mustard seed. God's Kingdom, with it's small beginning, is now bursting in upon us and we may rest into its branches, sharing its blessings. cf. Dan.4:12, Ezk.31:6, 17:23.
The Leaven. As leaven quickly leavens the whole lump of dough, so the Kingdom of God is bursting in upon us.
ii] Repent and believe.
The treasure in the field and the pearl of great price. The Kingdom of God has burst in upon us, something of great value. Its worth deserves a response of complete trust. It is worth going out on a limb for.
The drag net. As a fishing net catches all types of fish that then need to be sorted and selected, so too in like manner, not all those who claim standing in the sight of God will enter the Kingdom. Repentance and faith is the only way.
The teaching parables
i] Parables on discipleship
We should work toward putting aside the things of this world, to use our resources in our service to Jesus.
The rich fool, Lk.12:16-20
The unjust steward, Lk.16:1-8. Worldly people are very wise in the way they use earthly things to secure their future here on earth. Not so Christians, whose future is heavenly. Believers stupidly use their resources as though their future lay here on earth.
The ten talents, Matt.25:14-30. We should use our resources for the Kingdom or else we will lose them in eternity.
The tower, going to war, and salt, Luke 14. Be prepared to pay the cost.
The wedding feast, Lk.12:32-38.
The wise steward, Lk.12:42-48.
The ten maidens, Matt.25:1-13.
The wedding, Matt.22:1-14.
The friend at midnight, Lk.11:5-13. How much more will God give you his Spirit when you ask him.
The unjust judge, Lk.18:1-7. How much more will God, the righteous judge, vindicate his children when they ask him.
To be outgoing, welcoming, forgiving to the stranger and the outcast. This has a specific application to the pious Jews who should have welcomed the return of the "sinner" to the fold, but who instead denounced Jesus' association with publicans and sinners. Note that at the center of Jesus' ethic is forgiveness/mercy. As God has forgiven us so we should respond in forgiveness toward others.
The two debtors, Lk.7:41-43.
The unmerciful servant, Matt.18:23-25.
The prodigal son, Lk.15:11-32. Like the elder brother, God's historic people (the Jews) have failed to welcome back the lost brother.
The lost sheep, the lost coin. Lk.15:1-10.
The good Samaritan, Lk.10:25-37. "Go and do likewise". None of us can really be a "good sam", so we are reminded that "none is righteous". We need someone who can be a "good sam" for us and so give us the right to stand before God. Note some of the parables on discipleship have this angle as well. Is there anyone who can claim to forgive their brother seventy times seven?
v] Pride and self-righteousness
A specific sin of the pious pharisaic religious Jews of the day. A sin which can easily be ours. That is, the assumption that God's approval is dependent on the faithfulness of our Christian life, rather than on the faithfulness of Christ's life.
Status seeking, Lk.14:7-14.
The pharisee and the publican, Lk.18:1-14.
The new age has dawned and in a great reversal, sinful selfish Israel has been set aside.
Dives and Lazarus, Lk.16:19-31. God's historic people have become lovers of money and blind to the truth, so they face judgment. "He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away."
The wicked husbandman, Matt.21:33-41.
The two sons, Matt.21:28-32.
The great supper, Lk.14:15-24. The historic people of Israel have rejected Jesus and stand condemned.
The barren fig tree, Lk.13:6-9. The judgment is coming. Delay is but a moment which allows repentance.
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