'I Will Open My Mouth in Parables'

Because we use them so freely and see them about us so frequently, we often fail to appreciate how many of Jesus' words and stories populate our speech and cultural references. The Sermon on the Mount contains scores of them: "Blessed are the peacemakers"; "inherit the earth"; "salt of the earth"; "city on a hill"; "let your light so shine"; "one jot or one tittle"—and these are only a few of the most recognizable ones in the first eighteen verses! Hundreds of others are liberally sprinkled throughout the gospels.

Besides being religiously significant, Jesus' parables are also part of our literary and cultural heritage. The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) has captured the imaginations of many down through the centuries to the point that "good Samaritan" is a common reference for anyone who voluntarily aids a person in need. In a similar way, "a pearl of great price" (Matthew 13:45-46) has become a shorthand allusion to a thing or aspiration a person is willing to give everything he has to achieve. Similar common expressions have come from the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and the Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-32), among others.

But are Jesus' parables just interesting stories with a moral at the end, like Aesop's Fables? Many people—lifelong Christians all—believe that they are and give them no further thought. This, however, is a mistake because the parables of Jesus Christ are one of His primary teaching vehicles for His disciples, containing deep truths embedded in concisely drawn stories of everyday life.

What is a parable? A common dictionary definition styles them as "a short fictitious story that illustrates a moral or religious truth." While this meaning is accurate, it falls far short of all that a biblical parable encompasses. Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words contains a comprehensive explanation of the Greek word, parabole:

[Literally] denotes a placing beside. . . . It signifies a placing of one thing beside another with a view to comparison. . . . It is generally used of a somewhat lengthy utterance or narrative drawn from nature or human circumstances, the object of which is to set forth a spiritual lesson. It is the lesson that is of value; the hearer must catch the analogy if he is to be instructed. . . . Such a narrative or saying, dealing with earthly things with a spiritual meaning, is distinct from a fable, which attributes to things what does not belong to them in nature. . . . (p. 840)

A parable, then, is a typical story designed to illicit a comparison between it and real life, from which derives—in the case of Christ's parables—an eternal lesson or principle. In addition, beyond the overall lesson, a well-constructed parable is comprised of symbols and types that correspond to consistent realities—for example, in Christ's parables, a field is a symbol for the world (Matthew 13:38). Knowing this interpretation—which is sure, given that it comes from Jesus Himself—we can use it to help us understand other parables that also employ the image of a field, as the Parable of the Hidden Treasure does (verse 44).

Many people make the mistake of thinking that parables are stories that Jesus used to make a spiritual teaching interesting and understandable. As interesting as Jesus may have made them, He did not design His parables to clarify but to obscure meaning! This comes from His own lips, in response to His disciples' question, "Why do You speak to them in parables?": "Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. . . . Therefore 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). Parables, then, hide the deep truths of God's Kingdom from those who have not been given the keys to unlock them.

This means that Jesus' parables are multifaceted. Most people can see the obvious meaning—the moral of the story—without much difficulty and find it pleasing and satisfying. However, without divine revelation, they miss the deeper meaning that applies only to God's elect. Thus, as Jesus said, ". . . seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand." Moreover, some parables, especially the longer ones like the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46), deliver not just one "moral" but two or even several!

Another factor that we must acknowledge is that Jesus' parables are focused on the Kingdom of God. Perhaps Matthew informs us most noticeably of this, as many of the parables in his gospel begin with the formulaic opening, "The kingdom of heaven is like. . . ." This beginning tells the reader or listener that the story He is about to tell contains instruction that in some way expands our knowledge or understanding of God's Kingdom.

The teaching is quite diverse. Sometimes the instruction centers on a Christian's attitude or character. Sometimes it illustrates God's work in the world or in the church. Sometimes it prophesies of a future event, like Christ's judgment or His return, providing us details so that we can conform to God's expectations of us. At other times, it warns us of Satan's or some other enemy's designs against us, the church, or God's plan. Frequently, several of these points appear in the same parable. Clearly, Christ's parables are much more than nice stories!

A final characteristic of parables, as just mentioned, is that they are frequently prophetic. Though many may scoff at such an assertion, this must be the case because the Kingdom of God itself has both present and future aspects. While Colossians 1:13 declares that the Father "has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love," it is also true that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (I Corinthians 15:50). The Bible obviously teaches that the fullness of the Kingdom of God awaits the return of Christ in power and glory, and our part in it now is strictly spiritual in nature. For this reason, Christ's parables teach us how to live as children of God amidst the evil of this world and how to prepare for the world to come.

The parables of Jesus are not as simple as they appear on the surface. They are a gold vein of spiritual truth and teaching at all levels of understanding. With a little thought and the help of God's Spirit, we can mine from them a lifetime of instruction.

Next:  The Prophet  (11/17)

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