The Art of the Parable
The parable did not originate with Jesus; it is, however,
closely associated with his teaching. There are a number of reasons for this:
Perhaps most obvious is this: they're easily to remember. The
human brain is not like a file system — more like an attic, rather cluttered.
The parable engages your own experience. When Christ speaks of
the wheat and tares, every gardener knows what he's talking about.
Parables are simple; anyone can understand them. Sometimes,
however, people choose not to understand.
Parables promote self examination. The moral of the story is
always rather a little bit sly, and sneaks up on you.
Sometimes the parable is used to say something in public which
will be explained in private. Thus Christ can leave us is teaching without
deliberately offending the Pharisees.
Perhaps most ingenious of all, the parable is open to multiple
interpretations. Sometimes it means this; other times it means that; and
sometimes it means both.
To What Shall I Compare
We may begin with some of the simpler parables. Today's
subject is the parables of the kingdom of God.
Luke 13:20-21 NASB
And again He said, "To what shall I compare the
kingdom of God? (21) "It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three
pecks of flour until it was all leavened."
The reader will please note that leaven, in the Old
Testament, is often a symbol of sin. To avoid confusion, we shall simply state
that it does not so apply here.
This is one of those scary little parables. It seems so
simple yet he can mean one of many things:
Some view this little parable as meaning that the church is the
conscience of society. It's a traditional interpretation. However, I must ask:
do we really function as the conscience of our society? Do we make any effort
to do so?
Perhaps more plausible is this: by the power of the Holy Spirit,
the small of the church grow more numerous — but not in a highly visible way.
This is important if you consider our standard methods of evangelism for our
time. As we shall see later, immediate success does not necessarily mean great
growth in the church.
But there is yet a third interpretation. It also shows that the
small in the church and produce great things. It is a warning therefore to the
Christian that something will be expected from those who were given little.
Seed Grows Secretly
Mark 4:26-29 NASB
And He was saying, "The kingdom of God is like a
man who casts seed upon the soil; (27)
and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the
seed sprouts and grows--how, he himself does not know. (28) "The soil produces
crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the
head. (29) "But
when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest
This parable has been known to puzzle Christians mightily.
The truth of the parable, taken literally, is quite obvious. This is how plants
grow. The key to understanding this parable is the statement that the sower of
the seed does not know how it grows. In the kingdom of God, stuff happens. You
don't know how it works; it just does. The concept of the "divine
appointment" is familiar to most mature Christians. Why does God work
It helps to prevent pride from rising — or at least complacency.
When you are aware that you could not have done it your self, but God must have
been involved — you have a truer picture.
Some of us need a little instruction in this, but it's true. When
you see them like this, you know you are blessed.
Perhaps most important of all is this: the newcomer will see the
hand of God — as long as we don't take credit for it.
Matthew 13:31-32 NASB
He presented another parable to them, saying, "The
kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his
field; (32) and
this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the
garden plants and becomes a tree, so that THE BIRDS OF THE AIR come and NEST IN
This parable presents another fact about the kingdom of God.
Most of us recognize that the church starts small, grows slowly but firmly.
That's the normal growth pattern to a church. But its growth is not entirely
directed at numbers. Bigger is not necessarily better, if you are not
fulfilling the purpose of the church. There are several such purposes; the one
which is pointed out here is that the church is to be a haven. Our medieval
ancestors would have recognized this explicitly; a church was a place in which
a fugitive could take refuge. There is a difference between a church which is a
very popular health club for saints, and one which is a hospital for sinners.
It is well to know which you are.
Mark 4:1-20 NASB
He began to teach again by the sea. And such a very large crowd gathered to Him
that He got into a boat in the sea and sat down; and the whole crowd was by the
sea on the land. (2) And He was teaching them
many things in parables, and was saying to them in His teaching, (3) "Listen to this! Behold, the
sower went out to sow; (4) as he was sowing, some seed fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate it up.
(5) "Other seed fell on the rocky ground where it did not
have much soil; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of soil.
(6) "And after
the sun had risen, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered
away. (7) "Other
among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop.
(8) "Other seeds fell into the good
soil, and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced
thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold." (9)
And He was saying, "He who has ears to hear, let
him hear." (10) As soon as He was
alone, His followers, along with the twelve, began
asking Him about the parables. (11) And He was saying to them, "To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of
God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, (12) so that WHILE SEEING,
THEY MAY SEE AND NOT PERCEIVE, AND WHILE HEARING, THEY MAY HEAR AND NOT
UNDERSTAND, OTHERWISE THEY MIGHT RETURN AND BE FORGIVEN." (13) And He *said to them, "Do
you not understand this parable? How will you understand all the parables?
(14) "The sower
sows the word. (15) "These are the ones who are beside the road where the
word is sown; and when they hear, immediately Satan comes and takes away the
word which has been sown in them. (16)
"In a similar way these are the ones on whom seed
was sown on the rocky places, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with
joy; (17) and
they have no firm root in themselves, but are only temporary; then,
when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they
fall away. (18) "And others are the ones on whom seed was sown among the
thorns; these are the ones who have heard the word, (19) but the worries of the
world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter
in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. (20) "And those are the
ones on whom seed was sown on the good soil; and they hear the word and accept
it and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold."
It is convenient to analyze this parable in terms of the
three less than fruitful soils on which the seed fell.
CS Lewis had his devil, Screwtape, once pronounce that
humans think the demons do their best work by putting things into their minds.
Not so; it's by keeping them out that they prosper. Satan actively seeks to
prevent the gospel from ever entering anyone's life.
He gets a lot of help in this. We live in a time when
cynicism is rampant. Indeed you might hear the objections these ways:
"I'm glad that works for you." The postmodern world is
happy for you to be a Christian – as long as you don't try to spread the idea
that there is such a thing as absolute truth. Then things get sticky.
"I've never inquired, and I don't need to." So it is
that man, the emperor of his own soul, dismisses the truth as being
inconvenient. We simply can't be bothered with it.
The root cause, of course, is pride. Pride develops a hardness of
heart that makes it easy to reject any overture of love.
Those of us living in the American West are quite familiar
with the tumbleweed. It is almost the iconic symbol of the loneliness of the desert.
It may surprise you to find the tumbleweed to have a root system; it's just
their way of using it. The tumbleweed grows quite quickly but when it gets to a
certain size its connection to the roots snaps. It's the tumbleweed's way of
spreading out. It's also a good example of what happens to those of us who
never really get connected to the church just quite right.
You will see an initial enthusiasm, often a very great
enthusiasm. What you may not realize is that great enthusiasm is their natural,
normal response to a new offer of meaning in life. Your author once had an
employee who bounced from one good thing to the next (including salvation by
country Western dancing). The first three weeks perhaps even month were spent
in boundless enthusiasm for the new method which filled her conversation. Then
something happened, some little pressure of the day and she immediately
reversed course and began looking all over again for the next new thing. It is
very frustrating for the teacher, but it is a normal part of the growth of the
This situation is the most common of all in our time today.
We live in a society which is ultimately materialistic; we compete with each
other on the number and size of the toys we buy. It's not new; Jesus was talking
about here 2000 years ago. What is new is that our senses are bombarded with
the advertising of the materialist lifestyle in a way never before possible.
For most Americans, you are what you buy.
Notice please that the "seed", the gospel message,
is the same for all three of these folks. What's different is how they nurture
the seed. Those on the path is not nurture it at all, those in the rocks let it
grow however it wants to, but those amidst the thorns treated as just one more
good thing. The sovereign thing in their life is the desire to possess;
processing Christianity means that you take a part of the faith, not the whole.
It would be a good thing if it didn't interfere with the weekly trip to the
lake with the boat.
Some of us grow very well in the midst of the thorns. We
need to be reminded that thorns can be twisted to make a crown.
Matthew 13:24-30 NASB
Jesus presented another parable to them, saying, "The
kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field.
(25) "But while
his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went
away. (26) "But
when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also.
(27) "The slaves
of the landowner came and said to him, 'Sir, did you not sow good seed in your
field? How then does it have tares?' (28)
"And he said to them, 'An enemy has done this!'
The slaves *said to him, 'Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?'
(29) "But he
*said, 'No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat
with them. (30) 'Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the
time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, "First gather up the tares
and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn."'"
Matthew 13:36-43 NASB
Then He left the crowds and went into the house. And His disciples came to Him
and said, "Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field." (37) And He said, "The
one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, (38)
and the field is the world; and as for the good seed,
these are the sons of the kingdom; and the tares are the sons of the evil one; (39) and the enemy who sowed them is the devil, and the harvest is
the end of the age; and the reapers are angels. (40) "So just as the tares are
gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age.
(41) "The Son of
Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all
stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, (42) and will throw them
into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of
teeth. (43) "Then
THE RIGHTEOUS WILL SHINE FORTH AS THE SUN in the kingdom of their Father. He
who has ears, let him hear.
It may have occurred to you to note that not all of the
people who attend church really act like Christians. In fact, you may suspect
some of them of being hypocrites. And it's just barely possible that some of
those hypocrites are doing well by the world's standards. In fact you might
know someone who causes you to ask God, "Why do the hypocrites prosper in
our church?" Think of it this way: where else would they prosper? You
never see a counterfeit of the $25 bill.
In truth, this is an example of God's love for all of
humanity. For the hypocrite will prosper in the church, but there is also no
more likely ways for him to come to repentance. God gives all a space to
Of course, you might be thinking that it's very difficult to
determine just who the hypocrites are. This is true; and therefore you might
consider not worrying about it. After all, it is rather judgmental to call
someone a hypocrite. Remember that our Lord will separate it out at the end of
the age, and lead judgment to him.
While His Men Were Sleeping
Of course, it would be very convenient if we could prevent
such people from joining the church in the first place. In fact, we do precious
little in this regard. Our ancestors will someday appointed us and say that we
failed to do that which we could. For example:
No church discipline. It is extremely rare to see church
discipline reach a public stage. We'd like to think this because it's
unnecessary, but I think we all know better than that. The reason we don't see
church discipline is that there is none. We have a driving wish not to offend
anyone, and therefore we do not help them.
Preaching. Our ancestors would've prided themselves on the fact
that they were unafraid to preach on any subject. As a simple matter of fact,
this was expected. The preacher was judged on his willingness to take on
controversial topics. We now then go backwards to avoid giving offense; I
wonder how this sits with the stone of stumbling and the rock of offense.
The dull, sleepy church. It's interesting that in church music we
have gone to the loud, the up tempo commercial sound. It's just a speculation,
but perhaps the reason this is so popular today is that the rest of the church
service is rather dull. It is a sign that the church is becoming like the
An interesting result was obtained by the Southern Baptists
in surveying people who do not go to church. When asked what a church should
look like, they replied that it should have stained glass windows, and an
organ. A church, you see, should look like a church. The sinners seem to have
higher expectations of us than do the saints.
At the End of the Age
The time of reckoning will come. There is no other way to
put it; at the return of our Lord will come the judgment. Notice the two types
of people that he will pick out of the church as being weeds:
First, there are those who are lawless. These are the hypocrites
who proclaim themselves pious on Sunday and sophisticated Saturday night.
Next, there are those who are the stumbling blocks. There's an
interesting point for discussion; just who are these people?
It does matter, you know. It matters every bit as much as
heaven and hell.
So there it is: the kingdom of God. It starts is a little
thing, grows slowly, and becomes a haven. In the process Satan assaults it,
keeping out those who can, and polluting as many of the others as he can.