By: Raymond Harris
Regarding Scripture: Matthew 13.10-17
Note to the Reader
The reader may be aware that I was involved in an in-depth study and research project during the closing months of 2009. The study was about the influence and use of the Old Testament within the New Testament. Considerable information has been found of which I am reflecting on, meditating about, and asking God for more guidance to understand. The study was highly rewarding, informative, and leavening for the maturation of my spiritual understanding. While I am concluding my study, I encourage the reader to invest additional time reading the Gospel of Matthew in conjunction with this article, and may the reader have a blessed and prosperous New Year.
We all love stories. We might prefer a story about “the one that got away” or stories about our families. But grandeous stories that convey meaning through imagery are something that many truly enjoy. Consider hit movies like The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, or the popular films Angels and Demons, or the DaVinci Code. Whether you personally liked or disliked the films, they convey big messages not just through the visual imagery, but also through the mechanism used to tell the tale. Love or hate it, we all love stories; and the better the story is told, the more we like it.
Jesus was a man of stories. Not that his life was a story or a “story” for the ages, that is not what I mean. Jesus communicated with people through narrative. Narrative is “a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious.”1 Jesus frequently used narratives to communicate profound ideas. Perhaps one of the most recognizable is about “The Prodigal Son.”2 While narratives like this one are easily understandable, there are some which are not, and some of these come in the form of Parables. To this writer, parables are perhaps the most fascinating way that Jesus communicates.
Parables are attention grabbing. Parables are enlightening. Parables can be frustrating. Parables are intended for a specific audience with a specific mindset. In one circumstance, when Jesus was speaking with parabolic narrative his disciples asked, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”3 For me, it is interesting that the Scriptures record that they asked this question. It is interesting because I wonder if it is possible that they were not sure how to understand what Jesus was saying. While they may or may not have been asking for “enlightenment” Jesus’ answer is very telling.
Jesus’ answer to his disciples’ question lasts at least seven verses,4 but when one considers that Jesus continues speaking with parabolic narrative until verse fifty-two, and there is another instance of him clarifying parables to his disciples, then we can see that the answer Jesus gave about parables is really in-depth. As much as we like to have 30-second answers, it does not appear that Jesus answered in that fashion. But returning to Jesus’ answer, what we will find is perplexing.
To the disciples’ question, “Why speakest thou unto them in parables?” the short answer Jesus gave was this:
He answered and said unto them, “Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.
“Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, ‘By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive:’ For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.
“But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them.”6
There are many things that we need to observe within Jesus’ answer, but our article length is drawing to a close, so let us notice only two. First, in order to answer the question, Jesus references the prophet Isaiah7 as his primary reason for using parables, but it is the second item that should draw our attention. Right after referencing Isaiah, Jesus said that he did not want “to heal” some of the people of his day because their behavior revealed that they were the product of Isaiah’s work – they did not want God. This is startling. As revealed by Scripture, Jesus plainly stated that he used parables as a kind of “double talk” in order to attract only those who were genuinely interested. So, out goes the phrase and idea that Jesus had a “simple message.” The content of his message may have been simple, but presentation of the message was anything but simple.
The English word parable comes from the Greek word parabole. This Greek word is a compound word, para and bole. Para11 is a preposition meaning from, of at, by, besides, near. Bole12 is a noun that means throw, not to be confused with the verb throw, but the object that was thrown. Thayer offers us some help in identifying this with his primary definition, stating that a parabole is “a placing of one thing by the side of another.”13
The application of this is that a parabole allows the speaker to make a metaphorical comparison by placing an intangible item alongside (next to, beside) something tangible thus making a painting with word illustrations for the audience to perceive and comprehend. In one of Jesus’ parables he places the intangible “Kingdom of Heaven” beside the tangible “treasure in a field” in order to demonstrate the value of the kingdom. While this information helps reveal parable, it feels clinical and sterile, because the information identifies what a parable is but does not identify how to understand a parable. For this we need further assistance.
For a person to understand the parables, the person must have two primary things: one, A.S.K. (Ask, Seek, Knock)8 and two, draw near unto God9 then the person who has “ears to hear” will hear. Additionally, there is a secondary item that a person must have for “hearing parables” and that is revelation of parable interpretation. We have been blessed with an example of this in the explanation of the Parable of Soils.
Parables are one of the most powerful methods Jesus used during his communication efforts. His parables are not always forthright, instead they can contain a message hidden in “double talk.” This means that parables are powerful and insightful to those “in the know” and simply nice pithy statements of wisdom for those “not tuned in.” While it is tempting to see hidden meaning in every word of a parable, that may not be true. So, our goal as disciples is to perceive the meaning that “ears to hear” must understand. May the LORD bless us as we seek to understand the messages communicated by the parables of Jesus.
1. “narrative.” Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 02 Jan. 2010. dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/narrative.
2. “The Prodigal Son.” Luke 15.11-32, NASB.
3. “Why parables?” Matthew 13.10, NASB.
4. “Answer lasts seven verses.” Matthew 13.11-17, NASB.
5. “Clarifying parables.” Matthew 13.36-43, NASB.
6. “Jesus’ answer for why parables?” Matthew 13.11-17, NASB.
7. “References the Prophet Isaiah.” Isaiah 6.9-10, NASB.
8. “A.S.K. (Ask, Seek, Knock).” Matthew 7.7, NASB.
9. “Draw near unto God.” James 4.8, NASB.
10. “The explanation of the soils.” Matthew 13.36-43, NASB.
11. “para.” Thayer’s Greek Definitions, Strong’s number G3844.
12. “bole.” G1000 noun (a throw).
13. “parable.” Thayer’s Greek Definitions, Strong’s number G3850; e-Sword version 8.0.6.