Wednesday, February 5, 2014


I love to tell stories.  I recall a line from an old John Denver song, " ... and the gifts of growing old are the stories to be told ... "  Sometimes I suppose my kids and grandkids get tired of my stories, but I just can't seem to help myself.  I have a friend, however, who outdoes me and we can fill up a conversation quite easily.  At times we tell stories to make a point, though at other times our stories are just occasioned by the conversation with no particular object in the telling.
I suppose we're in good company.  Jesus also liked to tell stories.  I've read that about 1/3 of His teaching was story telling.  I haven't checked that number, though it seems reasonably accurate.  His stories, however, -- at least the recorded ones -- always had a point, sometimes more than one point.  We call them "parables," which is taken from the Greek word in the New Testament, parabole which  literally means "something set to the side," hence, "a comparison."  They are really simply extended similes because they give comparisons ("The Kingdom of Heaven is like ...").  Often, however, the comparison is not clearly stated, so we may call them extended metaphors ("I am the vine ...").
Although there are a number of parables in the Old Testament, we find the most in the Gospels.  All the Gospel writers record some of Jesus' parables and a number are repeated in all three Synoptic Gospels.  Luke has the greatest number of them -- 34 by one count, of which half are unique to Luke.  Matthew has 27 of which 12 are unique.  Mark has 11, of which only one is exclusive to Mark (the Seed -- 4:26-29).  Some contend that John's Gospel contains none, but at least some of Jesus' "I am" sayings certainly qualify, so I'll give John credit for 5.

It is difficult to come up with precise figures because Jesus (like most preachers) often repeated Himself in different contexts; do we count these as one or two (or more) parables?  For instance, compare the Lost Sheep parable in Matthew 18:12-14 with the one in Luke 15:1-7.

So why did Jesus use parables, besides the fact that they were entertaining?  Well, Jesus Himself gave an answer to the question, following His parable usually known as the Parable of the Sower.  This parable is found in Matthew 13:1-9; Mark 4:1-9 and Luke 8:4-8.  Immediately after this parable, His disciples came up and asked Him, "Why do you speak to them in parables?"  (Matthew 13:10; Mark 4:10; Luke 8:9).  His answer differs a bit as each writer has recorded it, but Mark's seems the clearest.

"To you has been given the mystery of the Kingdom of God, but to those outside all things are in parables in order that 'seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand, lest they return and be forgiven'" (Mark 4:11, 12, quoting Isaiah 6:9).  We may sum this up by saying that Jesus had two purposes for using parables:  to clarify truth and to conceal truth.

Jesus was simply restating for His disciples a spiritual principle that we find all through the Old Testament.  Though the Word of God may have a number of effects on its hearers, they all come down to just two:  the "hearers" can either reject it or can receive it and "bear fruit."

The Parable of the Sower (or better the Soils) brings this principle out.  Though there are four different "soils" enumerated, the results for the first three are essentially the same; it is only that last that "bears fruit."  Jesus explains that the soils of course represent the various hearers of the Word (Matthew 13:18-23; Mark 4:13-20; Luke 8:11-15).

Though Jesus appears to put an allegorical spin on His interpretation, we should be careful of spending too much effort on the details.  His major emphasis is on hearing.  Notice how many times He uses the word "hear" in some form over and over throughout the parable and its interpretation.  And of course He closes the parable with, "The one who has ears -- hear!"  (Matthew 13:9; Mark 4:9; Luke 8:8).  Perhaps He was implying that there were those in the crowd who didn't "have ears" -- who were incapable of receiving spiritual truth.

I can picture the crowd's reaction at the close of the parable.  Some faces show pleasure -- they've enjoyed the story though they are clueless as to its meaning.  Others are set in deep frowns as they try to figure it out, or possible they understand just enough to know that they don't like what they hear.  And then there are those faces that appear to have a light bulb going on over them as they grasp the truth.  As a preacher and teacher, I've learned to look for those expressions.  I wonder if Jesus did.  I wonder if He looks for the expressions on our faces.  I know He looks for the results in our lives of what we hear.

1 comment:

Bob McCollum said...

Hi Bill,

We live and die by stories, examples, parables. I've always felt sorry for those who read only non-fiction. They miss so much.

Jesus understood. He gave us story after story to illustrate the truth he was teaching. He knows how we learn. He made us this way.

And this applies in the secular world as well. Who can read Anna Karenina and not wonder how a woman can so ruin her life that throwing herself under the wheels of a train seems the only answer?

Stories, stories, stories. Our conversations are full of them, and our best dinner companions never run out of tales to delight and challenge us.

There's nothing more dreary than someone who tries to make a point without a story to back it up.

Which reminds me of a guy...oh, never mind. You get the point.

Bobby Mac