All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.” Mat 13:34-35
I’m excited to start this new series on the parables of Jesus. I have been wanting to study through these together for long time now. I think this is gonna be one of my favorite series. Why do we do sermon series anyway? Sometimes I feel silly talking about “our next series” and so on. Well, here is why we preach through a series, because as we study the Bible there is always context and harmony. For instance, First John should be read as a whole. If you don’t read it as a whole, and you just grab verses you like and ignore the ones you don’t, then you’re gonna miss the parallels and contrasts and the context – and then – you’ll inevitably miss-understand what the letter is about. And so, since we can not cover the entire book of First John in one sermon we enter into a 12 weeks series walking through the book.
The same it true with the parables. Yes, I could preach 1 sermon on 1 parable, but then we would miss a ton of parallelism and contrasts and context. You see the parables all have one solitary purpose. That purpose is to teach us the mystery of the Kingdom of God. And so, they have to be communicated and understood as a group. In fact, Jesus rarely tells just one parable. Most of the time he just keeps rolling out parable on top of parable.
Today, before we dive into the parables, before I can tell a story or paint a picture, we need to build the frame. Like a piece of art has a beautiful frame. These stories are wonderful pieces of art. It’s important that we put a frame or border around it. I want to build that frame today by answering a few questions. What is a parable anyway? And why did Jesus use them so much? And how are we supposed to understand them? These will serve as our boundary or frame.
Everyone knows that Jesus was a wonderful story teller. He seemed to always have the perfect story at just the right moment. Sometimes his stories were rude and down right offensive. Like this parable: two guys walk into a temple to pray. The Pharisee uses a bunch of words to boast, the other guy, a known sinner, falls on his face, saying very little. Jesus said the sinner,not the Pharisee was made right before God. Clearly, that story was meant to offend the Pharisees. Other times his stories were confusing and very complex. There are seeds, vineyards, thorns, yeast, barns, sheep and goats… Sometimes its difficult to see the parallels. You might ask, “Am I the weed, or a vine-worker, the bread, or the pan?” Sometimes, I’ll say, its confusing. And then there are stories that are just so ‘off-the-wall” it literally blows every circuit in your brain. One that comes to my mind almost immediately is the parable of the virgins and their lamps. Here you got a bunch of virgins, waiting for Jesus. That seems like a good thing, right? And then 10 of them run out of lamp oil (which symbolizes… I don’t know… anyway…) So they ask the other 10 gals, “Hey can we borrow just a smidgen of oil?” And these good Christian virgins reply, “Heck no! Go get your own darn oil.” So they get up, go into town, get the oil, come back, and – lo and behold – Jesus already done did came, and there’s a party going on in the house, the door is locked, they knock and Jesus yells through the door. “Too late. You should have been better prepared.” Pop! Brain circuits popping all over the place.
“Jesus spoke in strange, bazar, disturbing ways. Apparently, He found nothing odd about holding up, as a mirror to God’s ways, a mixed bag of questionable characters: an unjust judge, a savage King, a tipsy slaveowner, and unfair employer, and even a man who gives help only to bona-fide pests.” Capon
Those closest to Jesus tell us that he used parables to communicated secrets and mysteries. It was said that he said nothing to them without speaking in a parable. Why did Jesus speak in parables? Matthew tells us:
All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”
So – if you paying attention – the parables where told in order to communicate hidden truths while at the same time keeping those truths hidden. BTW, this prophecy comes from 2 sources – Isaiah and the Psalms:
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth! I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old… (Psalm 78:1-2)
“‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9-10)
Well what does all that mean? Confusing – isn’t it? It interesting that in the OT the word ‘parable’ is literally translated ‘dark saying.’ ‘Dark’ because it is in the dark and it is difficult to see in the dark, isn’t it? There is nothing to illuminate or bring understanding. I see it, but I can’t quite see it. I wish I had some light. In some instances parables are even called riddles. In fact one of the first “dark sayings” found in the OT comes from the mouth of Samson when he told a riddle about honey coming out of a lion’s mouth.
So – the parables are ‘dark sayings’ or riddles. In other words, they are meant to be difficult to understand. Jesus is trying to communicate hidden mysterious things to us. How can he tell us about things we’ve never seen before? He has to use comparisons? So quite often you will hear him say, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” and then he will tell a story as a comparison. Now, you and I have never seen this thing called the Kingdom of Heaven. So Jesus has to say, “Well, it’s like this.” And then he paints a picture using things we are familiar with.
Teaching in stories or using comparison is one of the oldest instructional techniques of the world. But Jesus’ parables are much different because Jesus’ parables don’t always enlighten the pupil. Let me explain with a comparison — Jesus’ parables are like…
Let’s say there is a professor, a science professor, trying to explain the mystery of whats going on inside of an atom. The atom is something like the kingdom of God because we haven’t really ever seen an atom. We still can not really see wants going on inside of an atom. So he offers a comparison and says, “The electrons are whirling around the nucleus just like the planets revolve around the sun.” The student now has a picture of something he has at least seen a picture of. “Ahh,” he says, I think I got it.”
But Jesus would say something completely different. “He would push the comparison to its ultimate, mind boggling conclusion — just as the solar system is mostly great tracts of empty space, so too is matter. In other words, what you normally think of as solid stuff is mostly holes.”
Which would be true, but it leaves the Universe and biology very much in the dark and still a huge mystery. Or as Capon says it, “It causes the lights to go out…not on.” So – the parables, or ‘dark sayings,’ or riddles are meant to be difficult and a bit mysterious.
MISSING THE POINT
“But…,” surely someone is asking, “is that still true for us today? I mean, aren’t we more enlighten this side of the cross? Didn’t Jesus even say that the parables where for ‘them’ but to ‘us’ we have been given the secrets to the mystery?” Well lets look at that passage real quick so as to not assume anything:
Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled…” (Mat 13:10-15)
And then he quotes the prophecy mentioned earlier – so – that clears it up, doesn’t it? If you already get it then you’ll get more of it, but if you don’t get then you even what you get will suddenly be taken away from you… and that’s why I speak in parables. Then Jesus asks his disciples, “Do you get it?” To which the disciples respond, “Oh yeah, of course, yeah we totally get it.” (shifting eyes) So Jesus proceeds to tell them a handful of more parables and then asks:
“Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:51-52)
The disciples look like deer caught in Jesus’ headlights! So… back to the question, aren’t we supposed to understand these dark mysterious sayings today? Well, that depends on what you mean. If by that you mean you get to taste and see the mystery of the kingdom, then yes (more on this in a moment). But, if by that you mean we have all this stuff figured out, then not by a long shot. It is pretty clear to me that the disciples didn’t have this stuff figured out. In fact, oftentimes they completely missed the point. For instance, Jesus tells them, “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees!” A very short parable. Then the disciples start freaking out trying to understand what he is talking about to which they deduce that Jesus is mad at them because they forgot to bring bread for their trip.
Therefore, when Jesus says, “To you it has been given to know the secrets” clearly that does not mean that we are going to have it all figured out. Then what does it mean? It means that we have been given the answer to the riddle. The key to unlocking the mystery. The light shining in the darkness so that we can see. And, of course, by all of that I mean Jesus himself. In Jesus the riddle has been solved.
The first very thing that I want us to know as we enter into this series on the parables of Jesus is that the parables are all about Jesus. They are about him. Now hear me, they are not just about Jesus because Jesus is telling them. They are about Jesus himself. He is teaching us about the mysteries of the Kingdom of God and he himself is the key to unlocking that mystery. So, if you have Jesus then you will be given more and more of the mystery. But if you don’t have the key, then the door will be shut. The parables themselves are literally about Jesus.
Yeah, you already knew that I’m sure, but then again, I think it is very clear that we often miss it. We, like the disciples, say, “Yeah I get it. Of course.” But then we habitually put our focus on odd details and end up worrying that Jesus is mad at us because we forgot something. And – this is evidenced by the fact that we continually miss-name and miss-interpreted so many of Jesus Parables. For instance “The Prodigal Son” is the name that we have given that famous parable. But the story is not about the son. It’s about a father who has 2 sons. It’s about both sons. But it is mostly about the father. Its about God, not you. It would be more appropriate to re-name that story “The Parable of the Loving, Forgiving, and Lavishly Gracious Father.” Or…how about the Laborers in the Vineyard?
“The laborers in the vineyard are by no means the central characters in the story; they are hardly more than stick figures used by Jesus to rub his hears noses in the outrageous grace of a vineyard owner who gives equal pay for unequal work.” Capon
So – it’s not about laborers or workers, it about God. Or how about this one? The parable of the Hidden Treasure. (There’s that word hidden again.) There’s a treasure, hidden in a field, so this man goes out and sells all he has so he can buy the field and thus BUY the treasure, something that screams heresy to me, but never-the-less, he buys the treasure – and we often interpret it – much like the disciples interpreted the mini-parable about the yeast, in away that makes us sure that Jesus is mad at us because we haven’t sold all that we have to BUY our salvation.
These are just a few examples of how we miss-name and miss-interpret Jesus’ parables thus proving that we too have missed the point. So they are still hidden. We may hear them, we may have even heard sermons on them, but then we walk away, still in the dark, a little confused, somewhat frightened, and for the most part feeling pretty insecure.
That is why I am very excited about this series. Because, clearly, we don’t have it all figured out and our over familiarization of the parables only serve to trap us into missing the point. And as we study these parables together my hope is to challenge us to read the parables of Jesus again for the first time. I want us to see them with new eyes. As we study them I am certain you will not walk away in the dark, frightened, insecure, or feeling that Jesus is mad at you for forgetting something because in Jesus’ parables:
Bad people are rewarded [the Publican, Prodigal, Unjust Stewart], good people are scolded [the Pharisee, the Elder Brother, the Diligent Workers], God’s response to prayer is likened to man getting rid of a nuisance [the Friend at Midnight] and in general, everybody’s idea of who ought to be first or last is literally doused with cold water [the Wedding Feast, the Great Judgment, Lazarus, the Narrow Door.]
Why, because they are all about the Loving, Forgiving, and Lavishly Gracious Father who does not spare even his only son to purchase you with his blood. You are his treasure, a pearl of great price, and a spotless bride.