When it is bedtime, I have to entice my daughter to get in bed by promising to tell her stories. She loves to look at the pictures and hear stories about princesses, llamas, and Jesus (though not all in the same story). The craving for stories is not limited to children, but is shared by all humans. We have from our beginning communicated through stories. This is no different with Jesus. Both believers and unbelievers alike are familiar with some of the great stories or parables of Jesus. But are these, as is sometimes thought, simple child-like stories that give us a nice moral lesson at the end? Or is there more going on here?
Parables were a form of both art and weaponry. There is a beauty to the way Jesus told parables. They are fairly straightforward and simple narratives about a servant or a vineyard or a king. Jesus is able to artistically convey a rich story in a few simple lines. This is, however, only part of the purpose. Parables are also a weapon used to challenge the worldview of the hearers who are then called to new action. Parables contain a message that is unpopular. That is why they are spoken in the form of story rather than stated outright. Think of how Nathan uses a parable to challenge David (2 Samuel 12). One final note is needed about the nature of parables. The parables frequently follow a controversial action on the part of Jesus that needs some explanation. Parables are a secondary teaching tool which follows the primary tool of Jesus’ actions. This is common to Jewish prophets especially in the first century. Let’s apply these principles to the parable sometimes called the ‘parable about parables’: The Parable of the Sower/Soils (Mark 4:1-20).
Jesus incorporates common elements of Jewish hope in this parable. The Jewish prophets spoke of the hope that God would once again sow the faithful Israel (Hosea 2:21-23; Jeremiah 24:5-7; Isaiah 55:10-13). The hope of Yahweh’s sowing was not the same as the geographic return from Babylon. Nehemiah will continue to think of Israel in exile even after his return to Jerusalem (Nehemiah 9:36-37). What needs to be addressed is the sin problem which caused their original exile. Jesus has come, therefore, announcing that this was being accomplished in the present. The Sower has gone out and the faithful remnant of Israel was being planted.
Parables, though, have a challenging element to them. For Jesus’ hearers, the surprise of the parable comes with the harvest not looking as they hoped. When God sows His seed, not everyone who claims to be in Israel will be a part of the faithful Israel. God will not end their exile by giving Israel the stamp of approval while condemning everyone else. Jesus challenges their nationalistic and ethnic pride which placed them as God’s favorite over the Gentiles. The determining factor for being in the faithful remnant was not being a physical member of Israel, but rather hearing and following Jesus. The parable helps to explain the events depicted earlier in which Jesus is rejected by the religious leaders (Mark 3:20-22) and his own family (Mark 3:31-35). If Jesus is really God’s Messiah, then why is He being rejected so often? The parable provides an answer which also challenges Israel’s expectation for what God would do in bringing in His kingdom. He, who has ears to hear, let him hear. Now let’s us consider some of the overall messages of this parable and parables in general.
Jesus presents Himself as the climax of Israel’s history and God’s plan for the world. It is through Jesus that the seed is being sown and it is those who follow Him that are part of the true Israel. The key to our spiritual formation is hearing and responding appropriately to Jesus as Messiah. The parable is not a simple tale of our attempts at evangelism. That would not be a controversial message which needed a parable to convey it. The parable is not directed toward those we might talk to about Jesus. It is rather directed toward those of us who think that we are the faithful people of God. It is you and I who are challenged by this parable to reflect upon our response to Jesus. Are we the seed which has taken deep root and devoted ourselves entirely to the work of the kingdom? Or have we become complacent and distracted by other things? Being a disciple of Jesus is a life-long commitment. Inherent in Jesus’ explanation of the parable is the expectation that God’s faithful will be devoted for life.
One more note about parables in general. I find some significance in the difficulty Jesus’ original hearers had with the parables. Frequently, their response is one of being perplexed. The kingdom message is challenging. It takes some effort to understand. If that was true of those who spoke Jesus’ language, knew His culture, and heard the inflection in His voice, how much more true will this be of us? I find this a helpful corrective to the view which expects the teachings of the Bible to be simple, bite size pieces of spiritual wisdom. That we can show up periodically and just nibble at its truths. The message is challenging to both understand and to live out. Yet, it can be done. Mark presents the parables with the intent that they will be understood by his readers. We must meet Jesus’ teachings on His terms. Will we have ears to hear or will we shrink the message of Jesus down to something we find easier to digest?
Jesus’ parables are a characteristic feature of His ministry. They both help to explain what He Himself was doing as well as what God was doing in bringing in the kingdom. We must allow ourselves to be transformed by them rather than deflecting them off on someone else. The seed has been sown and we must respond appropriately with a life devoted to kingdom work.
by Jared Rogers