New Series: Getting the Parables Right
Working title: Soul Seeds: Jesus’ Parables (SSJP) — One of the readers commenting on the previous book asked if I could explain some of the parables. I wrote these lessons some ten years ago. I’ve decided to update them in preparation for publication. Please feel encouraged to comment and we can make this one somewhat Open Source.
He told me, “You can’t make a parable walk on all fours.” In his quaint rural dialect, this very wise country preacher was telling me something which should have been a matter of common sense. Many people over-work the teachings of Jesus, delivered mostly in parables, in an attempt to extract every possible detail. I often think Jesus would have been horrified at what has been made of some of His lessons.
First, a little background. In our modern culture, a real education, including the full range of Liberal Arts — the Classics, multiple foreign languages, history instead of propaganda, etc. — is very much a rarity. While this is not a screed to criticize modern education, it’s important we note the facts. It’s no secret our Enemy will do all in his power to block the Truth. Rather than placing blame for this state of affairs, it’s enough to note what burden this places on those aspiring to teach God’s Word: We have to fill in the gaps so God’s People can intelligently decide how to follow Him.
Even with the best Liberal Arts education, we are still far removed from the time and culture of Jesus. So very much of what we read in Scripture is hard to follow because most of it was written in a totally foreign setting. Many of the assumptions we bring to God’s Word confuse the issues completely. Rather than an attempt to promote a Christianity where the Bible is regarded as safe only in the hands of an elite caste of high priests with the “proper” education, my aim is to raise all believers to that high status.
Of course, we cannot discount the importance of proper training and education for our spiritual leadership. Somewhere in the complexity of relying on God — recognizing that 2000 years of Christian history cannot be ignored, avoiding past abuses, not reinventing the wheel, and so forth — we do well to place a higher priority on one’s calling, and secondarily on professional preparation. The called-but-unprepared will eventually get what God wants for their preparation, provided they are faithfully pursuing His will. God save us from highly professional leaders who are self-called.
The reader will likely have considered the difficult balancing act of deciding on whom to rely as a fit spiritual leader. This writer obviously seeks your open mind, hoping to give evidence first of the calling, and also of the education. As I rely on the Holy Spirit to guide this writing, I must rely on Him to convince the hearts and minds of readers.
In addressing the parables of Jesus, we must first grapple with the gulf of understanding between us today and the people of Jesus’ time. The cultural differences, while numerous, can be broached best by making one broad generalization: Our modern Western civilization is built on what is called “inductive reasoning,” and “deductive reasoning,” while the ancient Hebrew culture was initially built on symbolic reasoning, often mistaken for formless mysticism. Rather than chase tangents in defining the full meaning of those terms, I will risk overly simplifying here, relying on the reader to keep in mind such generalizations are generally accurate, but never precisely true.
It matters not how we operate intellectually as individuals; our Western Civilization is based on certain assumptions of how knowledge is gained. How do we know things? Inductive reasoning is the habit of mind which attempts to survey and observe all available to us. We gather piles and piles of facts, then attempt to organize them and build categories. We test things under various conditions, and attempt to explain the hows and whys based on what we can discern from the tests. This is by far the best way to understand the basic rules for living in this world. If we see fire, and touch anything close to that fire, finding it hot to the touch, even painful, we reasonably decide fire itself will hurt us even more. Thus, we gain a working knowledge of our world. The facts are inducted into a body of knowledge.
Induction is a poor means to learn everything we need to live. Instead of experiencing everything first hand, we rely on others to share with us their experiences. We then take that knowledge given and deduce from it broader implications as we match it to our own experiences.
Induction and deduction alone are unfit to approach things which stand outside the world of human experience. The Ancient Near Eastern Mystical culture approaches life from the opposite end, so to speak. That which is eternal, which transcends the senses, is the place to start. This is more than mere deductive reasoning, because it requires allowing revealed truth to reshape our very being, not merely our intellectual grasp. Over the ages, things have been revealed from powers beyond this world, and are clues to how we should view what takes place here. Indeed, what takes place here can merely symbolize what goes on there. There are no general principles given, but the Person of God is pointed out by how He acts on this level. Truth is a Person, not mere principles. Our daily experiences of life are to be fitted into that Person, giving them a personal meaning. What can be seen is an illustration of what cannot be seen. Facts which do not seem to fit the image of the Person are put aside for a time, until their place is discerned. We don’t waste too much time on knowing facts, but invest effort into knowing that Person.
In the latter viewpoint, the great wise man is one who has striven to embrace that Person early on, then spent sufficient time contemplating the events of life to see where they fit in the image of revealed Truth. In the Western mold, contrary to that, the great wise man is one who has paid attention to all the details of life, observed them in all possible settings, and constructed a complex framework which adequately accounts for all those details. It is an exercise in fixing a static and impersonal entity called “truth” — but always devoid of God as Person.
It would be wholly misleading to say that the Jews of Jesus’ time never used inductive nor deductive reasoning. Nor do we today have no use for symbolic reasoning. The primary reason for Jesus’ miracles was to present Living Truth which challenged the static framework Jewish leaders had adopted, cast in stone, of what was assumed to be Truth. Anyone who had actually read the Old Testament, rather than relying on the vast pile of commentaries from generations of rabbis past, would recognize what Jesus taught was consistent with God’s Word. By the time Jesus was born, the concept behind the term “The Law of Moses” had become corrupted, a mockery of what it had once been. Thus, while in the strictest sense Jesus was teaching Moses, He was contradicting what the Jewish leaders associated with Moses.
Jesus warned His opponents they didn’t understand the Law, and often corrected their mechanistic concepts with the living Law, a Law He said was summed up in love — loving loyalty to God, and loving others enough to regard their welfare as our own. For many reasons, He most often used parables to say things. In keeping with the ancient Hebrew mindset, He would make reference to something in everyday life and show how it illustrated some higher element of Living Truth. It wouldn’t do to milk the illustration for every detail, as if it were a mere allegory, with a shallow one-to-one equivalence He could easily have said in plainer terms. The point was to indicate something for which there were no words. In so doing, there was usually a single point to make, not a stack of details. When the details of the story did matter, Jesus would say so.
My fear is Christian writers too often attempt to show how clever they are in drawing out numerous little applications from some parables. Thus, they are guilty of transgressing one of our own modern parables: “can’t see the forest for the trees.” In chasing details — this tree, and that tree — they never see the whole as it makes up a rather simple concept. Since writing was an art practiced by few in ancient times, instruction had to be simple and memorable. Pithy illustrations could be recalled in their general application, not as precise dissertations which must be remembered word-for-word, as if each word was some code for a full paragraph.
We will examine the parables of Jesus from as much of His own frame of reference as we can grasp, beginning with Matthew’s Gospel and passing on through to John’s. Nothing here suggests you can’t arrive at a different answer, a different application to any of these parable. Taking a cue from Solomon’s grand collection of parables, Proverbs, let’s keep in mind: “As iron sharpens iron, So a man sharpens the countenance of his friend” (Proverbs 27:17).
I suppose I should warn my readers not every illustration used by Jesus would classify as a parable. There is parable and there is parabolic language. Webster defines “parable” as a short fictitious story, normally used to illustrate some higher principle. Over the centuries, Bible scholars have fudged the boundaries a bit, including some comments which were not exactly stories. We can’t even say it’s a matter of differentiating between the literary devices we know as “simile” and “metaphor.” Rather than slavishly follow any particular pattern, I will select passages over which I have seen and heard much foolishness in the past. Thus, we will adhere to the original purpose, and the title, of the series.