The Purpose of Parables

Interludes  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  29:00
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Parables are an integral part of our picture of Jesus' teaching. But what are they? Why did he use them? Do they still apply? Are they useful for us? We grapple with these questions and more.

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A parable about parables

There was a programmer who didn’t work at all well with his team. He was constantly disrupting meetings, refusing to code to agreed interfaces, and disrespecting everyone. One day, after a particularly heated argument, his frustrated manager took him aside and sat him down. “Look,” said the manager, “I have a problem I want your help solving.”
“Really?” said the programmer.
“Yes,” said the manager. “You see, I teach teenagers at church. I try to teach them about how Christianity works in the real world. It’s not an easy job. Teenagers have a very short attention span, and even with all the games and videos and helps it’s hard to keep them focused. But there’s one particular teen who makes it his job to spoil every lesson. He mocks people’s input, he smashes their games, he scribbles on their drawings, he bombs their videos. I’ve tried finding things specifically for him, but he always gives up and bothers others. I’ve tried explaining the consequences of his behaviour, but he just ignores me.”
“What should I do with him?”
The programmer looked at the manager in amazement. “That’s too easy!” he said. “You just kick him out. He doesn’t want to work with others, and he doesn’t even really care about what you’re doing. Just get rid of him!”
The manager looked at the programmer. “You are that teen,” he said.

What is a parable?

That was a parable. In fact, it was a parable about parables. Hopefully it gives you an idea of the power of parables.
You probably think you have a good idea of what a parable is, right? I did, until I started doing research for this sermon. For example, how many parables do you think Jesus shared in the Gospels? The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible says that “there is disagreement about whether some passages should be called parables, but usually somewhere between 60 and 65 is the number given for the total of Jesus’ recorded parables.” (Vol. 2, p. 1612). It goes on to say that “Obviously the number depends on how broad a definition of parable is accepted.”
So, what is a parable?
Can anyone give me some examples of parables from the Gospels?
Now does anyone want to try a definition?
Well, it turns out that there are several definitions. The Greek word used for “parable” (parabole, clearly the origin of the English word) actually includes things like proverbs and riddles (or mysterious sayings). But the English word doesn’t include those meanings, and so when the Gospel writers use parabole it isn’t always translated into the English word “parable.” Confused yet?
I could go on, but let’s just cut to the chase. What we think of as parables are stories of contemporary life with an additional theological meaning. Examples are the parable of the prodigal son, the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the parable of the sower (or the four soils).
The question then is: how do we determine what the additional meaning is? And this is where it gets more complicated.
For example, Jesus explains the parable of the sower and almost every one of the elements in that parable correspond to some theological reality.
So, the seed is the word of the gospel, the path is the soul that doesn’t understand the word and the birds are Satan, the rocky soil is the shallow soul and the sun is the persecution that discourages that shallow faith. And so on.
But the lesson that Jesus draws from the parable of the Good Samaritan, on the other hand, is only that we should be a neighbour to those in need, regardless of any disputes or differences.
How then do we use a parable? To understand that, we must first understand the purpose of parables: what are they for?

What is the purpose of parables?

Our Bible passage tells us the purpose of parables. Jesus says:
Matthew 13:13 ESV
13 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.
Now what does this mean? I think the context makes clear that the vast crowds of people who came to hear Jesus weren’t really impacted by his teaching. They were like the hard soil of the path: the word of God fell on hard hearts and didn’t sink in, so Satan could then snatch it away.
What could Jesus do about this? How could he prevent this from happening?
Well, since he was God, one way was to just change people’s hearts. But he doesn’t do that, because the entire history of our world is a story of a God who loves his children too much to force them into compliance. From Adam and Eve all the way down to us, God has borne with our sin patiently, refusing to stomp on our free choices. So that is not an option for Jesus, either, because he does only what his Father in heaven does.
So, instead, he changes the nature of his message. Just as an apple tree packages its seeds in a juicy, energy rich fruit, so that animals eat it and then spread the seeds far and wide, Jesus packages the word in a juicy, energy rich story which sinks into people’s consciousness, and gets spread far and wide. That way, even though they hear without understanding, they still carry the Word of God with them, and when either they or their neighbours become more open, the Word is right there, ready to sink deep into their souls and to change them.
A parable is a secret delivery system. A piece of fruit with seeds in it. The spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. A trojan horse. It’s the word of God conveyed in a worldly package, easily digestible, but still potent.
It’s interesting to think about what this tells us about God.
God is so loving that, not only does he refuse to violate our choices, but he also refuses to give up on us. He humbles himself and takes on a worldly form for his Word so that we can accept it and eventually be won over to him. Thinking about it like that, it’s no wonder that Jesus taught so much in parables, because he was, in his incarnation, a sort of physical parable. The very Word of God conveyed in a worldly form.
Parables, then, are a sign of God’s great love.

How do parables work?

Let’s get even more specific. How do parables work? As we’ve already seen, parables are basically a story about the contemporary world which conveys some theology.
The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible has a helpful explanation.
Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible The Meaning of “Parable”

The following characteristics of parables should be observed: (1) Parables are usually concise and symmetrical. Items are presented in twos or threes with an economy of words. Unnecessary people, motives, and details are usually omitted. (2) The features in the story are taken from everyday life, and the metaphors used are frequently common enough so that they set up a context for understanding. For example, the discussion of an owner and his vineyard would naturally make hearers think of God and his people because of the OT use of those images. (3) Even though the parables speak in terms of everyday life, often they contain elements of surprise or hyperbole (an exaggeration used as a figure of speech). The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:30–35) introduces a Samaritan in the story where one would probably expect a layperson. The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Mt 18:23–34) puts the debt of the first servant at 10 million dollars, an unbelievable sum in that day. (4) Parables require their hearers to pass judgment on the events of the story and having done so to realize that they must make a similar judgment in their own lives. The classic example is the parable of Nathan to David (2 Sm 12:1–7), where David judges the man in the story as worthy of death and then is told that he is the man. Because they force one to decide, to come to a moment of truth, the parables force their hearers to live in the present without resting on the laurels of the past or waiting for the future. The parables are the result of a mind that sees truth in concrete pictures rather than abstractions, and they teach that truth in such a compelling manner that the hearer cannot escape it.

Remember the parable I started with? It contained a version of Nathan’s confrontation with King David, where Nathan tells the story of a greedy and thoughtless wealthy man, and when David condemns the man, Nathan points to David. This demonstrates the enduring power of parables—by using a contemporary context, they cut through our religious defenses and smuggle the truth into our hearts where it can do its work.
You can see, then, how important parables are for us as 21st century Christians in an increasingly indifferent and even hostile culture which, nonetheless, shares many of our values.

Can we use Jesus’ parables?

So should we be sharing Jesus’ parables with our family and friends, with the person on the bus next to us, or the person serving us?
You might be surprised to discover that I think, generally, we should not be! Why not?
Well, it all comes down to that idea that parables are stories set in a contemporary context. The power of parables lies in their shared context—the context that we and our listeners share. For us as Christians, first century Judah is a shared context. However, we have had to learn it (and we continue to learn it). It’s worth our while to put in a lot of effort to learn that first century context so that we can benefit from the incredible richness of Jesus’ words.
But we can’t expect our neighbours to share that context. They don’t value Jesus’ words like we do. However, we can expect them to share the context of the culture that we both live in. Some concepts from Jesus’ parables are actually a part of our common culture; for example: the idea of a Good Samaritan. However, in our culture the richness of Jesus’ illustration has been lost. Why a Samaritan? How is he good? It’s our job to bring some of that richness back in our own communication.

How then do we communicate?

So how do we use parables, then?
Well, I think we use them like Jesus did. We look at the theological truths we want to communicate, and then we figure out how to convey them in a story set in our common culture.
What theological truths are worth packing into parables, then? After all, it takes time and effort to create a good parable!
Don’t you think what Jesus thought was worth putting into parables is a good place to start?
So, what is your favourite parable?
That’s what we’ll be doing on Tuesday nights this term. The good thing is that if you miss one night you only miss that parable, so there’s no reason to stop coming. And at the end of the term we’ll each have a toolkit of handy stories that we can share with any fellow Australian in order to smuggle the gospel into their hearts. Cool, eh?

But what do I do now?

You might be feeling like I’ve left you with no way to respond to this right now. And you’re right!
But think about it. God was so determined to communicate his saving love to you that he took that infinite love, his unfathomable character, and he, somehow, clothed it in worldly flesh. And the result of that, our Lord Jesus Christ, then did the same with his words! You see, God never gives up on you, and the Bible is his expression of unrelenting love for you.
When I was wooing Mable, she lived in Sydney and I lived up here on the Gold Coast. So every moment together was precious, because it was far less common than if we’d lived in the same city. So when she came up to the Gold Coast, I used to spend all my time catching up on my favourite TV shows and I’d expect her to set there quietly. Not! I hardly glanced at the TV, of course! I was too busy focusing on Mable. (Mable actually complains that I mislead her by doing that.)
In the same way, in this world we are living apart from God—it is as if we see through a glass darkly, as Paul puts it. But God’s word is our chance to spend time with him. Shouldn’t we, then, be setting aside time to be with him each day, just soaking up his presence in the Word? I encourage you to continue in the practice of the Daily Office that we learned about last term in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. Spending time alone with God, meditating on his word and simply being with him in silence and attentiveness.
And another thing you can do right now is to think about how to share that precious experience with those who don’t understand how mighty and wonderful God is.
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