Hearing God Through the Parables of Jesus

This is the first in a series of three reflections on the Parables of Jesus.

When reading the Parables which Jesus tells throughout his earthly ministry, it is important to have some sense what a parable is and how we should try to understand it.  A parable and a miracle story are different from the point of view that the miracle is based in an historical event, while the parable is a story with a message.  A parable can use a historical event as part of the story, but the parable is not dependent on the story being historical fact.   A miracle on the other hand is truly special because it is an unusual and perhaps unique historical event – something unexpected that goes against what we would consider to be the normal order of events.  In the Gospels, both parables and miracles serve a purpose of being signs of the Kingdom of God; in other words, their significance lies not in the miracle or parable itself, but in pointing out to us something beyond our historical frame of reference.  A miracle and a parable are efforts to reveal to us the Kingdom of God.  If we seek Jesus out only for a miracle or to hear His wisdom, we in fact are limiting His power and mission, and failing to see what He was trying to point out to us or to point us toward.  A miracle and a parable both can somehow help us have a better life in this world, but their purpose is to point out life in the world to come.

A Parable and an allegory are not exactly the same thing, though in history the two have been intertwined and sometimes the words have been used interchangeably.  In an allegory proper, each name or noun stands for something else (King = God, seed = the word of God), and we read the allegory to help us understand some other reality (so we hear a story about a farmer but realize it is telling us something about  a prophet).  On the other hand, in a parable, one has to read the entire parable and look for meaning in the entire story not just in each separate word.  In a parable, a seed = a seed, a king = a king.  The meaning in a parable is found not in replacing each word with another word (like solving a code), but the meaning is revealed in the “big picture” of the entirety of the story.  

A parable invites interpretation.  For though the parable can stand alone as a story and be sensible, its purpose is to get the hearers of the parable to discern what the purpose, meaning or moral of the story is.   So the parable always points to some reality and meaning beyond its details.  In Jesus’ teachings, parables like miracles are signs of the Kingdom of God – they point to the reality, and help reveal it to us.  In Luke 19:11, we are told the parables were told precisely to refute the idea that the Kingdom of God was to appear immediately, the parables are the signs that point to a future reality, which was just beginning to appear.  The parables point to the coming Kingdom because the Kingdom has not yet arrived – they point to the Kingdom already given yet which is to come.  A parable helps point beyond a purely literal reading of the text.   The significance of a parable, as versus an allegorical parable, lies not in decoding what each noun stands for, but in sitting back and contemplating the entire story and trying to see what is the story revealing.

Though the Gospels have Jesus telling parables, Jesus sometimes interprets the parable allegorically (as he does, for example with the sower and the seed in Mark 4).  And since Jesus Himself did it, so too did many early Christian preachers apply allegory to most of the parables of Jesus.  And while this is a possible way to understand the story, we need also return to the fact that the Gospel says these are parables not allegories and so we should also consider the stories as such.

In Matthew 13, after Jesus tells the parable of the sower and the seed, Jesus invites his hearers to contemplate what they had heard:  “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”   And even this statement is a parable – for all those who came to listen to Jesus had ears, but Jesus is saying hearing isn’t enough, one has to interpret and understand and comprehend the meaning of the parable.

Sadly, it is possible to understand to whom a parable is directed, and even to understand the purpose of the parable without understanding its meaning and power.  ” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them”  (Matthew 21:45).   They could understand that the parable was directed to them and even against them and yet could not hear what the parable was really saying and so be moved toward God.  They did not bother to try to comprehend the parable’s meaning because they had already rejected the parable teller and parables as a means for conveying God’s truth.  The opponents of Jesus were firmly embracing the Law and a very literal interpretation of the Torah, and so their hearts were not opened to revelations of the Kingdom of God.  This is also a warning for us post-Enlightenment Christians and are penchant for reading the Bible only literally, always seeking sound bites, and trying to proof text everything.   When our approach to Scripture is limited in this way, we limit the power, beauty and creativity of God, and we miss the signs of the kingdom which are evident in the big picture of the parables, longer biblical passages and entire books of the Bible.

Next:  Part 2   The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13)

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