Pesky Parables

1. Jesus the Teacher

If a gallop poll of ancient Palestinians were to be taken, and the question was asked, what popped into their minds when they thought of Jesus?  Among their first responses might have been that Jesus was an interesting teacher. Their observations are right. Jesus came teaching.  You might even say that it was his “day job.”  When he turned 30 he apparently quit his job as carpenter in Nazareth and becomes a traveling teacher or itinerant Rabbi.

But if we had surveyed the same people, asking a different question, “When the Messiah comes what kind of person will he be?”  They never would have said, “He will come as a teacher.”   They expected the Messiah would come as a prophet, or a king, or a priest, or as an angelic being from heaven, but not as a traveling rabbi.  They did not look for an instructor, but a world ruler or at least a liberator of Israel from Roman domination.

But instead of coming as a priest or a prophet or potentate, Jesus came as a teacher, an itinerant wanderer, who used the landscape as his classroom, and the world of nature as his chalkboard. He surprised us all!

Each of the 4 Gospels tells the story about this teacher.  Each Gospel writer, however, tells the story of this teacher somewhat differently.

  • In Mark, Jesus is primarily a teller of parables and teacher to the 12 apostles
  • In Matthew, Jesus is described as a New Moses who has come to teach us the Laws of a New kingdom. Matthew’s gospel includes 5 large blocks of teachings, like the Sermon on the Mount.
  • In Luke, Jesus is portrayed as a story teller and his stories teach as they entertain.His parables will often be stories with a plot like the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan.
  • In John.After performing a deed of power that John called signs, Jesus teaches us what that sign signified. John also includes the lengthy teaching time of the apostles in the upper room on the night before he was killed.

But one thing is clear in all 4 gospels. Jesus came teaching.

Who did he teach?

  • Jesus spent considerable time teaching the inner circle of his friends and co-workers. He is prepping them to continue the work that he has begun.  For they too are to be teachers to the rest of us.
  • He was often found teaching the crowds that gathered around him wherever he went. The common people heard him gladly.
  • He even tried, time and again, to teach those who were hostile to him.

How did he teach?

  • He taught them using stories and proverbs of uncommon wisdom, and in parables.
  • He taught by his deeds as well as his words,
  • He taught by the way he lived and in the way that he died.

But his preferred teaching method was by using parables

Parables are often misunderstood by us.  They have been called “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning”. But that is not really what they are.  Parables are not intended to make truths clear, but to hide the truth, in part, and at the same time to reveal something intriguing that causes people to think and question.

When Jesus began teaching he used plain words for plain people, just like those found in the Sermon on the Mount.  But as opposition & hostility began to mount against him, he switches to teaching in parables.  His disciples are confused by this change. They asked him about this switch in the way he taught.  It is then that Jesus speaks some very puzzling words.Listen to Mark’s explanation.

Mark 4:10-11
“When he was alone, those who were around him, along with the twelve, asked him about the parables.  And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables.”

     ‘because they may indeed be looking, but do not wish to perceive,
     and they may indeed be listening, but do not wish understand;
     for they do not want to turn around and be forgiven.’”

Jesus is quoting the words of the ancient prophet Isaiah. It is interesting to note that this same passage is included in all four gospels and in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Here are the texts:

Isaiah 6:9-10.

9And God said, (to Isaiah) “Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
10 Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.”
11Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said:
“Until cities lie waste without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate….”

Mark 4:33-34
33With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hearit; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Luke 8:9-14
9Then his disciples asked him what this parable meant. 10 He said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that
‘looking they may not perceive,
and listening they may not understand.’

Matthew 13:10-16, 34-35, 51-52
10Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 13 The reason I speak to them in parables is that
‘seeing they do not perceive,
and hearing they do not listen,
nor do they understand.’

14With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
‘You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.’

16But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.17 Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it…

34Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. 35 This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet:
“I will open my mouth to speak in parables;
I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” (Psalm 78:2)

 51“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” 53 When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place

John 12:36-41
36 While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them. 37 Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him. 38This was to fulfill the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah:
“Lord, who has believed our message,
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
39And so they could not believe, because Isaiah also said,
40 “He has blinded their eyes
and hardened their heart,
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”
41Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke about him.

Acts 28:23-28
23After they had set a day to meet with Paul, they came to him at his lodgings in great numbers. From morning until evening he explained the matter to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets. 24 Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe. 25 So they disagreed with each other; and as they were leaving, Paul made one further statement: “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah,
26 ‘Go to this people and say,
You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
27 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.’
28Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.”

So, who are those on the outside?  They are the cynics, the scoffers, the curiosity seekers. They are the disinterested, the spectator, the ones looking only for a miracle.

Emily Dickinson writes in one of her poems, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Parables are used to conceal the truth, but at the same time to reveal it.  The parables are used by Jesus to surprise us, make us curious, make us think, to challenge those things we have always thought to be true.  But why would he do that?

Parables are a gentle way to avoid increasing the condemnation of those who did not want to hear. Because:
“To him that has, will more be required”
“He that knows enough to do good, but does not do it, to him it is sin.”
“If the light that is in you becomes darkness, how great is that darkness.”

I suspect that many of those who heard him went to their homes saying: “we went to hear this Jesus from Nazareth, but we were disappointed. There was no deep teaching, no quoting the men of authority, no new revelations. He just told simple stories to amuse the ignorant, saying nothing that was of interest to me.”

On the other hand, his words are an invitation to the seeker and to those hungry to know God. Jesus has come to teach those who want to learn, and will not force us to be his students.  But he is a teacher and wants to teach us.  So he gives us enough to whet our appetite, and hopes we will come back for more.

It has been noted, that Jesus was one of the worst teachers for information clarity.  He is cryptic in his teaching.  He speaks in riddles so that outsiders will not understand, and the disciples will need lessons in exegesis to even begin to understand him. He is concealing the truth in disguise.

Yet Jesus is the master teacher. That which is true cannot always be adjudicated by reason only.  He caused his hearers to think about life.  He forced them to ask questions.  He spoke so many outrageous things that had the ring of truth about them, that people were freed to think anew about old questions. Jesus was provocative and evocative. His intent was to evoke thinking and believing.

So let us explore some of his most puzzling of parables.  Let us begin with his parable about workers in the Vineyard.