Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Principles Behind the Parables: Mark 4:10-13

Mark 4:1-2, 10-13

The Principles Behind the Parables

It is nearly universally accepted that Jesus is one of history’s greatest teachers. Even those who do not share the Christian view of Him that He is God incarnate and the Savior of humanity would not deny His effectiveness as a communicator. Personally, I agree with C. S. Lewis, who said that Jesus has not left this option of judging Him to be only a good teacher open to us. If He was not who He claimed to be in His teaching, then we should label Him as a lunatic or a demoniac, and stop with any nonsense of Him being a good teacher. But humanity as a whole throughout the last 2,000 years has been enamored by Him to such a degree that no one wants to dismiss Him so abruptly. It is much safer for those who deny His claims of Deity and His offer of salvation to just say, “He was a good teacher.” And certainly much of the intrigue about His teaching stems from His use of parables.

So appealing are these parables that they have infected our vocabulary and our entire way of thinking. We regularly hear non-Christian people talk about things like “a good Samaritan,” “a prodigal son, ” “a city on a hill,” “faith of a mustard seed,” or “a pearl of great price.” These all stem from the parables of Jesus, and their universal place in thought and speech demonstrate their sticking-power. Jesus was not the first to use the parable as a form of teaching. We find parables in the Old Testament, and in ancient literature from outside the Judeo-Christian tradition. But few of those parables have invaded culture the way the parables of Jesus have. He may not have been the originator of the form, but He was certainly the master of it.

Unfortunately, many in our own day have misunderstood this method of Jesus’ teaching. Many assume that Jesus’ parables are nothing more than quaint stories. So, they say, effective teaching and preaching today must be done with creative storytelling. Gone are the days, we hear, when people desire to hear didactic expositions of biblical instruction and systematic theology. After all, this is the 21st Century, and people’s attention spans aren’t what they used to be. So, the effective preacher and teacher will work hard to hone the craft of storytelling so as to capture the imagination of his audience as Jesus did. And books and conferences abound calling for an end to the dispensing of propositional truth for a newer, or more ancient perhaps, method of telling stories. After all, you can remember stories you heard from childhood better than you recall last Sunday’s sermon, don’t you? Please, don’t raise your hands.

I suggest to you that in all this modern rhetoric about storytelling misses the point. They point to Jesus as an accommodating storyteller, and attribute the greatness of His teaching to this simple fact. But, the fact that so many who laud His greatness in teaching do not know Him and do not believe the underlying truth of the stories He told indicates that they might remember the characters and events of the stories, but they have missed the point of His stories, and in fact, they have missed the reason for His telling of these parabolic stories. In using parables, Jesus was not putting the cookies on the bottom shelf, but rather challenging the minds of His hearers to reach to a higher shelf where true nourishment for their souls could be found.

C. H. Dodd defined a parable as, “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought” (emphasis mine).[1] Certainly not everything Jesus ever said was in the form of parables, but much of his public teaching was. And the reactions of those who heard His parables indicate to us that not many got the point. In our passage today, even His own followers had questions about the parables. Mark does not state what those questions were. Fortunately, we have other gospel accounts to shed light on their questions.

In parallel contexts, Matthew 13:10 indicates that they were asking about the reason for His parables. “Why do you speak to them in parables?” Luke 8:10 indicates that they were asking about the meaning of His parables. “His disciples began questioning Him as to what this parable meant.” We may draw from this that the disciples did not understand the parables, and if they didn’t get it, then why on earth would Jesus expect other people to get it?

Well, their questions are like ours, and like those swirling around the debate between storytelling and exposition in our own day. And I would suggest that before we abandon exposition and propositional truth-telling in exchange for new creative parables in an effort to be more like Jesus, the master teacher, then first we must understand a few important principles behind His parables.

I. The Audience of Jesus’ Parables

In verse 11 of our text, Jesus puts his hearers into two distinct groups. The first is “you,” a plural pronoun whose antecedent is found in verse 10: His followers along with the twelve. We will call them the “insiders.” These were the ones who had come to Jesus, seen His miraculous power and heard His authoritative teaching, and in faith, believed in Him and chosen to follow Him.

They represent one group of hearers. The second group, Jesus calls “those who are outside.” We will call these the “outsiders.” They too had come to Jesus, seen His miraculous power, and heard His authoritative teaching, but in unbelief, they rejected His claims and refused to follow Him.

We were introduced to this dichotomy of insiders and outsiders in the previous chapter of Mark — Chapter 3.There we saw that the insiders were those who were gathered around Jesus, sitting at His feet, listening to His word, and committed to doing the will of His Father. The outsiders were those who could not get to Him. They weren’t prevented because of the size of the crowd, but because of their erroneous conception of Jesus. The outsiders were those scribes who had concluded He was demonic, and even His own family who had concluded He was a lunatic.

The insiders and the outsiders heard the same parables, but the insiders got something else. They got an explanation. They got additional information to help them decipher the meaning behind the story. If the parables are so self-explanatory as some would have us believe, why was this necessary? Were the disciples just extraordinarily dense, or were the parables ambiguous and somewhat difficult to understand?

Take one parable for example: In Matthew 13:33, Jesus said, "The kingdom of heaven is like leaven (the rhyme is unintentional, because in Greek, heaven and leaven don’t come close to rhyming), which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened." Is the meaning of this parable transparent upon first hearing? Some of you will say it is perfectly clear because you have studied the Scriptures to some degree in the past, and you know about leaven spreading, and all that. But, put yourselves into the shoes of Jesus’ original audience. Put their ears on. Is it clear? Most of us would say, if we were honest, “No, what in the world is He talking about?” And that is exactly the way Jesus’ hearers, even the insiders, responded. So, for them, Jesus gave further explanation when they were alone.

The outsiders just got the story, and no explanation. They were left to make of it whatever they could. And if those who believed in Him had a hard time making sense of the parables, we need not wonder if the outsiders got it. But they were given no explanations, no further information. Just a story. Jesus says in v11, “Those who are outside get everything in parables.” The Gospel According to Matthew says, “All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, and He did not speak to them without a parable.”

So who was the audience of the parables? The insiders and the outsiders. These are the only two people in the world today. Those who are inside with Christ by faith and those who are outside because of unbelief. Each group heard the parables, but only those inside were given the explanation to make sure they understood. Why is that? The answer is found in another Principle.

II. The Purpose of Jesus’ Parables

Why did Jesus teach in parables? Was it to make the truth easier to swallow? Was it to make the lesson more memorable? And why did He only explain it to the insiders, rather than to the outsiders also? Weren’t the outsiders the ones who needed the explanation more? Jesus answers the question for us.

In explaining why the outsiders get everything in parables, Jesus quotes from Isaiah 6:9-10.

“While seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven.”

Mark offers a condensed version of the quotation, but it is sufficient to point us there. In that passage, Isaiah responds to the call of God to go and preach God’s word to a people whom God knew beforehand would reject the message. And when Isaiah asks, “How long, O Lord?” he is told to proclaim it until judgment falls, but he is comforted to know that there will be a believing remnant who will be like a stump when a great tree is felled. Isaiah is told that this stump will be like a holy seed from which new growth will occur.

Like Isaiah, Jesus came into the world to proclaim God’s truth to a people who would not receive it. It is written in John 1:11 that Jesus came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But He kept proclaiming, knowing that there would be those who did receive Him, and from those, the Kingdom of God would be established. John says, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God.” These are the insiders and the outsiders. And the parables of Jesus became a sifter of His hearers, some of whom received God’s truth and others of whom rejected it.

Remember Dodd’s definition of parables we cited earlier: they leave the mind in sufficient doubt about their precise application to tease the mind into active thought. Some who heard the parables found their interests provoked enough to mine for the truth of what was being said. Others didn’t. Though they saw Jesus’ miracles, they didn’t perceive the truth of what they signified. Though they heard His parables, they didn’t understand their deeper meaning about Christ and His Kingdom. Their eyes and ears were closed to truth, and as a result their hearts were as hard as desert road, preventing the seed of God’s word from penetrating and producing faith in their hearts.

Remember, that is the context of this passage – it occurs in between the parable of the soils and the explanation of that parable. That is why Jesus says in essence in v13, “If you don’t get the parable of the soils, you can’t get any of the rest of them.” The parable of the soils is the key to all the parables. Some get it and some don’t. Some get it, but they don’t let the truth go deep enough into their hearts to produce enduring faith. Some get it, but it gets choked out because of the worries of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and their desire for other things. These outsiders are the ones to whom Jesus was referring when He spoke about the seed falling beside the road. The insiders are the ones represented by the good soil, where the seed is able to sink in deeply and produce a fruitful harvest of faith.

“Jesus told parables to sift the crowd, separating out the hard-hearted from those who had the heart to understand.”[2] He was content to let them walk away. He never chased them down. By veiling the truth in a parable, He was mercifully protecting the hard-hearted from the guilt of rejecting the plainly spoken truth of God. But those who endured the sifting demonstrated that their hearts were ready to receive truth and respond in faith and action.

Why did “the insiders” endure the sifting? Jesus tells us in verse 11: “To you has been given the mystery of the Kingdom of God.” It was not because of some quality in them, but because of a gift they were given. It was because of the grace of God. Why is it that some of you have responded to the Gospel of Christ while so many others you know have heard it and not responded? R. C. Sproul writes, “Did we exercise faith in Christ because we are more intelligent than they are? … Did we respond to the gospel positively because we are better or more virtuous than our friends? We all know the answers to these questions. I cannot adequately explain why I came to faith in Christ and some of my friends did not. I can only look to the glory of God’s grace toward me, a grace I did not deserve then and do not deserve now.”[3] It wasn’t because somehow, within myself, I ascertained God’s truth while others did not. No, it wasn’t because I got it, but because He gave it to me.

The mystery of the Kingdom is Jesus Christ. A mystery, in the biblical sense, is not some inscrutable and esoteric secret, but rather something that was hidden in days past that can’t be grasped by human wisdom, but is revealed to us by God Himself. The mystery of all the ages is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It was there all along, but it was hidden in types and shadows, in prophecies and poems. But in Christ, the mystery was unveiled. He is the embodiment of God God’s Kingdom, and His words and His works point us to that reality if we have the faith to receive it. But that faith comes to us as the result of God’s gracious seed-planting in our lives. When He does, the seed is able to grow and thrive in good soil. Good soil is found where God has graciously plowed us and prepared us to see the pictures, to hear the parables, and then to inquire, to dig deeper into His truth. And when we inquire of Him, He will answer us and move us beyond pictures and parables into the deeper mystery – the mystery of the gospel of salvation in Christ. But if our hearts are hard and our eyes and ears are shut to God’s truth, then we will never turn to Him in faith and repentance, and never find that mystery. The tragedy is not that we go on in ignorance, when wisdom is offered us, but rather that we remain in our sins when forgiveness is offered us. We remain outside His kingdom, when He has graciously offered us entrance through the door of faith.

So if today, you find yourself an outsider to God’s truth, inquire of Him, for He has promised us in His word that if we will call out to Him, He will answer us and will tell us great and mighty things which we do not know (Jer 33:3). It may well be the case that this day, God is graciously sowing the seed of His truth on your heart. Our prayer would be that the soil would receive it and allow it to spring up in faith that you may enter in and be one of His insiders to whom this mystery is given.

[1] C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (New York: Scribners, 1961), 5.

[2] Michael Simpson, Permission Evangelism (Colorado Springs: NexGen, 2003), 54.

[3] R. C. Sproul, Grace Unknown: The Heart Of Reformed Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 151.

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