This week, we launched a new series focused on Jesus's parables. Those who are familiar with the gospels know that Jesus loved to tell stories -- and not just any stories -- he told stories about life that lead the listeners into life. By speaking to the people in parables, Jesus helped the listeners take part in the action, so that each person can see him or herself in the story. And when we apply the stories to ourselves, we often have to dig for and respond to the story's meaning in ways that are unique to each of us. Jesus's parables speak deeper than mere words and cause us to apply truth to our lives.
What is a Parable?
A parable is a comparison between two things. Sometimes Jesus uses simile to make the comparison explicit (i.e. "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field..."). Other times, he simply tells the story and allows the listeners to draw their own conclusions. These parables do not mean whatever we want them to mean; that is, they do not mean something different to each of us, but they do mean something different for each of us. In other words, while the possible meanings of each parable are not totally subjective, the possible applications of each parable may vary from person to person. In their focus and application, each person will hear something different and specific to their life.
A parable for a king
One example of a parable in action comes from the life of King David. After David slept with Bathsheba, impregnated her, and ultimately arranged for her husband's death in the front lines of battle, God sent a prophet, Nathan, to confront David about his evil deeds. Rather than berate David with the specifics of his crime, Nathan told him a parable. It goes like this:
“There were two men in one city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had exceedingly many flocks and herds. But the poor man had nothing, except one little ewe lamb which he had bought and nourished; and it grew up together with him and with his children. It ate of his own food and drank from his own cup and lay in his bosom; and it was like a daughter to him. And a traveler came to the rich man, who refused to take from his own flock and from his own herd to prepare one for the wayfaring man who had come to him; but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”
David became so angry on hearing the story that he called for this fictional man's death, at which point, Nathan made the point of the parable clear: "You are the man," he told his king. Nathan's parable moved David to repentance, and Jesus's parables are meant to move us as well.
The tale of Nathan and David shows us that God loves to speak to his people through stories, and nowhere is this method of revelation more clear than in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, who spent his whole ministry speaking in parables. When we encounter his parables, we should ask ourselves two questions: 1) What is Jesus saying, and 2) What does it mean for my life.
A great example of one of Jesus's parables is the parable of the sower, found in Matthew 13:
“Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds came and devoured them. Some fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked them. But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
When Jesus says, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear," he uses the imperative verb form. In other words, this isn't just a polite suggestion. One way to translate the phrase is, "He who has ears to hear had better listen!" Afterward, his disciples are confused and they ask Jesus why he speaks in parables and what it all means. Jesus explains that some have been given insight into the kingdom and some haven't. By speaking in parables, Jesus ensures that some people will see without perceiving and hear without understanding, but some will gain knowledge of God's kingdom. Parables divide between those who "get it" and care and those who don't.
A Parable about parables
Jesus goes on to explain the meaning of the parable of the sower, and it turns out that it's a parable about those who hear God's word. All that explanation about the purpose of speaking in parables serves as a lead-in to the parable's main takeaway: those who have ears to hear are those whose hearts have "good soil," who hear the word, understand it, and bear fruit.
What about those other types of soil? The first type of soil indicates those in whom God's word has no opportunity to take root because Satan snatches it away before it can even begin to grow. The next type of soil involves those who receive the word joyfully and immediately, but never really allow the word to take root deep in their lives. When trouble comes, they give up. People like this are kind of like bandwagon sports fans: they only stick around when the team is winning. The third type of soil receives the word at first, but is so distracted by all the cares and worries of life, that the word cannot take root and produce fruit. For this type of soil, all the other parts of life that compete for our attention take precedence over God's place.
Most of us struggle with the last two types of soil. Either we wither under persecution or we get choked by the distractions of daily life. But here's the good news: the Holy Spirit is the one who does the hard work of producing fruit in our lives. Fruit is the sign of the "good soil" that yields a crop, and it is God's work in us that produces that fruit. To return to the parable's comparison -- Jesus, the one who sows the word, who is also the farmer and cultivator of our heart's soil, is the one responsible for helping us to yield a crop. So what is our role in all this? We get a clue in the word "yield." To yield means to "give way" or "give up." When we yield to Jesus, we will yield the fruit of his word in our lives.
Are you hearing and receiving today? Can you see the result of God's word in your life? And if not, what do you need to yield or give up to God today?