Today a series of daily devotionals I wrote on the parables of Jesus begins in The Journey. After I had turned in the manuscript to the editors two years ago, the topic stayed on my mind. It eventually got me writing a book on the subject which I published last year. Except for three or four lines from the devotionals, I found myself writing a completely new take on them. You can read the first several chapters in a sample from the e-book edition at Smashwords. The book is also available at Amazon and other online retailers.
When I was still writing the book, I posted the chapter on the prayer parables here at my blog. Read that post here. Today, I am posting the opening chapter. If you find the parables as interesting as I did, I hope you’ll get a full copy of the book!
Psalm 78:1 Hear my teaching, my people.
Turn your ears to the words of my mouth.
2 I will open my mouth in a parable.
I will utter dark sayings of old,
3 Which we have heard and known,
and our fathers have told us.
4 We will not hide them from their children,
telling to the generation to come the praises of Yahweh,
his strength, and his wondrous deeds that he has done.
My thanks to the Bible Reading Fellowship. They invited me to write a series of daily devotionals on the Parables for their summer 2017 issue of The Journey. When I finished writing these I realized that there was more I wanted to say! Herewith.
While I was working on this manuscript, I saw a picture of two young friends who have been praying for me. I hear they were lighting so many prayer candles for me that their dad was afraid they would burn the church down. Then they entered a walk-a-thon on my behalf. They represent what being part of the Kingdom of Heaven means to me. I trust that, as they grow up, they will want to be permanent residents with Jesus in his Kingdom. With thanksgiving for all their prayers, I dedicate this book to Mary Clare Spake and Kathryn Spake.
What Is A Parable?
I started work writing this book on Christmas Eve, 2015.
As that day began, I was thinking about the different circumstances in my life on that day over the years. My thoughts quickly turned to a Christmas Eve 42 years earlier, which had been the last Christmas I was still living at home with my parents.
My parents always had my two younger brothers and me open our Christmas presents on Christmas Eve. This year I had invited my fiancé to join us around the Christmas tree. When Melanie opened her gift from me, she found another gift ribbon and tag. She didn’t know what it meant but I took the ribbon and slipped it on her wrist. Then I slipped the engagement ring on her finger. The tag on the ribbon I’d placed on her wrist said, “To My Family.”
As I sat down to begin writing this book, I realized I had made Melanie into a parable that night. I was saying she was like a Christmas gift to the rest of my family. She was much more than just that, of course. Over time, we would all learn and add further labels to the rich threads of blessing we would all share in our new relationship. But saying she was like a “gift” was a truth that held the other blessings in promise right from the beginning.
Mark 4:30 He was also saying, “How can we show what the kingdom of God is like, or what parable can we use to describe it?” (International Standard Version)
Bookstores carry Bibles in all sorts of translations. For English readers this is necessary because the manuscripts that make up the Bible were originally written in other languages, mostly Hebrew and Greek. Translators who offer an English translation must make a number of decisions. One of the first is whether they want to provide, on one hand, a “word for word” rendering of the text, or, on the other hand, a “thought for thought” version. Either approach can be valid. Still there are difficulties a reader needs to be aware of. A translation that is extremely literal may still introduce confusion to those not familiar with the original language. This is because the original language may make use of words in figures of speech that are not intended to be taken literally. There may be poetic images that are familiar to the speakers of the original language but are mysterious to those living in another culture or another time. The translator may need to resort to substitute images and figures of speech in order to convey the thought and message to the new audience.
Missionaries translating the Bible face this challenge all the time. If the missionary is speaking to people who have never seen a sheep, will it mean anything to these people to say Jesus is a “good shepherd?”
Jesus faced this very challenge when he tried to teach us about the Kingdom of Heaven. He wanted to convey an understanding of something that was, in many ways, hidden from us. He chose familiar images framed in parables in order to indirectly draw our attention to important points we could not see or might misunderstand. It was an act of “translation” for us.
Parables had already been used by various teachers in the Old Testament. In II Samuel 12, Nathan the priest addressed King David with a parable before accusing him of his sin with Bathsheba. The prophets, including particularly Ezekiel, often used parables in their messages to the people. So the method had been well road-tested as a way to address the nation by the time Jesus appeared.
When Jesus began his public ministry, his proclamation was that “the Kingdom of God is near.” (Mark 1:15) When it came time to say more, he resorted to parables. In this book I will look at more than 30 of the parables he told.
What was Jesus doing by constantly framing these lessons into parables? I have wondered why he didn’t speak more plainly. Was he playing games and teasing us? If he had come to make his kingdom known to us, why hide it in these curious stories? Well, as I suggested above, his subject was already hidden from human eyes and understanding. The challenge was to make it understandable by starting with something familiar.
I have come to believe he chose this way of teaching because it is effective. And it is effective in a way that, at first, surprised me because it initially seems to obscure the subject.
It is commonly recognized in sales and communications that people don’t hear you the first time. They need to hear something several times it before it sinks in. The teasing mystery inherent in a parable almost guarantees a “Huh? Say that again…” response from listeners. And that guarantees greater attention as the teaching gets repeated.
It is similar in effect to a technique used by Moshe Rosen, the founder of Jews For Jesus. When witnessing to someone about Christ, he would pick a moment to deliberately change the subject and begin talking about something else entirely. If the other person let the conversation wander in the new direction unchallenged, Moishe knew they were not interested or weren’t paying attention to what he was saying about Jesus.
Teaching with parables can produce the same information about the hearers. It is a way for the teacher to directly measure the interest, if any, that the listener has in the subject.
I wonder if this wasn’t also something Jesus was watching for. When he cited Isaiah’s prophecy about people who would hear but not understand (Matthew 13:14ff) maybe he was actually recognizing this fact. People who were too wrapped up in their own agendas were not going to want to take the time to understand his. In fact, on one occasion, Jesus rebuked the crowd following him, saying all they were interested in was getting more bread to eat (John 6:26).
The disciples passed this test. They asked Jesus to explain what he was talking about. They got the extra commentary, the keys to the symbols, so they could unlock the meaning of the parables.
It will help our understanding of parables is we begin by recognizing what they are and what they are not.
Let’s start with the obvious. Parables are not the subject, the thing itself. They are symbols pointing to the subject. Any individual parable or symbol will be incomplete. That is a reason Jesus used so many of them. Each one allowed him to highlight one part or another of the Kingdom he had come to proclaim. That Kingdom had a depth and richness that could not be comprehended all at once. Each parable was intended to focus attention on a single facet. The point was, finally, not so much to understand the parables as to understand the Kingdom they were about.
When you are traveling down a road to a city, you don’t see the city right away. The first things you see are the signs pointing the way. In this book we’ll be looking at those signs.
What is a parable? It is a language form categorized as an analogy or simile. The simile talks of one thing being “like” another (similarity). It differs from a metaphor, a statement where the assertion is that one thing “is” another (equivalence).
Thus, when Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a pearl of great price, or like a tree, we know he is not saying the Kingdom IS a pearl or a tree. But there is some quality that is common to both. The parable is meant to draw our attention to that common quality. We know a pearl has a unique value. Jesus is saying the Kingdom of Heaven likewise has a unique value. By giving us a great many parables about the Kingdom, Jesus wants to teach us some of its qualities before we are able to see it fully and directly.
At the Last Supper, Philip burst out with a request. “Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” (John 14:8) Jesus answered by saying they had already seen the Father when they saw him. What I note here is that Jesus did not deny their desire to see. He only pointed out that they did not understand what they had already seen.
In the parables we have a similar situation. It is not that God refuses to let us see His Kingdom. We have trouble understanding what we do see of it. Jesus says we are surrounded with things that we could also recognize as traits of the Kingdom. That is what he points out over and over in the parables.
One of the things I recognized as I studied and prepared to write this book was that no single parable unveiled all there was to say about the Kingdom of Heaven. The different facets required different parables, although sometimes Jesus stressed some aspect by talking about it in more than one parable. I must admit that reading them altogether, one after another, gave me a greater vision of the whole than I had before.
In this book I have sorted the parables around ten of the major themes that I saw.
To begin with, God is quite content to start small. Things will end up much bigger. This is the Kingdom of Heaven we’re talking about. But God has the patience to wait for it to grow to full size. We must be patient, too.
Several parables describe a search. In fact, this theme is one of three that Jesus returned to most often while teaching about the Kingdom. At first I thought these were statements about our search. I have changed my mind about that.
God is a generous God. This theme is taken for granted in a number of the parables. This, by itself, is a fascinating statement and revelation about God.
Several parables display this quality of generosity by describing invitations being sent out to join a celebration. Oddly, this generosity is not always well received.
Other parables describe rewards given out for work that has been done. This is one of the three themes Jesus returned to often. Sometimes the rewards themselves, as well as those who receive them, are a bit surprising.
God apparently identifies closely with His children and how they are treated. Observers, suffering from limited vision, have questions about the closeness of the relationship Jesus describes. This limited vision, verging on blindness, is a third theme that Jesus returns to frequently.
Jesus tells at least three parables that discuss how prayer affects the relationship that is offered to us. They speak to the new order and bond that is intended to be the norm in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus tells parables that focus on the responsibilities of stewards entrusted with a master’s property. These speak to the order of things now, before the Kingdom is fully revealed.
I will wrap up with a fascinating parable that tells us, even after all Jesus reveals to us in the parables about this Kingdom, that some mysteries will remain.
But clearly there are things we are meant to know and need to know. So let’s begin with some of the things we can understand.