Parables, not plain talking

Matthew 13:1–17

Good communication is really important. It is vital to the success of your message to make it clear and concise.

For example: Stop! You’re about to drive off a cliff.

That’s fairly good. It is unambiguous and simple. Stop. Backed up with a short explanation.
Compare that with a polite suggestion: Excuse me, might I be permitted to point out, without wishing to offend, but I notice that your current course of action may, if continued, result in the vehicle now being driven by your good self, and being driven excellently if I may be so bold, reaching a precarious state of imminent danger and … oops! Too late.

Another way to communicate information is through humour. Using this method you would prevent someone from driving over a cliff by telling them a joke.

There was once a farmer with a horse that understood only two commands. Thank God and Jesus is Lord. To make this horse go you had to say ‘Thank God’ and to get him to stop you had to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ … [tells joke]

John the Baptist was inclined to the first approach. He called the religious leaders snakes as he denounced them. “You brood of snakes!” he exclaimed. “Who warned you to flee God’s coming wrath?”

The Church of England favours the second method, because it would really rather not say anything that might possibly cause anyone a semblance of offence.

But Jesus mostly used the third approach. He communicated with parables.

Our reading today is from Matthew 13, and is one of a series of parables in that chapter.
In verse 34 we are told that he said nothing to them that was not a parable. And in these parables, for example verse 9, Jesus keeps saying: He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

He is saying to all who listen to him, or who now read what he said, that we should not just listen with our ears, but also with our hearts. Don’t just hear the words and take them at face value, but explore their deeper meaning. To understand, you must make a personal investment of time and energy and imagination. Go beyond the literal meaning and the limitations of your rational mind.

Each of the parables has something hidden in it that later becomes visible.

Seeds are planted in a field. Hidden in the seeds is the potential for them to become plants and eventually produce a harvest of thousands more seeds. The seeds are hidden in the soil until a combination of moisture and warmth causes them to germinate.

We have weeds. They are hidden at first, disguised as grain, secretly planted. Under the soil where they can’t be seen. Revealed only at harvest time.

We have the mustard seed. Small and insignificant, hidden in the soil again, until in a surprise there emerges a large plant.

There is yeast, hidden in the dough, invisible but causing the dough to rise. Secretly and mysteriously bringing transformation though we cannot see it.

There is treasure, hidden in a field. There is a valuable pearl, which had to be discovered.
There are fish, concealed by the water. Gathered in a net, but no one knows what kinds of fish, good to eat or bad, until the net is dragged out of the water onto the shore.

Each parable contains a twist in the plot, a surprise. Something the listeners did not see coming. A surprising variety of harvests. A surprising instruction regarding weeds. A surprising sized plant from a tiny seed. And so on.

As a literary genre, parables have a common trait. We can see a pattern in these stories.
The deep truth is hidden. We need to search it out, dig it out, work it out. We will never understand them if we take a dictionary and try to analyse each word by its literal meaning. And when we do this, we may be surprised at what we learn.

Look at our reading today. The disciples hear Jesus deliver the first parable and are unable to understand. They have listened with their ears, and seen with their eyes, and the truth has remained hidden from them. The 12 cannot figure it out so they go to Jesus with a question. But what do they ask him? It’s fascinating, they ask him why he is speaking in parables.

They don’t ask him to explain his parable. Wouldn’t you expect them to say: “What does this parable mean?” But they don’t. They say: “Why are you talking in parables?” They are in effect saying why are you doing this, no one can understand what you are talking about. Why don’t you adopt the best principles of communication and say straight out what you want to say like John the Baptist? Then we’ll all be clear about your message. Be direct. Be obvious. Stop confusing us.

What we need to do here is pause and ask, What is Jesus’ purpose in telling parables?
A parable lures the listener or reader into new territory. A parable is an invitation to a relationship. And a relationship is what God is seeking.

A curt dry direct explanation is unable to do this. With a clear and easy explanation a listener can go away with understanding and be independent.

But the kingdom of heaven is not about us being independent. It is about us being interdependent. It is about us being in relationship to God and to each other. So a parable works a whole lot better. It confounds and confuses, and requires us to ask questions. It demands we build and maintain a relationship with the speaker. Because of this some people respond impatiently, walking away in disgust, complaining at the waste of their precious time. But the humble, the meek, eagerly want to know more.

What does Jesus say to the disciples when they ask why he talks in parables. Again he shows his capacity to surprise. Jesus says in verse 11 he does it is because he is sharing ‘the secrets of the kingdom of heaven’.

Jesus quotes Isaiah to explain; “this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed”.

Calloused and hard hearts cannot hear God. When you let your heart get hard, you lose your ability to hear and see clearly.

Jesus spoke in parables because Jesus wasn’t merely conveying information. Jesus wants to precipitate spiritual transformation, he wants to build a relationship. He wants to touch hearts. To understand God we have to have the attitude of children. Not the attitude of scholars.

Can you see why Jesus said the kingdom of God belongs to those who are like children? Children know they don’t know. They are eager to ask and learn. They are not self‑centred, but other centred and dependent.

If you are too important for childish stories, if you want intellectual knowledge, you may miss what Jesus was really saying. If you are like the religious leaders in Luke 20 you may understand and get angry, because you lack childish humility.

But it is hearts that count, and hearts can never be forced. Not even by God.

Instead of screaming ‘repent, you vile sinner’ at everyone, Jesus gently shared the truth in a way that respected dignity. He isn’t trying to make anyone look stupid.

He is inviting you right now to come to him, and ask him what he meant by the things he said. You have the freedom to decide how to respond. But Jesus wants to sit down with you and talk about it. He wants to have a relationship with you. Won’t you let him into your life? Won’t you ask him to help you understand?



About Pastor Simon

Pastor at Jinju International Christian Fellowship. Formerly of Eastbourne, East Sussex, UK. I am Simon Warner of Jinju Church. We speak English at Jinju Church, South Korea.
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