Why Jesus Taught in Parables
Oct. 23, 2011 (Kobe Union Church)
These past few weeks, Pastor Bruce and Mark Bartsch have been giving a series of sermons on various parables that Jesus used in his teaching. This morning, I will be continuing that same theme, focusing on the parable known as the “Parable of the Sower.” In addition to thinking about the meaning of this particular parable and how it applies to us today, I want us to think about why it is that Jesus so often framed his teachings in the form of parables. Why didn’t he just present his teachings directly instead of using stories as a vehicle for carrying these deep and abiding truths?
In our Scripture reading, we read through Mark’s account of Jesus’ parable of the sower and his later explanation of it. This parable is also called the “Parable of the Soils,” since it compares the hearts of people to 4 types of soil. In the introduction to this section, Mark tells us that a great crowd had gathered at the lakeside to hear Jesus speak. It says that Jesus taught them using many parables, of which this parable of the sower was only a representative one. So why is it that Jesus taught in this fashion? That is the point I want to emphasize in this morning’s message.
Let’s take a look again at the parable Mark chose to use as an example of Jesus teaching in parables, beginning at verse 3. "Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times." Jesus then closed with these seemingly strange words, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."
If you and I were among that crowd listening to this parable for the first time, do you think we would have really understood what he was saying? It doesn’t say directly whether the crowd understood Jesus’ meaning, but it is clear that his disciples did not understand it. Thus, it is only logical to conclude that nobody that heard the story that day understood what it really meant. As Jesus later explains what the various symbols stand for, the meaning seems so obvious, and so we tend to think that we would have figured it out if we had been there. But if we were listening to this parable for the first time along with the rest of the people — even assuming that the language he was using, Aramaic, was our native language — I doubt that any of us would have really understood what he was saying.
Since Jesus used numerous other such parables as he spoke to the people, they would have certainly understood that he wasn’t trying to say something in a literal sense about agriculture and planting seeds. Presumably, they would have understood that he was using these symbols to communicate some underlying message. But precisely what, no one seemed to understand. Now, if an ordinary person had gone around speaking in such hard-to-understand ways, I would imagine that people would soon tire of it and would have just ignored that person. But with Jesus, things were different. After all, he had just performed numerous miracles in their presence, and so they had great expectations of him. Thus, even though they didn’t understand what the underlying message was, they nevertheless eagerly listened. In fact, later on in this same chapter, Mark says concerning Jesus’ speaking to the crowds: “With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.”
As to why Jesus used this method of teaching, Mark explains in the following words: "When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!”’"
Wow! When you read those words, don’t they just stop you cold? We want to say, “Jesus, did we hear you right?” At first glance, it sure doesn’t sound like Jesus, does it? It sounds downright unfair! Why on earth would he want to speak in such a way that people couldn’t understand and be saved? And why would he show the secrets of the kingdom of God only to the disciples? Were they better than anyone else? One look at the things they did and said tells us that that sure was not the case. So on what basis did Jesus make this distinction? Was there something the disciples said or did that was the basis for this?
When you think about it, actually, there is. And what is that? It’s that the disciples sought after an explanation. Jesus certainly did want them to understand the parable, but more than that, he wanted them to passionately want to understand it. It is that desire to understand that Jesus was trying to encourage. In verse 13, he said, "Don't you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?" What Jesus is teaching in his explanation is that this parable is foundational to the Kingdom of God. It is foundational because in Hebrew thinking, while plants produce seed in order to reproduce, it is the soil that actually brings the plant to life. In the parable, the human heart represents the various kinds of soil, and the seed that is sown in those soils represents the Word of God. Thus, the main issue is how do we receive the Word of God. Are we like the good soil that provides the proper environment for the seed to sprout, grow and produce fruit? Or are we like the rocky soil that receives the seed, but through indifference does not provide the environment for it to grow?
After Jesus gave a full explanation of what the 4 soils represented, he then went on in the next verse to say something very interesting. "Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don't you put it on its stand?" Now, this is not just an unrelated parable that Mark throws in here on a different subject. Jesus isn’t changing the subject here to talk about evangelism or something. He is saying, "Whenever I reveal a secret of the Kingdom, I do not do that in order to keep it hidden, but instead to bring light."
In the following verses, 22 and 24, Jesus continues with "For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear." "Consider carefully what you hear," he continued. "With the measure you use, it will be measured to you — and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him."
Thus, we can see that the purpose of this parable of the sower, along with Jesus’ later explanation of it, is to encourage in us an attitude of desiring to search out an answer. It is this attitude that God is trying to develop in us. In the symbolism of the Psalms, it describes God’s word by saying, "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path." In other words, God gives us the lamp, but it is still our responsibility to put that lamp on a stand and not under a bowl. While the Word of God may come to us in a somewhat hidden form, it is God’s desire that everything should be made plain.
But we must first be willing to seek out after it. Thus, we each need to ask ourselves, “What is my own attitude towards receiving God’s word? With what kind of posture do I receive it?” An attitude that truly desires to hear that word is like the good soil. It is positive and active, and it will be rewarded. The more knowledge we seek, the more knowledge we will be given. But if we don’t really want to know and are unconcerned about it, then even the little knowledge that we do have will fade away or be buried under the concerns of this world.
This principle is one of the most important ones in the Bible. If you want to find something, you have to search for it. Jesus himself promised what would happen if you do. In the "Sermon on the Mount" in Matthew 7, Jesus said, "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened." Thus, Jesus is saying that if you will only ask and seek, it is guaranteed that you will find. In order to get an answer, you must first ask the question and seek out an answer. And that does take some effort.
The reason God has set things up this way and refuses to simply hand everything to us "on a silver platter" is that the amount of effort we are willing to expend in searching for the truth is a measure of our willingness to live by that truth. If we only half-heartedly look for the truth, we will not highly value whatever truth we happen to find. We will not work hard for something we don’t value highly. This, I think, is one of the reasons Jesus chose to teach the crowds using parables rather than plainly explaining everything. Likewise, if he had explained everything plainly from the beginning to anyone who happened to be listening, it could very well have short-circuited his ministry on earth so that his primary mission of offering his life as a sacrifice for our sins would have happened before he had sufficient time to train his disciples. In other words, the authorities would have likely perceived him as a dire threat to their power earlier if he had come out plainly from the beginning, and so they would have sought to execute him even earlier than they did. While that is an important point as well, the other point is what I want to focus on today. God’s desire is for us to put out an effort, because it is that effort that both reveals our hearts as well as strengthens them.
If this principle applies to Jesus and his teachings — that is, to the highest revelation of God to mankind — then how much more it must be true of other forms of God’s revelation. The problem is that when you really get down to it, most people just don’t want to be bothered with putting out the effort to think for themselves. When it comes to the “big questions” of life, many would simply like to have an “answer” handed to them without their having to work for it. People who think like this are particularly vulnerable to the cults, as they subconsciously seek out some charismatic character who can tell them what to believe without their having to work at understanding it. “It’s too difficult! Just tell me what to believe!” Jesus’ words that we read earlier are particularly applicable to this point. "Consider carefully what you hear. With the measure you use, it will be measured to you — and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him." People who listen to the seductive messages of the cults without carefully considering what they are hearing — in other words without thinking through it for themselves — end up loosing the very ability to think for themselves, so that they end up loosing even the little knowledge they do have.
This same principle applies to the world of nature as well. God reveals himself to mankind in basically two ways. His revelation through the Scriptures is referred to as his “special revelation,” while his revelation of himself through the natural world that he created is called his “general revelation.” God can also, of course, reveal aspects of himself directly to an individual human heart, but generally he still does this through the agency of his special and general revelations, the “Word of God” and the “World of God.”
Observing the natural world and trying to understand it is the realm of science, but it is also something that the Bible encourages us to do. As it says in Psalms 111:2, “Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them.” If we truly delight in God’s creation, we will “ponder” it and seek understanding. The study of God’s Word, theology, and the study of God’s World, science, should go hand-in-hand.
Many of you will know that my own academic background was in science, and so this particular topic is really dear to my heart. In fact, if you’ve been here at KUC for a while and have heard me give sermons in the past, you know that I like to touch on this subject whenever I have the chance. And so I will be repeating myself a bit here. But I think it is of such importance that it is worth repeating — particularly for those of you who haven’t been exposed to this before.
As you no doubt know, in today’s world, many people have come to think of science and religion as complete opposites. When it comes to most of the world’s religions, there is a good bit of truth to that, but I am basically limiting my comments to Christianity, and so what I mean is that secular people in general — and even many Christians — think that modern science and the Christian faith are at odds. However, an honest look at the history of science reveals something very different. Modern science was not even able to get off the ground until certain necessary preconditions came together, and that first happened during the Renaissance in Europe. The primary prerequisite for the flowering of science is the basic worldview one sees in the Bible. In other words, it is the basic concept that the natural world is not governed by the whims of various gods but instead works according to natural laws that were instituted by the Creator.
The absence of this basic concept is the reason science was “stillborn” in every other culture prior to that. With the exception of the Jews and Christians, who accepted the message of the Bible, all other ancient societies believed that natural phenomena were governed by various gods according to how they felt at the moment and by various events in the realm of the gods. Thus, such phenomena were not thought of as something human beings could understand in anything other than a superficial sense. Thus, people with that kind of understanding of reality would not even think of trying to understand nature, but instead would focus all their energy on religious rituals intended to placate the gods and get them to give you what you want. With that kind of underlying worldview, the basic concepts necessary for the birth of science could never occur.
This situation changed for the first time in medieval Europe, and so it was there that science could finally get going in a meaningful way. It is also important to note that essentially all of the important early scientists were dedicated Christians. They had gleaned out of Scripture the principle we now call the “scientific method” and used that as their methodology to try to understand the world that God had created. Their work, then, became the foundation on which all of modern science is based.
One of my favorite sections of Scripture is the opening lines of Psalm 19, where it says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” This, of course, refers to what we call God’s “general revelation,” in which God speaks through the works of his hands in all of the languages of the world. But this too, is like a parable. It’s meaning is not obvious, and to understand that meaning, one has to search it out. Through observations, one first deduces the laws of nature that govern it. Then through continued observation, one can begin to understand the many factors that are finely tuned to allow life to exist. It is through searching out this witness through God’s World that we can deduce various aspects of God’s character and compare that with what can similarly be derived from the revelation we receive from God’s Word. When each is properly understood, there is no conflict whatsoever between God’s two revelations. While much more could be said about this, the point I particularly want to bring out is that the study of both of these revelations reveals that everything has a purpose and fits into God’s overall purpose. Nothing happens that in some way does not serve God’s purposes. Those purposes are often hidden from our view, but when we search out the truth, we can eventually find out what those purposes are. I say “eventually,” because I recognize that much of the understanding I seek will not be mine this side of eternity. Nevertheless, there is much that is available to us in this life, and it is that that we should seek after.
Now, in the realm of science, our observations of nature and the various scientific experiments we perform involve a lot of hard work. God does not reveal himself to us in such a way that no work is required on our part to see him. This is why he doesn’t just reveal himself to the world by sitting up there in the sky on a throne or something like that. God has set up the world in such a way that we have to seek in order to find. This is true in both the world of science as well as the world of religious belief. It is as the words of Hebrews 11:6 proclaim, “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” If God revealed himself to us in a way that was impossible to deny, then no faith would be necessary. Thus, in this sense, God has set up things so that it is not possible to prove his existence absolutely. He gives us plenty of evidence, but if one wishes to deny that evidence, then it will always be possible to do so. If God revealed himself in a way that was impossible to deny, then human freedom would be taken away and faith would no longer be a necessary prerequisite for belief in God.
God, however, has not designed the world this way. He provides strong evidence for his existence and for there being purpose in each of our lives, but he requires that we be willing to work at finding it. God does not just hand it to us with no effort required on our part. We could make an analogy from the world of consumer goods. When I go into a store, I can buy an item that is already pre-assembled. Or, in certain cases, I can opt to buy the “do-it-yourself” version. The pre-assembled version is, of course, a lot less work, but the “do-it-yourself” version is a lot cheaper. It takes a lot more work, of course — especially if you don’t follow the instructions, and sometimes even when you try to! Well, in our world, we often have both options, but when it comes to God’s world, we could say that the “do-it-yourself” version is the only one made available to us. He never gives us fully assembled items. Some "self-assembly" is always required. We have to work at understanding.
In closing, I would like to leave you with this thought. Science, theology and every other human endeavor require work. Searching things out is hard work. Plowing the ground is hard work. And reaping the harvest is also hard work. God has prepared a harvest for each and every one of us. Do you know what harvest he has prepared for you? If you have never considered that and dedicated yourself to the hard work it takes to find out what it is, this morning is a good time to begin. We all need to remind ourselves that the same God who has carefully designed this universe so that human life is possible also specifically designed each one of us for a purpose. If “the heavens declare the glory of God” and reveal that everything has a purpose, then they also show that you, as his highest creation, likewise have a purpose. It is the searching out of that purpose that is the great adventure we call life.
Let us close with a prayer: Our Father, when we consider the works of your hands in the beauty of nature, we are filled with awe. Especially when we begin to understand how incredibly complex and interwoven is the design of this home you have given us, we are filled with thanksgiving. Likewise, we thank you for the witness of your Word, which is like a lamp unto our feet. Help us to desire to put out the effort necessary to understand both of your revelations. Help us to do the work necessary to understand your purpose in our lives. For it is in Christ’s name that we pray.