Journey Post 44, What Jesus Actually Taught: Those pesky puzzling parables — Jesus may have left the building, but he’s still around
The Donkey understanding of Christianity, part 4a
“…the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13: 45-46, NIV)
Jesus told many, many stories during the course of his ministry. He used allegory extensively, including parables and other figures of speech to communicate his points. Many of his sayings and parables have become deeply embedded within the cultural fabric of our nation, in its history and traditions. The good Samaritan. The prodigal son. The sower and the seed. The pearl of great price (above).
If you’re a bit uncertain about what Jesus was getting at in these stories, you’re not alone—whether you’re a devoted Christian or non. Take the one from Matthew 13 about the pearl. What do you think he meant? The pearl: is it people, God, Jesus, salvation? The merchant: God, Jesus, a sinner? Why did he sell everything and buy the pearl? Is he saying I have to give up everything? Go to Africa as a missionary? Give all my money to the church? Become Mother Teresa II?
There’s a lot of confusion: Different people have different understandings of this and other parables—even in the same church. What I want to do here, in this first post about parables, is not to give what I think are all the “correct” interpretations, but to provide some useful tools to help you do that.
Growing up in church, I figured I knew what the parables were about—and wouldn’t let on otherwise. Even after attending Bible school, I was confused about many of them. I came away from our training with the remarkable impression that the Gospels weren’t all that relevant for Christian life today.
Why then, bother with the parables? Because they are important for us to understand. They tell us a lot about what Jesus actually taught. About what he was trying to say to us.
About a decade ago, I began to look at the parables again. That’s when I took time out from any other Bible reading or study and just read the four Gospel accounts over and over. I found then that most of them yield a simple, obvious explanation, though I’m still uncertain about some of the particulars.
Jesus was not “A. Lincoln, master tale spinner,” who could entertain (or get votes) in his inimitable style—though I can imagine Jesus sitting around with his disciples sharing a yarn and laughing, heartily. The stories recounted in Scripture were given to hammer home serious points, vital spiritual truth to help us know God. They help us know ourselves.
Jesus was a master at using vivid pictures and familiar illustrations in that agricultural society, memorable stories that made the kingdom of God come alive in a way that no preacher today with polished rhetoric could match.
When finishing a story, Jesus often left listeners an exhortation such as: “Those who have ears to hear, hear what the parable is saying….” He urged them to listen carefully—and mull. The story form facilitated remembering, and the word pictures communicated so much more than erudite explanation.
The crowds didn’t always understand, and even his disciples were stumped sometimes. The difference between the masses and the disciples (i.e., those who wanted to learn and apply what he taught, like any good apprentice) was that the disciples went and asked what he meant.
“Gee, thanks, Walt,” you say, “Jesus isn’t exactly around to ask.” But the premise of Christianity is that, yes indeed, Jesus is still very much around. He rose from the dead and sent his Holy Spirit to help us know God and to understand his mindset. You may not claim to be a believer, but I’m guessing you might want to know if Jesus is relevant for your life, even if you don’t want to hang around church.
This leads us to another premise of Christianity: i.e., God wants to communicate with his creatures. He doesn’t hide the meaning of what he says from those who truly want to know and are willing to apply that meaning to their lives. That’s what Jesus meant when he exhorted “those who have ears to hear….” Even if you believe that the Bible and Christianity is a complete crock full of superstitious nonsense or deliberate deception, you can understand, too. You can go to the Source.
Another premise of Christianity is that what God wants us to understand is pretty simple. Intellectually. But to truly “learn” it requires a willing heart. We Americans are so brain centered that we think academic smarts are more important than wisdom. I know I did. My “zigzag journey” is really about me getting my “self” out of the way, though sometimes the Lord had to hit this Donkey upside the head to get my attention. My brain, my faith in my own intellectual ability to build a system wherein God made sense, was generally in the way of finding out what he thinks.
Spiritual truth, if from God, is generally much simpler than we want to think.
God has promised that those who seek him will find him, if they seek with all their heart (Jeremiah 29:13). He promised his people (in Jeremiah 31) that he would write his law on their hearts. I’ve never known him to break a promise. It’s his Spirit who makes what he says (i.e., in the Scriptures) comprehensible and doable. The brain (intellect, cognitive ability) submitted to him, will know his truth.
In a similar vein, Jesus once said (John 7:17): “Anyone who wants to do the will of God will know whether my teaching is from God or is merely my own.”
Unfortunately, even churches get caught up in what a friend of mine calls “cognitive discipleship.” It’s the path of least resistance: learn enough Bible verses to build a correct doctrinal system and you’ll be okay.
The Pharisees and other religious leaders had the intellectual part down. But they didn’t truly “get” the point of God’s law, which is why they kept having run-ins with Jesus. They practiced legalistic minutia, but missed the “weightier matters of the law,” things like justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matthew 23).
A good Jewish boy growing up in Jesus’s day should have known that God’s law could be summed up by two commandments: love God with all your being (heart, soul, mind, and strength) and love your neighbor as yourself. The problem was that their teachers’ minutia kept getting in the way of God’s simpler will.
Here’s a couple simple things to keep in mind so as not to get lost in the minutia of a parable.
First simple thing: Remember your English teacher asking, what’s the main point? the big idea? This is the critical question about any parable, because it’s so tempting to try figuring out each little part. There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s hard to avoid, really. But focusing on every detail makes it easy to miss the main thing. It’s missing the forest for the trees.
The second simple thing is this: always consider the context (Kontext with a capital “K”). I’ll never tire of saying this. And I hope you listened in English class. Context simply is what comes before and after in a sentence, paragraph, story, or a book in the Bible or the whole Bible itself.
Two very familiar parables illustrate the importance of context. One is the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. The other is the story of the good Samaritan in Luke 10.
The prodigal son is a favorite story, a nice, heartwarming read or tell. The younger son asks for his inheritance and goes away, wasting it on wine, women, and song in a relatively short time. He’s reduced to slopping pigs, yearning to eat their same delicious repast. (Pigs are unclean for Jews.) He comes to his senses, repents, and goes home. The father, who has been watching for him, sees him coming up the road and runs to meet him, (so much for the dignity of the dad). He throws a great feast to celebrate—though the older brother refuses to come.
We’re rightly touched by the story. You may stumble around looking at the parts to figure out what’s what. Is the father God? What did the older brother represent, the religious leaders? Is each piece important? The larger context is important: The first verse in Luke 15 tells us about the Pharisees and teachers complaining that Jesus eats with and welcomes “sinners.” In answer, Jesus tells a parable, composed of three parts, about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and then the lost son. Looking at context will put you on firmer ground to think about the possibilities. We’ll come back to this parable at a later time…. 😊
Another example is “the good Samaritan,” Luke 10:25-37. The story seems unconnected to any surrounding context. Is that so? The story illustrates what it means to “love your neighbor,” and by extension, what it means to love God. The man to whom Jesus told the story was an expert in God’s law. The man, whose motives are suspect, asks “and who is my neighbor?”
Jesus’s answer packs a double whammy: being merciful to a neighbor means getting involved with a beaten-up stranger. Two men pass by, one a priest, the other a Levite, who should’ve stopped. The generously merciful one who stops is a Samaritan, a member of the race regarded by Jews as half-breeds and enemies.
There are at least two points that Jesus is making in the parable: how to love is only one point. Remember the expert’s original question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer to that is an important part of the story. Jesus threw the question back at the man, telling him he had “answered correctly…. Do this and you will live.”
Wait … what? “Walt, Christians say the Bible teaches that eternal life comes by faith, not doing good works.” That’s right, it does. “Well then, is Jesus saying that we gain eternal life by living ‘correctly’?” No, he is not. It’s important to know the larger context (bigger “K”) of the Bible: what did Jesus and others say elsewhere?
If our eternal destiny depends entirely on how well we live … well …. the Bible states explicitly that no one can live rightly enough to earn a place in heaven. It states very clearly that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” i.e., they cannot, on their own, attain to a place in God’s glorious presence, (Romans 3:23).
Scripture makes abundantly clear that no one can live up to God’s standards. The law expert seemed satisfied that he was doing okay, and Jesus almost lets him think that. There’s enough in the story to tell us that the man wasn’t really interested in loving his neighbor the way Jesus described it. The parable picture Jesus used would—hopefully—haunt the man until he asked more honestly. We don’t know if he did.
A more complete answer would have included reference to the idea that no person can be righteous in the sight of God without depending on his merciful and gracious heart. Being truly righteous is beyond the reach of human effort. That’s part of the bigger story (i.e., the context) in the Gospel accounts and the rest of the Bible.
If you were to ask why Jesus came, the stock answer is that he came to die on the cross to pay for our sins. It might include the idea that if you believe this, you will have eternal life. But believing can be tricky: it includes both mental assent to facts and trusting God that he will keep his promises. You cannot trust someone you do not know. So God sent Jesus to display to his creatures who he is and what he is like, to correct the errors foisted on the people by their religious leaders, so that those who follow Jesus can know the Father, can know he is trustworthy.
Please join me as we explore what Jesus actually taught through his parables. We won’t look at all of them, and I’m not sure yet where we will end. We will begin next time with the parable of the sower and the seed.
If you have ears, hear what the parable says. And don’t forget to ask. Jesus may have gone to heaven, but he’s still very much around….