Speaking In Pictures

Understanding Parables

The one thing every speaker learns is that in any talk they give people are going to remember the stories or illustrations more than the points that are made.  Consequently, it is important to make sure that your stories have a point!  The greatest illustrator of his day was Jesus.  He had a way of using the common things around him to teach others. When he was walking along the road he talked about seed; When watching people put their money into the temple treasury, He talked about the true spirit of giving by drawing attention to the contribution of one woman.

Jesus was a master story-teller.  His parables are some of the best known teachings of Jesus. For most of the next year we are going to look at the various parables of Jesus.  They are some of His most powerful instruction.  But before we get into the parables themselves this morning we are going to look at why Jesus spoke in parables.  In our text this morning the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Why are you speaking in parables?” Jesus answered,

This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
          For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’ (Matthew 13:13-15)

Admittedly, this is a somewhat confusing answer.  In fact, commentators over the years have divided over what Jesus meant. This morning I want to look at the two responses toward the parables,

THE EFFECT OF PARABLES ON THE LOST

There was certainly a practical aspect for why Jesus spoke in parables.  If He spoke directly he would have offended the Jewish leaders and been crucified almost immediately.  By speaking in parables he could continue to instruct believers, while at the same time avoiding his opponents. In order to understand the parables you had to think about them.  The opponents had no desire to try to understand what Jesus meant by His stories.

Explanation

The troubling aspect of the words of Jesus is that they seem to say that the parables are somehow going to harden the hearts of the unbelievers.  Since Jesus is quoting the words of God recorded in Isaiah, let’s look back to the original context.  The prophet is given a job to do by the Almighty,

He said, “Go and tell this people:
“‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull
and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9-10)

It sounds like Isaiah is sent to go out and confuse these folks. So by inference, are we to conclude that Jesus taught in parables so that the people might be kept from believing? No. Isaiah didn’t speak in riddles when he went to Israel, he spoke plainly.  In fact, listen to the charge against Isaiah in Isaiah 28:9,10

“Who is it he is trying to teach?
To whom is he explaining his message?
To children weaned from their milk,
to those just taken from the breast?
For it is:
Do and do, do and do,
rule on rule, rule on rule;
a little here, a little there.”

Isaiah was ridiculed because he spoke so plainly. His critics said he spoke so simply that even children would understand him. So to fulfill his commission Isaiah did not speak in code, he worked to speak with clarity. It wasn’t that the people didn’t understand what Isaiah was saying, they understood, but they still turned away.  That kind of thing happens all the time

  • it is plain that smoking is dangerous to your health . . .but people still smoke

  • it is clear that drinking and driving are deadly but people still do it

  • it is apparent that a sedentary lifestyle is bad for your health but the couch potato culture continues to grow

  • it is a well-known fact that seat belts save lives, but how often do people get into their cars without buckling up?

God was telling Isaiah that he was to go to a country that had become hardened to the truth of God and proclaim God’s truth with clarity.  The people would let him speak but would never pay any attention to what he was saying.  It would be a frustrating assignment.  

Jesus clearly understood the context of the verses He was quoting. Let’s look again at the words of Jesus,

 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’

Jesus is not saying that the parables are making the people unresponsive . . . it is their calloused hearts that bring confusion.  They refuse to listen and that is why they will not be brought to faith.   Jesus spoke in parables to illumine the truth, not to hide it.  But as the people rejected the truth they became even less able to understand it.  The more they resisted the less sensitive they were to God’s Spirit.

We see this with our own conscience.  The first time we do something we know is wrong we feel the stab of our conscience warning us.  The next time we do the same thing wrong, the stab becomes a little less intense.  After a few more times it is more of a twinge of conscience.  But if we continue in this way our conscience becomes deadened and we no longer feel any guilt at all when we do what is wrong.  And that is when we are most dangerous!  As Jesus spoke parables to unbelievers they resisted their message and their hearts became more hardened.

THE EFFECT ON THE REDEEMED

I think the stories of Jesus were for the same purpose as illustrations in a sermon.  They were designed to illuminate the truth.  Gary Smalley and John Trent wrote a book called, “The Language of Love”.  In this book the authors suggest that the key to good communication in marriage is the art of story-telling.  In other words, in order to convey important truth to your mate about how you are feeling you have to help them understand how you are feeling.  You do that by creatively creating a verbal picture through some kind of illustration.

This is what Jesus was doing.  These are stories that teach and teach powerfully.  Think about how clear and powerful the message of the parables are.  Consider, 

  • The Prodigal Son

  • The Good Samaritan

  • The man who was forgiven a great debt yet refused to forgive a lesser debt

  • The parable of how the same seed is received differently by different grounds

  • The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican

These stories teach in powerful ways.  They make an impact.  Eugene Peterson captures the idea, 

Jesus continually threw odd stories down alongside    ordinary lives and walked away without explanation or altar call. Then listeners started seeing connections: God connections, life connections, eternity connections. The very lack of obviousness, the unlikeness, was the stimulus to perceiving likeness: God likeness, life likeness, eternity likeness. But the parable didn’t do the work — it put the listener’s imagination to work. Parables aren’t illustrations that make things easier; they make things harder by requiring the exercise of our imaginations, which if we aren’t careful becomes the exercise of our faith.
        Peterson, E. H. (1989). Vol. 17: The contemplative pastor : Returning to the art of spiritual direction. The Leadership library (Pages 42-43). Carol Stream, Ill.; Dallas; [Waco, Tex.: Christianity Today; Word Pub.; Distributed by Word Books.

Please understand, Jesus was not concerned just to give information to the disciples.  He didn’t want them to just take notes and spit it back when it was time for a test.  Jesus wanted to impart life changing truth to the disciples, so he did it through a combination of instruction and illustration.

LIFE LESSONS

So what should we learn from these truths?  There are two important lessons you and I need to see,

First, we need to remember that God is not trying to make a relationship with Him more difficult for us . . . He is trying to help us understand.  The whole point of the parables in the teaching of Jesus is not to keep the knowledge of God hidden . . . it is to help us find the Lord.  He is not trying to keep us in the dark.  The Lord is trying to turn on the light.  He is not hiding, He is calling out to us se we can find Him.

You may feel that God is far from you.  Maybe life has you confused right now. Maybe you wonder if He cares, or if He even exists.  Jesus wants to help you find the truth through the Word of God.  He wants you to know that He loves you.  In fact, He loved you so much that God became man to die in your place and mine.  He came so that you and I could have a new beginning.  

Does this mean life won’t sometimes be confusing.  Not at all.  There are circumstances in life that baffle us all.

  • the death of people we love

  • the breakup of relationships

  • unexpected expenses that come like a tidal wave into our lives

  • illnesses that allow someone to exist but not to enjoy life

  • the evil in people around us

These things do baffle us.  They baffle me.  It is not that God doesn’t want us to understand, He does want us to understand . . . sometimes we are unable to understand.  We are unable to see the “big picture”. We can’t comprehend what God is doing.  God warns us,

“My thoughts are completely different  from yours. And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.       For just as the heavens are higher than  the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than  your thoughts.    (Isaiah 55:8,9  NLT)

In confusing times we must cling to God’s track record, His character, and His actions toward us in Christ.  We must trust what we do know and understand.  We want our children to do this with us. When our kids don’t understand why they are being punished, or why we are withholding privileges, or why we pushing them to do something, we want them to trust our love for them.  We want them to remember the times we have provided for their needs.  We want them to remember the times when they saw that we did know what we were talking about.  And God wants us to trust Him.  He is not hiding . . . He is reaching out. 

Second, these words serve as a warning.  It is possible to hear the truth and yet ignore it.  It is possible to be surrounded with evidence yet refuse to acknowledge that evidence. It is possible to hear about the gospel all our lives and still not trust Christ.  It is possible to be religious and still not be reborn.

 In 2 Corinthians 4:4 Paul writes,

 “The  god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot  see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of  God.” 

The Devil wants to harden our heart.  He will do everything and anything in his power to get you to ignore the truth of God’s love.  He will do anything in his power to keep you from turning to the Lord. 

  • He will try to persuade you that there is no hurry in responding to the gospel

  • He will point out the inconveniences of following Christ

  • He will whisper that “you don’t have time” to do what God wants you to do

  • He will tell you that you “are good enough” to make it to Heaven

  • He will suggest that times are different now and the ways of God “don’t work”

  • He will try to get you to substitute religious activity for true relationship

In other words, he will do anything he can to get you to delay action. And every time he succeeds, your heart and mine becomes a little more calloused. And if he can get us to delay long enough, our hearts will become hardened to the truth.  We will no longer be able to respond because we will no longer hear his whispers.   

To avoid this I suggest two things.  First, please ask God to shed His light in your heart.  Jesus is consistent in saying that the disciples were able to understand His teachings because God gave them understanding.  We will recognize the Lord only as He helps us.  Ask God to make Himself known to You.  Ask Him to open your eyes.  Ask Him to bring your spiritual heart to life. 

  • ask Him to show you the areas of your life that need attention

  • ask Him to show you the places where you are rationalizing disobedience or    inaction

  • ask Him to tune your ears to His whispers and guidance

  • ask Him to help you know Him and love Him as He loves you

Second, make it a point to respond to what you do understand.  The only sure way of fighting off spiritual callousness is to respond to what is clear in the Bible.  The first command to obey is this: “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.”  It is a command as well as an invitation.  The Lord tells us that if we will put all our confidence in Him rather than in our goodness . . . we will know eternal life.  If we will rest in Him rather than keep trying to “earn” Heaven, we will know peace and life.

Once you have settled that issue, once you have responded to this first command, then you can start to follow Him in your living.  Step by step we begin to follow His plan for our lives, 

  • we learn to trust rather than worry

  • forgive rather than resent

  • tell the truth rather than exaggerate the truth

  • give rather than accumulate

  • serve rather than demand

  • laugh rather than grumble 

It doesn’t happen over night.  It won’t happen during this year, but if we keep seeking to follow where He leads us, if we keep seeking to understand what He tells us, we will see Jesus more clearly . . . and when that happens we will know life and joy, and the parables of Jesus will become some of our very favorite stories.

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Scripture:

Matthew 13:10-17