I started the previous post with a story about Paula Deen’s restaurant. My wife, Barb, wondered what that story had to do with the rest of the posting. I said, “Not much, except for the word ‘heartburn’.” It was the only story that came to mind to lead off the post. I’ve learned from great communicators to start a talk or writing with a (hopefully) good story that draws people in. Are communicators manipulative? I don’t think so. I suspect they speak to our hearts. We always like a good story, whether in a book, movie, or sermon. Good stories draw us in and engage us.
I have been working my way through the Gospel of Mark as of late. I recently arrived at chapter four and The Parable of the Sower, as the heading in my Bible indicates. It was the first parable that Mark chose to include in his account of Jesus’ life and ministry. The realization that this was the first parable in Mark caused me to pause and think about parables a bit. It’s my understanding that nearly one-third of the teachings of Jesus’ recorded in the Gospels are in the form of parables or parabolic statements – upwards of 60. So some pondering might be of value…
It seems that parables were Jesus’ preferred way of teaching, especially in public venues. Jesus was a good story-teller. Actually, Jesus was a great story-teller. We might be well aware of many of his stories – The Sower, Good Samaritan, Mustard Seed, Hidden Treasure and Pearl, to name a few. Primarily, Jesus’ parables, his stories, point to God – his character and the nature of his kingdom. Parables help bring clarification to the reader or hearer.
I don’t know about you, but as I have read the parables over the years, they have not been especially clarifying regarding the nature of God and his kingdom. In fact they have often left me scratching my head in confusion. In addition, Jesus regularly concluded parables/teachings with a statement like, Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear – further adding to the confusion. I have ears but am not always understanding!
I know I am not alone in this – I suspect you might be in the same camp. As apparently were his disciples – even the Twelve, his inner circle. They indicated as such. In the Parable of the Sower they pressed Jesus to help them understand. Further confusing the issue, Jesus seemed to indicate that understanding was primarily reserved for the insiders.
Assisting me in my journey through the Gospel of Mark is Jim Edward’s commentary. Edwards agrees that Jesus’ parables, though reflective of real life, are not simple or easy to understand. I have always wondered how the first century hearers dealt with the open-endedness of Jesus’ parables. I suspect they went away saying something like, “Huh. That was new. I’ve never heard that before or, at least, not that way.” They probably went away pondering and discussing with their friends the meaning of the story – which I suspect was Jesus’ intent. He was helping them develop ears to hear!
Parables are often considered allegories, but Edwards suggests otherwise:
An allegory can be understood from the “outside,” but parables can be understood only from within, by allowing oneself to be taken into the story and hearing who God is and what humans may become.
Please take a moment and re-read the quote from Edwards. This may be why Jesus intimated that parables might be more understandable to the insiders – to those who were beginning to “get it.”* And who, in the early days of Jesus’ ministry, were beginning to get it (the operative word being beginning)? Those who had spent the most time with Jesus!
There we have it! As we spend more time with Jesus, the parables will begin to become more clear and make more sense to us. How do we spend more time with Jesus? Continuously reading the Gospels** and pondering what we read – alone (with the help of the Holy Spirit) and with others (again, with the help of the Holy Spirit). As time goes on, we develop ears to hear. We might find ourselves saying, “Huh. That was new. I’ve never heard that before or, at least, not that way” – in other words, Aha! Moments.
* Over the years, I have pondered and discussed with others how to define “get it.” My best shot do far: If we “get it,” no definition is necessary. If we don’t “get it,” no definition will suffice.
** ADDENDUM 1/31/2023: Annie F. Downs has created a podcast that will help the listener experience all four Gospels twelve times during the year 2023. It’s called Let’s Read the Gospels. Enjoy!