How We Taught the New Testament in the Past: Lesson 11: “He Spake Many Things unto Them in Parables”
The current manual discusses the Parable of the Sower as representative of all of Christ’s parables, and uses it “to help class members develop ‘ears to hear’ so they can understand how Jesus’ parables apply to them.” Two chapters from Obert C. Tanner’s 1935 seminary text, The New Testament Speaks, are presented below. The first covers the same ground as the current manual and discusses two closely related parables(the Parable of the Tares, and the Parable of the Seed Growing of Itself). The second chapter discusses why Jesus taught in parables and explores four additional parables having to do with the Kingdom of God in the last days.
Jesus Describes the Kingdom of God
An old definition of a parable defines it as “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” The word “parable” is now understood to mean a short story taken from the common things of native and human life. It presents to the individual in a most graphic and animated way, some important thought or teaching which is suited to man’s higher spiritual life. In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus gives his own clear explanation. We cite the verse of his interpretation with the story of the parable, and offer some additional thoughts.
“Behold, a sower went forth to sow”: This parable might be more clearly called “the Parable of the Soils,” for the main emphasis is upon the different kinds of soils. It has been called “a bit of Jesus’ autobiography,” because it portrays so clearly the experience of his own life. The “sower” is anyone who teaches the truth although the title is particularly fitting to Jesus himself. As the sower sows the seeds, they fall into four different kinds of soils. The central truth of the parable is that just as the harvest depends upon the kind of soil into which the seed is planted, so the Gospel of Jesus Christ will yield its fruits of noble character in a righteous world – depending upon the condition of the heart and mind of each individual who hears it. Jesus, and in fact all men who seek to spread the truth, are the “sowers.”
“Some seeds fell by the wayside”: Here the ground has been tramped hard, and the seed can find no entrance. Some of the multitudes who heard Christ’s Gospel were like that. There were the Pharisees, for example, with their hardened prejudices. In referring to the difficulty which some minds have in accepting new truths. H.F. Luccock writes: “It is just as impossible for truth to get into some minds. *** They simply do not take it in. the mind throws off the truth as a slated roof throws off the hail.” [Luccock, Studies in the parables of Jesus, p. 30.]
“Some fell upon stony places”: While the last class of listeners did not even receive the seed at all, these have done little better. For, being attracted by the truth, and admitting something of its value, they merely nod their heads in approval. But the truth does not sink into their hearts. They are like people who listen to fine sermons and are Christian in name, but when it comes to making a real struggle for noble character in everyday life, putting into practice the things they admire – the blazing sun proves how shallow-rooted their lives really are.
“And some fell among thorns”: This is perhaps the place where most of the seeds are falling today. The soil is fertile and accepts the seed. It has possibilities. But too many other things are there. Other interests flood our preoccupied minds. As Artemus Ward once said: “I tried to do too much and succeeded.” The finest truths and opportunities were crowded out. The things which Jesus specifically refers to in his ministry as thorns which crowd out the gospel truths, are cares and riches. It is not that the thorns are bad of themselves. they may be even good. But as Elbert Hubbard says: “Corn is a weed if it grows in a wheat field.” Each day of life is a new world of choices. if we clutter up our program with unimportant trifles, the best things in life will pass us by. “The good is often the enemy of the best,” as when, after Sir Lancelot, “our mightiest,” had failed in the quest of the Holy Ghost, he confessed:
”… but in me lived a sin
So strange, of such a kind, that all of pure,
Noble and knightly in me twined and clung
Round that one sin, until the wholesome flower
And poisonous grew together, each as each,
Not to be plucked asunder.”
–Tennyson, Idylls of the King.
“But other fell into good ground”: In his own interpretation of the fruitful soil, Jesus said: “But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.” These are the fruits of those who receive the truth. They live lives of “honest and good heart,” meditation (having heard the Word), and are patient. Finally, they will bring forth fruit “some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold.”
”Life’s fields will yield – as we make it –
A harvest of thorns or of flowers.”
– Alice Cary.
The Parable of the Tares.
Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field:
But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.
But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also.
So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares?
He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?
But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.
Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn. (Matt. 13:24-30.)
The parable is not an abstract theological treatise, a divine legal code, nor a scheme of church discipline. As Buttrick says, it was spoken, “not to establish dogma, but to establish life.” The parable is a full recognition of the reality of evil in the world. It shows the delicate intermeshing of good and evil in life, and the difficulties and dangers in attempting to judge and separate them.
“Let both grow together,” were the tender words of Jesus. He did not explain away the question of evil. He accepted its growth along with the good. But he is saying to us through this parable: “Leave the judgment of mankind to someone else. What outwardly appears evil may be good. Therefore, endeavor not so much to see that evil is rooted out, as you do to work and help the good to grow.”
The story is one of encouragement to all who are interested in youth. One never can judge any boy or girl accurately. “Wait for the harvest,” Jesus is saying. A great crisis may reveal what is hidden, or cultivate what is small now, but will grow with time. And so Jesus bids us to be patient. Because tares will always be tares, the parable reaches the limit of comparison with man. For man can outgrow the evil. What he now is, he never needs to remain. “Let both grow together.” God is at the control “until the harvest.”
“So night is grandeur to our dust,
So near is God to man,
When Duty whispers low, Thou must,
The youth replies, I can!”
The Parable of the Seed Growing of Itself.
And he said, So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground,
And should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how.
For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear; after that the full corn in the ear.
But when the fruit is brought forth, immediately he putteth in the sickle, because the harvest is come. (Mark 4:26-29.)
All of these parables were given on the subject of the Kingdom of God. In this one we see the power of the earth to make the seed grow of itself. The earth and the seed produce a harvest by a power that is within them – not by any power the farmer can give. So, too, are the seeds of the Kingdom to grow. The followers of Jesus are to do their part in preparing for the Kingdom; they must work, have courage, and exercise faith, that the laws of the Kingdom will prove fruitful. Then, by the power of God, these seeds will accomplish His purpose here on earth. This parable warns us against discouragement. The seeds are to grow slowly and in a natural way, “first the blade, then the ear,” and later the corn.
A Minute for Meditation:
“If I had the time to find a place
And sit me down full face to face
With my better self, that cannot show
In my daily life that rushes so:
It might be then I would see my soul
Was stumbling still toward the shining goal;
I might be nerved by the thought sublime –
If I had the time!”
Questions for the Chapter Review:
1. What is a parable?
2. What is the main thing to be kept in mind when studying a parable? What warning did Buttrick give on the interpretation of parables?
3. Tell the Parable of the Sower. Who is the sower? Distinguish between the four different kinds of soil, and give the interpretation of each kind as describing different people. What is the seed?
4. What is the meaning of the confession of Sir Lancelot, as quoted in this lesson?
5. Tell the Parable of the Tares.
6. Tell the Parable of the Seed Growing of Itself.
Suggestive Problems for Discussion in Class:
1. What is the central truth which is contained in the parable of the Sower? Tell a story of your own which will illustrate this truth.
2. How much of your community would you say is the “good soil” spoken of by Jesus in the parable of the Sower?
3. How does the parable of the Sower tech encouragement to the disciples of Jesus? How does it teach a warning? In the parable of the Sower, Jesus referred to the seed which fell by the wayside – interpreted as people who resist the truth. If people go on hearing the truth and fail to act upon it, will the truth finally hide itself from them? Explain. What does your answer tell us to do with the truth which we now have?
4. What lesson do you learn from the Parable of the Tares? Tell a story of your own which will illustrate the central. truth contained in this parable. Does this parable mean that people should do nothing to protect themselves against wrong-doers, either in the church or community? Explain. Who is qualified to distinguish between the tares and the wheat – especially in the early stages of growth?
5. What is the central truth which Jesus wishes to convey in the Parable of the Seed Growing of Itself? Tell a story of your own which will illustrate this truth.
6. How does the Parable of the Seed Growing of Itself teach patience in our work of bringing God’s Kingdom here on earth? What association do you find in this parable and the verse in Ecclesiastes 11:1; “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days?”
Why Jesus Taught in Parables.
And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?
He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.
For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away, even that he hath.
Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.
And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive:
For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed: lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.
but blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear.
For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them. (Matt. 13:10-17.)
All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them:
that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world. (Matt. 13:34-35.)
All the world loves a story. “Surely He must have loved folk the more because, ever hungry for a story, they pressed about Him as He said, ‘Whereunto shall I liken it?’ … A story is a joy forever – it has power to ‘enter in at lowly doors.’ Lodged in the mind it is not inert like a nugget of gold; it is vital, like a seed-plot continually bringing new flowers to bloom” [Buttrick, Parables of Jesus, pp. 19-20.] When definitions and explanations are forgotten, a story, a word picture, a parable, lives on in memory, enriching the heart and intellect.
In Matt. 13:10-17 (and in Mark 4:10-12 and Luke 8:10), the writers assert that the purpose of Jesus in using parables was to hide the truth from the people so that they could not understand. Isaiah 6:9-10 is quoted on this point by the synoptic writers. (Matt. 13:14-15; Mark 4:12; Luke 87:10) Of this quotation from Isaiah, Abingdon states: “The quotation from Isaiah seems to have been to show that, just as worldliness and materialism blinded the people in the prophet’s day to his great spiritual message, so Jesus is face to face with a generation, dull of hearing, and blinded by worldly ambitions.” [Abingdon’s Commentary, p. 977.]
For Jesus to conceal the truth from some of his hearers, is clearly contrary to his spirit and purpose, as revealed throughout his ministry. On this point, Robinson says: “As a matter of fact, Jesus’ purpose, as portrayed in the earliest sources of the gospels, was to make his teachings as clear and plain as possible to everyone who was willing to hear them.” [Robinson, Sayings of Jesus, p. 92.]
Mark 4:33 states: “And with many such parables (Mark here suggests the parables collected in his book were a selected few of many that were given) spake he the word unto them, as they were able to hear it.” this verse is a plain statement that Jesus, by the help of parables or stories, taught the people of his faith and understanding of life, “as far as they were able to receive it.” [Goodspeed translation.]
Jesus stands alone and supremely great in the creation and use of parables. They are matchless pictures from life. The brief account of the early life of Jesus is partly made complete through his parables. “They take us back to Galilee, and to the Galilee of the first century A.D. We enter the home and watch the housewife making bread or patching the old garments or looking for the lost coin. We see the life of the market place and watch the travelers on the high road. We traverse the field with the sower or climb the hills with the shepherd or stand by the lakeside and pull the net ashore with the fisherman, etc.” [Abingdon’s commentary, p. 916.]
”He talked of grass and wind and rain,
And fig-trees and fair weather,
And made it his delight to bring
Heaven and earth together.
He spoke of lilies, vines and corn,
The sparrow and the raven;
And words so natural, yet so wise,
Were on men’s hearts engraven.”
– Copied from an old pulpit commentary [Low, Everyday Adventures for Intermediates, Unit J-2, p. 3.]
Nothing of the life of the busy, thriving province of Galilee seems toe scape the master. His greatest interest was in the common people. he stopped to speak to those whom others passed by.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed.
And he said, Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? or with what comparison shall we compare it?
It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth:
But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it. (Mark 4:30-32.)
Professor Robinson suggests an excellent rule by which each parable might be studied: ”The teaching of a parable is found by following the story through as a literal story, then stating the moral or teaching in a single sentence, and applying that simple statement in the spiritual or religious realm.” [Robinson, Sayings of Jesus, p. 95.]
To be sure, the words of a parable must not be taken literally. For example, in this parable the mustard seed is not actually “less than all the seeds that be in the earth.” (Mark 4:31) But that fact does not affect the meaning of the parable in the least. In Jesus’ day the mustard seed was proverbially spoken of as the least of all seeds.
In his introduction to this parable, Jesus said: “Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God?” The story is of a mustard seed that grows silently and gradually into a large sheltering tree. it is a real seed, real growth, a real tree, and real birds building their nests there. This is the story.
In applying the parable to the spiritual and religious realm, one finds its central thought to be that of encouragement. The tiny beginnings of Christ’s ministry will grow into a great realm of brotherhood. In two sentences, as Buttrick says, ‘Jesus traced the lowly origin and mighty climax of the ‘realm of heaven’ among men. … Significantly Jesus spoke often of ‘the infinitude of the little’ – the grain of mustard seed, the cup of cold water, the one talent, the widow’s mite, the lost coin, and the kindness done unto ‘one of these least.’ Jesus craved the peace of the whole world as the fruit of his travail; but He knew what we forget – that spread of branch and towering loveliness depend on the vitality of the seed. A vital seed, however minute, will produce its tree, with foliage to give shelter to both man and bird. Some day we shall learn His mind and rest our hopes on God’s tiny seeds – this man’s utter consecration; that mother’s prayer; this girl’s joy. …; that boy’s imagination, glorious with ideals unfurled like banners! For of such is the tree of the kingdom of heaven.” [Buttrick, Parables of Jesus, pp. 19, 22-22. (Italics our own.)]
The Parable of the Leaven.
And again he said, Whereunto shall I liken the kingdom of God?
It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened. (Luke 13:20-21.)
By the figures of leaven, the mustard seed, and the seed that silently germinates, Jesus illustrates certain characteristics of the Kingdom. The parable of the mustard seed reveals the extensive growth of the Kingdom. The reference to a tree shows how, from a small beginning (seed), the Kingdom of God grows into a visible society, with a definite number of people. The figure of the leaven makes a different emphasis. Jesus now illustrates the inward, intensive, and invisible forces which are at work to establish the Kingdom. “Leaven works by contagion ‘until the whole is leavened.’ So does the kingdom of God. ‘One loving heart sets another on fire.’” [Buttrick, Parables of Jesus, p. 22.]
And just as the Kingdom of God will spread in society, so it will grow from small beginnings in a man’s heart, until one’s whole nature and life have been completely changed. In all three of these parables, Jesus is teaching that the growth of the Kingdom of God would be natural, slow, and silent, yet transforming and complete, “till the whole was leavened.”
The Parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchantman, seeking goodly pearls:
Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it. (Matt. 13:44-46.)
Beginning centuries before, there was a common custom in Jesus’ day to bury treasures in the fields. The reason, of course, was for safety, as there were no banks in that day. sometimes a man, who had so hidden his treasured wealth, would die without making known the spot where the treasure was hidden. Now and again some man following the plow, or digging in a field, would accidentally discover such treasure. The ancient Roman law would allow the discoverer of a treasure one-half of its value.
These two parables have the same point, that the Kingdom of God is the supreme good in life – worth more than all else – the pearl without peer.
Professor Davies finds value in the different symbols used to stand for the Kingdom – money and a pearl. “Money in all probability suggests that the ideals of the Kingdom must serve practical ends, while the pearl, being a thing of beauty, suggests that the possession of the kingdom ideals contributes to the glory and adornment of personality.” [Abingdon’s Commentary, p. 978.]
There is, of course, no basis to think Jesus would justify the farmer for burying the treasure, while he purchased the field from the unsuspecting owner. Such allegorizing of the parable would pervert the plain meaning of Jesus. His whole life and teaching make such an interpretation an outright betrayal of him.
The Parable of the Net.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind:
Which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away.
So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and never the wicked from among the just;
And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. (Matt. 13:47-50.)
This parable reveals the Kingdom of God as a “standard and a testing,.” Abingdon suggests that “the fish caught by the dragnet do not represent men, but rather ideals and ways of life.” What, then, is cast away or even burned is not men, but low ideals, evil habits, and selfish purposes.
Of the salient truth of this parable, Buttrick writes: “‘Now is the ax laid at the root of the trees.’ (Matt. 3:10) … Now we are in the midst of life. Today is judgment day. This very hour the scales are set, the books opened and the verdict read. The kingdom of God is about us now, nor can we escape its invisible meshes. So urgent are our swiftly passing moments that our present character is in itself the condemnation or approval of all our past life. Now the net is being drawn. Now selfishness is its own curse and love its own blessing.”
“There came a man, whence, none could tell,
Bearing a touchstone in his hand;
And tested all things in the land,
By its unerring spell.
“And low, what sudden changes smote
The fair to foul, the foul to fair!
Purple nor ermine did he spare
Nor scorn the dusty coat.
“Of heirloom jewels prized so much
Many were changed to chips and clods,
And even statues of the gods
Crumbled beneath its touch.
“Then angrily the people cried,
‘The loss outweighs the profit far,
Our goods suffice us as they are,
We will not have them tried.’
“Gut though they slew him with a sword
And in a fire his touchstone burned,
Its doings could not be o’erturned,
Its undoings restored.”
[quoted in Hastings, Great Texts of the bible, St. Luke, p. 71.]
A citizen of the Kingdom of God, the man touched and moved by Jesus’ spirit, ”has within him a court which never adjourns.” The Kingdom is both a standard and a judgment. The good brings its own approval, the Godlike carries its own blessing. The low, the selfish, the cowardly, the un-godlike bears its own judgment and curse.
A Minute for Meditation:
Before this year is over, may we more fully realize what our knowledge of Jesus will mean in the years ahead. There will be classes to teach, questions to ask, friends to help, and problems to solve. May our class leaven our own lives until we are worthy to be called Christians. and as we go forth among our fellows, may our lives silently and surely influence “till the whole is leavened.”
Questions for the Chapter Review:
1. Give some reasons for Jesus’ teaching truths in parables.
2. Did Jesus wish to conceal some of the gospel truths from his listeners? Explain your answer.
3. Explain how the parables of Jesus increase our knowledge of his life.
4. Give the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Why did Jesus give it? What truth does it contain?
5. What does Jesus teach in the parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price? Distinguish these two parables.
6. Give the Parable of the Net, and explain its meaning.
Suggestive Problems for Discussion in Class:
1. One writer, in referring to the parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price, said of Jesus: ‘He portrays the Kingdom as earth’s best investment but never once announces that the price is low.” [Luccock, Studies in the parables of Jesus, p. 50.] What does your religion demand your character to be? It is said: “People are searching for bargains everywhere else and look for them in religion,” that people will be Christians in name and religious activities to the point where they profit in a social and a business way, but not when real sacrifice is demanded. What is a “cheap” religion? What does it mean to seek the benefits of a religious life at a “bargain?”
2. What things in the religion of Jesus cause most people to hesitate in paying the price? Must there be some suffering to be a Christian? What are the returns of a Christian life?
3. Why do the parables of the Leaven and the Mustard Seed need particularly to be retold to Christian workers today?
4. Give examples of the fulfilment of the parable of the Mustard Seed.
5. What is your explanation of the Parable of the Net?