In Matthew’s gospel, we learn that parables served a specific purpose in Jesus’ ministry. Many times these parables are accurately described as earthly stories with a heavenly meaning. While this describes what a parable is, it doesn’t tell us what a parable does.
In Matthew 13, Jesus tells several parables, beginning with the parable of the sower. In this parable we read a cute story about a sower who scattered his seed which fell on four different types of soil, bringing about different results for the seed that fell on each kind.
Quaint. Short. But what was the point? The disciples wondered the same thing, and it is here we get our first example of a proper approach to the teachings of Jesus. In 13:10, the disciples ask a very important question: “Why do you speak to them in parables?” This curiosity is a very healthy part of our study of God’s Word today. The Holy Spirit was very particular about the words with which He chose to communicate – go ahead and try to find out why. Many different literary forms and structures are used in the Scriptures, and each one was chosen for a specific purpose. Jesus’ answer to the disciples gives us a clearer idea of what we are meant to do with these parables. He explains to the disciples that some have chosen to “close their eyes” and “hear without hearing” – meaning some folks joined the crowd simply to hear a good story. They aren’t really concerned with the spiritual truth being conveyed. How do we know this? These were the ones who didn’t come back asking questions.
Jesus continues this conversation by telling the disciples point by point what the parable actually meant. This is the second example of a proper approach to the teachings of Jesus: He explains what He means, and that is the meaning. As Jesus explains the parable of the sower in 13:18-23, we come to learn that there is one way of interpreting that parable. He confirms this by telling more parables, as if He were inviting them to ask more questions. Matthew points out that this is a fulfillment of Scripture (13:35), proving Jesus to be the Messiah. God does not offer truth on a silver platter – He presents it nibble by nibble, and the truth-seekers are those who come back, hungry to know what lies beneath the surface.
In 13:36, the disciples give us the next example of a proper approach to the teachings of Jesus. Jesus had told more parables and left the crowds. The disciples followed him so they could take Him up on the invitation with a question concerning one they had not understood. “Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field.” For the second time, Jesus holds nothing back as He guides them point by point through the parable He had told, making clear connections between each metaphor and that which it represented. This is an important exegetical principle: allow the text to define itself. We cause great confusion and error when we try to pull an interpretation out of thin air that is not supported by the text.
We can tell that the disciples are starting to get how this whole parable-business works, because they listen to three more parables, each of which describes a different aspect of the kingdom of heaven. This time, Jesus asks them in 13:51, “Have you understood all these things?” Their response was a firm “Yes.”
Now read that again.
This is the most important lesson we can learn about how we should approach the teachings of Jesus. He asked them, “Have you understood all these things?” The new hermeneutic asks the reader, “Now, what did all this mean to you?” That’s a dangerous method of interpretation, because it subjectively takes into consideration what “I think” the meaning may have been. Jesus had no interest in what his listeners guessed to be the spiritual truth being conveyed. If they were not willing to come ask Him for clarification, His appraisal in 13:15 was that they heard without hearing, having a dull heart and closed eyes. Yikes!
When we read Scripture, we are listening to the conversations between Jesus and His disciples, between the prophets and God’s people, between the apostles and congregations of Christ’s church. If there are things we don’t understand as the listener, it is vital that we investigate, going to the source for clarification, and nowhere else. Those who lived during the first century had the privilege of asking their questions in person. People are asking the same questions today. We need to be willing to search for the answers given within God’s Word and understand them so we can answer rightly. We need to ask questions of the text: Why did the Holy Spirit instruct the writer phrase it that way? Does the context explain the section I’m reading, and how so? Do I have a clear understanding that is completely supported by the text? Let the Word itself expose any misunderstandings and walk away with an accurate interpretation. Truth is there – waiting to be heard, investigated, understood, and shared.
Have you understood all these things?
By Keeley Rollert
Keeley Rollert and her husband, David, are currently students at the Bear Valley Bible Institute of Denver. They were married December 2008, and they look forward to working in whatever ministry God has planned for them when they finish school in May, 2011