Once upon a time, there was a God whose followers met together every Sunday. They called themselves by his name and praised him for his willingness to save them from their sins. One day, the God went to see if his Spirit was producing in these people love and goodness — and if his followers were making other disciples. He was disappointed to discover there was no fruit.
So he said to his son, “We’ve been waiting for these people to have hearts like ours for a long time. I keep expecting them to love one another with a great love, and for that love to spread throughout their neighborhoods and towns. But I’ve seen nothing of the such. Get rid of them, would you? They’re taking up space in a kingdom to which they don’t belong — and to which, deep down, they don’t want to belong. And they’re ruining my good name.”
“But father,” the son replied, “please give them just a little while longer. I’ll touch the hearts of those whose hearts can still be touched, and I’ll convict anyone who will hear my words. And if, still then, they refuse to look and act like us, we’ll do as you say.”
– Luke 13:6-9 (more or less)
Is it me, or do we often use parables to form doctrine and flesh out theology? I’m not suggesting Jesus’ stories can’t ever be used for such. But I am suggesting this is nowhere even close to their primary purpose. Parables are kingdom truths intended to be tools for evaluating kingdom life.
“No one who receives a flashlight turns it on and puts it inside a backpack or under a pillow. Instead he holds it up, so all who come near can see the light. There’s nothing secret that will remain secret, and nothing private that won’t one day be revealed. So consider carefully how you hear the good news of the kingdom of God. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken from him.” – Luke 8:16-18 (kind of)
Jesus says these words on the tail end of “The Parable of the Sower” (a parable I prefer to call “The Parable of the Soils” — but I digress). This is the first of Jesus’ parables recorded for us in the gospels and is, appropriately so, a primer on how to hear parables. [I especially enjoy the parable of the soils, because I think it labels so well the bulk of modern Christian culture as "3rd soil" Christianity. For more on the parable itself, go here.] I don’t want here, however, to address the parable. Rather I want to understand further these words spoken by Jesus in its wake. Here’s what I’ve learned.
- Our lives should be examined in light of kingdom truths received. To hide that light is to refuse to be touched by God’s word and to rob that word of its value. Parables are not truths to be learned, but lenses through which to understand and evaluate life in the kingdom.
- When we allow God’s truths to reveal and change our non-kingdom tendencies, others will see their own inconsistencies and be encouraged to allow God’s word to change them as well.
- We are responsible for how we hear the words of God. This thought, I assume, will become increasingly unpopular in a culture which encourages individuals not to take responsibility for their own actions.
- Basic faith, spiritual understanding, and openness to the words of God result in more of the same, while the opposite yields confusion and darkness. When Jesus says he who has will be given more and he who doesn’t will have his stolen away, he’s not being harsh. Nor is he instituting some new system of reward and punishment. Rather, Jesus is merely stating a simple truth of humanity. [Without a primary understanding of multiplication tables, I'll never understand calculus, and what little knowledge of math I did have will become confusion. Without a basic acceptance of the principles of language, Swahili verb structures will only frustrate and disappointment me.] Parables, by their very nature, require some basic assumptions and knowledge for understanding. Without hearing them in this way, nothing will be gained from their words — and much will be lost.
He who has ears, let him hear.