parables and their purposes: a primer

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.



Filed under modern-day retelling, parables

13 responses to “parables and their purposes: a primer

  1. Agreeing with you on the Parable of the Soils name. I never understood why they called it the Sower when the soils was what was in question. Like your summary. Looking forward to more (if you plan to discuss more parables). 🙂

  2. Two thoughts:

    “Parables are not truths to be learned, but lenses through which to understand and evaluate life in the kingdom.” – I understand the second part of this sentence but I am not sure that I totally agree on the first. I believe that we can receive truths as well as perspective from the parables. If we ignore the ‘truths’ or minimize them as just parts of an interpretation mechanism, we run the danger of reducing certain doctrines. For example – Is the rich man and Lazarus a parable? There is much debate about that but let us assume it is. If it is a parable and only a lens by which to understand kingdom values, do we run the danger of minimizing the truth of hell?

    “We are responsible for how we hear the words of God. ”
    How much of the responsibility falls on the Holy Spirit’s work in helping us understand God’s word?

    • good call, tony. i should have written, “parables are not MERELY truths to be learned, but…”

      [*sidenote: i’m not sure i believe there’s a whole lot that can actually be learned about hell from the parable of the rich man and lazarus.]

      and as for the Holy Spirit’s responsibility, i’m not sure. i know that he draws men to Christ, but i also know that my response is my responsibility (perhaps hence is the similarity in words?). i wonder if it’s not one of those many things i’m not smart enough to figure out. those issues in which there seem to be two contrasting options, yet both are somehow correct. how would you answer your question?

      • On the Lazarus bit, the truths to be learned (or reinforced) is that it exists, that it isn’t pleasant, and that there is a separation from those not in hell. Just some quick thoughts.. there may be others.

        As far as the second bit – I would say the Holy Spirit is extremely instrumental in how we receive and understand God’s word. However, we are then greatly responsible for how we choose to respond or apply. Even there we still need to rely on the Holy Spirit’s power to provide direction and strength.

        John 15 gives importance to abiding in Christ and that apart from Him we can do nothing. I guess that I perceive it as inseparable. We are responsible for what we ‘do’ with the instruction that has been given us but we are wholly reliant upon the Holy Spirit to empower and direct us.

        • as for the Holy Spirit and our responsibility, i think i’m with you. the two are inseparable, as much as i don’t / can’t understand that.

          as for lazarus and the rich man, i’ve generally read that story as a parable about the gentiles becoming children of God — and the stubborn refusal of many jews to accept Jesus. this is a good example of what i was meaning in this post: i feel like developing our eschatology from this parable is probably unwise. [i’m not saying we can’t learn those things you suggested; i’m merely suggesting they don’t seem to be the point of the parable. but i fully admit i could be wrong.]

          it just seems to me the point of the parable is something about not relying on our position, status, wealth, or ancestry for salvation and a life with God. and making sure we have room in our theology for the salvation of poor and looked-down-on outsiders.

          but i’ve heard this parable used to teach that the soul is separated from the body and goes directly to heaven or hell at death. or that those in hell can see those in heaven. etc. or simply that hell and heaven can’t be passed between. or that hell is torment. or that everyone in hell will be thirsty.

          it’s not that i think all of those things are untrue; it’s more that none of them seem to be the main point of the parable. i’m certainly not against listing them as options and checking for corroboration elsewhere in the bible. i think that’s wise. but i think a much better use of parables is to evaluate my life in light of them.

          • Yeah.. it appears that we need to look at them holistically. What you list are important points about context for the parable. Can you understand the main point without getting the minor points correct? maybe… maybe not. Is there just one main point or are there multiple lessons within a given passage of scripture? Can we see all the separate lessons without understanding the nuances of the context?

            How much clearer is the Good Samaritan when we understand the context of Jew to Samaritan relationships? While it is not the main point, it certainly lends weight to what it means to consider someone our neighbor.

            If I were to use the 2-sides of the coin example that you linked to on 52prayers, I would say that the truths of the parable are one side of the coin while the kingdom application is the other. I think we need both to tie them together correctly so that we don’t misrepresent the truths of the parable or the application of the parable.

        • hey. just want to hijack your guys’ thread because 1) i enjoy it and b) because i want to submit a humble clarification, that “hell” is not actually the place, for lack of a better word, being discussed in the parable. at least not certainly.

          i mean, abraham’s bosom and “hades” are really what’s being discussed.

          i tend to lean toward kingdom of earth/kingdom of heaven language, but that’s my opinion.

          at any rate – i shall hereunto quit the hijacking. haha.

          as you were ;]

        • The context in the Mark 4 account of the appropriately titled ‘parable of the soils’ … “the secret of the kingdom have been given to you, but to those on the outside (may also include 3rd soil…) everything is said in parables, so that …” — does this answer/inform our understanding of the Spirit’s use of the Word in our lives?

      • ike

        When the Lord raises a dead sinner to life… much responsibility does a dead person have? Just asking…..

  3. “Parables are not truths to be learned, but lenses through which to understand and evaluate life in the kingdom.”

    i can not tell you how many very good conversations i have had about this very thing in the last few months.

    so no, it’s not just you. haha.

    and i think we all would do well to remember, or become mindful of, a couple things in light of jewish life and the art of middle eastern communication found in these parables:

    1) that much of the new testament, let alone the parables, were written to and intended for groups of people – not just individuals…this always changes/aligns things for me and the groups i am walking with.

    and b) parables are often designed with an intentional progressive nature underlying them: we are meant to read and wrestle with 1 before 2, and both will enlighten the third…and so on.

    thanks for sharing and i hope you do explore a few parables in light of the “lens” mentality – would probably result in some interesting feedback for sure.

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