Why Parables?

Matthew 13:10-17


Einstein gave grudging acceptance to “the necessity for a beginning” and eventually, to “the presence of a superior reasoning power,” but never did he accept the doctrine of a personal God. Two specific obstacles blocked his way. According to his journal writings, Einstein wrestled with a deeply felt bitterness toward the clergy, toward priests in particular, and with his inability to resolve the paradox of God’s omnipotence and man’s responsibility for his choices. “If this being is omnipotent, then every occurrence, including every human action, every human thought, and every human feeling and aspiration is also His work; how is it possible to think of holding men responsible for their deeds and thoughts before such an almighty being? In giving out punishment and rewards He would to a certain extent be passing judgment on Himself. How can this be combined with the goodness and righteousness ascribed to Him?” Seeing no solution to this paradox, Einstein, like many other powerful intellects through the centuries, ruled out the existence of a personal God. What Einstein could not understand was how God could be both good and all-powerful, and still have man be responsible for his actions. What we are going to see tonight is that, as a matter of fact, parables point out this difficulty, and point a way through this difficulty. Parables are one way in which this difficulty is addressed in Scripture. What we will find is that God is sovereign, opening men’s minds to the truth, while judging others for their hardness of heart, for which they are responsible.

Now, this explanation comes to us right in the middle of the parable of the sower. The parable comes before, and the explanation of the parable comes after our passage. This is vitally important for us to recognize, since the parable of the sower provides an excellent illustration of people’s reactions to Jesus’ teaching, and help provide concrete images of why some people respond and other people do not.

Let’s start with some definitions. What is a parable? I have found two definitions that are helpful, one simple, and the other a bit more complete. The first is that a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. It is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. That is, it takes something that we can see and uses that something, whatever it is, to talk about something we cannot see. The other definition, provided by scholar C.H. Dodd, is as follows: “a parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” A metaphor is when you talk about something using the language of something else. An example: “Jesus is the bread of life.” The language of bread is used to tell us something about Jesus. A simile is a statement using the word “like” or “as.” For instance, Exodus tells us that the taste of the manna was like wafers made with honey. Metaphors and similes are obviously very much the same. There is a point of comparison between the thing that is described, and the thing used to describe it. Now, there are limitations to both of these definitions, but it is certainly enough to get us started.

What becomes obvious (ironically) is that parables are not obvious. Verse 11 makes this very clear: the necessary knowledge has been given to the disciples, but not to the crowds that Jesus to which giving these parables. Look also at verse 13: “This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.’” Parables are not easy to understand. They require work, but most of all, they require the good soil to be in our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit. For, as the parable of the sower indicates, only one kind of heart will understand the parables, or for that matter, any of the Word of God: the heart that is good soil, cleaned from all hardness of heart, all shallowness, and all distractions.

What do parables do, then? They divide people into groups. There are two main groups: those who understand and those who do not understand. What distinguishes these two groups? Is it intelligence, or holiness, or worthiness? Absolutely not! Look at verse 11: notice the verbs. The knowledge has been given to the disciples but not to the crowds. Who gives the knowledge? God does. As we learn, then, from the rest of Scripture, people are divided into the elect and the non-elect. This division occurred from before the foundation of the world.

However, just because someone does not understand the parables now does not mean that everything is hopeless for them. The end of the Isaiah quotation in verse 15 bears that out. There is a possibility for the person who hears to turn, hear, understand, repent, and therefore be healed. Everyone is hard of hearing before they are converted and given new ears. Everyone is blind before God makes them see. As we will see next week, it is possible for God to change the soil in our heart from rock hard pathway to good soil, from shallow soil to deep soil, from weedy soil to clean soil. Only God can change the heart. But He often does.

Nevertheless, we do see an important principle for us to remember laid out in verse 12. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This is a sort of “economics of spiritual wealth.” In the business world, wealth attracts more wealth. That is the normal way of things. And if you have no capital, then you will have a hard time making more money. So it is in the spiritual world. Those with great spiritual wisdom will become ever more wise. For they know that they have the Holy Spirit, and they know how to find more wisdom. Fools, on the other hand, do not even know how to keep the little wisdom they do have, and so it slips away from them, and they harden their hearts in unbelief, suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.

The parables, then, are the dividing point. The parables judge us. We do not judge them. The parables act as a point of division, with those who are wise going on the one side, becoming ever more wise, and those who are fools being on the other side, eventually losing the little wisdom they had. Which side are you on? When you hear the Word is the time to judge. How do you react to the Word preached? Do you find it boring? Do other things distract you? Does it go in one ear and out the other? Or are you constantly looking for that seed to be implanted in your soul? Are you constantly tending the garden of your heart so that the seed takes root and produces fruit?

We have seen that the parables illustrate the sovereignty of God in salvation. However, human responsibility is still present in this passage, as it is also in the parable of the sower. When God speaks, He has a right to expect us not only to hear but also to understand. If people cannot hear or understand, it is because their own hearts are hard and calloused. People make themselves this way. Remember in the story of the plagues it alternates between saying that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, and saying that God hardened his heart. There again we have the mystery of the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man set right next to each other. We may not be able to explain this fully, but we are required to believe it. God being sovereign does not let us off the hook any more than our “free will” can thwart God’s plans. We can say, however, that there is a certain unevenness here: if a person is saved, or if a person understands the Word of God, it is because God has made it so. What is impossible with men is possible with God. However, if a person is not saved and does not understand the Gospel, they will not be able to blame God for it on Judgment Day. Instead, God will point to all the opportunities they had to give glory to God, but chose not to use them. Unbelievers refuse to understand and obey.

The parables, then, cannot be understood by reason alone. Unbelievers cannot understand the parables any more than they can ultimately understand the Bible itself. Understanding goes with a renewed heart. One does not understand the parables unless they take root in our lives and bear fruit. An analogy to this situation can be found in a command to a child to clean their room. The parent asks the child, “Do you understand that you have to have your room clean before you can go out and play?” The child says “yes,” but does not clean his room. Has he really understood the command? Understanding the command means also doing it. So also, understanding the parables involves understanding how the parable is describing us and judging us. Again, the parables judge us, we do not judge the parables. Yes, we have to interpret the parables. However, the parables also interpret us, as Rick Phillips says.

So, as we go on to interpret Christ’s parables in the coming weeks, we need to remember the purpose of parables. They reveal the state of our own hearts. They interpret us. They show us whether our hearts are hard, shallow, distracted, or good, as the four soils would have it. We will do well to pay close attention to the state of our hearts in the upcoming weeks.

Coming Soon to WTS Books

I have been waiting for this book for a while now, since Gary promised me a review copy (Gary, I’m not letting you forget it either!). The lineup of scholars is excellent, and the topic could hardly be more timely. Even in Reformed circles, these issues have become paramount: will we cave in to culture’s pressure to remake our church and our theology in our own image? Or will we attempt, by God’s grace, to remake the church in the image prescribed for her in the Word, making her more like Christ? Some will no doubt think that a false dichotomy. This book will show why the two are actually antitheses.