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HEARING AIDS: Wrestling with Scripture #26

Jesus often taught in parables—a brief story using relatable characters and familiar activities to illustrate a deeper moral or spiritual lesson. For years I’ve assumed He chose to use parables because His audience, accustomed to oral history and traditions rather than written communication, would relate more easily to this simple, story-telling method of teaching and be more likely to remember and pass on His message.


But when the twelve asked Jesus privately why He spoke in parables, His answer wasn’t that straightforward: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand” (Luke 8:10), alluding to the prophecy of Isaiah 6: 9. Note that the ability to understand these new truths must be given and that it is not given to everyone. This point is reiterated when Jesus urges the crowd, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”—a statement He repeats thirteen times in the Gospels and eight times in Revelation. Sadly, just as the warnings and revelations of the OT prophets often fell on deaf ears, so too, have Jesus’ teachings.


When we look closer at these seemingly simple sermons, we can see more cryptic elements. Although it seems odd for Jesus to deliberately speak in a way to confuse His audience or to conceal His message, He might have already been differentiating the sheep from the goats—those who were eager to learn from Him and those who would ultimately reject Him. Consider that when the disciples asked Jesus to explain the Parable of the Sower (Matt 13:19-23), He obliges in great detail. If we go to Jesus with our uncertainties, eager to learn more, and with “ears to hear,” He will help us to understand, as James 1 promises: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”


So, it’s interesting that Biblical teachers from 200 AD to the present time often differ in their interpretation of parables. Some allegorize Jesus’ teachings, assigning a symbolic meaning to every detail in each story. Taken to an extreme, this method can easily import our own ideas into the narrative and lose track of the main point Jesus was making. At the opposite extreme are those who insist a parable conveys a single message as basic as the stories used to illustrate it. Still others suggest the truth lies somewhere in between.


This could be why many pastors avoid preaching on the parables, with the possible exceptions of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal son. No student of the Word wants to stand before God and offer a wrong explanation of the text, but since Jesus repeatedly employed parables during His earthly ministry, it seems important to wrestle with these teachings.


The word parable comes from the Greek parabolē, derived from two words meaning “to throw or cast” and “side by side” as for comparison. While Biblical parables often do contain metaphors contrasting one or more people or actions, a parable is more than a simple comparison. There’s a surface meaning or application to the story itself that will satisfy some, but each contains a deeper spiritual truth as well.


The parables are often layered with bold statements about the surprising nature and purpose of the Kingdom of God, the upside-down values Jesus demonstrated, and the dire consequences to Israel and its religious leaders of making wrong choices at key moments of decision.


Before we begin wrestling with a specific parable, we should remember the Bible was written for us, but not to us. It’s important to always honor the historical context of a passage—especially when studying the parables. To fully understand Jesus’ illustrations, we need to consider His original audience, the Jewish culture and mindset, and the surrounding narrative, since He typically responded with a parable lesson when confronted with a particular question, event, or setting.


While few of us are very well acquainted with Jewish history or culture, we do know that Jesus directed most of the parables to His disciples, to the crowds following Him, or to both. We know that within these groups were those who believed He was the long-awaited Messiah who would deliver the nation, those who were simply curious about Him and His teachings, and those who rejected His claims and sought to destroy Him. Therefore, if a parable includes several groups or characters reacting in vastly different ways to the same event, it’s probably safe to assume Jesus was illustrating a spiritual truth about the various ways people responded to Him and His message.


Although by their nature, parables contain metaphors which require some interpretation, it’s crucial to let Scripture interpret Scripture when assigning meaning to any symbolism. No matter how clever our ideas, nothing in the parables will contradict anything found elsewhere in the Bible.


Finally, it’s worthwhile to consider that Jesus taught these parables before His crucifixion and resurrection. In John 14:26, Jesus says the Holy Spirit “will teach you all things and remind you of all that I said to you.” Imagine the deep, new insights the disciples had after meditating on Jesus’ parables following Pentecost. In the same way, as we study, question, and wrestle with them, we too may discover a richness we’ve missed before that will provide a more complete understanding or suggest new applications, but we should be careful not to overthink the symbolism or add our own twist to Jesus’ central theme. In their broadest sense, the parables were meant to reveal new truths about the character of God and His Kingdom to Israel and to its religious leaders—and, by extension, to us.


Hopefully, we will all have ears eager to hear.


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1 Comment

Pamela Pfankuch
Pamela Pfankuch
Mar 25

Another excellent article! Like how you quoted scripture, commented that Scripture interprets Scripture, and quoting your thoughts with Scripture.

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