Every Word: The Problem With Parables

Parables have been difficult for some to understand.

A worship-pastor friend of mine out in California recently told me about his adventures into the world of country music. Though he had never been a big fan of the Nashville sound, he soon found himself immersed in a sea of steel guitars, cowboy boots, and George Strait records when his church decided to hold country worship services on Sunday nights.

While my friend is still getting used to the pinch of his new cowboy boots and learning all the lyrics to Brad Paisley’s “When I Get Where I’m Going,” he understands and fully supports the goal of the new service: to open a door for people to hear the gospel—people who might otherwise miss out. For the members of my friend’s church, Wrangler jeans and banjo-led worship help them keep in step with the apostle Paul’s strategy to “become all things to all men” for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:22).

So what are we to make of Jesus, who appears to be doing just the opposite by speaking in parables? He says to His disciples, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, so that ‘while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven’” (Mark 4:11-12). Instead of tearing down barriers that keep people from hearing God’s truth, He seems to be building up walls to make sure they don’t!

But Jesus is borrowing from the book of Isaiah—and it’s to that book we must go if we are to properly understand His words.

In the sixth chapter, Isaiah is caught up in a vision of the heavenly temple, standing before the throne of almighty God. At the time of Isaiah’s vision, the people of Judah were in a deep season of rebellion, worshipping false gods and walking in outright disobedience to the true Lord of the universe. As a result, the people had hardened their hearts so that they were no longer receptive to the voice of God or His prophets. And so God gave them over to their own stubbornness. In essence, He gave Isaiah this message for the people: “If you don’t want to listen, that’s your choice. Be always hearing but never understanding. That’s what your hard hearts are doing to you anyway!”

The word “parable” literally means, “to throw alongside.” Parables are stories or sayings that have two meanings—a plain one on the surface, and another that is less apparent, covered over by the details of the parable. The power of parables lies in the discovery of the truth—the Aha! moment when a person realizes what the speaker is really saying. A parable about a treasure hidden in a field is not really about gold and silver, and a lesson about a wayward and sinful son demanding his inheritance early is not really about a dysfunctional family at all.

The moment of truth—when a person gets the point behind one of Jesus’ parables—is a moment of decision, a confrontation that can’t be avoided. His use of parables, then, is both a form of judgment and a wonderful kindness to people far away from God. As a judgment, they allow stubborn people who refuse to accept or even acknowledge the truth to take a trajectory toward death and eternal separation from God. But as an act of grace, parables provide men and women with an opportunity to discover just how hard their hearts have become. The Aha! moment for these folks comes when they find they are walking in outright rebellion against God and need a Savior.

In this way, Jesus is, like Paul or a cowboy church service, providing people with a compelling occasion to stand before the truth of God’s Word. They must either take the hand of the Savior who loves them or walk away and miss out on the greatest invitation ever offered. It’s ferocious grace in action from the One who would pay the unthinkable price to offer it.

by John Greco

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