Although Jesus was much more than a storyteller, He was at least that, and as a result, the people of His day flocked to Him and listened to Him gladly.
Christ’s words were always picturesque. He spoke of sheep among wolves, of camels creeping through the eye of a needle, of people trying to remove specks from other people’s eyes while planks were in their own. He referred to a house divided against itself, destined to fall down, of throwing children’s bread to dogs. He warned against the “yeast” of the Pharisees. Strictly speaking, however, these imaginative pictures are not stories. The stories Jesus told all fall into a particular category of story known as parables.
A parable is a story from real life or a real-life situation from which a moral or spiritual truth is drawn. Examples are abundant: the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, the Pharisee and the tax collector, the wedding banquet, the sheep and the goats, and others, including the parables of the Kingdom that we have come to now. By my count there are twenty-seven parables in the four Gospels, though some are similar and may merely be different versions of the same root story.
Parables differ from fables in that a fable is not a real situation. An example of a fable is any of Aesop’s stories, in which animals talk. In those stories the animals are simply people in disguise. Parables also differ from allegories, since in an allegory each or nearly each detail has a meaning. The best-known and probably the most successful allegory ever written is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. But there are others. C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia are essentially allegories. In the parables of Jesus not every detail has a meaning. In fact, to try to force meaning into each of the details produces strange and sometimes even demonstrably false doctrines. Parables are merely real-life stories from which one or possibly a few basic truths can be drawn.
But there is more to Jesus’ use of parables than what I have suggested so far, and we have to understand this because it is important to the way Matthew introduces these stories. For one thing, since Jesus is rightly known for His stories, it is striking that we have not encountered parables in Matthew’s Gospel until now. We are at chapter 13, almost halfway through the Gospel, but this is the first place Jesus’ parables are introduced. As verses 10–15 make clear, Jesus adopted the use of parables at this specific stage in His ministry for the deliberate purpose of withholding further truth about Himself and the kingdom of heaven from the crowds.
Why should he do that? The answer is that masses of people had rejected Him14 and therefore could not understand the deeper things that He now needed to reveal about the kingdom. The disciples, on the other hand, had begun to believe on Him and were looking to Him for teaching. Therefore, He taught His lessons in parables and then explained the stories to them. In fact, as Matthew makes clear, from this point on the explanation of the parables is always given to the disciples alone and never to the crowds.
Matthew 13 is the third of the six major collections of teaching by Jesus in the Gospel. We have already studied two, those in chapters 5–7 and 10.
Matthew 13 contains seven parables, all of which have one theme: the kingdom of God. They are called the “parables of the kingdom.” It is no accident that these are the first parables encountered, since from the beginning Matthew has been writing about the coming of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ. It is sometimes said that Matthew’s Gospel presents Jesus as the “king of Israel,” just as Mark presents Him as the “Son of Man” and Luke as the “servant.” But whether we give Matthew that specific emphasis or not, there is no doubt that Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom is the major theme of this Gospel. The very first verse introduces Jesus as “the son of David,” Israel’s great king. Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist, is said to have come preaching “the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus made that the initial theme of His itinerant ministry. Some would regard the Sermon on the Mount as the ethics of the kingdom and consider chapters 8–12 as demonstrations of the kingdom’s power. Since this is Matthew’s emphasis, we should not be surprised that the first parables are on this subject.
It is also no accident that the parables are presented in the order in which we have them, although methods of grouping the seven stories differ. The most obvious division is into two sets of four and three respectively. In the first four (the sower and the seed, the enemy who sows tares, the mustard seed, and the yeast) Jesus speaks before the multitudes. The last three (the parables of the hidden treasure, the fine pearl, and the dragnet) are spoken before the disciples only.
To me the first parable stands alone, since it deals with the origin of the kingdom. The next three belong together, since they explain Satan’s desire to thwart the kingdom’s growth. Parables five and six go together to show the attitude of those who vigorously seek the kingdom in spite of Satan’s wiles, and the last parable, the dragnet, shows the kingdom’s consummation. Taken together the stories show the nature, origin, hindrances to, and victory of Christ’s work of spreading His Gospel through His messengers between the days of His first coming and His coming again.
Are you His messenger spreading the Gospel?