In the synoptic gospels there are around thirty parables. Some are rather long like the Parable of the Sower or the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but most of them are rather short and to the point. It’s never as easy as one might think to determine the primary meaning of a parable. Often we get lost in the details of figurative language or the illustrations used and miss the meaning. A good example is the Parable of the Sower; is the emphasis on the seed, the soil, the results or all three? Another is the Parable of the Mustard Seed, the point is not that a mustard seed produces a tree bigger than all other trees or garden plants, as obvious as that might be. The point is the tiniest of seeds produces a disproportional result.
It has been noted that Jesus began using parables late in his ministry once he had realized that the plain truth was not being heard or believed. Whether parables were a “plan B” or not, is somewhat negligible. What is important, for whatever reason, parables became a way to proclaim truth to those eligible to hear and receive it. Those not eligible might “see but not perceive” or “hear but not understand” (Mk 4:12). Now it is strange that Jesus makes that observation and then immediately it is followed up with the group of his disciples (including the twelve) NOT understanding the Parable of the Sower. As a result, he explains it to them, as he does other parables (Mk 4:34).
In thinking about parables, I began to let my mind follow a path regarding interpretation. What if we did not have commentaries and theologians to “explain” the parables to us. Would we understand them? Would we, as I suspect Jesus intended, hear the parable, ponder it and then perhaps an hour later, a day later or even a month later, go “ah ha! I get it. Now I understand what his point was.” Unfortunately we do have commentaries and theologians, bloggers and religious pundits (preachers) who are more than willing to help us understand what the parables mean and how we should apply them in our life. But don’t we miss something when we follow that route? It’s similar to the ancient axiom, “give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.”
It seems that all too often the commentators and preachers want to make more of the parable/story than is often necessary. Somehow they seem to want to make it all more profound than it might otherwise be either in its original setting or its original intent. They want to take a five minute story and turn it into a forty-five minute life lesson. We all do that from time to time I’m sure. But does that process have value?
We get caught up in the story and often lose sight of things that may have more value surrounding the story. A good example is with Mark’s introduction of parables in the ministry of Christ. Large crowds were gather and Jesus was teaching them “many things in parables.” Once he finished what Mark records as his first parable, “those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. At that point Jesus says something far more profound than the Parable of the Sower. “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables” (4:11). My gosh, forget the sower stuff, his followers -including the special twelve – are being told they have been given the “secret of the kingdom of God!” What is that secret? Furthermore, what is this “kingdom of God?” That’s the story, not the other story, at least in this particular text. Taking it a step further, is this “secret” something only they now know, or is it something others will know? If so, how will they know they know? Is the secret revealed when one believes? Is it hidden until one walks the “roman road?” Does it come with a secret handshake and a special formula that let’s others know we know and now together we know? THAT’S the story. The parable is simply a complement to this marvelous truth that has just been revealed.
I like the parables. I enjoy thinking about them and finding the truth in their power of simplicity. But I often have to slow myself down to make certain I don’t miss huge truths that may be posited in the full context of the parables.