"Why Jesus Told Parables"#88-21
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on January 24, 2021
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2021 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Mark 4
You remember that story—the one about the "Good Samaritan" who saw the guy who had been mugged, left for dead on the side of the road? Other people passed him by, but the Samaritan stopped and helped. Or what about the story with the son—the one who demanded that his father give him his inheritance, and then he took all that money, skipped town, and wasted it on wild living? And then after he was dead broke, returned to his father to see if he would somehow take him back. You don't have to be a religious person to recognize these stories.
Those are just two of them. There are dozens and dozens more: vivid, memorable stories about extravagant wedding banquets, and lost sheep, and tiny seeds that earn a thousand-percent return on investment. These stories have been speaking to people for generations, sort of like how Pixar movies have spoken to this generation, movies like Toy Story and Finding Nemo and Up. But these stories, the ones that I was mentioning, they've been around for a couple of thousand years. This kind of story is normally called a "parable." A parable is a story that aims to say something true about life. And these stories that I mentioned, they all originate from one Person. The most talked-about Person in human history: Jesus of Nazareth. So why did Jesus tell parables? Well, who doesn't like a good story? Stories connect. A story can take something complicated and make it simple. All good communicators tell stories. So why wouldn't Jesus use them?
But if we thought that Jesus told stories only to be an engaging communicator, then it might be difficult for us to understand what happened to Him eventually, the whole crucifixion and all. See, people who did dedicate their lives to telling moving stories, connecting with people, and emotionally enriching their lives, they don't normally get the death penalty. The authors of The Chicken Soup for the Soul books end up on bestseller lists, not death row. Jesus, with all His engaging and vivid stories—how did He end up getting crucified?
Before we try to answer that, how about we let Jesus speak for Himself? Listen to some of His parables recorded in one of His biographies in the New Testament, the Gospel according to Mark. And as you listen, ask yourself, why did Jesus tell parables? It starts like this.
Again, Jesus went out and began to teach beside the Sea of Galilee, and a giant crowd began to gather around Him, so that He got into a boat and stationed Himself out on the sea. And the whole crowd was on the shore facing the sea. And He began to teach them many things in parables. And in His teaching, He was saying, "Listen. Look. The farmer went out to sow his seed. And it happened as he was sewing some of the seed fell along the path, and the birds came and gobbled it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much earth, and straightway it sprang up because the earth was shallow. And when the sun came up, it was scorched. And since it had no root, it withered. Other seed fell into the weeds, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it produced no grain. And other seeds fell into the good earth, the rich earth, and they proceeded to produce grain, growing and increasing and bearing in one case 30 times more, in another case 60, and in another case 100 times more than what was sewn." And He continued to say, "Whoever has ears to hear, listen."
And when He was alone, those who were around Him, along with the twelve disciples, began to ask Him about the parables. And He said to them, "To you is already given the mystery of the rule and reign of God. But to those on the outside, it's all in parables, so that they are looking and they look, but they do not see. And they are hearing and they hear, but they do not understand. Otherwise, they would turn and be forgiven."
And He continued to say to them, "Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? The farmer is sowing the word. Some people are like those along the path where the Word is being sown. When they hear, Satan, the adversary, straightway comes and takes away the Word that was sewn into them. Others are like those sown on the rocky ground. They are the ones who when they hear the Word straightaway receive it with excitement. But since they have no root in themselves, they endure only for a while. When trouble comes or persecution because of the Word, straightway they stumble and fall. Others are like those sown among the thorns. They are the ones who have heard the Word, but the cares of this present age, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desires that come in with everything else choke the Word, so that it proves fruitless. But the ones that were sown on the good earth, the rich earth, they are the ones who hear the Word and receive it and produce a crop 30, 60, 100 times more than what was sown."
And He continued to say to them, "A lamp is not brought in to be put under a basket or a bed, is it? Is it not brought in to be put on a lampstand? Because nothing is hidden except to be brought into plain view. Nothing is concealed except to be brought to light. Whoever has ears to hear, listen up, but pay attention what you listen to. Because with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and more will be added to you, so that the one who has more will be given, but to the one who has not, even what he has will be taken from him."
And He went on to say, "The rule and reign of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. And he sleeps and he rises day and night, and the seed sprouts and grows. How? He does not know. The earth brings forth on its own automatically. First the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain and the ear is ripe, he sends forth harvesters, because the harvest has come."
And He went on saying, "To what can we compare the rule and reign of God and with what parable shall we present it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which when it's sewn on the ground is the smallest of all the seeds on the ground. Yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants. And it sends out great branches so that the birds of the air can find shelter in its shade."
With many parables like this, He would publicly speak the message to them, just as they were able to hear. And He would not speak to them without a parable. But when He was alone, with His own disciples, He would explain everything.
Now on that same day, when evening had come, He says to His disciples, "Let's go across to the other side of the sea." And after they dismissed the crowd, they took Him with them in the boat, because He was in the boat, and there were other boats with Him. And then it happened, a furious wind storm and the waves are beginning to break into the boat, so that now the boat's starting to fill with water, but He was in the back of the boat on a cushion asleep. And they wake Him, "Teacher," they say, "Teacher, does it not concern You that we are perishing?" And He awoke and rebuked the wind and says to the sea, "Quiet. Be still." And the wind ceased and everything was completely calm. "Why are you so afraid?" He said to them. "Do you still have no faith?" And they were filled with great fear, and they started saying to one another, "Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?" That's from the Gospel according to Mark 4. Why did Jesus tell parables? We've already considered one answer to this question. We said that He taught in parables to connect with people. There's some truth to that answer. People came out in droves to hear Jesus talk. They walked for days. They skipped meals. They endured hardship.
They exposed themselves to danger just so that they could stand on a crowded seashore out in the middle of nowhere and listen to this Man talk. Yes, Jesus, was an effective communicator. You don't get to be the most talked-about person in history by being dull and boring. But if you've been listening to the Gospel of Mark with us, you'll know that Jesus' storytelling is just part of His program. Sometimes He would speak parabolically and figuratively, but He would also speak directly and literally, with authority.
He could preach a simple, straightforward message like "Repent!" that is, "Turn around. Follow Me, because the kingdom, the rule and reign of God, is here." He said to the demon, "Be gone." He said to the sick, "Be healed." He said to the storm, "Be still." He said to the sinner, "I forgive you your sins." And that last one really got the religious leaders stirred up, because they knew that not just anyone can talk like that. No one can forgive sins, but God alone, they said. It was upsetting to them because Jesus wasn't just telling stories.
He was speaking in the Name of God, with the authority of God, in the place of God, as the Son of God. And that's the kind of talk that can get a storyteller crucified. It's not enough to say that Jesus told stories to connect with people. That might be the mission of Pixar or Disney, but not Jesus. Jesus' stories don't just connect, they point. The crowds connected with Jesus' stories. But for the disciples, these stories pointed them somewhere.
The stories pointed them to the mystery of the coming kingdom of God, the rule and reign of God, to forgiveness and a restored relationship with God. And the longer they were with Jesus, the more they saw that He wasn't like any other teacher. You heard them. "What kind of person is this?" They asked. "Even the wind and the waves obey Him."
When a teacher tells a story, it's common for the student to ask, "What's the point?" Because that's what teachers do. They tell stories to make a point, an illustration of some topic or theme or lesson. But with the New Testament parables, it's Jesus Himself. He's the point. He is the lamp on the stand that gives light to the house. He's the farmer out in the field laboring for the harvest. He is the Word that is sewn into the ground to die so that He can rise and send out His branches, so that we might find shelter in His shade. So far we've talked through two answers to this question, "Why did Jesus tell parables?" And we've discovered that Jesus' parables not only connect, they also point. But there's more.
When we listened to Mark 4, did you notice that Jesus Himself gave a reason why He teaches in parables? He said that His stories are designed to divide. Pixar movies are designed to connect with crowds, but Jesus' stories, divide crowds and draw in disciples. The crowd was captivated by Jesus' stories. They wanted part of what He has to offer: a life lesson, a moving story. And when they got what they wanted, they might say, "Oh, that was a good story. He made a good point," and then they go on with their lives.
But the disciples linger with Jesus long after the crowd has lost interest. And the parables are designed to do this. They draw you in, out of the lines of the crowd and into the circle of disciples. They prompt you to ask questions: "What did that mean, Jesus? What was the point?" See, the crowd came for a short while, but the disciple is drawn to Jesus for life.
I heard a parable once about a boy who was captivated, watching a butterfly. He saw it floating almost effortlessly, gliding from flower to flower. He'd never seen anything like it before—the bright color of its wings, the fluid yet unpredictable flight path, the way it landed gracefully and balanced on a single flower petal. And he was so interested in it that he wanted to keep it and show it to his friends. So he caught it, and he pulled it apart, and he divided its wings and put them in one pile over here, and its antennae in a pile over here, and its legs and body in another pile. But when he did that, he discovered that he had lost something.
Jesus' stories are captivating. Even 2,000 years after He told them, they say still glide almost effortlessly through cultures in different times and places. They land in our imaginations, pollinate our thoughts with new ways of seeing ourselves in the world. And sometimes we might be inclined to take some lesson from them like the soldiers who divided up His clothing at the foot of His cross. We might pick a pile and leave. But if you do that, you will have lost everything.
But if you stay with Jesus and talk with Him—if you go with Him and ride out the storm with Him, all the way to the cross and the empty tomb with Him, like His first disciples, you will know that He is much more than an engaging communicator. He is the Good Samaritan who revived us when we were dead in our sins on the side of the road. He is the forgiving father who welcomes the prodigals back home. Pixar movies give life lessons. Jesus gives life, life with God, forgiveness, and salvation.
Would you talk to Him with me? Lord Jesus, even the wind and the waves obey You. Draw me out of the crowd and into the circle of Your disciples so that I may have forgiveness and life in You because You live and You reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.
Reflections for January 24, 2021
Title: Why Jesus Told Parables
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived, audio, our mobile app, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. Once again, here's Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: I'm visiting with, Rev. Dr. Daniel Paavola, professor at Concordia University, Wisconsin, where he teaches students about the New Testament. He's written several books including a commentary on the Gospel of Mark which we've been listening to on this program, and then also a new book that was just released not too long ago, a book about forgiveness. And we'll talk more about that in a moment. Welcome back, Dr. Paavola.
Daniel Paavola: Thank you for letting me come, and it's a pleasure to be with you again.
Mike Zeigler: Now, you've just written a book about forgiveness, and we've been listening to Mark's Gospel, and forgiveness—we've heard a lot about forgiveness in this account—this action-packed account of Jesus. And we heard it again in the parables today. Jesus told His disciples that if the crowds truly understood the parables they'd turn to Him and be forgiven. So why is forgiveness so central to the good news about Jesus?
Daniel Paavola: Well, as He said in Mark 2, "the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins." Why would He come but to forgive our sins. He doesn't come simply to be a model of behavior, which of course Jesus is, but to be a model that's impossible for us to keep up. So if He comes that we might have a relationship with Him, that relationship has to be centered on forgiveness. And so what good news is there about Jesus unless we have a relationship that starts, middle, and ends with, "I have forgiven you, and I've forgiven you completely."
There's not an imitation forgiveness, or second chance, or "Oh, I'll forgive you, but I'll never forget what you did." Our world is full of those kinds of counterfeits. But the genuine article has to be free, full forgiveness, that's why He came. And once we're forgiven, oh, then we start a new life, then we follow as we are led and given power by the Spirit to do the things that He directed us to do. But it's got to be at the heart: forgiveness as His message, His gift.
Mike Zeigler: I like how you say that, why else would He come? If we were to have a relationship with Him and God the Father, it has to start in forgiveness. He said He came to call not the righteous but sinful people.
Daniel Paavola: John said it so well, "The Law came by Moses; grace and truth came through Christ Jesus." We didn't need simply again the Law; we knew it, we heard it, but we can't do it. Grace and truth come through Christ Jesus: the grace that forgives us, that is so amazing it has to also be affirmed as "No, really, it's true." I think that's a great combination about forgiveness, pure grace, so amazing we have to affirm it's true.
Mike Zeigler: In your book, let's talk about that for a moment. It's titled, Flowing from the Cross: Six Facets of God's Forgiveness. And in your opening chapter, I love it, you take a cue from Jesus. You tell a parable of some sorts, and the whole book is sort of an extended parable about the coming kingdom of God and forgiveness. And you compare God's forgiveness to a diamond engagement ring. And if I'm understanding the parable correctly, I think you're saying at least two things in that comparison: you're saying that God's forgiveness begins and sustains a relationship with Him. And then the second thing is that God's forgiveness is multi-faceted like a diamond ring. So, is that right? Did I catch your parable correctly?
Daniel Paavola: A diamond engagement ring is a wonderful statement about the relationship. I live here at Concordia University every day with wonderful 20-something-year-olds, and they are in relationships and a huge step is that diamond engagement ring being on that young lady's hand. Has that made a statement to the world about the relationship? Absolutely. We might've been expecting that ring; it's a final engagement. They've been dating for four years, well, finally they're engaged. But that ring makes a statement.
Well, doesn't forgiveness make that statement about our relationship with God? It is a precious diamond, rock hard, not going to change, not disappearing, constantly with us, and it declares God has chosen us as His people. He's adopted us. He's chosen us to be the bride; He's the groom; those are great images. And so forgiveness is that statement piece of our relationship with God, but at the same time it's multi-faceted.
Michael Zeigler: And as you said before it's not a counterfeit diamond. That's not a cubic zirconium, it's the real thing, real forgiveness. Why is that important to see God's forgiveness and a relationship with Him as two parts of the same thing?
Daniel Paavola: Why would you want to be with me, God? In a relationship that's a good question. Why is this person with me? And a vain person's answer as well, "After all, I'm such a catch. I'm such a wonderful person." Now, an honest answer is "I really don't know. This person is way beyond me, and I don't know why they're with me." Well, if God says, "I'm in relationship with you," you're going to have to ask that question. "Well, why? Why God?" And only a fool caught up with his own vanity is going to say, "Well, after all, I'm such a wonderful person." Of course, you are. No, no, no. We know that Ephesians 2, we are by nature objects of His wrath. Okay, so we're not by nature in that relationship. So what's the core of that relationship? But Ephesians 2 goes on—He loved us. He forgave us purely by grace. It's all by mercy. I've got an answer to the question: "God, why are You in relationship with me?" Oh, that's right, forgiveness, purely by Your mercy and grace. We have it; we use it; we know it as much as God shares with us, and yet it shimmers like a diamond. That's kind of beyond us.
Mike Zeigler: If you want to read more about this, check out the book from Daniel Paavola, it's spelled with two A's, P-A-A-V-O-L-A, and it's called Flowing from the Cross. Thank you for joining us, Dr. Paavola.
Daniel Paavola: Oh, thank you. A pleasure to be with you all and with all your listeners.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"O Christ, Our True and Only Light" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)