June 10, 2005

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: He taught in parables

See Matthew 13:1-53, Mark 4:1-34,
Luke 8:4-18

Quite suddenly one day, while sitting next to the Sea of Galilee, Jesus started to teach by using parables. This was new. There are no parables in all of the Old Testament.

“Parable” means “comparison.” Jesus used his parables to compare ordinary events in life with spiritual truths. Just as the elements in a natural process with which people are familiar are related, so too are the elements in the spiritual process.

(Technically, some of Jesus’ parables are allegories. That’s what happens when each detail of a story is given a figurative meaning. Sticklers for proper grammar insist that parables have only one point of comparison.)

Jesus used his parables to teach about the kingdom of God (or kingdom of heaven, as Matthew’s Gospel refers to it). He says nothing about the outside or external structure of the kingdom, but only about its inner principles.

He also doesn’t explain his parables to the crowds, but only to his Apostles. When he began, his listeners probably thought he was just making some agricultural small talk. They certainly didn’t understand them as we do today.

There are many more parables than those in the Scripture readings listed above. Those were the first ones he spoke that day by the sea, but in all there are about two dozen, concluding with the one about the wise and foolish virgins.

Jesus’ first parable was about the sower and the seed. In Palestine in those days, seed was sown before plowing, so Jesus noted that some seed fell on land unsuitable for growing. Nevertheless, the seed that fell on good ground bore a large measure of fruit. The point he was making was that, in spite of opposition and indifference, the kingdom would have enormous success. He was also saying that not all the Chosen People would be a part of the kingdom, but it would depend on the response that each individual made to the truths that Jesus revealed.

The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast, or leaven, tell us that the kingdom would grow slowly, beginning very small but ending enormous. (The three measures of wheat is a huge amount.) It would not be spectacular, as his listeners expected would happen when the Messiah came.

The parables of the weeds growing among the wheat and the fishing net with good and bad fish in it tell us that the kingdom on earth is composed of both the good and the bad, and only the judgment of God will eliminate the sinful. In his explanation to the Apostles, Jesus said that he would send his angels to separate the good from the bad.

The parables of the treasure hidden in a field (in the unsettled conditions of Palestine in Jesus’ time, it was not unusual to guard valuables by burying them) and the pearl of great price tell us that the kingdom is so important and we must go to any lengths to possess it. No sacrifice is too great. †


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