June 4, 2010

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus’ parables: Teaching about God’s kingdom

John F. Fink(First in a series of columns)

One day, Jesus and his Apostles went down to the Sea of Galilee and a large crowd gathered.

According to the 13th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel and the fourth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, he got into a boat along the shore so the people could see him as he preached. For the first time, he began to teach in parables.

This was new. There are no parables in the Old Testament, and no indication that Jesus had taught in parables up to that time. Before he was through, his parables would form about one-third of his recorded teachings despite the fact that there are no parables in John’s Gospel. Luke’s Gospel has the most.

Since Jesus gave so much importance to his parables, I thought I would devote some columns to some—not all—of them. I hope I can present ideas about them that you haven’t thought about.

“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 is 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.

When Jesus began his parables, it probably seemed to most of the crowd that he was just making small talk about the agriculture of his day because he talked about a sower going out to sow seeds. But he was much more serious than that.

Jesus used his parables to teach about the kingdom of God—or the 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 they asked him why he spoke in parables, he replied, “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted” (Mt 13:11). There were certain things that he was teaching that only his Apostles were ready for.

Jesus made it clear that there were different levels of meaning to the parables. The first meaning would be fairly obvious and had spiritual value, but there were also deeper meanings. I hope that we can discover those deeper meanings.

But why aren’t there any parables in John’s Gospel? One possible explanation is that, while the parables were also about God’s kingdom in individual souls, they were primarily about the kingdom he meant to found in this world.

When the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke were written, the Church was still being formed. By the time John’s Gospel was written, perhaps 30 or 40 years later, the Church was in existence and all the characteristics foretold by the parables were clear for all to see. †

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