Before we study the parables, it is important that we remind ourselves of the fundamental principles of interpretation. As was stated in the book God-Centred Bible Study,
“The parables of Jesus are among the most widely recognised stories in the world. Sadly, they are also among the most abused stories in the world. Sometimes the very preachers and teachers who ought to be treating the parables with reverence are abusing them” (152).
Concealing from some
It is commonly assumed that Jesus uses parables to make his meaning clear. This assumption contradicts his own statement of the matter in Matthew 13:10-17 (cf Mark 4:10-12). The truth about the purpose of parables is more complex than we have realised. Parables may often conceal truth from some listeners, while revealing truth to others.
The sun will harden mud while melting butter. This fact is not a judgment on the sun but on the quality of the material receiving its rays. Likewise, a parable may lead different hearers to radically different conclusions. This is not a judgement on the parable but revealing of the character of the hearers.
The skilful use of parables allowed Jesus to teach his disciples without giving opponents an opportunity against him. That seems to be what Jesus is doing in his early parables. Later, Jesus will use a parable that is clearly aimed at the Jewish elite. That parable will lead them to seek to kill him (Mt 21:45). But early in his ministry he does not want them to understand so clearly. He knows that, once they understand, they will kill him. To have more time to teach, he uses parables that conceal the truth from his enemies.
These concealing parables are clear enough once they are explained. They are also very memorable. But they are not intended to reveal truth to all listeners.
Even in the Old Testament there are times when parables are used to present a message while concealing a portion of the message for a time. Nathan tells a parable to King David that is a concealing parable (2 Sam 12:1-15). Once the meaning is revealed, it is perfectly clear and convicting. But until he hears the explanation, David does not realise that the parable concerns his own actions.
Memorable truth in non-legal form
A parable may reveal a truth that would be impossible to state in a legal form. Life is too complex and ambiguous to make simple statements for every situation. Not every godly principle is best stated as a law. Some things that are true or wise in one situation are not correct in a different situation.
A notable example of this is presented in Proverbs 26. In verse 4 we are told, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.” But the very next verse says, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” Is this a contradiction? No, it is an acknowledgement of the fact that life is complex. Sometimes it is a wasted effort to answer a fool, and sometimes we ought to answer a fool. There can be no law made on this subject. The wise person must judge each case on its merits.
Those who understand the proper use of proverbs and parables are able to deal with the complexities of life. Those who insist that we must have a law on every subject are unable to deal with the complexities of life.
Parables make truth portable. Memorised truth is often difficult to apply. Students who have memorised facts in a classroom often have difficulty seeing how those facts apply in real-life situations. They may even have trouble remembering the memorised facts once they have left school.
Parables are memorable and they show truth being applied in a practical way to situations we encounter in life. A Christian who studies the biblical parables often, becomes skilled at applying sound moral principles in different situations. Thus, the regular use of parables helps us learn to apply old truth in new situations.
As we study the parables of Jesus, let us avoid the temptation to read meaning into the parables that is not indicated in the scriptures. As was stated in God-Centred Bible Study,
“Jesus did not use parables so that we could make whatever we want to out of his teaching. The text, and context, should control us. We are not to take control of the text and make of it what we choose. The parables should be read naturally. The conclusions drawn should be such that any reasonable person can see the connection between the parable, the context, and the conclusions. Fanciful, allegorical interpretations of the parables often impress people, but they are wrong. The teacher who favours such may have an imagination, but the teaching of Jesus is obscured by such teaching. The person teaching in this way promotes himself rather than the gospel” (152).
As we read the parables, we should allow them to form not only specific beliefs, but to shape our whole approach to life. We should seek to take the truth of parables with us by remembering them and by being willing to apply them in new situations. Most of all, we should submit to the truth we have found in the parables. It is not the hearers of the parables, but the doers who are blessed (James 1:22-25; Mt 7:21).
The first parable that Matthew gives is the Parable of the Sower (1-9). This parable is so well-known, and Jesus explains it so clearly (18-23), that there is no need for a lengthy discussion of it in this book. We will only note a few matters that are frequently overlooked.
Evangelistic planning or self-examination
This parable has often been used to guide decisions about evangelistic work. Those planning missionary or evangelistic work often refer to this as the parable of the soils. It is suggested that in planning our work we should evaluate the condition of the potential fields of labour and concentrate our efforts on those most likely to be “good” soil.
Certainly, we should plan our work carefully. We should use wisdom. Good stewards of God’s gifts will do this. But this is not the main point of the parable. While using this parable to help in planning our work may be an appropriate secondary use of the parable, we must not allow even a good secondary application to displace the primary original application.
The primary message of the parable points toward self-examination rather than to examination of others. While evangelists will rightly benefit from considering the nature of the soil where they are working, their first responsibility is self-examination. “What type of soil am I” should be the first question we ask ourselves when reading this parable.
Lessons on this parable often overlook important distinctions between the first three types of ground. In explaining the parable, Jesus does not say the same thing about these types. The seed on the path never germinates. The word produces no faith at all in that case (19). The rocky ground represents those who quickly become believers but are said to “fall away” when troubles come (20-21). The thorny ground allows the plants to survive but they are choked and remain “unfruitful” (22).
Many believers convince themselves that they are “good soil” believers because they continue attending worship. They do not “fall away,” so they are satisfied that all is well with them. But this is not the case. The farmer is not satisfied that what he plants merely survives. He desires a useful crop. Jesus is not satisfied that we merely survive. He expects a fruitful crop. Therefore, we must remove weeds from our lives. It is not enough that we still believe. If worldly concerns keep us from being fruitful, we are not what we ought to be.
Parable of the weeds
Next, Matthew records the parable of the weeds (24-30). This parable also comes with an explanation. Its meaning was not obvious, so the disciples asked about it (36-43). If the parable and its explanation are studied together, the meaning should be clear. There is a need, however, for a few brief comments about its application in the church.
The parable is a warning against overly harsh church discipline. There is a real danger that church leaders could destroy true believers in their efforts to rid the kingdom of spiritual weeds (28-30; 38-42). But the parable should not be used to exclude all forms of church discipline. Later in Matthew, Jesus makes it clear that the church is to discipline those who are unrepentant (Mt 18:15-20). Later in the New Testament we see the Holy Spirit leading the church at Jerusalem to discipline certain false believers (Acts 5). We know that the church at Corinth and the church at Thessalonica were commanded to disfellowship those who were engaged in open and obvious sin (1 Cor 5; 2 Thess 3).
This parable is teaching that we should be careful in church discipline. We should only act when we can distinguish between unrepentant sinners and the faithful. But in those clear cases we must act. It is arrogant and foolish to try to remove every weed from the church. We will never accomplish that, and we would be likely to harm many if we try. But when matters are clear, when a brother or sister is determined to go on in sin, failure to discipline is sin. The parable is a warning against being too eager to discipline. It is not intended to stop rightful discipline.
Twin parables: mustard Seed & the leaven
In the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven, Jesus teaches us to expect gradual yet dramatic growth of the kingdom.
Both parables teach us to expect numerical growth. Many in the church today have become pessimistic about prospects for growth of the kingdom. We are facing difficult days. People are not as receptive as they once were. But this does not mean that we should be discouraged about the long-term prospects of the church. Both parables indicate that growth will come. The gates of hell will not prevail against the kingdom (Mt 16:18). Eventually it will be a countless number drawn from every nation (Rev 7:9).
Some have pointed to Matthew 7:14 (“few will find it”) as proof that the church will always be small. But we must not exaggerate one passage against another. Humanly speaking, it may be impossible for any of us to find the kingdom (1 Cor 2:14). But we are not talking about what humans can do. The question here is what God can do through his people. Jesus indicates that the kingdom will grow. And this came true. At the end of Pentecost day, 3000 had entered. A short time later the number had grown to 5000 (Acts 4) Two chapters later we are told of a “multitude of disciples” (Acts 6); and a “great multitude” is mentioned in Acts 17.
These two parables also indicate that transformational growth should be expected. The mustard plant grows. The leaven, when worked into the dough, makes a notable difference in the dough.
The kingdom transforms the world rather than being conformed to the world. The mustard grows but remains mustard. The leaven changes the dough rather than being conformed to the dough. The lump of leaven does not say, “I am just a little lump in these three measures of meal; I cannot do anything. I’ll just give up and become regular dough.” The leaven remains true to its nature and changes the nature of the meal around it.
A church that is fundamentally different in organization, worship, or doctrine from the church we find in the New Testament is not the church Jesus built. A church that is fundamentally like the New Testament church in organization, worship, and doctrine, but is not trying to change the world around it, is also clearly defective. It is not enough to restore our doctrine; we are to influence others.
Where the true seed is sown, where the pure leaven is worked into the dough, lives are transformed, and the kingdom grows.
Another pair: the treasure & the pearl
Priorities are of great importance. One does not have to use wrong ingredients to ruin the meal. If the right ingredients are there, but the proportions are wrong, the meal will be ruined. One does not have to believe heresy to misrepresent Christianity. We might believe the correct doctrines, but overemphasise some and underemphasise others. One does not have to do wrong to fail. Too much attention to matters of lesser importance will often wreck a life.
Most of us are too busy. We need to eliminate some bad things from our lives. Others have nothing that is bad to eliminate. Sometimes we just need to eliminate some good things to make room for the greater things.
The difference between success and failure in life is largely a matter of priorities. Here we have two short parables about priorities.
In the first, a man “sells all that he has” for an undefined treasure (44). In the second a man sells all for one gem of greater value than all others (45-46). The claim is that one thing must be first, in fact that it is worth more than all the rest combined. That thing that is worth more than anything else is the Lord’s kingdom. It must be our highest priority.
The kingdom must come ahead of pride. Pride is the reason the kingdom is not put first, in many cases. We like our ideas better than God’s. Human solutions feed our ego (cf Rom 9:30-32, 10:3).
The kingdom must come ahead of pleasure. We often put our pleasure ahead of the kingdom. It is odd the things people put ahead of worship and Bible study. It is not a sin to enjoy football. But if we put a football match ahead of worship, we have a problem with our priorities.
The kingdom must come ahead of possessions. In many lives, the desire for possessions is being put ahead of the kingdom. We must care for our family (1 Tim 5:8), but often we are working for luxuries and putting that ahead of the praise of God and participation in his kingdom. We need to hold all that we have as a trust from the Lord to be used to his glory and disposed of according to his will (Mt 6:33; 19:21).
The kingdom must even come ahead of family. The family is not a bad thing. In fact the family is a very good thing, yet it is not the first thing. There is an interesting paradox here. There may be times when giving to a needy family member should be ahead of giving to the church (Mt 15:4-6). Yet, if we put family ahead of the Lord in our thinking, we are wrong (Mt 10:37-39).