Teaching people about ethical questions, as I did on the mountain near Magdala, was quite straightforward. Helping them to understand about the Kingdom was much harder. Even my most advanced disciples couldn't get their heads around the concepts. Right and wrong was practical. They could all discuss that. Thinking about unseen realities was something else. So I asked the Holy Spirit to show me how to make the ideas relevant. The answer was very simple. "Tell them stories."
Very soon I was using parables in all my proclamation of the good news (Mark 4:2, 13). That is not as easy as it sounds. Just try inventing a parable. But I discovered the Holy Spirit loved to create a story for every point I wanted to make. In some cases it was just a question of making me look at what he had built in to nature and the people around me. I had the feeling there is nothing in the animal, vegetable, or mineral world that is without its meaning. The parables of the Spirit got people thinking, and before they knew what had happened they got involved and were transformed by the renewing of their mind (see Romans 12:2). But the stories were also open-ended, and suited people in different ways. They grabbed the people who were really interested. Others never bothered to inquire further (Mark 4:12). Though happily in some cases there was a delay, and the parable suddenly worked several weeks later.
The first parable I used was the parable of the Sower. It illustrated the fact that many were baptized to begin learning, but very few went on to be effective members of my Kingdom. "As a sower sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold" (Mark 4:3-9).
Some of my hearers thought the farmer did a pretty poor job of sowing. The wiser ones among them repeated the story to their children, and they often got the point. Others went away scratching their heads and wondered what it could mean? My disciples looked blank, but they did not want to show their ignorance by attempting an explanation. Normally I left them to figure out the application, but to get them started I went over the four kinds of soil. In each case there was nothing wrong with the farmer's seed, or the rain, or the sunshine. What counted was the human heart.
I explained that among the dozens of people they baptized some did not even bother to show up the next day for teaching. They would brag. "Oh yes, I was baptized by both John the Baptist and the prophet from Nazareth." Others began with great enthusiasm, and when the going got rough they dropped off. The thorns were business concerns, money worries, and all sorts of other things that crowded in on their lives. But those who received the message, and let it work deep in their hearts, eventually became very fruitful (Mark 4:10-20). When I pointed this out to them they could see at once that this was happening all the time.
"But Rabbi, aren't you concerned that we baptize so many who have no intention of being serious about it?" I answered that what counted was the large number of people whose lives were wonderfully changed. If they tried to check out the motives of every person before baptizing them, we would get bogged down in judgmentalism, make many mistakes, and put off those who were sincerely looking for answers.
Similarly in the parable of the Weeds I explained why it would be disastrous to engage in a witch hunt to root out the unbelievers (Matthew 13:36-43). The disciples would make too many mistakes trying to probe the human heart. "In gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together; and at harvest time, I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn" (Matthew 13:30).
Of course I had constant problems with literalism. "Rabbi, when will this harvest take place? Will it be the end of the world?" I had to explain that parables are told in outrageous metaphorical language. There is a constant harvest of good wheat coming into our Kingdom. But from time to time there is a division when those who have a quite different agenda take off and leave. On one occasion I was using strong language about eating my flesh and drinking my blood (John 6:53) and I was accused of making people drink blood, or even of cannibalism. Many of the disciples we had baptized got miffed (John 6:60), and they never came back for further teaching (John 6:66). It was a disaster for them, but the work of the Kingdom went on.
In my ethical teaching on the mountain I would say "Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matthew 5:33). But I had prepared the ground with the stories of birds not worrying about tomorrow's food, and wild lilies never fussing about what they would look like (Matthew 6:25-32). To help people weigh the value of serving the Kingdom I used the parable of the vein of gold a man found in an abandoned field. He took the risk of selling all he possessed and buying the land. Similarly with the pearl collector who sold all his other pearls to buy the most beautiful pearl he had ever seen.
I was delighted when James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, noticed that our teaching was changing the way people around us related to God , and said it was like the yeast a woman puts in her dough (Matthew 13:33). It didn't take much to make a large loaf. And Peter commented that our work had grown from a tiny mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32). I had told those parables several weeks before, but now suddenly they could see what they meant.
Everybody knew the shepherd psalm. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul" (Psalm 23). But I wanted a story to explain how much the Father loves each one of us, even when we are far from him. And the Spirit gave me the parable of the shepherd who was desperately concerned when one of his flock had got lost (Luke 15:3-7). A variant was the woman who had ten silver coins in her wedding necklace and when one got lost she scoured the house. In both cases I described the joyful celebration when the sheep and the coin were found.
By far my most popular story was the parable of the great celebration when the equally lost prodigal son was found (Luke 15:11-24). When the self-righteous objected to such a sinner being welcomed home without proper repentance and a long period of probation, I added the story of the lost brother who grouchily stayed at home (Luke 15:25-32). That got the Pharisees even more infuriated.
I had been asked by a theologian which was the greatest commandment in the law (Mark 12:28), and I had no hesitation in quoting Moses' words, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength; and your neighbor as yourself" (Deuteronomy 6:4). I added that the second greatest commandment was "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). Another expert in the law quoted this summing up of the law in the two love principles, and wanted me to give a definition of a neighbor. It hardly took a second for the Holy Spirit to give me the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-35). After telling the story, I asked whether it was the priest, or the Levite, or the Samaritan, who acted as neighbor to the wounded man. He had to admit it was the one who showed him mercy, and I told him to go and do the same (Luke 10:36-37).
The point was that in an emergency situation, like a stranger wounded on the road, any person in need becomes a neighbor. You do for him or her what you would do with your own neighbor next door. It was introducing the word "Samaritan" that raised some hackles. Samaritans lived nearby but their religion was corrupt, and people tried to keep away from them. The idea of a Samaritan tending Jewish wounds, riding his donkey, and God forbid him paying their hotel bills was unthinkable (Luke 10:33-35). The parable also suggested that religious leaders could be so intent on their duties that they easily became heartless. Not only the self-righteous Pharisees, but the Sadducee priests of Jerusalem soon found that parables were undermining their religious authority.
As I said, parables work by picturing an extreme outrageous situation. They go wrong when people take them literally. The one that caused most misunderstanding was the story of the well-dressed wealthy man and Lazarus the beggar in rags at his door (Luke 16:19-31). First they tried to identify the rich person I was talking about. Was it the head tax collector in Bethsaida? Or perhaps the contractor in Tiberias? And whoever heard of pariah dogs licking a person's sores? Theologians wanted know what authority I had for saying that angels carried us to Abraham when we died. The Greek word Hades was Sheol, the abode of the dead awaiting resurrection, and there is no suggestion in the Scriptures that people were tormented there (Luke 16:21-26).
Such questions are like asking which crow sat in which tree holding which kind of cheese in its beak? Or how could a fox tell a crow that if its song was as beautiful as it's plumage it would be the queen of the forest? The point of the ancient fable is that the crow's pride gave the fox the cheese.
The parable of the rich man and the beggar is about the results of our heart attitudes. God does not divide between rich and poor, but between those who turn to him and those who refuse to listen to his loving invitation (Luke 16:30-31). Nor do you inquire about the present location of Abraham. The details are to make the story vivid and very memorable.
Let me give you just one more illustration of how a parable can be wrecked by taking it literally. In the parable of the dishonest manager the point was that people are much more shrewd in their ordinary business dealings than in the way they make friends and influence people for the Kingdom (Luke 16:8). It is monstrous to conclude I commend dishonesty, or to make it into a story about how to get severance pay when you are fired (Luke 16:1-7).
Later I will show you how I used parables and imagery to picture the impending end, not only of the cities of northern Galilee (Matthew 11:20-24), but of the temple in Jerusalem and its religious establishment (Matthew 23:35-24:1-3).
Chapter 8 .....