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Everyone loves a story. Whether young or old, we all enjoy hearing, reading, or seeing a good story unfold.
Stories are remarkably powerful things. They stir-up our imaginations and excite our affections. They instruct us and inspire us. They intoxicate and influence us. They linger with us, often becoming more precious and poignant and powerful over time.
In seminary, every pastor-in-training learns about the mysterious homiletical power of story and illustrations. How many times has a church congregation snapped back to attention during a sermon because the preacher began recounting a story or explaining his point with a descriptive, sensory-filled illustration? And why do good preachers do this? Because the human heart is spring-loaded to respond to stories and illustrations. Many times, long after the spoken words are forgotten, we can still call to remembrance the main point of a sermon because of the wise and effective employment of a good story.
During His earthly teaching ministry, the Lord Jesus, who was the master teacher and preacher, often used stories and illustrations as He instructed the crowds of people who flocked to hear Him. Most scholars refer to these types of stories as “parables.” There are about fifty different parables of Christ recorded in the Gospels. In fact, about one-third of all of Jesus’ recorded sayings are parables. This would seem to imply something very interesting: telling stories was one of Jesus’ favorite methods for “proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God” (Luke 8:1) and speaking forth “the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
The word parable communicates the idea of placing one thing by the side of another, and from this meaning you can easily figure out how they work: simple terms are used to convey a profound truth. In the ministry of Christ, parables are simple stories taken from the familiar world in which Jesus lived, and they are told to relate an unfamiliar spiritual truth. The common, mundane, and everyday are used to elucidate the uncommon, profound, and otherworldly. One person has said that a parable is “an earthly story with a heavenly message.” And while the parables of Christ are not strict allegories (in which every minor detail is symbolic of something else), they are brief, simple illustrations that usually address one problem or question with which our Lord was dealing. In other words, parables usually drive home one main truth.
But you might be wondering, why parables? Well, you would not be the only one to have asked that question.After hearing Jesus tell the parable of the soils, “the disciples came and said to him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’” (Matt. 13:10). The reply of our Lord is very interesting:
“And he answered them, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.
‘But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear’” (vv. 11–13, 16).
You see, Christ was speaking to a mixed-multitude. There were those who received His teaching with open hearts, and those who spurned His truth and persisted in unbelief. Rather than try to weed-out the believers in order to instruct only them, Christ set His teaching before the crowds in the form of parables. Those who had hearts to believe would embrace the teaching and seek to understand further, and those who rejected it, even though they had heard, would not understand at all. In this way, parables withdraw the light from the rebellious at heart who hate the truth, and give light to those who believe and love the truth.
The implication of this is profound: more than a mere homiletical device or a powerful didactic tool, the parables of Jesus are actually designed to help us see whether illuminating grace is on the move in our lives. (Whether we fully understand every nuance of a given parable is not the main concern — even the disciples had to have some interpreted for them.) Parables function as little tests of faith, beckoning us to see and believe and obey the truth of the Storyteller.
So as we seek to be the church in this world, let us eagerly read the parables of Jesus — and all of God’s Word — with a humble dependence on the gracious, illuminating work of the Holy Spirit. Let us ask these kinds of questions: Am I embracing Christ as the ultimate good of the gospel today? Am I open to His teaching? Am I joyfully abiding in His instruction? Am I really interested in His truth? Do I have eyes that want to see and ears that want to hear the words of life?
In reading this way, we will become joy-filled partakers of the great story to which the gospel has so graciously called us, and the Word of God will become a deep well of life-giving truth that provides rich, spiritual satisfaction for our souls.