Story and Gospel: Why Jesus Spoke in Parables

(Originally published on A Clear Lens)

“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matt. 13:3-9)

Jesus spoke this parable from a boat while a large crowd listened on shore. These original hearers would have been astonished at the ending, for the abundance that the good soil produced–thirty-fold, sixty-fold and a hundredfold–was unheard of.

In a word, it’s unnatural. It’s fantastical.

What that tells us is that the sower, despite seeing all these other seeds fail, considers the act of sowing worth it, for from scarcity comes abundance (much like the parable of the mustard seed; Matt. 13:31-32).

It’s easy to approach this parable as if it were something to be “exegeted,” as if its only purpose is to offer a theological principle. But it’s not like an egg that must be cracked before we get to what we really want.

It’s not a fanciful story containing a hidden truth. It is truth because it does something. It forces a response.

That’s why we must ask: “how would the crowd have responded to this parable?” How would they have responded to the ridiculousness of the abundant crop?

What did it make them do?

Well, that is where things get interesting. As D.A. Carson points out, Jesus used parables to simultaneously conceal and reveal the truth.

Parables, like the parable of the sower, draw out the faithful and harden the rest. This is precisely why Jesus quoted Isaiah:

“‘Go, and say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9-10)

Like Isaiah, Jesus was pronouncing judgment on those who refused to believe him. They didn’t recognize their Messiah, even when the Old Testament spoke of him (Luke 24:25-27).

Perhaps they were willing to settle for an Earthly Messiah. Maybe they didn’t consider a transcendent home worth the wait or struggle. A hundredfold crop, after all, may be too good to be true.

With that being said, we live in a time far removed from this pivotal moment in salvation history. The new covenant has arrived (Jer. 31:31-34), we know there is a resurrection from the dead (1 Cor. 15:12-14), and the Holy Spirit is among us all (John 16:7-8). We, as Christians, are to proclaim the Gospel everywhere based on this fact (Matt. 28:19-20).

So how do we respond to this parable today?

What sort of soil do we think we are?

Do we think the Gospel is too good to be true?

Do we have ears to hear? Or do we just assume so?

As Isaiah and Jesus demonstrate, there are three types of hearers. You can be a mere hearer (13:19), but that doesn’t necessitate understanding (13:20-23), and you may understand and receive the Gospel, even with joy (13:20), but that doesn’t necessitate fruit (13:23; compare with Eph. 2:10; Col. 1:10).

By definition, hearing is a passive sense. We receive what’s given. As the parable demonstrates, all we can “do” is trust the objectivity of Providence. Only then can we produce the bountiful fruit. The Biblical canon agrees (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 37; John 6:28-29; 1 Cor. 3:6; Gal. 3:1-3; Eph. 2:4-9; Phil. 1:6; 1 Thess. 5:23-24).

The parables of Jesus release us from our subjective trappings because we are brought into a narrative that’s “other”. Like a mirror, we are invited to see ourselves in those under judgment, or not.

We may just coddle ourselves back into the thorns. We may be the ones who gave up on Christianity long ago, thinking that the Gospel is too good to be true–much like the original audience would have thought of the hundredfold crop.

If we think we can make our lives work without trusting Christ to bring us growth, then we are building a shelter of cardboard against the oncoming storm.

Or are we more like the thorny and rocky soils, who are “certain” that we’re the good soil?

Do we have ears to hear?

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