Parables are one of the most popular aspects of Jesus’ teaching. Even today, people would use the terminology of “Good Samaritan” even if they had no concept of Jesus teaching or the context in which this parable is told. Even as Christians, we know parables well, the prodigal son, the friend at midnight, the wise or foolish builder. However, most of the time, when we know things well, we remember them wrong. This happens all the time with songs or even with movies. One example of this is the famous line in E.T. Many people believe he says, “E.T. phone home.” However, what he says is “E.T. home phone.” We can become familiar with things that we know well and not stop reflecting or thinking about the actual meaning of these words or stories. In 1961, Vince Lombardi walked into the locker room of the Green Bay Packers at the start of training camp. He uttered words that were simple yet profound. He simply held up the football and explained, “Gentlemen, this is a football.” Before he went through new plays or strategies, he returned to the basics. Today we will be looking at Mark 4:10-12, which is the foundation of understanding parables. Mark 4:10-12 is found in the middle of the parable of the sower, which we will be looking at next week. The ‘meat’ in the sandwich gives us the purpose of parables. Simply put, “This is a Parable.”
I. Understanding parables
The word parable is a compound word—the first word half of the word ‘para,’ which means alongside. When we parallel park, we park parallel to the curb. A paralegal is a person who works alongside a lawyer. The second half of the word is ‘ballo,’ which means to cast alongside. A parable is a short story that is placed alongside a kingdom lesson. Or, to put it another way, a small earthly story with a big theological point (or points). Jesus frequently taught in parables. There are roughly 36 parables in the Gospels, 6 of which appear in Mark, and these six also appear in the other Gospels. Luke has 35 of these parables. The Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son only appear in Luke along with others. The length of parables can change drastically from an illustrative story that can range in size from a sentence or two (Matt 13:44) to a short story (Matt 20:1-16). Jesus often taught in parables, and it is where the question appears in our text today. Jesus’ disciples and those around him, when they were alone, asked him about the parables. Here in Mark 4:10, they ask about the ‘parables’ (plural), not merely the parable he just told them about. Jesus taught in parables enough that those who were with him asked the question about why he taught in parables.
II. Interpreting Parables
Previously parables were treated as allegory, which means that many aspects and details of the parable are told to reflect a more profound spiritual value. The Parable of the Prodigal Son was interpreted as the Father was God, the prodigal son is the sinner who repents, and the older son is the hard-hearted pharisee. However, the additional details are then interpreted allegorically. The ring placed upon the younger son’s finger represents Christian baptism, the Banquet signifies the Lord’s supper, and the robe denotes immortality. Along with other aspects like his shoes. Often these interpretations are not false in what they teach. For example, we can focus a lot of our energy on looking at the details and over-interpreting them and often can miss the more significant theological point or shift the theological significance of the parable. As Craig Blomberg rightfully explains, this then turned to an oversimplification of parables to say they only have one single point. Parables vary. Some only have one character; others have multiple. Some are short, while others are long. Like all biblical interpretations, we should let the text define the number of points. We should also understand that we do not need to find a systematic theology within every parable. The purpose of the parable of the ten virgins (Matt 25:1-13) is given in Matthew 25:13, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” However, under this one central point, we might be able to see some others; for example, we might assume when the Bridegroom is returning but is delayed longer than we first anticipated, or the severity of living like the foolish virgins, or our need to be prepared for the delay of the Bridegroom. Each of these points is, I believe, valid. This is different from the allegorical approach that would seek to find meaning in the number ten or five, or even the oil for their lamps, etc.
III. Secrecy of Parables
Jesus explains to his disciples that they have been given the secret of the Kingdom of God. But to those who are outside, everything is in parables. We, need to be cautious about thinking there is some tremendous spiritual mystery hidden in every parable in which only those with some magical spell can understand or some cryptic riddle to be solved. God gives the answer. It is not earned through human merit but only through the divine gift. Jesus clearly shows the secret is given to those ‘inside’ not those outside. Jesus would often explain the parables to his disciples privately (Mark 4:33). In the parable of the sower, we see the consistent element in the parable is the seed which is the word falling on the soil. The same word falls on different soil and therefore has different effects. However, we need to see that Mark has given us this parable to understand parables. Jesus explains in verse 13, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” However, before the question from the disciples in verse 10, we find Jesus explained, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9). Jesus’ statement was not against people who do not have ears on the side of their heads but instead connects from verses 10-13. The outsiders in verse 11 will see but not perceive and hear but not understand. Previously Jesus told the crowd, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Then in verse 13, he asks, how will you understand all the parables?
Hearing and understanding are important to why Jesus spoken parables. To hear noises is not the same as comprehending, processing, and understanding words. When I am reading, I might read letters on a page that makes up words and sentences. However, if it is late at night or I am not paying attention, I might get to the end of a paragraph and ask the question, “What did I just read?” I have ‘read’ the words, but I have not understood them. The same is true when we are listening. You might ask your children, “Did you hear me?” They respond, “We heard you.” Then you ask the question, “What did I say?” Crickets. They heard you make noise but did not understand you. The parable of the sower shows us this in reality, and the same parable can be uttered, yet the same seed falls on different soils and therefore has contrasting results.
Verse twelve is a problematic verse for modern evangelicals to wrap our head around. Jesus explains the reason why he speaks in parables is so that people might hear and not understand. The four soils only have two outcomes, fruitless and fruitful. The last soil is the only one that produces fruit. Only those who understand will turn and be forgiven. Jesus quotes from Isaiah 6:9-10,
“And he said, “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 is called a prophet, and he is instructed to go and proclaim the word of God to the people of Israel. The task of the prophet is to speak the word of God. Isaiah is told that he will be preaching to people with dull hearts and heavy ears. They will hear but not understand. The same is true for the hearers who heard Jesus’ parables. Some left and took root, but soon they withered. Jesus told parables so that only those who are ‘inside’ understand and perceive.
As Jesus previously said, “For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35). The same truth is for parables, whoever understands the will of God and does it, we will see in a couple of weeks the fruitfulness that comes from hearing. Even today, we see this in reality. Many people might know the parables and might be able to explain one point but fail to grasp its deep theological reality. They do not turn and repent. Many people use Jesus as the example of Jesus telling parables why a Pastor should use illustrations in his sermons to make things easier to understand. However, the truth of the matter is that Jesus told parables to conceal the truth to those outside.
Judas heard every one of Christ’s parables and explanations. He was present at the institution of the Lord’s supper. He was there when Christ explained the purpose of his incarnation, death, and resurrection. He was ‘inside,’ yet really, he was outside. Mark 4:24, Jesus says, “Pay attention to what you hear.” The challenge is not merely to hear sermons or read Scripture. The challenge is that we desire the word to let the word of God dwell in us richly (Col 3:16). The overarching theme in chapter four is hearing. Sinclair Ferguson explains parables as ‘kingdom mirrors.’ “They reflect the principles of the kingdom and consequently serve as mirrors of our own lives.” Everyone must deeply ponder when they hear parables these things 1) do you understand this parable and 2) who are you in the parable? Jesus’ first sermon was, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15). The purpose of parables is that those outside the truth would be concealed. However, those who genuinely perceive and understand would turn and be forgiven. We pray for the Holy Spirit to convict us to be able to perceive and understand. Like Nathan to David, this can be simple words, “You are the man” (2 Sam 12:7).
Are you listening? Preaching is not merely a time in the worship service where you sit down and relax and then let the minister do all the work. One man preaches, and the congregation listens. However, some people will leave, and Satan takes the word away. Others receive it with joy, yet they fall away when persecution comes. For others, the word is choked because of the cares of the world, the riches, and other desires. However, for others, the word is sown deep into their heart and grows and flourishes, producing the fruit of repentance and forgiveness. Hearing the preaching of the word should be done actively, not passively. I have used the Westminster Larger catechism question 160. This underrated question helps us understand how we can be better hearers of the word preached.
It is required of those that hear the word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer; examine what they hear by the scriptures; receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the word of God; meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives.