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Understanding Parables

Updated: May 2, 2022

Matthew 13

Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 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. Matthew 13:10-13

Dear Christian,

I have recently had a few conversations with people I know who have claimed to be Christians for a long time. They attend church every Sunday, they tithe regularly, and in every religious duty you could think of... live according to the traditional values of the Church. However, they said that they struggle when it comes to staying in God's Word because they simply do not understand it. This is a sentiment that I want to be very careful with, because I have no personal experience to relate to it. Opening my Bible or listening to my teachers when I was too young to read for myself, the truth of God's Word has always seemed to be revealed to me in wonderful clarity. When I am faithful and obedient to be in God's Word it burns like a fire inside of me that I cannot help but share with others what He has been showing me. There are certainly other ways in which I struggle in my walk as a Christian, such as my prayer life... I could greatly improve the time I dedicate to intentional prayer. Now, does this mean that because you have not been given a similar gift of clarity that you should stop picking up your Sword daily? No! Absolutely not! This is the baseline for what it means to seek and serve God, we need to be in His Word and we need to pray. How can you be in a relationship with someone that you neither listen to nor talk to on a regular basis? Therefore, if you're struggling then the first thing I would tell you to do is to ask God to bring you clarity in His Word and to open your eyes and ears to what He would have you learn there. Secondly, I would tell you that, that is exactly why I felt called to start this ministry because I fully believe that God gives the gifts of understanding and teaching not so that we can horde the treasure of His Word for ourselves but so that we can serve our fellow Christians and those who have not yet believed.

Even in Jesus' day the people, including His disciples, were struggling to understand some of His teachings. Where we left off in the last chapter of Matthew, Jesus was answering the accusations of the religious leaders against His authority. This chapter picks up on the same day, as Jesus departs from the house He had been teaching in to go to the Sea of Galilee.

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. Matthew 13:1-2

Whether He goes to the city to teach in the synagogue or retreats to the wilderness, His fame has spread through the land and the crowds relentlessly pursue Him. Even the accusations of their leaders have not persuaded them to stay away. Up until now, Jesus has stayed among the crowd proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom and healing all the sick and broken they bring to Him.

Notice that this time is different, Jesus separates Himself from the crowd to sit in a boat while they remain on the beach. Remember how direct He was in the Sermon on the Mount about the true measure of the Law of God, who He is, and what He has come to accomplish? Jesus now takes a different approach, though the message remains the same...

And he told them many things in parables, saying: “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.” Matthew 13:3-9

If you're utterly confused about what Jesus is talking about in this parable, I want you to take a deep breath of relief because His disciples didn't get it either and they were present for the telling of the story! However, I want you to hold on to the "the end" statement of Jesus' parable because we're going to hear it repeated and anything we see repeated in Scripture is important. "He who has ears, let him hear."

Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 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. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: “‘“You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.” For this people's heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. Matthew 13:10-17

The first question the disciples ask is not for an explanation of the parable Jesus had just taught the people, it is why Jesus would teach the people using parables at all?! Jesus' response requires some reflection because He states very clearly that the understanding of these parables is given to the disciples but it has been withheld from the crowds.

As humans, we have the tendency to think far too highly of numbers. If we're able to attract a large following on Social Media we're excited much less attracting the kind of in-person crowds that Jesus was drawing from across the region. Yet in the context of the day on which this parable was taught, Jesus has just proclaimed judgment against this generation of Israelites because of their rejection of Him as Messiah. The intention of the crowds is not to learn about the kingdom of Heaven or to understand the teachings that Jesus is giving them. It is to use Jesus for His miraculous power and abundant compassion. They aren't interested in seeking God or repentance, they are only interested in what they can get out of Jesus and their faithlessness has blinded them.

The disciples have believed and because their faith, understanding will be added to them as they grow in it. The crowds have rejected and the further they walk from God and repentance the blinder they will be and the deafer they will be to the truth of His Word. Jesus quotes from God's commission of Isaiah to take His Words of judgment to the Israelites before their Exile.

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” 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 6:1-8

Jesus rejoices over His disciples because their eyes have been opened as well as their ears, but let me remind before you are discouraged, that they still did not understand the last parable He had taught to the crowds. But before they even ask, Jesus begins to explain...

“Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” Matthew 13:18-23

Let's break this down one step further for those of us who are not farmers or gardeners. Jesus is illustrating that there are four types of responses in the people who hear the Gospel of the Kingdom proclaimed and see the work of it done before their eyes.

Type 1 - The Barren Path

These people hear the Word but their heart is already hardened against it so they do not understand what is being said. Before a spark of understanding can start in their life, the Enemy comes and snatches that little bit of truth away from them.

Type 2 - The Rocky Ground

These people hear the Word and are immediately overjoyed by its truth, but it is only a shallow growth for them. As soon as the Word is challenged in their life, they grow doubtful and fall away. Sometimes this is in the form of personal suffering other times it is in the form of theological or doctrinal debates that this person had no foundation for. The stumbling block as Jesus has taught us in His response to John the Baptist becomes an offense to them. They fall over it to their own destruction.

Type 3 - The Thorny Ground

These people hear the Word, but the worries of the world: how they're going to take care of their bills, the insanity of politics, that difficult relative that always seems to be causing trouble, an unexpected illness, etc... Comes along and chokes out their fragile faith. Their focus is not on the Word they have been given but everywhere else and because they do not seek it, they smother the truth in their own lives.

Type 4 - The Good Soil

These people are the ones who hear the Word and understand it. Their understanding causes them to produce fruit. Yet, even these type of people will grow in varying degrees some producing a small harvest and others producing a great harvest. If you're reading this as a Christian then you have understood God's Word enough to know that you needed to repent of your sin and turn to pursue Him, that the only way you could be redeemed from your bondage to the Enemy was through Christ's sacrifice on the cross and victory over the grave! You're understanding too will grow, but you must remain in His Word.

Jesus then continued to teach the crowd about the Kingdom of Heaven.

He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’” Matthew 13:24-30

Not even stopping to catch His breath, Jesus continues with two more parables, but He is going to come back to this one in just a moment.

He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” Matthew 13:31-33

Before you continue reading, I want you to pray over and contemplate these three stories that Jesus has just told the crowd. For each one write down what you think they mean. Then compare the three parables, what do they seem to have in common, and how does that change your understanding? If you're feeling confident go ahead and post your answers in the Forum then grade yourself after you finish reading the post below.

Matthew also pauses before he gives Jesus' explanation of the Parable of the Weeds to remind his audience once more of Jesus' fulfillment of God's Word as the Messiah.

All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.” Matthew 13:34-34

Here Matthew is quoting from Psalm 78 which is subtitled in my ESV translation, "Tell the Coming Generation." It is well worth reading in its entirety as it recounts the history of Israel's unfaithfulness and rebellion against God and His enduring faithfulness to them. The Psalm ends with God's choice of the Tribe of Judah and King David to become the shepherd of Israel. The people crowds listening to the Son of David had been taught these great works of God from childhood and had so far witnessed the miraculous works of Jesus, but like their forefathers, their hearts were hardened in rebellion.

O my people, listen to my instructions. Open your ears to what I am saying, for I will speak to you in a parable. I will teach you hidden lessons from our past— stories we have heard and known, stories our ancestors handed down to us. Psalm 78:1-3 (NLT)

After saying these things, Jesus returns from the Sea to the house where His disciples are gathered around Him.

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear. Matthew 13:36-43

How did you do? Did you understand the parable before we got to Jesus' explanation?

Jesus said in His parable that, "the kingdom of heaven may be compared to," this. Jesus has come to sow the Gospel of the Kingdom on earth. Remember that final type of person from the first parable? Those who grow out of the good soil He calls Sons of the Kingdom. Everyone else He calls Sons of the Evil One. Both are being allowed to exist together on the earth for now, but there is a day coming the day of harvest at the end of the age where the Sons of the Evil One will be rooted out from among the Sons of the Kingdom and face judgment. He again repeats that phrase from before, "He who has ears, let him hear."

Then Jesus goes on to tell His disciples three more parables about the Kingdom of Heaven.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew 13:44-50

Just as you did before, go and write down what you think the parables Jesus told His disciples mean. Then put your answers in the Forum.

The first two paint a beautiful picture of two different scenarios where a man and a merchant both find something hidden that is of great value, because they know the value of what they have discovered they sell everything else and leave everything else behind in pursuit of it. This should be our response to the truth of the Gospel of the Kingdom. Then Jesus again repeats the lesson of the Parable of the Weeds in a sort of parable sandwich that reminds the disciples that at the end of the age there will be judgment when God sorts His own people from the people who have rejected Him.

“Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Matthew 13:51-52

How did you do in the second round? Were you able to answer like the disciples that you now understood what Jesus was talking about in the parables?

At the very end of His teaching here, Jesus seems to add on this final parable in reference to the religious leaders who have so far been accusing Him and scheming against Him. What might first seem like an afterthought is really a reminder of the prophecy in Psalm 78 that Jesus was fulfilling through His teaching: who better than a scribe to know all the old treasures of God's Word up until the Advent of Christ? No one! Therefore, a scribe who knows both these old treasures and is given the understanding of the new treasure of the Gospel would be able to bring out both treasures. We see this now in the Book of Matthew as he continues to reference back to these Old Testament prophecies and another great example of this that will come after Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension is the religious leader Saul who persecutes the followers of Jesus until an encounter with Jesus Himself transforms Saul's life and he becomes the Apostle Paul. This is also a great reminder for our own instruction, to not neglect to study the Old Testament just because we now live under the New Covenant Promise.

And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, and coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief. Matthew 13:53-58

We end this chapter with Jesus' return to His hometown of Nazareth, where the crowds once again demonstrate their lack of understanding of the truth. They take offense at Jesus because of this, just as Jesus has warned John the Baptist against when he asked if Jesus was really the One they had been waiting for. But we see from Jesus' response that the rejection of the people was not a surprise to Him, in all the ages past the prophets had found the most persecution among their own people and even in their own homes. Their rejection of the Messiah caused them to miss out on experiencing more of the mighty works that were within His authority to perform.

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