Jesus used figurative language and parables in His teaching throughout His ministry. For that reason, it is easy to think of them as just teaching tools, used – in particular – to engage with the common people. Thus, by using illustrations from their daily life, like fishing, planting, and baking, Jesus made the Truths of the Kingdom of God accessible to them, relatable. But maybe there is more to it than that.
Although the role of figurative speech as a didactic tool for the masses in Jesus’ ministry cannot be denied, if that were the only purpose, how come he used it also when talking to the Pharisees? If any audience in His time was well versed – or at least well read – on the subject of the Kingdom of God it would have been the Pharisees, the Scribes, the Priests.
Sure, they often read with blinders on, and interpreted things to fit with their prejudices, but they knew the Word of God – literally – word for word. What did they miss in their reading that required Jesus casting that Word in a different form?
Teaching tools: nudging us out of a rut.
One of the reasons I liked to teach my Electrical Engineering classes in person, rather than online, (and preferred class sizes of 30 students or less) is the fact that you can get instantaneous feedback from your students, in person. The expressions on their faces and the way they answer questions in real time tell you if they are grasping what you are teaching or if you are getting nowhere. And then, if the latter is the case, you can try to pivot and say the same thing a different way, or use a different example – even from a different subject matter – to get them to that “aha! moment.”
The trick is to come at the same Truth from a different angle, a different perspective, because all of us get stuck thinking along the same tried and true ruts of our mind.
Artists know this. When you are drawing or painting someone’s portrait, it helps to stop every so often and look at your work in a mirror. You will be amazed how something that was looking pretty good to you, all of a sudden is revealed to be distorted. Our minds have this tendency to “saturate” on a viewpoint and make things look exactly like what we want to see.
This was the problem with the people of Judah in the days of Isaiah. And so, the prophet rebuked them:
Isaiah 28:9-11 Whom shall He (Jehovah) teach knowledge? and whom shall He make to understand the report? Them that are weaned from the milk, withdrawn from the breasts? For [it is] precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, there a little…
The problem was not that the people were “babies” unable to comprehend. The problem was that the Word had become to them “precept upon precept… line upon line”: rote, mere repetition, written words with no life, ultimately rendered nonsense. Therefore, because it was really a refusal to listen that caused this, the prophet goes on:
For with stammering lips and a strange tongue will He speak to this people…
God will then speak to them with a strange tongue – in other words, with what would sound, up front, like nonsense – to shake them awake; so that they would have to work to understand it. And only then, if they worked to listen, would they be able to get it, and receive life.
And when that happens, the lesson becomes both a lesson and a test at the same time: Am I willing to listen and figure this out in order to receive life? This is exactly the way Jesus explains it to his disciples when they ask Him why He is using parables:
Matthew 13:10-16 … And he answering said to them, Because to you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of the heavens, but to them it is not given; for whoever has, to him shall be given, and he shall be caused to be in abundance; but he who has not, even what he has shall be taken away from him.
For this cause I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear nor understand; and in them is filled up the prophecy of Esaias, which says, Hearing ye shall hear and shall not understand, and beholding ye shall behold and not see; for the heart of this people has grown fat, and they have heard heavily with their ears, and they have closed their eyes as asleep, lest they should see with the eyes, and hear with the ears, and understand with the heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.
But blessed are *your* eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear…
Figurative language requires that we think about it, that we exert the effort to block out the other distractions of life, focus, and discern the message. And if we do that, then He has succeeded in getting our attention.
Teaching tools: dispelling misconceptions.
Sometimes the problem is a different one. If you have ever taught a subject to students, you are also familiar with this one. Maybe the hardest job in the classroom is not teaching. But rather, unteaching: identifying the misconceptions the students bring into the classroom and eliminating those so that they can put the new knowledge into its proper perspective.
Mark 2:21-22 (NASB) “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear results. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost and the skins as well; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”
All of us carry imperfect knowledge with us. And whatever the subject it is in, that imperfect knowledge can be a serious obstacle to further growth. In the parable of the sower and the soils, Jesus mentions a seed that fell on rocky ground…
Matthew 13:3-6 And he spoke to them many things in parables, saying, Behold, the sower went out to sow: and as he sowed, some… fell upon the rocky places where they had not much earth, and immediately they sprang up out of [the ground] because of not having [any] depth of earth, but when the sun rose they were burned up, and because of not having [any] root were dried up…
When his disciples asked Him for the explanation of this parable, this was his answer:
Matthew 13:20-21 …But he that is sown on the rocky places—this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, but has no root in himself, but is for a time only; and when tribulation or persecution happens on account of the word, he is immediately offended.
I think the rocky ground is a perfect picture of incomplete, even perhaps lazy, knowledge. On the surface it looks like good soil. The seed does sink in and appears protected from the birds by that first inch or two of dirt. But when it comes time to grow roots, there is nothing worthwhile below it; there is no true foundation.
It looks like good soil.
But it is not.
How do you prove it to the soil? It takes a pickaxe… it needs to be broken up, shaken up.
Thus, when dealing with the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law, Jesus used parables and figurative speech to move them out of their comfort zone, in an effort to make them see how shallow their faith in God had become; in an effort – again – to turn hearing into listening.
A perfect example is with the Scribe that asks Jesus about the two great commandments. And after Jesus replies, the man agrees with him. But then, focusing on the second one – to love our neighbor as ourselves – he follows up by asking “but who is my neighbor?” And Jesus answers with a parable in which a Samaritan is the hero.
Given how despised the Samaritans were in the eyes of the Jews, that choice was certain to shake up His audience; even more when a Priest and a Levite also appear in the story as worthless moral examples. By directly challenging the paradigms, the prejudices, through which the Pharisees and Scribes viewed their world, Jesus was trying to get them to see how far they had misled themselves.
The problem is the unchallenged worldview
All of us have a worldview: a set of assumptions and paradigms that frame the way we view and understand the world. You see, we do not just record our past experiences, we assign meaning to everything that happens to us by interpreting those events with our worldview. And so, when we want a desired outcome in our lives, we go to that “database” of what we think is cause and effect to decide what to do next. But what if that worldview is wrong?
What if the fact that we are human, and therefore limited to a finite perspective, prevents us from seeing the real meaning of the things that happen in our lives? What if something that we defined as a dreadful turn of events was really a blessing in disguise? What if that is precisely what Paul meant when he said: Romans 8:28 (NIV) And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose…?
The only way to know whether my worldview is true or not is to challenge it.
A mental rut is a symptom of an unchallenged worldview. It happens when all I hear are my own opinions over and over, whether I am telling them to myself, or whether I only listen to those people that will tell me exactly what I want to hear.
When you are in a rut, you are living on “automatic,” running along the same path without ever realizing that there are other possible paths, maybe mere inches away from you. What does it take to get out of the rut? A shove, a push, a bump over a stone… anything that gets those wheels out of those carved channels onto level ground.
Figurative language and parables do that by taking us out of our concrete physical experience and moving us into hypothetical ground, the unexpected, situations that we have not experienced and therefore do not fit into the cogs of our “database.”
The Pharisees’ problem was different, not really a rut. Their problem was they were convinced that they were on the right path. They knew there were other paths out there, other ways to live. But in their minds (their egos) they had decided they couldn’t possibly be wrong. Worse yet, they had convinced themselves that God was on their side. Again, they lived in an unchallenged worldview. Yet, they should have realized it because they lived inside a paradox:
The Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes saw themselves as the spiritual guardians of their people. Their avowed motivation for all they did, for all their rules, was the claim that it was what God required. But even though they should have known what the Kingdom of Heaven was all about, they ended up living a life controlled by the systems of the world. In their worldview, prestige, power, and money were the goals worth pursuing in life.
Instead of caring for other people, they looked down on them: Mark 2:16 And the scribes and the Pharisees, seeing him (Jesus) eating with sinners and tax-gatherers, said to his disciples, Why [is it] that he eats and drinks with tax-gatherers and sinners?
Instead of compassion and generosity, they were full of greed: Matthew 16:13-14 (NIV) [Jesus said] “…You cannot serve both God and money.” The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.
Instead of seeking to please God, they sought praise from men. And Jesus rebuked them for that: John 5:43-44 I am come in my Father’s name, and ye receive me not; if another come in his own name, him ye will receive. How can ye believe, who receive glory one of another, and seek not the glory which [comes] from God alone?
Even their zeal for Israel was measured in the currency of the world: Matthew 22:15-21 (NASB)Then the Pharisees went and plotted together how they might trap Him in what He said. And they *sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any. Tell us then, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?”
But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, “Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.” And they brought Him a denarius. And He *said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They *said to Him, “Caesar’s.” Then He *said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.
How can living for the treasures of the world be the hallmark of a life lived for the Kingdom of Heaven?
That is the paradox.
How could they justify living like that? The answer is: In their worldview, prestige, power, and money were rewards that God bestowed upon them for living “right.”
Yet, deep in their hearts they had to have known that wasn’t true; as we see when another Scribe puts the same “greatest commandment” question to Jesus:
Mark 12:28-34 And one of the scribes who had come up, and had heard them reasoning together, perceiving that he [Jesus] had answered them well, demanded of him, Which is [the] first commandment of all?
And Jesus answered him, [The] first commandment of all [is], Hear, Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord; and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thine understanding, and with all thy strength. This is [the] first commandment. And a second like it [is] this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is not another commandment greater than these.
And the scribe said to him, Right, teacher; thou hast spoken according to [the] truth. For he is one, and there is none other besides him; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the intelligence, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbour as one’s self, is more than all the burnt-offerings and sacrifices.
And Jesus, seeing that he had answered intelligently, said to him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God. And no one dared question him any more.
The Scribe’s answer is itself a quote from Scripture. The amazing thing is that a Scribe would actually get its message. For, to most of his peers, sacrifices and burnt-offerings were the most important thing they could ever do… to demonstrate their righteousness.
And that was the problem. Sacrifice and burnt-offerings had become to them part of the currency of this world. They lived within a worldview that said: “If I do this, God cannot help but be happy with me.” But the whole point of sacrifices and burnt-offerings was to force us to examine our hearts, to realize that that animal shed its blood, gave its life, so that I could live another day in the presence of God.
How can I tell which worldview I am living by? By its effect on me:
Luke 18:9-14 And he spoke also to some, who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and made nothing of all the rest [of men], this parable: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer.
The Pharisee, standing, prayed thus to himself: God, I thank thee that I am not as the rest of men, rapacious, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax-gatherer. I fast twice in the week, I tithe everything I gain. And the tax-gatherer, standing afar off, would not lift up even his eyes to heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, O God, have compassion on me, the sinner.
I say unto you, This [man] went down to his house justified rather than that [other]. For every one who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he that humbles himself shall be exalted.
Which worldview survives every challenge?
Given that we live in a finite, imperfect, and even hostile world, anchoring the hopes of my life to the values of this world seems to me to be a losing proposition; especially when we know we have access to a different choice:
Matthew 7:24-27 Whoever therefore hears these my words and does them, I will liken him to a prudent man, who built his house upon the rock; and the rain came down, and the streams came, and the winds blew and fell upon that house, and it did not fall, for it had been founded upon the rock. And every one who hears these my words and does not do them, he shall be likened to a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand; and the rain came down, and the streams came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, and it fell, and its fall was great.
That is how Jesus ends his Sermon on the Mount. And as he said in that Sermon, the key question is: Where is the treasure I seek? For it is there that my heart will reside.