Jesus Speaks in Parables
1That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2Such large crowds gathered around Him that He got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3Then He told them many things in parables, saying: "A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop— a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9He who has ears, let him hear."
10The disciples came to Him and asked, "Why do you speak to the people in parables?"
11He replied, "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 13This is why I speak to them in parables:
"‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.’
14"In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
"‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. 15For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’
16"But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.
18"Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. 22The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. 23But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown."
(This study will span two issues. In this issue we will deal with the reasons
Jesus was speaking in parables, by looking at verses 10-17)
Chapter 13 of the Gospel of Matthew is, for the most part, a chapter of parables: "That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around Him that He got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then He told them many things in parables" (vss. 1-3). It seems that, on "that same day", Jesus began to speak more in parables than He had previously. The disciples noticed that the teaching was in a manner that was more obscure than what had preceded it. It is probably significant that the change came on the same day that the Pharisees ascribed to the devil the power that Jesus was using for His miracles. This, it seems, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Whereas before, Jesus taught everyone in a clear, unambiguous way, now He begins to speak to the general public in a veiled way, and reserves clear teaching to those disciples who seek it out.
The disciples, noticing the different style of teaching, asked Jesus about it: "The disciples came to Him and asked, ‘Why do you speak to the people in parables?’" (vs. 10). The answer that Jesus gave may seem surprising: "He replied, ‘The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables: "Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand"’" (vss. 11-13). "Jesus’ answer cannot legitimately be softened: at least one of the functions of parables is to conceal the truth, or at least to present it in a veiled way" [Carson, 307]. We tend to think of parables as aids to understanding, but Jesus tells us, and the disciples seem to agree, that the parables hinder understanding.
The main reason the parables hindered understanding was that Jesus did not reveal the interpretation of the parables to His hearers. If one is provided with the proper interpretation of the parables, then yes, parables can be a great aid in understanding spiritual things, because a parable takes that which is well-known in ordinary life and compares it to a spiritual concept. But when one is not given the interpretation, a parable can lead to confusion, because if one’s personal interpretation is incorrect, the parable can actually lead to a misunderstanding of spiritual truths. And so, here in this chapter, since Jesus was speaking to the crowd entirely in parables, the spiritual truths were veiled to them. To truly understand the spiritual truth behind a parable, without being given the interpretation, requires some measure of commitment by the hearer: requires thought, meditation, and prayer. Why, even the disciples needed to ask Jesus for proper interpretations. The difficulty of properly understanding the parables will become apparent as we study them, because, as we will see in our discussion of them, some of the parables for which no interpretation is provided by Jesus, have been historically given radically differing interpretations.
In Jesus’ answer to the disciples, we have, as happens many places in the Bible, the concept of God’s sovereignty juxtaposed with the idea of man’s responsibility. God’s sovereignty is expressed when Jesus says: "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them" (vs. 11). "It is not a merit in the disciples that they understand where others do not; their comprehension is due to the fact that God has chosen them and given them the gift of understanding" [Morris, 339]. And yet, Jesus’ decision to hide the secrets of the kingdom seems to be due to the stubbornness of the people, who do not heed His clear teachings: "This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand’" (vs. 13). "By its nature the Word of God is always light; but its light is quenched by men’s darkness… It is always a settled principle that God’s Word is not obscure save insofar as the world darkens it by its blindness" [Calvin, II, 64].
Many people nowadays think that the concepts of God’s sovereignty in election, and man’s responsibility to have faith in the Gospel message, are in contradiction. The Biblical writers (and thus the Holy Spirit of God) did not consider these concepts as contradictory, because the same writer will refer to one, and then the other, in the same passage. "Biblical writers in both the OT and the NT have, on the whole, fewer problems about the tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility than do many moderns. This is not because they fail to distinguish purpose and consequence, as many affirm, but because they do not see divine sovereignty and human responsibility as antitheses. In short they are compatibilists and therefore juxtapose the two themes with little self-conscious awareness of any problem" [Carson, 309].
The stubborn attitude of those who heard the clear teaching of Jesus, yet rejected it, was prophesied by Isaiah, as Jesus points out: "In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them’" (vss. 14-15; see Isa. 6:9-10). This prophecy seems to be a general prophecy of the stubbornness of those through the ages who reject God’s Word. Many who heard Jesus first-hand had this stubbornness, had "calloused" hearts; many today have this same stubbornness. We who believe are frustrated to see some of our closest friends, neighbors and relatives show this same stubbornness in rejecting the Word and call of God. If only they would cast aside their obstinate refusal to believe the Word of God, "they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and [God] would heal them."
But for those who have cast aside their obstinacy, and have put their faith in the Word of God, they are blessed, even blessed by Jesus Himself: "But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear" (vs. 16). And especially blessed are we, who have the revelation of God through Jesus Christ; we who can read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings; we who know of God’s plan of salvation, as brought about by Jesus’ offering of Himself on the cross. As Jesus points out: "For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it" (vs. 17).