Why Jesus Spoke So Much in Parables (A Study in the Gospel of Matthew with Ben Witherington)

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1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As 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. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.” (Matthew 13:1–9 NRSV)

Key Observation: Jesus used parables for his public teaching to the crowds.

A parabolos, or in Hebrew a mashal, is a form of metaphorical speech, drawing an analogy between an ordinary aspect of life and an aspect of God’s divine saving activity or dominion. There are some forty or so parables in the Gospels, none of which are in John’s Gospel, which simply omits them.

Jesus’ parables are always about what we call the kingdom or reign of God. In other words they are about God’s attempts to establish his kingdom, his saving reign (or rule) on earth as it is in heaven, and, in this case, doing it through the ministry of his Son. Another important aspect of Jesus’ kingdom sayings (shared also by Paul in his letters) is that when Jesus is speaking about the kingdom in the present tense, the term has an active, verbal sense; it refers to God’s saving activity resulting in God’s reign in a human life or group of people. On the other hand, when Jesus or Paul is speaking about the kingdom or dominion in the future tense, they are talking about a place, and so the term has a noun sense. This is when you hear the language of “entering” or “inheriting” or “seeing” (rather than experiencing internally) the kingdom of God. In our day, we are still praying for the full rule of God on earth as it is in heaven, and when that finally happens at Jesus’ return, then and then only will the kingdoms of this world become God’s kingdom. In the meanwhile, we see the precursors of this when Christ becomes the Lord or King of someone’s life and begins to rule over their everyday existence. Then, we become places where the divine saving activity of God is in evidence. So, for instance, Jesus says, “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Matt. 12:28 NRSV).

In some ways, the parable of the sower is the most paradigmatic of all parables because it talks about the relationship between Jesus’ ministry and the coming of the kingdom on earth. Jesus understands his ministry as simply sowing the good news of God’s saving activity. The key distinction in the parable of the sower is not the sower or the seeds, but the differences in the soils; rocky, shallow, thorny/weedy, and good soil. Jesus says that the seed (a.k.a. the Word of the gospel) should be scattered freely, but the outcomes will vary according to the conditions of the soils.

Parables are not full-blown allegories like, for instance, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. But they clearly have allegorical elements such that some features from within the parable are actually commentary on something outside the parable itself, hence seed as the Word of God. But not every aspect of the parable has an analogy with the kingdom. Sometimes interpreters make the mistake of turning every detail in a parable into a symbol for something else. For example, the early church leader Augustine allegorized the parable of the good Samaritan. He suggested the good Samaritan represented Christ, the man lying on the side of the road represented people dead in trespasses, the oil and wine administered to the man represented the sacraments, the inn represented the church, and so on. This simply was not Jesus’ intended message. Samaritans were real people, cousins of the Jews, and the two groups did not get along. So that parable is actually a social commentary on a problem that existed in Jesus’ own day. We need to not read any symbols into a parable that are not suggested within the biblical text itself. In the parable of the sower, Jesus adds an interpretation of the parable in Matthew 13:18–23.

Another mistake often made in interpreting these parables is assuming they are true to agricultural life in the ancient world. This is mostly false. Farmers would first clear the land of stones, thorns, and the like, plow it, and then scatter the seed. They would not waste good seed by throwing it on unprepared land. The parables are true to the kingdom, and not entirely true to ancient Jewish life in Jesus’ day.

In the end, the parable of the sower tells us that the ministry of Jesus and his disciples thereafter would have many disappointments—many people would reject the good news. But the harvest, the positive outcome, would be so great, that the divine reign would show up in significant ways in many lives that heard the Word of divine redemption through Jesus. It also invites us as readers to ponder what sort of soil is in our hearts.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What does the parable of the sower tell us about Jesus’ ministry and approach?
  2. What type of soil are you? How would you need to change in order to be good soil consistently?

Did you enjoy this entry? Discover our OneBook: Daily-Weekly Bible studies, of which this entry is a part. In this Bible study on the Gospel of Matthew with Dr. Ben Witherington III, we discover Jesus as Matthew presents him—the incarnate wisdom of God that brings the kingdom of heaven to earth. Following the text through the stories, parables, and noting the special miracles, God’s people are presented with the mission and ministry of Jesus the Messiah who fulfills the Jewish Law. At times he raises the standard, other times he authoritatively reinterprets its meaning, and finally, he fulfills its requirements through his life, death, and resurrection. All of this is to widen and deepen the reach of God’s heavenly kingdom, which we discover extends to all people at the end of the Gospel. Get the Bible Study, plus the DVD or streaming portion, in our store here.

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Dr. Witherington joined the Asbury Seminary faculty in 1995. A prolific author, Dr. Witherington has written more than 40 books and six commentaries. He is a John Wesley Fellow for Life, a research fellow at Cambridge University and a member of numerous professional organizations, including the Society of Biblical Literature, Society for the Study of the New Testament and the Institute for Biblical Research. In his leisure time, Dr. Witherington appreciates both music and sports. It is hard to say which sound he prefers: the sophisticated sonance of jazz sensation Pat Metheny or the incessant tomahawk chant of the Atlanta Braves faithful. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, he is a dedicated Tar Heels basketball and football fan. He and his wife, Ann, have two children.

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