How to understand the parables of Jesus
Top tips for reading the stories Jesus told.
Let me start by telling you a story - you’ll probably be familiar with it!
One day a hare was bragging about how fast he could run. He bragged and bragged and even laughed at the tortoise, who was so slow. The tortoise stretched out his long neck and challenged the hare to a race, which, of course, made the hare laugh.
"My, my, what a joke!" thought the hare. "A race, indeed, a race. Oh! what fun! My, my! a race, of course, Mr. Tortoise, we shall race!" said the hare.
The forest animals met and mapped out the course. The race begun, and the hare, being such a swift runner, soon left the tortoise far behind. About halfway through the course, it occurred to the hare that he had plenty of time to beat the slow trodden tortoise.
"Oh, my!" thought the hare, "I have plenty of time to play in the meadow here." And so he did.
After the hare finished playing, he decided that he had time to take a little nap. "I have plenty of time to beat that tortoise," he thought. And he cuddle up against a tree and dozed.
The tortoise, in the meantime, continued to plod on, albeit, it ever so slowly. He never stopped, but took one good step after another.
The hare finally woke from his nap. "Time to get going," he thought. And off he went faster than he had ever run before! He dashed as quickly as anyone ever could up to the finish line, where he met the tortoise, who was patiently awaiting his arrival.
Now this is the story of the tortoise and the hare, and it’s a type of story called a fable, which is basically a short story with a lesson to be learned. Do you know what the lesson is from this fable?
Of course, it's slow and steady wins the race!
The power of stories
Over all of history, people have realised that telling a story is a great way to make a point - from fables like this to novels like To Kill a Mockingbird (racism is bad) to movies like Star Wars (good always triumphs over evil).
And of course, Jesus knew this to! When he was on earth, he was pretty clear on the fact that he could use stories to make a point that his followers could understand.
The stories that Jesus told were called parables, and they had some common factors.
Firstly, they were about everyday, relatable things - like farming, business, families and nature.
Secondly, they would make a point about who God is, or what it means to follow him.
And thirdly, their true meaning wasn’t always clear to everybody.
The Parable of the Sower
The Parable of the Sower is one of the most famous parables that Jesus told - and it’s also a really helpful one for us to read because Jesus actually explains what it means!
Let’s take a look shall we, reading from Matthew 13:3:
A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.
So as I said, three common features - this parable is about common things, farming, it’s about God… but the meaning of it is unclear to some people.
After Jesus tells the parable, his disciples ask him to explain it, which he does. But he also explains to them why the meaning of his stories is unclear - He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,
“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”
Ever hearing but never understanding
Now what does this mean - doesn’t Jesus want people to be forgiven?
Well, yes, of course! But there were people in Jesus’ day - and today - who rejected what he was teaching, and wanted to see him fail. These people, who were opposed to Jesus, were themselves turning away from him, and refusing to see the truth that he was teaching. I’m sure we can all think of people today who do the same thing when presented with the truth.
For those people, the true meanings of the parables - and how they should affect us - are concealed. And they don’t try and get an explanation, because they’re just not interested. But the disciples ask for an explanation, and Jesus gives it to them. And it’s a really important parable for all of us to consider.
The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”
So what this parable is doing is explaining how different people respond to the message of the gospel - the word. How do they respond?
Firstly, we have the seed along the path, which doesn’t even have a chance to put down roots before the birds snatch it away. These are people who hear the gospel but ignore it and don’t respond. This sometimes happen when people hear a Bible talk at a youth group, or at school, and they ignore the truth about it or laugh it off.
Secondly, we have the seed sown on a rocky place, which tries to put down roots but they can’t grow deep. These are people who respond to the gospel in the moment, but they don’t really take it seriously. I sometimes see this happen on camps, where during the “camp high”, people decide to follow Jesus but pretty much forget about it or give up on it when they get back to real life.
Thirdly, we come to the seed sown among thorns, which is choked as it grows. These people have decided to follow Jesus, and they remain strong for a while, but once life gets hard or things compete with Jesus for number 1 spot in their hearts, they reject their faith.
And finally, we come to the seed grown on good soil. These are the people who hear the gospel, decide to put their faith in Jesus, and continue on - growing in their faith. Plus, the parable says, they produce a crop! The seeds from their plant blow all around the garden, growing new plants! In other words, this person is telling others about Jesus.
A story with a point
Whenever Jesus tells a parable, it has a lesson to learn, a point is made. You need to respond. So what’s the lesson here?
Well, I think there’s one big lesson: figure out which soil you are. How are you responding to Jesus? Have you responded to Jesus yet, or is his message just sitting there, like a seed on the ground, waiting for you to decide whether you let it grow?
The message of the tortoise and the hare is slow and steady wins the race. It’s an important message that you can apply to your life. But the message of Jesus’ story is so much more important: you need to respond to the gospel.