The southern steps leading to the Jewish temple were deliberately designed to be irregular and uneven. Scholars tell us that they were so designed so that worshippers approaching the temple were forced to pay careful attention to his or her steps. This encouraged worshippers to adopt a thoughtful and reflective mindset as they approached God in worship. As they passed through bustling crowds on the way to worship, they could not allow themselves to be caught up in the temptation to trivial social interaction. They had to focus carefully on their steps as they approached God to worship.
Often, our approach to Scripture is characterised with less care than it should be. Rather than paying careful attention to the words of Scripture, we approach the text as if we know precisely what it says before we have even examined it. This temptation is perhaps nowhere more prevalent than in our approach to the parables.
If you have any form of consistent Sunday school background, you have probably heard that a parable is “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” You may have been taught that parables were simple ways to communicate complex truths and that the main meaning of a parable should be immediately evident.
This understanding stands in stark contrast to the biblical record. In Matthew 13, Jesus gave a series of parables. He began with the parable of the sower (vv. 1–9). When he was finished, rather than thanking him for making a complex truth so abundantly clear, the disciples expressed their deep concern: “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (v. 10). It was a question that betrayed their opinion that he was approaching his teaching in the wrong manner.
The disciples seem to have fallen into the trap of looking for seeker-sensitive sermons, while Jesus delivered sermons in a way that was potentially less attractive than what people wanted. His disciples challenged him to rethink his approach. Rather than preaching in such a way that his hearers were challenged to think a little harder, would it not be better to spoon feed them? His popularity as a preacher was at stake. Far better to dumb down his preaching than to drive hearers away.
Many people today expect the same sort of Preaching Lite. They are not interested in thoughtful sermons with meaningful content. They don’t want their thinking to be challenged. They want a short, three-point, alliterated sermon with some practical application tacked to the end. While there is nothing wrong with three-point sermons or an alliterated outline, while short sermons can be impactful, and while practical application is certainly to be desired in preaching, Jesus did not follow this approach.
In fact, when his disciples asked him this question, he replied that the reason he preached in parables was, in part, to turn away sceptics. He was not interested in pandering to those who were disinterested in truth. The parables revealed truth to sincere followers but concealed truth from his sceptics.
As we think about the parables today, therefore, we must realise that we will only benefit from them to the degree that we actually want to learn. We must approach them with a heart of faith, prepared to hear what Jesus is saying to us. As John MacArthur says, “faith, prompted and enabled by the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, is the necessary prerequisite for understanding the parables.”
A faithful understanding of Jesus’ parables will certainly benefit us. The parables challenge us to think more deeply about the world in which we live so as to better understand how to live for the glory of God. But they only serve this purpose for those who have ears to hear.
For the next little while, we will embark on a journey of mining devotional truth from Jesus’ parables. As we do so, we must approach them with an attitude of deliberate devotion, willing to be instructed and have our preconceptions challenged. The steps to a proper understanding of the parables may be irregular and uneven, but that gives us all the more reason to approach them prayerfully and with a heart willing to receive instruction.