That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying:
(Matthew 13:1-3a ESV)
Today we begin a very interesting and important chapter in the Gospel of Matthew. In it we see a shift in Jesus’ ministry regarding where He spoke and also how He spoke.
At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry He taught in synagogues. But as opposition against Him from the religious leaders grew, He resorted to teaching outdoors, including besides the sea. And even though the religious leaders spoke against Him, great crowds gathered about Him. Bravely, the masses did not follow their leaders. They followed Jesus. Such a decision would be wise in today’s culture as well.
In this chapter we also see Jesus begin to make full use of parables. The word “parable” comes from two Greek words which mean “to set down next to each other” for comparison purposes. Parables present abstract truth in a concrete way. They make truth easier to understand by presenting it with word pictures.
If one wants to teach people something they don’t understand, he must begin from things which they do understand. Parables use references to things and experiences that are real to the audience. Jesus spoke to His audience in parables which used cultural norms they would have understood to explain things they did not yet understand.
That is why it is important for us today to have an understanding of Jewish, and even Roman, culture as it was 2,000 years ago. We cannot understand much of the Bible without this knowledge.
People do not like to be taught. But they do like to learn. When we tell a story, especially one with a moral attached to it, we can teach while entertaining. Stories create interest. People will not listen, and therefore will not learn, unless they are interested. People are more likely to remember a story and, hence, its application.
One of the most important things about parables is that they compel the listener to discover truth for himself. It does not do a man’s thinking for Him. Jesus taught in parables because He had respect for His listeners. He did not spoon feed them truth. He presented it in a realistic way and left it up to the listener to meditate on it so as to understand it and subsequently apply it.
But at the same time a parable conceals truth from those who are too lazy to think for themselves or who are simply not interested in acquiring character-developing knowledge. Telling a parable puts the responsibility on the listener.
A parable reveals truth to the one who desires truth and is willing to work to find it. Yet it obscures the truth from those who have no interest in it.
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