Café Church – St Barnabas, June 14th 2009
We’re back in Mark’s gospel this morning. Way back in the New Year we started to work our way through Mark’s gospel, intending to read it right through in 2009 … we’ve taken a look at some of the later chapters already, as our readings for Easter, but now we’re back on track in Chapter 4, and we can concentrate on reading it in the right order now, for most of the rest of the year!
We left this section of Mark’s gospel way back in February, having just read the parable of the sower. A very familiar story, with a relatively straightforward interpretation … but I thought before we go any further, we really ought to have a short word about parables …
So what is a parable?
A parable is a word-picture which uses an image or story to illustrate a truth or lesson.
Jesus used simple stories or images to convey important truths about God and his kingdom, and lessons about the way of life which God intends us to lead.
They commonly feature examples from daily life in ancient Palestine, such as mustard seeds, fig trees, wineskins, oil lamps, treasure, judges, wedding parties and children’s games. Jesus’ audience would be very familiar with all of these, but today we have to work a little harder to understand the social customs described.
Jesus’ parables nearly always have a double meaning. First, there is the literal meaning, as he describes how seed grows or wineskins burst if they’re filled with new wine. But beyond the literal meaning lies a deeper meaning – a beneath-the-surface lesson about God’s truth and his kingdom.
Jesus’ parables often involve an element of surprise or an unexpected twist. We are taken off guard by the progression or conclusion of the story. The parable moves from the very familiar to a sudden turn of events or a remarkable comparison which challenges the hearer and invites further reflection. For example, why would a shepherd go through a lot of bother and even risk his life to find one lost sheep leaving his other ninety-nine sheep alone on the hillside?! The story uses the shepherd’s concern for one lost sheep and his willingness to risk his own life for it to tell us about God’s love and concern for his children.
How do we read the parables?
Jesus told his disciples that not everyone would understand his parables. 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!’ “ (Mark 4:11,12 quoting Isaiah 6:9,10 – NIV)
Did Jesus mean to say that he was deliberately confusing his listeners? I don’t think so – Jesus was aware that some who heard his parables refused to understand them. It wasn’t that they couldn’t understand them, but their hearts were closed to what he was saying.
God can only reveal the secrets of his kingdom to the person who acknowledges his or her need for God and for his truth. The parables of Jesus will speak to us on that deeper level if we approach them with an open mind and heart, ready to let them challenge us.
So when reading the parables it is important to not get distracted by the details of the story. A storyteller doesn’t have to make every detail fit perfectly, so look for the main point and don’t get distracted by the details. Also, look for the surprise or unexpected twist – sometimes we miss it simply because the stories have become so familiar to us. Jesus intended his parables to provoke a response, and if they don’t, then we’ve missed something!
When you read the passage, use these questions to help you get to the bottom of why Jesus told a particular story …
• What is the main point of each parable?
• What does it reveal about God, or about me?
• Is there a promise or a warning?
• What does it require of me now, in thought, word or action?
In fact, these questions are a good basis for any bible reading or study … see here for more.