Introduction To The Parables


I ONCE saw Moffat, the South African missionary, address a thousand children - the most formidable congregation, in one sense, before which any speaker could appear. The difficulty, after having aroused their attention, of keeping it awake, was increased on that occasion by two things. His address extended beyond an hour, and the time was evening, when sleep is so apt to fall on young eyes; yet there was not a sleeper in the whole house. The sea of young faces was all turned radiant on the orator; he was the centre for two thousand eager glancing eyes; and for more than the time usually occupied by a sermon he held his audience by the ears. It was a great achievement: and how accomplished? In a very simple way. Suiting the action to the word, and drawing on his own observation and experience, he told them stories, illustrative of the labours and purposes, of the difficulties and dangers, of a missionary's life. In giving this form to an address which was not childish, though suited to children, he dexterously availed himself of one of the strongest and earliest developed principles of our nature. How often have I seen a restless boy, whom neither threats nor bribes could quiet, sit spell-bound by a nursery tale! We can all recollect the time when we sat listening to a mother's or nurse's stories for long hours around the winter hearth. So passes the time with the soldier by his watch-fire; with the sailor on the lonely deep; and so, when the day's journey is done, and tents are pitched, and they have had their evening meal, the Bedouin, seated beneath a starry sky, on the sands of the silent desert, will spend half the night.
Now parables are just stories; they are told for instruction through means of entertainment; and when Moffat, by anecdotes, analogies, and illustrations, sought to win the attention of his hearers, and convey truth into their hearts, as the arrow, by help of its feathers, goes right to the mark, he was only copying his Master. No addresses recorded in history, common or sacred, have so much of the parable character as our Lord's. Not dry bones, nor, though skilfully put together, mere naked skeletons; they are clothed with flesh and instinct with life. Man has a threefold character; he is a being possessed of reason, of affection, and of imagination; he has a head, a heart, and a fancy. And now proving, and now painting, and now persuading, our Lord s discourses, unlike dry and heavy sermons, along with the strongest arguments, the most pointed and powerful appeals, are full of stories, illustrations, and comparisons; and by this circumstance, as well as by the divinity of his matter, and the blended mildness and majesty of his manner, we explain the fact that Jesus was the prince of preachers, - one whom the common people heard gladly, and who, in the judgment even of his enemies, spake as never man spake. The suitableness of this style of preaching a gospel, intended as well for the unlearned as the learned, for converting the unlettered poor, whose souls are as precious in God's sight as those of philosophers or kings, is obvious; and was well expressed by a humble woman. Comprehending best, and most interested and edified by those passages of Scripture which present abstract truth under concrete forms, and of which we have examples in such comparisons of our Lord's, as these - the kingdom of heaven is like unto a grain of mustard seed, unto a treasure, unto a merchant, unto a house-holder, unto a king, she said, "I like best the likes of Scripture." These are all parables, a form of speech which our Lord used, indeed so often, and to such an extent, that the evangelists say, "Without a parable spake he not unto them." Occasionally used to conceal for a time the full meaning of the speaker, the chief and common object of a parable is by the story to win attention and maintain it; to give plainness and point, and therefore power, to truth. By awakening and gratifying the imagination, the truth finds its way more readily to the heart, and makes a deeper impression on the memory. The story, like a float, keeps it from sinking; like a nail, fastens it in the mind; like the feathers of an arrow, makes it strike, and, like the barb, makes it stick.
While Parables differ from fables - also a very ancient form of speech and instruction, in this, among other things, that fables use the fanciful machinery of beasts and birds and trees - they are allied to proverbs and allegories. They are stories - of events that may or may not have happened, but told for the purpose of conveying important truths in a lively and striking manner. They need not be in words; they may be acted; and some-times men inspired of God, have, instead of telling, acted them with dramatic power. "Go," said the Lord to Jeremiah, "and get a potter's earthen bottle, and take of the ancients of the people, and of the ancients of the priests; and go forth unto the valley of the son of Hinnom, and proclaim there the words that I shall tell thee." To his summons they assemble, and the preacher appears - nor book, nor speech in hand, but an earthen vessel. He addresses them. Pointing across the valley to Jerusalem, with busy thousands in its streets, its massive towers and noble temple, glorious and beautiful beneath a southern sky, he says, speaking as an ambassador of God, "I will make this city desolate, and an hissing: every one that passeth thereby shall be astonished and hiss: I will cause them to eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, in the siege and straitness wherewith their enemies, and they that seek their lives, shall straiten them." He pauses - raises his arm - holds up the potter's vessel - dashes it on the ground; and planting his foot on its shivered fragments, he adds, "Thus saith the Lord of hosts, Even so will I break this people and this city, as one breaketh a potter's vessel." The scene, the aspect of the man, the beautiful but fragile vase, the crash, the shivered fragments, these all-important aids to the speaker, were calculated to make an impression through the senses and the fancy, much deeper than the mere message could have done.
After the same manner, we find another acting his parable, charged also with a burden of coming sorrows. To the amazement of the people, setting them all a wondering what he could mean, Ezekiel appears one day before them with fire, a pair of scales, a knife, and a barber's razor. These were the heads, and doom was the burden of his sermon. Sweeping off, what an Eastern considers it a shame to lose, his beard, and the hair also from his head, this bald and beardless man divides them into three parts; weighing them in the balance. One third he burns in the fire; one third he smites with the knife; and the remaining third he tosses in the air, scattering it on the winds of heaven. Thus - he himself representing the Jewish nation; his hair the people; the razor, the Chaldeans the cutting off of the hair impending national disgrace; the balances, God's righteous judgment; the part burnt, those destroyed in the city ; the part smitten with the knife, those slain when attempting to escape; and the remaining part scattered to the winds, the dispersion of the survivors, - by this acted parable, and in a way most likely to imprint the truth on their memories and impress it on their hearts, he foretells the desola tions that were impending over them.
The Parable may assume a variety of forms, but the rule of interpretation is the same in all cases. The nearer we can make everything in the parable apply, and stand out as the medium of an important truth, so much the better. But while there may be a meaning in many of the circumstances, the clothing, as you might say, of the story - and it is our business to find that out - any attempt to regard everything as charged with a distinct meaning, to find a spiritual truth in each minute circumstance, would often land us in the regions of fancy; and sometimes in those of error. Take, for example, the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Our Lord represents Abraham and Dives as talking to each other across the gulf which yawns, unbridged, between heaven and hell. But are we to infer from this that the intercourse of this world is maintained in the other, and that sights or sounds of misery disturb the blessed rest of the saints of God? Certainly not. It would be as contrary also to all that we believe, to infer from the rich man expressing a desire for the welfare of the brothers he had left behind him, that virtues grow amid these fires which grew not in the more genial clime of earth. The lost are not certainly improved by their association with devils. If the longer in prison the greater criminal, the longer in perdition the greater sinner! The dead fruit grows more rotten, and the dead body more loathsome in its change to dust; even so they that are filthy shall not only be filthy, but shall be filthier still.
Take another example in the parable of the Ten Virgins. I read that as a solemn warning. It calls us to be up and doing; to hold ourselves ready for the Lord's coming, since we know neither the day nor the hour the Bridegroom may come; to work while it is called to-day, seeing how the night cometh when no man can work - when shops are shut, and there is no oil to buy. But if, allowing nothing for what might be called the drapery of the story, we are to find divine truth set forth not only in the main but in the minor circumstances, in every particular of the parable, see where this leads us! There were five wise and five foolish; five -taken in, and five shut out, to whose applications for admission, and earnest, long, loud knocking, no answer came but, The door - is shut. The first five represent the saved, and the second the lost. But are we to infer, since the number of the wise and foolish virgins was equal, that the lost are as numerous as the saved? This would be a dreadful, and, I venture to say, a very rash conclusion. Nowhere has God revealed such solemn secrets. Our Lord rebuked the curiosity that asked, Are there few that be saved ? - replying, Strive to enter in at the strait gate, for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able. To force such an utterance from the parable, to conclude because there was an equal number of wise and foolish virgins, that the lost are as numerous as the saved, has no warrant in the Word of God, and is contrary to the ideas we fondly cherish of Christ's final, glorious, and most triumphant conquest. If, at the close of the war, Satan retains half his kingdom, his head is not crushed, nor, if he carries off half his forces from the battle-field, is he defeated, as I would hope he shall be. We cling to the hope that equal numbers will not stand on the right and on the left hand of the Judge, and that the wail of misery, piercing as it is, shall be drowned and lost in the louder burst of praise. It were a sad account of any government, were half its subjects immured in prison; and I would not believe without the strongest evidence that under the reign of a benign and merciful God, and notwithstanding the blood poured out on Calvary, that half the inhabitants of a world are lost upon which the Saviour descended on wings of love, while his angel escort sang, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men. In explaining a parable, what we are therefore to seek is its great central truth, the one, two, or three grand lessons which the story was told to teach - setting aside such parts as are no more than colour, clothing, drapery thrown around it, to impart life and interest. Keeping this in view, let us now turn to study this woman at her household work, and learn the lesson that she teaches.

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