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One of the most common ways Jesus ends parables is by saying that his listeners need to have "eyes to see" or "ears to hear" the truth in his message. If you think about these phrases—"ears to hear" and "eyes to see"—it would appear that Jesus' goal is to engage our senses as human beings for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Why is this the case? It's because our senses, when they are fully developed, help us react and respond appropriately to the world around us. This means, in a way, Jesus taught in parables to help us develop our "spiritual senses" so that we can respond appropriately to the truth of God. And if this is a goal of the parables, then the parable in Luke 16:19-31 does the best job of accomplishing this purpose. In "The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus," Jesus uses vivid language that engages the full range of human senses. Again, his purpose in doing so is to help us develop our spiritual senses in order that we might respond appropriately to the truth. It's as Peter Rollins says: "The parable is heard only when it changes one's social standing to the current reality, not one's mere reflection of it." This is because we've only truly heard the truth of Scripture when we respond appropriately by living out the will of God.
Parables have the ability to reach a wide audience because they are stories that have multiple layers to them. There's the more obvious surface layer to every parable, but there's also often a deeper meaning in these memorable stories, particularly in the parables of Jesus. That is certainly the case with the parable found in Luke 18:1-8. On the surface, it might appear that Jesus is addressing the issue of prayer, or perhaps even the need for persistence on our part. In fact, Luke 18:1 plainly says, "Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up." However, by the time we get to the end of the parable, we see that Jesus is addressing a deeper issue than what we see on the surface. While persistence in prayer is the "symptom" Jesus is speaking to, the deeper disease he is addressing is a lack of faith based on a distorted view of God amongst his followers. In his book Turn My Mourning Into Dancing, Henri Nouwen probably does the best job of capturing what Jesus is saying in this parable. Nouwen says, "Trust in God allows us to live with active expectation, not cynicism. When we view life as a gift, as something given to us by a loving God, not wrestled by us from an impersonal fate, we remember that at the heart of reality rests the love of God itself. This means that faith creates in us a new willingness to let God's will be done. The word so often translated faith in the New Testament comes from an ancient word that literally means 'trust.' Faith is the deep confidence that God is good and that God's goodness somehow triumphs."
The parables of Jesus are stories Jesus used from everyday life to explain abstract spiritual truths and ideas. The truths Jesus proclaims in these parables are timeless truths; however, the stories are also rooted in a particular time, culture, and context. Often times, this means the reader must become a student of Jesus' culture in order to understand the timeless truths he is communicating. This is particularly the case in "The Parable of the Ten Virgins" in Matthew 25. There are even a few wedding customs Jesus casually mentions in this parable that we know very little about today. Despite the cultural gaps we may encounter in this story, the overall message is clear: what we do in this life matters eternally. In his book In Light of Eternity, Randy Alcorn says it this way: "This life is the headwaters out of which life in heaven flows. Eternity will hold for us what we've poured into it during our lives here. Your God-given resources of time and talents and money and possessions are the lever, positioned on the fulcrum of this life, that moves the mountains of eternity. When you see today in light of the long tomorrow, even the little choices become tremendously important." In this parable, Jesus reminds us of the importance of preparing for eternity by the way we live here and now.
In Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus tells a parable describing what the Kingdom of God is like. Often times, the "Kingdom of God," or the "Kingdom of Heaven," comes across as a lofty and abstract idea to modern-day readers. This is because we rarely use the word "kingdom" any longer in everyday language. Add on top of that the idea of talking about a heavenly kingdom, it can make this phrase seem less real than any earthly kingdom we think of. Despite our misconceptions of it, the Kingdom of God is, in fact, a real kingdom where there is real citizenship; and, as we see in Matthew 20, God's Kingdom openly challenges our present world in ways that tend to make us uncomfortable. "The Parable of the Generous Employer" is a story describing how the economy of grace works. The economy of grace confronts the ideals we carry around of what is fair, what is right, and what we think we deserve based on our efforts. In his book What's So Amazing About Grace?, Philip Yancey says, "Grace cannot be reduced to generally accepted accounting principles. In the bottom-line realm of ungrace, some workers deserve more than others; in the realm of grace the word deserve does not even apply." That is one reason why this parable in Matthew 20 forces us to decide whether we want to be citizens in God's Kingdom, or if we actually prefer to keep our citizenship in the kingdoms of this world.
In his book Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull (the founder and CEO of Pixar Studios) talks about the fact that, when creating art, every human being has to overcome inaccurate versions of images we carry around in our head if we want to create realistic art. In talking about this challenge, he says, "It is a fact of life, though a confounding one, that focusing on something can make it more difficult to see. The goal is to learn to suspend, if only temporarily, the habits and impulses that obscure your vision." What Catmull says about art is true for us spiritually, as well. We naturally carry around a bunch of inaccurate pictures in our head of what true life is all about, how to find fulfillment, and even the concepts we have of God. In fact, some of our preconceived images we possess are some of the primary barriers that keep us from accurately reproducing the Kingdom of God in our daily lives. Perhaps that is one reason why Jesus taught in parables: he wanted to help us learn to suspend any habits that obscure our vision of the Kingdom. To say it another way, he wanted to help us "learn to see." One of Jesus' greatest and most effective ways of doing this is found in parables like the "twin parables" in Matthew 13:44-46. He turns our worldview upside down so that we can see more clearly and hopefully more accurately reproduce the Kingdom in our daily lives.
At the end of Luke 14, we find a bold lesson on discipleship coming from Jesus, including a curious parable about a tower builder. If someone were going to build a tower, the project would surely begin with an initial assessment of cost to make certain the task could be completed. Speaking to a large crowd of curious observers, Jesus offered words of instruction about the cost of being a disciple, a devoted follower. From the parable (and the surrounding passages), we are reminded of God's devotion to finish what He started no matter the cost, but we are also invited to consider our own involvement in the grandest building project: the restoration/redemption of creation. The choice is up to us: Will we decide to trust the Lord daily and submit ourselves to be fully devoted to God?
Many biblical scholars have suggested that the parable found in Luke 16:1-15 is one of the more confusing and difficult parables to interpret for us today. We are obviously not the original hearers of this parable; we are quite removed from the context Jesus spoke this parable to. On top of that, this parable is long, choppy, and has some demanding questions for what it means to be people of the Kingdom of God. But, no matter how you interpret the characters in "The Parable of the Shrewd Manager," one thing that is clear is we are called to steward our wealth with a Kingdom mindset. A Kingdom mindset means the believer possesses a certain urgency to do the right things for the right reasons. In saying that, this urgency isn't predicated on anxiety; rather, our urgency is built on hope. The timeliness of our actions is born out of the knowledge that we have a short time to make a difference. So, we are to leverage our wealth, of all forms, for Kingdom advancement because we know that, in the end, these assets are fleeting. Our money, relationships, and influence are all resources that can be leveraged powerfully and creatively for the Kingdom in the "here and now." As we consider our position in life and account for what God has entrusted us with, we know that our subsequent choices will ultimately be an acknowledgment of our salvation.
Many of the world's famous parables are thousands of years old and have been handed down from generation to generation. There is obviously a reason these stories stick with us, but the original meaning behind any given parable is always in danger of being lost in translation. This is the case with parables outside of Scripture as well as parables that Jesus told. If we lose the cultural context behind these stories, the natural tendency is to turn the characters in parables into caricatures of themselves. That is particularly the case with the parable found in Luke 18:9-14 called "The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector." Since Pharisees and tax collectors are not positions held within our society, it's easy to stand outside the story and experience it from a distance. However, doing so will keep us from being transformed by the parable. The only way to be transformed by a parable is to find one's self in the story, to identify with the characters. What we find when we dig beneath the surface of this particular parable is that it relates to our lives much more than we might have imagined.
When you think about the parables Jesus told, the most popular and well-known of all of his stories is "The Parable of the Two Sons" in Luke 15:11-32 (also known as "The Parable of the Prodigal Son"). In Luke 15, Jesus tells a series of three parables about things that are lost and later found. With each parable, he intensifies his message and ups the ante. Jesus begins with a story about a shepherd losing 1 out of 100 sheep. When the sheep is found, the shepherd celebrates with his friends. Jesus then tells a second story about a woman losing 1 out of 10 coins. When she finds the coin, she also celebrates with her friends. Finally, Jesus tells a third story that drives home his primary message and intensifies it. He tells a story about a father who loses 1 out of 2 sons. It started with a story about 1 out of 100, then 1 out of 10, and now 1 out of 2. It started with a story about a lost animal, then lost money, and now a lost child. With all of the similarities between these three parables, Jesus throws in a few unexpected twists to this final parable to communicate his message clearly. The story doesn't end with celebration when the lost son is found, like the other two stories do. The story then turns to the older brother who is furious that his father is throwing a party for this rebel son. By breaking the established pattern and shocking our sensibilities and expectations, Jesus teaches us many profound truths about the mercy, grace, and love of our Heavenly Father. Perhaps the shock and unexpected turns are why this parable has been called the greatest short story in the history of the world.
One of the most famous parables Jesus ever told is commonly known as "The Parable of the Good Samaritan." It is a parable so widely shared that our country has "Samaritan laws" some 2,000 years after Jesus originally told this story. While most people in our culture may be familiar with the story, it's the context surrounding this famous parable that actually helps us understand what exactly Jesus is trying to say. In the period right before Jesus tells this story, he and his disciples have numerous encounters with Samaritans because they are traveling through the region. Relations between Jews and Samaritans were tense and often even hostile for a lot of reasons, some of which included racial prejudices and religious differences. In Luke 10, Jesus sends out 72 of his disciples into Samaria and they see a positive response to the Gospel from the Samaritans. This undoubtedly caused a stir and had many questioning the legitimacy of Jesus. One of the skeptics was a religious expert who approached Jesus to test his theology. In the midst of what he thought would be an examination of Jesus, the religious expert finds himself on trial and his prejudices exposed by Jesus. In this shocking story of what it means to be a "neighbor," Jesus says that we are called to care for all that we come in contact with, even those who we would consider to be our enemies.