Lecture 13: Parables (Part 2)
Course: New Testament Introduction
Lecture: Parables (Part 2)
Let’s reflect again about the parable. Lemme tell you a story. I had just finished teaching in Thailand and Estonia and I was taking the train to St. Petersburg and on to Moscow.
My, om, former student, who is Dean of Moscow Evangelical Seminary, was meeting me in St. Petersburg but they put me in a car with the Cossacks, smoking, drinking, singing all night, you know, that sort of thing and, om, so I asked for a separate car and I got a separate car and so we got to the border of Russia and, uh, these huge women who AK47s got on the train and handed me this entry card for Russia, all in Cyrillic.
Now, I don’t know Cyrillic. She didn’t know any English. I tried my German. I tried my French. Nothing was working. She just pointed to the card and wanted me to fill it out, you know. So I did.
I put my name down and I put down the names of several of my favorite baseball players and, you know, I just made sure I filled in all the slots and signed it at the bottom and this satisfied her but unbeknownst to me when I had been in Thailand, I, I got some kind of terrible flu and high fever and about the time we crossed the Russian border, I was running about 103, 104, you know.
I was just sweating to the oldies, so I got to St. Petersburg, I got off the train. It was -18 degrees with the wind chill. This is February. It went down to about -25. And there’s my friend, Sasha on the platform and I said, “[Straswudga][02:40], Sasha. I am very sick.”
The reason I met him in St. Petersburg was ‘cause we wanted to go to the Hermitage. I’d always wanted to go to this incredible museum with this painting, among other things in it. So he was determined to take me, sick or not, ‘cause then we had to go onto Moscow. We went to the Hermitage with me with this raging fever.
I really was sick and we went around a part of the museum and when we came to this painting, which was like bigger than 10 billboards, I just sat down in a chair like this one across from this painting and I said, “Sasha, you should go see the things that you really wanna see in this museum. I need to just rest.”
And what happened to me, while I was sitting there about 2 hours, resting, I was reflecting on this painting and I was reflecting on my life and I remembered back at a time in 1971 when I was…It was nighttime and I was walking across the campus at Carolina and it was dark. It was a quad I was walking across.
There was just nobody to be seen anywhere and I heard my name called...Just the name Ben, which, of course, in Hebrew, means son. Just Ben. This was at a point in time when I, I really had wandered pretty far away from the church.
I mean, the Vietnam War was raging and all kinds of things were going on and the church was part of the problem, not part of the solution, as far as I was concerned. It was the beginning of God really calling me to a, a personal embracing of the Christian faith for myself. He called me by name.
And I always thought about this story, the story of the prodigal son, the prodigal Ben, ‘cause you see, Ben means son. The line in that parable I love the most is this line. “And when he had come to his right mind, he thought, I will go home.” Now, that’s powerful.
He didn’t get there, because of evangelism or witnessing. He didn’t get there, because he had the read the four spiritual laws or his favorite Bible verse. It was just that God brought him to a moment of awareness and called him home.
He realized he had really screwed up and so he rehearses this little speech. ‘Okay, I’ve messed up so bad that I can’t be a member of the household anymore. I’ll just ask for a job as a slave. I mean, I’ve spent all my inheritance. I’ve mass [since][5:45] disenfranchised my family and they will have disenfranchised me,’ he assumes. ‘So I’ll just go home and ask for a job on the farm.’
And, then, what happens is that, even when he is far off, his father has been looking for him for so long that when he gets a glimpse of him, he comes running. Now, what are we supposed to get out that? If there is even a glimmer of turning in your life, the Lord is right there to receive you. If there’s even a little spark of a metanoia, a turning around or repentance, God is right there.
And when I look at this painting…I mean, for me, this painting is very emotional. I look at these hands…Now, the hands are, you know, this is a basketball player’s hands. He’s got big hands. The hands are not really in proportion to the rest of the man. And if you look at it, first of all, he’s bald. He shaved his head in repentance.
And look what he’s doing. He’s leaning into his father’s chest like a child. And his father is full attention on him, regardless of the consequences or the criticisms that come with it.
In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd and the sheep know my voice. I call them by name. I call them by name.”
In the story of Mary Magdalene, what happens? She’s at the tomb. She hears Jesus’ voice but she doesn’t recognize it until what? Until he called her by name.
Well, I think back to that night in 1971 when he called me by name and that was when I came to my right mind and turned around. The parables portray a God who’s not able to be put into this pigeon hole or that pigeon hole...A large merciful, gracious God, ready forgive...A God who is ready to justify, even the unjustifiable person like the sinner…A God who does unlikely, surprising and shocking things.
And we see this in the church, don’t we? Somebody who was a notorious sinner in town is converted and has this incredibly outsized testimony and the saints of the church who have all their Sunday school pins and etc., and have never done anything dramatically wrong like that, you know, they’re a little put out by the fact that the pastor is giving this person prime time air space in the worship service to give his testimony and they’re going, ‘Well, yeah, I suppose if I had done 40 bad things, I could have a dramatic testimony, too.’
Well, you know, they’re acting just like the elder brother and this parable. Exactly…Exactly like the older brother, as if they had a sense of entitlement. Have you ever run across that in the church? People who have a sense of entitlement? They really didn’t get the memo on grace. They think they’ve done their time here. They should be deserving.
These parables are intended to tease your mind into the act of thought about God. Let’s deal with a couple more that’ll help us understand.
Let’s hear the Parable of the Ten Talents. This is Luke 19. “And while they were listening to this, Jesus went on to tell a parable because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear. ‘At once,’ he said, ‘a man of noble worth went off to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. So he called ten of his servants and he gave them ten minas.’”
A mina is three months wages. This is a different form of the parable of the talents. We actually have two forms of this and there’s no reason why Jesus couldn’t have told it in various different ways. After all, it’s fiction.
He said, “Put this money to work until I come back.” ‘But his subjects hated this king and sent allegation for him to say, “We don’t want you to be our king.” He was made king, however, and he returned home and then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it.’
‘The first one came and said, “Sir, your mina has earned 10 more.” “Well done, good servant,” the master replied. “Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.”’
Ten cities. Wow.
‘The second came and said, “Sir, your mina has earned five more,” and his master answered, “You take charge of five cities.” Then another servant came and said, “Sir, here is your mina. I have kept it laid aside in a piece of cloth. I was afraid of you. You’re a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and you reaped what you did not sow,” and his master replied, “I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant. You know, did you, that I am a hard man taking out what I did not put in and reaping what I did not sow? Why, then, didn’t you put my money on deposit so that when I came back, at least I could’ve collected it with interest?”’
‘Then he said to those standing by, “Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.” “Sir,” they said, “he already has ten,” he replied. “I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given but as for those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away, but those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them, bring them here to me and kill them in front of me.”’
A little different than the Parable of the Ten Talents, isn’t it? Let’s talk about this parable. What’s it about? Who’s this king that goes away into a far country and then comes back for the moment of accountability? What do you think? It’s not Nero. No.
I think Jesus is talking about himself. And he’s talking about the accountability required of his servants. See, a talent was actually a coin. It is the word from which we get the word ‘talent’ but a talent was actually originally a weight of gold and then it was a coin. So both this parable and the Parable of the Talents is the parable about coins, about what you do with what you have. It’s about what you do with what you have.
George Buttrick says about this parable, “A coin has two sides. On one side, it says, ‘ability’ and on the other side, it says, ‘responsibility’.”
This parable is not about how much you have and it’s certainly not an endorsement of the prosperity gospel. To those who have, more shall be given. This is about accountability for what we do with what we have.
The man with one mina is not expected to have produced the results of the man with ten minas. The man with five minas is not expected to have produced the same results as the man with ten minas. To whom each is given, responsibility is given that much. To whom more is given, more is required. Let’s think about this for a minute. Okay?
Suppose I were to put three glasses out here on the table. One is four ounce glass. One is an eight ounce glass and one is a twelve ounce glass and I were to fill each of these three glasses with water all the way to the rim. Which of these three glasses is full? All three of them. And if I were to be held accountable for not spilling any of them, I would be held accountable for not spilling twelve ounces, if the twelve ounce glass was given to me and only eight ounces if the eight ounce glass was given to me and only four ounces if the four ounce glass was given to me.
The parable says that the king decided how much to give each one. It didn’t happen because all three servants came and bid on an opportunity to have more. It did not come because somebody took a gift inventory and said, ‘You know, I’d like this spiritual gift. I think I’ll pray for it.’ No, the determination of ability and responsibility came from outside of the servants.
They were simply the servants and they were given what they were given. Now, there’s another dimension to this that you need to understand here. God doesn’t just expect you to mark time with what he has given you. He expects a return even to the person who is only given one talent or mina. He expects a return on his investment.
Now this is not because Jesus wants us to think about our relationship with God and purely mercantile terms. He’s not talking about economics. He’s talking about stewardship of what God has given you.
I’ve actually read some books where they tried to read the parables as if they were actually about eight, First Century Economics. Not so much. No. They’re not about that kind of investment. They’re about the kind of investment that God makes in human beings. To whom more is given, more is most certainly required.
But here’s the other thing. I like what George Buttrick says about this. ‘You can tell the character of a person by what they do when they think no one is watching.’ Let’s say that one more time. ‘You can tell the character of a person by what they do when they think nobody is watching.’
Of course, this is silly as Christians, ‘cause we know God is always watching. This is silly. Why would we not do something in public because other human beings are watching that we would do in private because only God is watching? Now think about that for a minute.
In this story, the king has gone away into a far country. He’s gone for quite a while. He’s not micromanaging. Some people think that God micromanages the lives of his children. Well, you know, that’s part of growing up. It’s called maturing in the faith. The more time goes on, the less God needs to micromanage you, and the more he entrusts you with more and more adult responsibility.
Sometimes we ask ourselves, ‘Well, why hasn’t God given me more to do?’ Maybe he wants to see if you’re going to be faithful in little first. Now the thing that’s also interesting about this parable is, of course, that this parable is not an exact analogy between Jesus and his relationship with his servants now is it? Because this king is what? He’s a hard master. He is a slave driver and at the end, he is a wicked and vengeful king who says, ‘Alright, let’s just slaughter all of my enemies.’
You need to be careful when you are trying to discover the point of analogy between the character of God and the character in some parable. You need to be careful how you look at that. The principle of the parable is that when there is an investment made in you, it’s certainly true that God expects a return and it would be a terrible mistake for any of us to compare ourselves to anybody else. We’re not supposed to be looking horizontal about this.
Let’s consider another parable about stewardship. Mark 12. Yes, the Parable of the Tenants. That is the one I want. So we go for the Parable of the Talents to the Parable of the Tenants. ‘Jesus then began to speak to them in parables and he said, “A man planted a church called the Vineyard.”’ Just seeing if you’re still awake after lunch.
‘“A man planted a vineyard and he put a wall around it and he dug a pit for the wine press and he built a watch tower. He then rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. At harvest time, he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. But they seized him and they beat him and they sent him away empty-handed.
He then sent another servant to them. They struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another one and that one, they killed. And he sent many others. Some of them, they beat. Others, they killed. At the end, he had only left one to send, his only son, whom he loved.”’
By the way, the phrase, ‘beloved son,’ normally meant in that culture, ‘the only son,’ ‘the unique son,’ ‘the one and the kind, of a kind son.’ Remember the story of Abraham and Isaac? ‘Take your son, your beloved son.’ You could just as well have read the Hebrew as ‘take your son, your only son.’
‘He sent another one. That one, he killed. He had only left one to send, his son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all saying, “They will respect my son.” The tenants said to one another, “Hey, this is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and then we can claim the inheritance.” So they took him and they killed him and threw him out of the vineyard.
What, then, will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and he will kill those tenants and he will give the vineyard to others. Haven’t you read the passage of scripture, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone?” The Lord has done this and it is marvelous in our eyes and then the chief priests and the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest him, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them, yet they were afraid of the crowd, so they left him and went away.’
Now let’s think about this one for a minute. The parable begins with a dramatic symbolic image from Isaiah. Remember Isaiah?
Let’s consider Isaiah 5. Not Isaiah 6, this time, but Isaiah 5. “The Song of the Vineyard. ‘I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard. My loved one has a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones. He planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a wine press as well.’
‘And then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.’ ‘Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah judge between me and my vineyard. What more could have been done for my min-, vineyard than I have done for it? When I look for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? Now I will tell you what I’m gonna do to my vineyard.’
‘I’ll take away its hedge and it’ll be destroyed. I’ll break down its wall and it will be trampled. I’ll make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, briers and thorns and thistles will grow there. And I will command the clouds never to rain on it again.’ For the vineyard of the Lord almighty is the house of Israel and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in. What he looked for from his vineyard was justice. What he saw was bloodshed. He looked for righteousness. What he heard was cries of distress.”
The vineyard is an image of God’s people going all the way back to the prophetic literature. And the stewards of servants in the vineyard are, of course, images of the leaders of God’s people.
So you, when you get to the end of the parable in Mark 12, what it, does it tell us? It tells us very clearly that they knew…The authorities knew he was thinking against them, because of their treatment of whom? Prophets, teachers, wise men, sages who came to the authorities again and again and said repent, repent or God will judge you.
Now this parable about the vineyard is a parable about repentance or the lack thereof. God kept on sending his messengers to his vineyard. He kept on sending prophets and teachers and kings and priests and sages to his people and they either ignored them or abused them.
Look at the history of the prophets. Jeremiah got off lightly. He was just thrown down a well. Listen. Listen to what the Book of Hebrews says about what happened.
In the Hall of Faith Chapter in Hebrews 11, listen to the story. I’m gonna start with Verse 32. “And what more can I say. I don’t have time to tell you about Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah and David and Samuel and the prophets who, through faith, conquered kingdoms, administered justice, gained what they promised, shut the mouth of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, escaped the edge of the sword, whose weakness was turned to strength and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again.” He’s thinking of Elijah.
“There were others so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning. They were sawed into. They were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins destitute, persecuted, mistreated. The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.”
Did you wonder why John was out in the desert? Because any time he got to civilization, he was a threat to any authority he came near. And in the end, Harod beheaded him. They were all commended for their faith yet none of them received what had been promised but God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
God sent one prophet, another, a teacher, a sage, a priest, but the Jewish authorities did not want to know. So by the time we get to John the Baptist and Jesus, the message for the Jewish authorities is grim. The son has come. Are they going to treat him any better than any of the rest of the messengers? No. They’re going to treat him worse.
It says that they killed him and they threw him outside the vineyard. Now, this is directly connected to what happens to the temple and the temple authorities.
Jesus connects the dots in Mark 13. What does he say? This temple is going down for the count. And when the temple goes down, the priesthood goes down. The priestly authorities go down. These parables are about the kingdom coming and Jesus going.
These parables are about immediate circumstances in the ministry of Jesus and the way Jesus was and would be treated. They are social commentary on his own day…Powerful social commentary on his own day.
Think again of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, if you will. We’ve told you about Samaritans but what I would want you to notice most about it now is that the person who prompted this parable was whom? Who asked Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ Yes. A lawyer…An expert in the Torah. And when anybody asked the question, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ The real question is, ‘Who is not my neighbor? What’s the limitations?’
He was looking for a loophole. He asked the wrong man. This was the man who said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” which by the way is not in the Old Testament. One of the radically new teachings of Jesus was ‘love your enemies.’ The heart of the law may be loving God and neighbor with whole heart but Jesus was going an extra furlong when he said, ‘love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.’
This parable climaxes in an unacceptable way for a Torah scholar, a Bible expert, because he worked for the priests and the Levites. So he would have been very disappointed with the story that had the priests and Levites passing by on the other side of the road. They were his spiritual heroes, they were his compadres that he worked with. And he would have been really incensed to discover that the person who did the right Jewish thing for the Jewish man lying on the side of the road was a Samaritan. A dirty rotten Samaritan.
So when you get to the end of the parable, it’s not enough that we hear that the Samaritan did a good turn daily and helped this Jew on the way to healing. At the end of the parable, Jesus asks the question. A lawyer had asked, “Who, then, is my neighbor?” Jesus asked, “Which of these persons, then, must behave like a neighbor to the man lying on the side of the road?” And through gritted teeth, the lawyer says, “Well, I guess it was the Samaritan. Phew! Phew! [making spitting sounds] Samaritan.”
And then Jesus really took the knife and stuck it in and said, “Go be like the Samaritan.”
Friends, these are not nice little innocuous stories that we tell our children at bedtime so they will sleep better. These are social commentary on how the kingdom of God is breaking into our midst and breaking down the barriers between Jew and Gentile and Samarian and male and female and old and young. To build a kingdom with all kinds of people that are, will come to the messy [ending][34:16] banquet.
It’s a vision that the earliest followers of Jesus got another glimpse of at Pentecost. Think about Pentecost for a minute. What happened at Pentecost? You have Jews from all over the world coming to Jerusalem and God-fearers and Proselytes.
Now, it’s not a story about a bunch of Pagans coming to Jerusalem and being saved. It’s a story about Jews, both those who are natives to the holy land and those who came from the Diaspora to the celebration of the Pentecost Feast, plus some gentiles who were God-fearers who attended the synagogue or Proselytes on the way to becoming Jews.
But what the story says, in essence, is that the kingdom is coming and when the Spirit is poured out, even the boundaries of language fall, so that all manner of persons can come to know Jesus Christ and be saved. Still, today, we have not lived up to the full measure of the radical nature of this kingdom teaching, whether it comes to us in the form of sermon by Peter or a parable by Jesus, the message is the same. Prejudice, hatred, racism will not do. It’s not what the kingdom’s about.
But it also comes with a minatory warning, doesn’t it? If they do this to the Master, and crucify him on Golgotha, what should the disciples expect? Jesus did not say, ‘Take up your Bibles and follow me.’ He said, “Take up your cross and follow me. If anyone would come after me, let them take up your cross and follow me.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Jesus bid you come, he bid you come and die.” In principle, you have signed over your life to the Lord when you came to the Lord. Why would you expect the world to treat you any better than he was treated?
These parables are powerful. In their original contexts, they were often offensive. I like to say about ministers, they need to have a capacity to comfort the afflicted but they’d better also have a capacity to afflict the comfortable, because Jesus’ parables are not Sesame Street tales. They often afflict the comfortable and make them profoundly uncomfortable.
One of the most famous sermons ever preached in America was preached by Jonathan Edwards. Its title was Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. If you’ve not read this sermon, then you need to read it. It’s a barn burner. It’s a real corker.
I never heard a sermon like this growing up in the Methodist church. Shoot, I never heard a sermon [on][37:43] hell growing up in the Methodist church. I heard a lot of other kind of stuff and a lot of it nonsense but I didn’t hear that.
My mother grew up in the Southern Baptist church. She did hear some hell fire sermons. She said, as a little girl, she remembers them vividly because they made the hair on the back of her neck raise up. You know?
In the sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God…when Jonathan Edwards got going and you need to understand, he was not a charismatic speaker, so you gotta picture this man with thick glasses, a long frock coat, a powdered wig, a manuscript this tall, handwritten, being held like this in front of his face and he’s reading this sermon to his congregation.
And on the platform is one of his deacons and he gets to the bit about the spider dangling over the pit of hell and the deacon comes unglued. The deacon gets the point of the sermon. He comes over and grabs Mr. Edwards by the frock coat and says, “Mr. Edwards, Mr. Edwards, I pray thee remember the mercies of God!” Yeah. He came unglued. Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.
These parables are full of both justice and mercy… Both righteousness and compassion. Now you know, we like the nice soft squishy bits...Not so much the righteousness and justice bits.
But let me say to you now that if you have concern or compassion for the oppressed, you will have a concern for righteousness and justice. It has been said, and I agree with this, that one of the essential requirements for doing ministry is the capacity for righteous anger. I mean, sin is destroying our world. Why is it that we would be complacent about that?
Sin is destroying human lives of people we love…Friends, family. Why is it that we would not be righteously indignant as God is about that? These parables are full of anger at sin but full of love for the sinner. You see, we need to learn how to do what Jesus did, to have that balance of justice and mercy…That balance of righteousness and compassion. It’s a hard balance to strike.