"All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables: and without a parable spake be not unto them."—Matt. 13:34.
In eastern countries, from the earliest ages, instruction has been extensively communicated through the medium of parables. It is the favorite mode of diffusing knowledge among Oriental nations at the present day. One of the earliest parables on scripture record is that of Jotham, in which the trees are represented as seeking to anoint a king over them, Judges 9:8. Another ancient parable is that of Jehoash, wherein the thistle is described as seeking a matrimonial alliance with the cedar: see 2 Kings 14:9. There is also that of Tekoah, 2 Sam. 14:5; and that of Nathan, in which he brought the sin of David before his eyes, and caused the indignant monarch to pass sentence upon himself, must be well remembered by all. It is difficult to decide whether Solomon's vivid description of old age and its infirmities, Eccles. 12:2, is to be viewed as a parable or allegorical description. Our attention, however, at present, is directed to the parables of the Saviour. So greatly did Christ adopt this mode of instruction, that it is affirmed in the text, "without a parable spake he not unto them." The passage does not design to assert absolutely that he never taught in any other way, but that this was the common, almost the unvarying practice of the great Teacher. Let us then,
I. Establish the truth of the text. And,
II. Assign some reasons for the mode of instruction the Saviour adopted.
I. Establish the truth of the text. The Saviour's ministry did not extend much, if any, beyond the period of three years. There can be no doubt that the chief themes and topics of his instruction, though in a very condensed form, have been transmitted to us in the writings of the evangelists. Now, these parables form a chief, indeed a great proportion of the Saviour's teaching.
(1.) In some cases parables were the basis of other doctrinal and practical addresses, as in the parables of the sower, and many others.
(2.) In other instances the parable constituted the application of the discourse just delivered, as in the parable of the foolish and wise builders, which was the conclusion of his sermon on the mount.
(3.) But from their number and variety, it is obvious to the ordinary reader of the New Testament scriptures, that the Saviour seldom spake to the people without embodying in parabolical costume his divine instructions.
(4.) In some of the Saviour's discourses we have a series of parables, as in the chapter of which the text forms a part. For here we have the parable of the sower—of the wheat and tares—grain of mustard-seed—of the leaven—hidden treasure—of the net—and the pearl of great price. So profusely rich was the Saviour's blessed discourse on this occasion, that we do not marvel that it should be said, "without a parable spake he not unto them." Let us,
II. Assign some reasons for the mode of instruction which the Saviour adopted. We might remark that it accorded with the habits and mental characteristics of the people, and that it harmonized with great portions of their Holy Scriptures. But we observe,
1. That it rendered great and sublime subjects easy to be understood. Of all themes,
Christ's were the most lofty and exalted. He had to do with subjects difficult of apprehension to the human mind. His topics were spiritual, heavenly, eternal. By parables, he brought these truths down to the capacities of the people. They could not fail to ascertain the mind and design of the speaker, and the import of his subject. Hence the common people, the illiterate, the mass, heard him gladly. No marvel that the peasantry hung on his sacred lips with wonder, reverence, and admiration. Now this should ever be the chief object of the preacher's attention—the people must understand, or how can they possibly profit?
2. By parables, subjects were rendered pleasing to the mind. Figurative illustrations, and metaphorical analogies, are gratifying to most minds. Abstract principles, presented in an abstract form, would attract the careful attention of but a few of mankind. But to see these themes clothed in parabolical costume, was sure to delight the great majority of the Saviour's hearers. To interest our hearers, is generally essential to their profit. And the Saviour's hearers were often so charmed, that for hours they listened to him with gladness and delight. On one occasion he wrought a splendid miracle to supply the people with food who had followed him, and hearkened to his discourses until evening had come. Matt. 14:14.
3. By teaching in parables he obtained a more candid hearing from his auditors. Many of the Saviour's sermons were intended to convey keen rebukes for sin, and faithful warnings to those who were deceiving themselves. In many cases a direct charge would have at once excited their prejudices and wrath. By parables, therefore, the bitter potion was so administered, that those who were condemned by the discourse must have admired the mode in which the reproof was given, or the threatening denounced. Besides, it was thus more difficult to reject the counsel of the Saviour against themselves.
4. By parables the Saviour often won the attention of his hearers. Many of the Saviour's parables were adapted to excite and captivate the best emotions of the heart. Such, for instance, as the parable of the joyous shepherd rejoicing over the recovered wanderer from the fold. Such also as the clement lord who so freely forgave the debt of his servant. Such also as the mercy and goodness of the father who so ardently received back again his prodigal son.
5. The parables the Saviour were easily remembered and retained. The natural imagery in which they were clothed was always before them. The fishermen could not forget the parable of the net; nor the housewife those of the leaven—or the lost piece of silver; nor the husbandman those of the vineyard—of the sower—or of the tares. To be benefited by what we hear, it must be retained and stored up in the chambers of the memory.
6. By parabolical teaching the Saviour showed the great aim of his ministry. It was not to perplex the ignorant, or to triumph over the partially instructed, or to exhibit himself as an object for learned admiration; but it was evident he desired their improvement—their enlightenment—their spiritual and eternal profit. He showed the deepest concern for their well-being, and made it evident that he labored for their present and everlasting salvation. How desirable to make this manifest in all our discourses. To convince our hearers that we seek only their profit, that they may be saved.
1. How sweet and gracious the character of Christ as a teacher.
2. What a model for ministerial imitation.
3. Let us profit by his blessed discourses which are contained in the scriptures of the New Testament.
Here we can listen to the Saviour and receive his life-giving and soul-saving words. And surely the words of his mouth are better unto us than thousands of gold and silver.