The Lord's parables were not just made up by Him off the cuff. They are evidently the outcome of much prior thought and reflection, perhaps during the carpenter years (and hours). They reflect the sensitivity of Jesus. The basis of their message was doubtless part of the private revelation which the Father made to the Son, which He faithfully spoke forth to us. And yet one guesses that the formulation of the parables was the work of the Lord's own mind, rather than speaking them forth directly from the Father as a kind of fax transmission. We therefore see in them much indirect revelation of the Lord's character. On one level, it is possible to see the story-line of the parables as just the necessary machinery in order to deliver the basic message. But let's remember that the Father and Son are of much higher intellect to ourselves. The way the Lord Jesus used the parables as He did, comprehensively answering every point of His detractors, revealing their weakness, and displaying the character of God all in a few brief, simple words, is proof enough of the intellectual and spiritual genius of Jesus of Nazareth. We use so much language and packaging that is redundant. Yet it seems hard to believe that the Father and Son would do the same. Some of the parables are given a very detailed interpretation by the Lord Jesus; clearly He saw every detail as significant. Again, it seems unlikely that other parables were not intended to be read in the same way, but rather on a more superficial level. The fact that some of their details seem so obviously redundant to us, without meaning, is to be expected seeing that we lack the mind , intellectually or spiritually, of the Son of God. We would be better to just accept that we fail to apprehend their meaning (at the moment), rather than come to the conclusion that sometimes the Lord's parables are intended to be interpreted very closely, whilst others are just stories giving a basic message. This is effectively limiting God's word in accordance with the limits of our own spiritual apprehension; we would be implying that the meaning of God's word is bounded by our own interpretational ability.
The Lord Jesus " knew what was in man" , not only by direct revelation from the Father and the Old Testament word, but also from His own observation of our own nature, both in Himself and the surrounding world. The sensitivity of Jesus is reflected in this realization which He reflects. As the Samaritan came near to the wounded man (the ecclesia), realized the extent of his problem (the ravages of sinful nature) and was thereby moved with compassion, so Christ was motivated by His consideration of our position (Lk. 10:33,34); the Lord realized His humanity more and more, and progressively humbled Himself, achieving a progressively fuller identity with us by so doing, until He crowned it all by His death (Phil. 2:6-8). The main lying helpless on the Jerusalem - Jericho road was surely modelled on Zedekiah being overtaken there by his enemies (Jer. 39:5). That weak, vacillating man basically loved God's word, he wanted to be obedient, but just couldn't bring himself to do it. And so he was, quite justly, condemned. It's as if the Lord saw in that wretched, pathetic man a type of all those He came to save. And even in this wretched position, the Lord will pick us up and carry us home. This gives a fine, fine insight into His sensitivity to us. Indeed, several times the Spirit in the NT uses OT pictures of unworthy believers as the basis of a description of the faithful. We are of (Christ's) bones and flesh (Eph. 5:32) is a direct allusion back to the way David called the men of Judah who were not enthusiastic for his return in glory " my bones and my flesh" (2 Sam. 19:11,12).
The Lord Jesus also looked forward to the development of His future body as the ecclesia (e.g. Ps. 22:25; Mt. 18:17). He must have seen the problems we would face, He knew our weakness; as Moses, superb type of Christ that he was, looked ahead to the future weakness of Israel, so did the Lord Jesus (1). Even in practical issues, He may have foreseen our state in the twenty first century far more than we realize; and again, in this we see the sensitivity of Jesus. Thus He speaks of the believer praying in his bedroom (Mt. 6:6)- at a time when private rooms were almost unheard of amongst ordinary folk. The degree to which the Lord foresaw our struggles even in His humanity should provide great stimulus in the difficult business of building up a personal relationship with Him now. For in His heavenly glory, His empathy with us is even greater than in His mortal life. He endured our nature and temptations so that He might be an empathetic High Priest (consider the implications of Heb. 2:10,17; 4:14,15; 5:1,2); Christ was fully consecrated as High Priest after His death, and it was then that He began to be the sympathetic, understanding High Priest which the Hebrew letter speaks of. The fact that Christ knows so thoroughly our feelings here and now, especially our struggles for personal righteousness, should of itself encourage our awareness of and relationship with Him.
The parables are full of almost incidental indications of how well the Lord knew our nature and how accurately He foresaw the future struggles of His body. He foresaw that the elder brothers would be self-righteous and unwilling to accept back into fellowship the repentant. Yet instead of making the father address the older boy with words like " You hypocrite! You yourself are disobedient! Get away from me, you callous hypocrite!" , the Lord puts the words of grace themselves in the father's mouth: " Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine" (Lk. 15:30). The Lord foresaw that the elder brethren's relationship with the Father would be damaged by their harshness. But in the way the story ends, I see real hope for the hard line, right wing Christian who condemns his brother, in the light of the Lord's teaching that we will be judged as we have judged. Wrong such brethren certainly are; but their Lord is gracious enough, it seems, to still work with them. In the same breath as the Lord warned that by our words we will be justified and condemned, and that we will have to account for them at the judgment, He also said that whoever speaks words against Him, He will forgive. I'd like to concentrate on other examples of where the Lord Jesus in His sensitivity foresaw this problem of dealing with apparently weak believers.
He foresaw that the hardest working brethren would be bitter at His acceptance of the weaker ones. His comment to them, " Is thine eye evil, because I am good?" (Mt. 20:15) was quarried from Jonah 4:2-4, where Jonah is also asked a similar question after his bitterness that God had allowed Nineveh to repent. We must be aware that such self righteousness and uncomfortableness at the repentance of others is a feature of our very essential nature. The Lord Jesus overcame this aspect of His nature superbly.
The parables of the two carpenters and the tares in the field show Christ's recognition that His followers would have a keen interest in the weaknesses of their brethren. He foresaw what has been the consistent problem of all groups who have held His true teaching, from the early church through the Bible-believing communities of Central Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, and right through our experience from the 1850s onwards: the problem of how to deal with members of the church who appear to err from the Truth He taught. In the primary context of sunny Galilee in the AD30s, His emphasis on these things would have appeared irrelevant to the 12. But the Lord's mind was far far ahead, way beyond His time, foreseeing the schisms of 40 years' time, imagining the struggles of His body 1900 years later. Consider the story He told of the carpenter with a beam in his own eye who is so keen to extract the splinter from the eye of his fellow worker (note how he almost forces himself upon his brother to do this!). There is something grotesque, absurd, over the top in this story. Christ's parables often have an element of unreality in them to highlight how His attitudes are unusual (e.g. the employer who pays all his men the same wages for different hours of work). And these unusual attitudes of His reflect the sensitivity of Jesus.
But in this story of the two carpenters there is something not only unreal, but almost cartoon-like. We read it and think 'The Lord's obviously exaggerating, nobody would really be so foolish'. But that's exactly how He knew we would think! Our attempts to sort out our brother really are that absurd! Christ is effectively saying: 'Now, I know you'll think I'm exaggerating- but I'm not' (Lk. 6:41,42). Often it seems the Lord intends us to think His parables through to their end, imagining the necessary details. A splinter will come out of the eye naturally, it's presence will provoke tears which ultimately will wash it out. 'The grief of life will work on your brother to solve his problem, there are some spiritual weaknesses which time and the experience of life will heal; but I know you people will want to rush in and speed up the spiritual growth of your brother. But you can't do it!'. Christ even foresaw how we will stress the fact that our fellow believer is our " brother" as we try to do this; as if we'll try to be so righteous in the very moment when in God's eyes we do something grotesquely foolish. Doubtless the Lord's carpenter years were the time when He formulated this story. Perhaps He intends us to take it further, and pick up the implication that these two carpenters couldn't help each other; but there's another one who can...
The same awareness of our desire to inappropriately sort out the problems of Christ's ecclesia is shown in the parable of the tares; " wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?" (Mt. 13:28) shows Christ's knowledge that this would be the desire of His servants throughout the generations. If we take His teaching seriously, we must come to the conclusion that all of us have a desire to " help" our brethren by 'sorting out' the weaknesses which we see in them, but that there is the real possibility that often this desire is spiritually grotesque in God's eyes. According to the parable of the tares, we are very sure that we know who are the tares and who are the wheat. But we can't be as sure as we feel, is the Lord's message. Some we feel are obviously tares are actually wheat. And the sensitivity of Jesus foresaw this so accurately.
There's a fascinating twist in this story that is exactly descriptive of our experience. The servants slept first of all, after the word was first sown, and only once the wheat and tares came to bear fruit did they pester the Master to let them root up the tares. This reference to bearing fruit must be read in the context of the preceding parable of the sower, which describes how the good ground bears fruit (Mt. 13: 26, 8). The implication is that the servants shouldn't have been sleeping first of all, thinking there wasn't really much to do in the field. And so it is a familiar pattern: conversion is followed by a period of feeling there isn't much to do, and then the realization dawns that due to our own negligence in those early days there are some tares in the ecclesia. The desire to sort out the tares therefore comes some time after conversion. And on the overall level, there is another truism: the servants of Christ are keener to eradicate error than stop it in the first place. It's sad to see that there is almost a despising today of the warnings against 'the thin end of the wedge'; awareness of the possibility of apostasy is seen as somehow negative- exactly as the parable predicts. The parable implies that if a greater level of watchfulness was maintained by the servants, there wouldn't be the tares. But, as the Lord foresaw, we seem to lack this watchfulness, often under the guise of feeling that we must sort ourselves out rather than guard against apostasy being introduced.
The sensitivity of Jesus constructed that parable with the aim of showing the thoughtful how deeply inappropriate is their desire to root up the tares. He clearly had in mind the prophecy of Himself in 2 Sam. 23:6,7: " The sons of Belial shall be all of them as thorns thrust away, because they cannot be taken by (human) hands: but the man that shall touch them (Christ) must be fenced with iron and the staff of a spear; and they shall be utterly burned with fire in the same place (just outside Jerusalem) " where Christ was " fenced with iron" . It isn't possible for us to uproot the tares because this can only possibly be done by the one who totally uprooted sin in Himself, dying to it on the cross. This association between Christ's right to judge and His victorious death is shown by the way the " tares" will be burnt in the same area as He was crucified in. Phil. 2:9-11 reasons along the same lines; because Christ died for us, He therefore has the right to have every knee bowing to Him at the judgment. On account of being " the Son of man" and yet also being our perfect Messiah, He has the right therefore to be judge (Jn. 5:27 cp. Dan. 7:13,14). The Lord understood all this; and to the thoughtful, those who would grasp His allusion to 2 Sam. 23, He was saying: 'If you think you can root up the tares, if you think you have that wisdom to identify the tares, you are really insulting the greatness of what I achieved on the cross. It's only on account of that that I have the ability and right to divide wheat from tares, sheep from goats'.
The Lord Jesus Christ's sensitivity to our thinking that we really have borne His cross comes out in Mt. 20:22: " Are ye able to drink of the cup that I drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? And they said, We are able" . Those men, with all their unspirituality, could quite coolly state that they wanted the highest place in the Kingdom, and could say with confidence that they could shoulder the cross of Christ. The Lord's reply was gracious and generous spirited indeed: " Ye shall indeed drink of my cup" - 'when you're a lot more spiritually mature', He could have added. We sense rather than are explicitly told His sensitivity to men thinking they can shoulder His cross; for He alone knows what the cross of Christ entailed and entails. And in speaking of our own sufferings, we too need to learn these lessons, and compare our sufferings against Christ's with the utmost caution, with the sensitivity to His feelings, recognizing that we must act as men and women who have been counted as if we shared His death, and not as those who have actually " resisted unto blood (in our) striving against sin" . To confidently identify some of our brethren as tares is only one example of the way in which we can hurt our Lord's feelings, by acting and thinking in ways which are only appropriate for He who did actually carry the cross (2).
We have only considered one area in which our Lord foresaw so clearly our likely weaknesses. I'd like to conclude with a few more examples of where how we reason in our weakness was exactly foreseen by the Lord:
- The story of the candle that was put under a bucket brings out an issue related to that of the desire to root up the tares: the candle was put there (presumably) on account of an almost paranoiac fear that the wind would blow it out; but this over-protection of the lamp in itself caused the light to go out (Mt. 5:15). Time and again, preaching the light, holding up the beacon of the word of Christ's cross, has been impeded or stifled in the name of preserving the truth, strengthening what remains (words taken out of context). And because of this lack of witness, this lack of holding out the light to others, the fire of Christ has waxed dim amongst us. This ties in to the theme that preaching is not just commanded as a publicity exercise for Almighty God; He doesn't need us to do that for Him. It is commanded for the benefit of the preacher more than those preached to. To put a candle under a bucket or bed seems senseless; yet this is how senseless and inappropriate it is to hold back preaching for the sake of defending the Faith. Indeed to put it under a bed (Mk. 4:21) and then go to sleep (candles are normally only lit at night) is likely to destroy the person who does it, to burn them while they are asleep. All who have the light but don't preach it (in whatever form) are likely to suffer the same; notice how the Lord (by implication) links night time and sleepiness with an apathy in preaching. Evidently the Lord foresaw the attitude that has surfaced amongst His people in the late twentieth century: 'We must concentrate on keeping the Truth, new converts are often problematic, too much energy goes to preaching rather than building up ourselves in (" our most holy" !) faith'. Probably the resistance to preaching to the Gentiles in the first century used similar reasoning.
- The lost sheep who leaves the fold and goes off (Mt. 18:12) is based on Ps. 119:176: " I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek thy servant; for I do not forget thy commandments" . The lost sheep that is found therefore has the attitude of recognizing it is lost, that it is still the servant of the shepherd although isolated from him, and still has not forgotten the things of God's word. The picture in Ps. 119:176 is strange indeed: a lost sheep asking the shepherd to come and find him. It's as if the sheep talks to himself, feeling the shepherd can't and won't hear, feeling that he's just too far away. And this is exactly, exactly the position of all those who leave the faith and return: they don't forget the doctrines of the Truth, in their hearts they feel too far away, but they wish somehow something could happen to get them back. This explains the type of sheep one is dealing with in the parable, and why the parable isn't true of all who go astray.
- There is an element of unreality in the story of the lost sheep. And that unreality reflects the sensitivity of Jesus. The shepherd doesn’t return the sheep to the fold, but takes it home and calls his friends round to see the dumb animal and rejoice (Lk. 15:4-6). The Lord knew we would frown a bit at this. He foresaw how hard it would be for us to rejoice in the return of a difficult sheep to fellowship.
- The labourers who were chosen to work first were the spiritually strong ones. Those still standing at the end of the day were probably weak or old; nobody wanted to hire them. The Lord foresaw how the apparently 'strong' in the ecclesia would struggle (and may still struggle at the judgment) with the fact that the weaker ones get, essentially, the same salvation as them.
- The parable of the prodigal ends on a negative note. The older brother's bitterness doesn't heal, he won't join the family, and his bitterness at his brother's repentance not only damages his own relationship with the Father, but also casts a shadow over the rejoicing. This is so realistic; the sad truth of this has been worked out hundreds of times in the history of His body. The gain of one brother so often means the loss of another.
- The parable of the wine exactly predicted the attitude of people to Christ's work in taking the Old Covenant out of the way. The Lord is surely saying: 'I know you won't immediately want the blood of my new covenant. I understand your nature, by nature you'll prefer what you are familiar with, the Old Covenant,; you won't " straightway" desire the new wine, but (by implication) you will, after a while' (Lk. 5:39). He foresaw how the implication of the blood of His sacrifice wouldn't be accepted by His people first of all. It would be a process, of coming to accept how radical the gift of His blood is. As we weekly take the cup of His covenant, we come to see more and more the excellency of that blood, and its supremacy over all else. Christ recognized that conservatism in human nature which will naturally shy away from the marvellous implications of what He achieved for us. And true enough, whenever we talk about the present aspect of the Kingdom of God, our present blessings of redemption in Christ, the sense in which we have already been saved...there is a desire to shy away from it all. And true enough, the early Christian believers desperately clung on to the Mosaic food laws, circumcision and synagogue attendance as far as they could; the command to witness to the Gentiles was likewise not taken seriously for some time. It must have been painful for the Lord to know this and to see it, recognizing in it a lack of appreciation of His life and final sacrifice, a desire to reconcile with God without totally committing oneself to His work. He saw the possibility of His blood being wasted if men didn't change from old to new wineskins. The slowness of the changeover in attitudes amongst the early believers must have been a great pain to Him; as if His blood was being poured out again. The implication is that we shed His blood afresh if we won't change, if we allow the conservatism of our natures to have an iron grip upon us we not only destroy ourselves, but waste the blood of the Son of God. The picture of the new wine being " spilled" uses the same word as in Mt. 26:28 concerning the 'shedding' of Christ's blood. Again, how utterly, painfully accurate. This is the danger of the conservatism that is in our natures; it was this which led men to shed the Lord's blood, and it is this same element within us which He foresaw would lead us to crucify Him afresh. How many times has this conservatism been mistaken as true spirituality! How careful we must be, therefore, not to adopt any attitude which glorifies that conservatism and masks it as the hallmark of a stable believer. The sensitivity of Jesus to the value of the human person was the very opposite of this.
(1) See Moses: Spiritual Pinnacle.
(2) Against the teaching of this parable must be balanced our duty to separate from that and those which are false. This must be done, but without the implication that our act of separation is the uprooting of the tares.