Mark 4:1-2a (NIV): Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. He taught them many things by parables…
Jesus’ teaching in parables was more powerful than just teaching the people theology. The people who came to Him for healing and miracles were not those who had studied in the seminaries of His day. That’s not to say that they were biblically ignorant. The vast majority of them were observant Jews who were in the synagogue on the Sabbath where they listened carefully to the rabbi’s teachings, who made the necessary trips to Jerusalem for festivals, and who did their best to obey the righteous requirements of the law.
Nevertheless, they were not theologians, but simple working people, whose jobs and responsibilities did not leave them a lot of time or energy for pondering the deep things of God. For such people the pictures that Jesus painted in His parables were perfect. Rather than trying to explain theological principles, Jesus told stories that illustrated them. Rather than speaking in the specialized language of the theologians and dissecting the terminology so the people could try to understand, He got them involved in the stories of ordinary people, people just like themselves, who were involved in activities like they were involved in, or at least familiar with. In His crafting of just the right story to illustrate His point, Jesus showed that he was no “ivory tower” theologian, but a man who knew the people to whom He was talking (John 2:24-25); a man who had lived in the real world, and who now drew upon that experience to relate to His listeners with a depth that the teachers of the law could not approach.
But there was always more to a parable than met the ear. The stories were told on three distinct levels. They are much like tide pools. When we first bend over a tide pool and look into it, especially on a sunny day, mostly what we see is a reflection of ourselves and the sky above us. That is much like the first level of a parable, the story itself – simple and charming enough that even children can enjoy it, as any Sunday School teacher can testify. Even if we don’t fully understand it, we can see that there is something in it that relates to us. Sometimes the simplicity of the stories causes people to scoff at them, but that’s because they are only seeing the surface.
The second level of tide pool gazing comes when we shift our eyes away from the surface and look deeper. At that point we begin to see some of the rocks at the bottom of the pool, a few sea anemones, a starfish or two, and maybe even a hermit crab sidling along, towing its shell after it. When we take the time to look beneath the surface of the parable (With God’s help, of course; all spiritual truth is spiritually discerned [1 Corinthians 2:14], and those who fail to seek God’s wisdom in these stories will never truly get below the surface.), we begin to see the truth in it. Most of the parables have one main point that they are making about God, about His kingdom, or about His relationship with us human beings. Often, when someone sees this point, when it resonates in their heart, they are excited and rejoice over the truth that they have discovered.
When we look into a tide pool and see the rocks, and the anemones, and the starfish, and the crabs, it is tempting to move on to the next pool to “see what’s in that one.” But if we pause for a bit, focus gently below the surface, and just kind of meditate for a few minutes, kind of slow ourselves down, we enter the third level of the pool. Suddenly our eyes will be attracted to movement and, when we look, we will see that the water of the pool is teeming with life. There are tiny fish flitting here and there, water bugs, both on and below the surface, even smaller crabs than the ones we have seen before, and all kinds of tiny life moving around in the depths. We wonder how we could have missed them when we first looked, because now we can see them everywhere. The temptation is to think that maybe they were hiding, and have now grown bold enough to come out. But the truth is that they were always there – it is us who have slowed down enough to really see what is there under the surface, beyond that which is easily noticed. Not the big, slow things that can be seen by any who really take a second or two to look under the surface, but the small, faster moving things that, when we see them, actually change our view of the very nature of that tide pool.
It’s the same with Jesus’ parables. There is a third level to each one that can only be seen when we are willing to stop for a while, willing to resist the temptation to just move on to the next story, and instead just meditate for a bit. To those who are willing to wait in God’s presence, to meditate and chew over the pictures and concepts that they have seen in the parable so far, God can begin to show wonders below the surface, treasures of insight, understanding, and application that we will wonder why we didn’t see before. And the more patiently we wait before Him, the deeper we look, the more He will show us.
Father, I agree that the parables are absolutely marvelous. It seems that we can never fully see all that is in them. Every time we look, every time we pause for a while with You, You are able to point out new wonders and deeper mysteries. Thank You! Amen.