Throughout my Christian experience, I’ve been mystified by several of the parables, those simple stories in the Bible told by Jesus to illustrate a spiritual truth. Even though Jesus explained the parables, the wisdom, discernment, and principles in them made me realize that I needed a radical mindset shift.
Take for instance the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. A father has two sons. His younger son demands his share of the inheritance, then leaves town and squanders all the money recklessly, becoming destitute. He finds himself in a pigsty, fighting the hogs for the scraps he’s supposed to feed them. As a Jew, he knows that pigs are deemed “unclean” in the Book of Leviticus, and the Jewish sages forbade raising pigs, pronouncing a curse on
anyone who does.
Now at his lowest point, he regrets his foolish behavior and decides he would be better off being one of his father’s servants, so he decides to return home. When the father sees him coming, he runs happily to greet him. No doubt, the memory of the father’s goodness also brings the prodigal son to repentance (Romans 2:4). He apologizes to his father, and asks for a job. Overjoyed, the father calls for a party to celebrate his homecoming. The older brother is furious at his father’s response.
I can relate to the older brother, the trustworthy son, who has faithfully helped and served his father all along, while his selfish irresponsible younger brother waltzes back home, broke after years of riotous living, and receives a king’s welcome. Like the older brother, I would have preferred if his sibling was chastised for his behavior, forced to make restitution, and given a menial job. Rewarding bad behavior doesn’t make sense—unless you look at it from God’s viewpoint. We tend to keep score, but God’s love has no limits. Whether we’ve been faithful to Him or not, His love is unconditional. Like the father who ran to meet his lost child who had been found, God welcomes us with open arms when we repent of our sins and come home.
And then there’s the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. A unit of weight for gold or silver, a talent represented 15 to 20 year’s wages for an average laborer. A man traveling into a far country entrusts his wealth to three stewards, before he departs. One receives five talents, another two, and a third steward receives one talent, each according to his ability. Why did the master give the talents to his servants according to their ability? Perhaps, so they couldn’t make excuses and say they’d been given more—or less—than they were able to handle.
After a long time, the master returns unexpectedly. In his absence, the first two stewards invested the talents and each made a 100 percent profit. Because the master was a hard man, the third steward had buried his one talent in the ground. Digging up the talent, he returns the original amount to his master. The profitable stewards are praised, given increased responsibilities, and invited to enter into the joy of their Lord. The cautious steward is scolded, rejected, and punished.
Hmmm. Once again, I can identify with the third steward. What if he made a bad investment and lost the money? He didn’t want to risk disappointing his master. Or perhaps he was terrified at the prospect of making decisions for himself. Better to play it safe. Matthew Henry’s Commentary says, “Those who
think it impossible to please God, and in vain to serve him, will do nothing to purpose in religion. They complain that He requires of them more than they are capable of, and punishes them for what they cannot help. Whatever they may pretend, the fact is, they dislike the character and work of the Lord. The slothful servant is sentenced to be deprived of his talent.”
Am I a one-talent person? What opportunities to serve the Lord have I neglected? Am I the one who played it safe and hid His talent? This parable helped the disciples understand what Jesus was entrusting to them—something more valuable than money—the precious privilege of making disciples.
Lastly, is the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16. At various times during the day, the owner of the vineyard hires day laborers. The ones hired at six in the morning, put in a full day’s work. Those hired at five in the evening, only put in one hour of work. But the owner pays everyone a denarius, a full day’s wage. The owner ensures that everyone knows that all are paid the same in spite of the different number of hours worked. Not surprisingly, those hired first, complain that they worked longer, but earned no more money than those who started later in the day.
If I’d worked from dawn to dusk, and those who worked only one hour were paid an identical wage, I’d feel outraged. Where’s the fairness? From a business standpoint, it’s counterproductive and would likely initiate a labor dispute. But this parable isn’t really about work, is it?
“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:13-16). Entry into God’s kingdom is not gained by works or action, but by the generosity of God who draws us to Himself.
R. C. Sproul, a renowned theologian, said, “We talk about foxhole faith, when people cry out in desperate moments of crisis or postpone to their deathbed the moment of committing their lives to Christ. Some people say that it doesn’t make sense for somebody who has been a Christian all their life to be in the same state as somebody who did as they pleased all their life and waited until the last second to get their accounts square with God.” Once again, God’s goodness transcends earthly logic.
Whether you received Christ as your Savior when you were a child, or moments before your death like the criminal crucified alongside Jesus, the requirement for entrance into the Kingdom of God is to repent and believe in Christ.
The parables were not just stories, they were meant to provoke. Jesus knew that His disciples and believers in every generation would have questions. He often taught in parables to conceal his teaching from the Sadducees, Pharisees, scribes, and Roman authorities, who sought to find fault with him and accuse him of sedition. That’s why His parables were drawn from the experiences of common people.
Jesus asked His listeners to understand an intangible reality—the Kingdom of God. John MacArthur, a pastor, teacher, and author, wrote, “ In Matthew 13, Jesus uses parables—memorable, real-life stories with hidden meanings—to masterfully define the kingdom, explain the rules for entering, and paint an unforgettable portrait of life inside the kingdom, as well as outside.”
The analogies Jesus used to teach lessons to His followers are relevant today. They reveal God’s true nature and inspire us to, “. . . fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).
If you’re a Christian, God expects nothing less.