A Sermon from Sherborne

The Parables of Jesus

A sermon for Evensong at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 18 November 2018 by the Reverend Hugh Bonsey, Associate Priest


“Jesus is the best storyteller that the world has ever known.” This claim has been made time and time again in the history of the Christian Church – and how true it is!

Jesus has been so successful in telling his stories because he used parables. Jesus took great care to make absolutely certain that what he had to say would be understood by those of his hearers who were believers. So he took examples out of everyday life to demonstrate what he meant to say. Much of what Jesus said concerned the Kingdom of God, a field of thought not easily understandable by those who heard Jesus, in indeed for many of his followers since!

There are several sources, which Jesus took for his stories. Some parables were from nature: The Sower (Mark 4.1-9), the Seed growing secretly (Mark 4.26-29), the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13.24-30) and this evening’s Second Lesson – The Mustard Seed (Matthew 13.31-35).

Sometimes the parables came from a background of familiar customs: The Leaven (Matthew 13.33) also part of this evening’s Second Lesson, the Lamp set on a Stand (Mark 4.21), the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin (Luke 15.3-10). Or, perhaps, from just occasional events in the experience of life: the Unjust Judge (Luke 18.2-8), the Labourers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20.1-16), the Unjust Steward (Luke 16.1-9) and the Prodigal Son (Luke 15.11-32).

There are other parables, which are beyond the experiences of the listeners, for example, the Story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Although the story does not relate directly to personal experience, the images are strong and memorable. The story, which becomes remembered, also has an important teaching element, which is also remembered along with the story. These two qualities together result in an extraordinary significance, which has stood the test of time down the centuries.

The Parables of Jesus are always told for a purpose. Some parables give their meanings in the stories themselves and require no further investigation, while others either have a pertinent question posed by Jesus, or give a direct command to the listener to act according to the conclusion of the parable.

Through the Gospels, the Church has taught the Parables of Jesus and commented on them in many ways over the centuries. Some teachers have seen them as being very complicated symbolic stories or ‘allegories’, in which each phrase, or even word, is loaded with a special meaning. Unfortunately, such interpretations usually added so much to the meaning of the original story that much of the end result was a collection of meanings, which had not been taught by Jesus, nor did they have any relevance to the point our Lord was making.

On the other hand, some parables have been oversimplified and taken to illustrate just one truth (and one commentator might specify a different single truth from another’s interpretation).

Some parables point to several truths as in the story of the Prodigal Son, where there is first the joy of the Father (that is God) forgiving his children, then there is the nature of repentance on the part of the wayward son (the repentant sinner), and finally, there is the jealousy and self-righteousness displayed in the character of the sinister ‘elder brother’ (ourselves as unforgiving and self-centred people).

But no matter how the parables are seen or analysed, they are unique. No other person than Jesus has portrayed the divine will in such a meaningful and unforgettable way. The parables are such a part of the character of our Lord, that they are inseparable from him: this is the view of many commentators.

One viewpoint, difficult to understand, is the purpose to which Jesus sometimes puts his parables. It seems that he teaches in the roundabout way of parables to make sure that those people who do not believe in him stay firmly convinced, and perhaps more entrenched, in their disbelief.

Indeed, some believers seem to be hardened against the teachings of Jesus because of the parables. But Jesus and his parables are inseparable. Other teachers and moral leaders have always been separated in some degree from their own teachings. Jesus is not separated from the parables. And if a person fails to understand the person of Jesus, then that person will almost certainly fail to understand the parables. The eternal significance of the parables (and the miracles) of Jesus simply is not understood at all by anyone who does not see Jesus as the divine Son of God. Jesus, although divine, took into himself our humanity, and so lived a totally human life on earth. His whole ministry and teaching, and his miracles, were of this earth. There was no ethereal mysticism in the life of Jesus, with the exception of the Transfiguration experience. Unless we can spot his divinity, we could be misled by his humanity – this has always been the problem of proclaiming the Gospel, from the earliest times.

But because, on one level, Jesus was the Son of Man, and became fully human (although also fully divine), he did use the examples of everyday living for his parables. The problem for us is, of course, the problem of a changing world.

For example, in the Story of the Wheat and the Tares, I think one would have to explain what Darnel or a Tare is. We must explain carefully that a young Darnel plant and Wheat look the same growing in the field, yet one is poisonous while the other is life-giving. The farmer waited until the time for cutting the full-grown crop before separating the two. Although the poisonous Darnel must be removed, the life of the young tender Wheat plant must not be risked. Therefore we have the presence of Darnel (that is evil) in the world, alongside the Wheat (the goodness of the world), and at the Day of Judgement, the two will be separated. Now all this was perfectly clear and straightforward to the people who actually heard Jesus; the meaning is not so clear today to members of our society.

So perhaps these wonderful Parables of Jesus, or at least some of them, do need to be explained, as our everyday experiences of life become increasingly different from the daily life of Palestine 2000 years ago.

One of the memorable and remarkable characteristics of parables relates to their endings. Jesus always cuts through our complacency and lazy acceptance of the values of the world. Again and again we are cut short at the end of the stories that Jesus told. There is a twist at the end of many of the parables, which reinforces the points that Jesus is making. Our attention is sharpened, and we find ourselves being challenged to change our lives that we might live according to the values of the Kingdom, not the values of the world in which we are so comfortable.

In the last resort, it is the person of Jesus who shines through all that he says. The parables in one sense are timeless because they are bound up completely with the character of Jesus, who transcends time and who is the perfect reflection of the Father’s love, and who is the one who came to this world to proclaim the Kingdom of his Heavenly Father.

Let us rise to the challenge, and open our ears and hearts to the message of divine love that Jesus brings: a love that emanates from the Father and is shared among us in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Reverend Hugh Bonsey, Associate Priest 18/11/2018
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne