Shalom Mishpocha (Family) in Yeshua,
Parables (משלים) of Messiah
Last month we discussed the parables of the Tanach (Old Covenant Scriptures). We mentioned that the parable, mah-SHAAL in Hebrew, was a method of teaching very common among the rabbis of Yeshua’s day. While the Messiah did not invent the mashal, He is the only teacher of parables in the Brit Hadasha (New Covenant), and over one third of His teachings in the Gospels are parables.
Yeshua used the parable as a means of delivering His message extensively and effectively. He was a master of meh-shah-LEEM (parables). It is believed that the Messiah began to use the parable as a method of teaching during the second year of His public ministry. Parables were employed both to reveal and to conceal truths—to reveal truths to the disciples, and to conceal truth to unbelieving Jews. “And the disciples came and said to Him, ‘Why do You speak to them in parables?’ He answered and said to them, ‘Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given’” (Matthew 13:10-11).
The use of meshalim by Yeshua was actually a fulfillment of prophecy. “All these things Yeshua spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet saying: ‘I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things kept secret from the foundation of the world’” (Matthew 13:34-35; Proverbs 78:2).
Yeshua and the Rabbis
When discussing parables, it is crucial to note that the parables of Yeshua in the Gospels have many similarities to parables in rabbinic literature. They have a common structure, similar motifs, themes, forms, and plots. They both instruct, often with the same theological message. Yeshua’s teaching through parables was a blending of old and new. A verse explaining this process happens to be the verse that we chose in 1980 as the basis of our Jewish Jewels ministry: “Therefore every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old” (Matthew 13:52). The parables in the Brit Hadasha include both old (traditional Jewish) and new (Messianic) teachings. The new is not a rejection of the old, but rather a breath of fresh life infused into an old message. Torah is not canceled, but reinterpreted.
Given the common bond between the teachings of the infant Messianic faith and ancient Judaism, one might wonder what the difference would be. The difference is a King: Yeshua. He came to properly interpret the Torah, to fulfill it. Solomon had been considered by the rabbis to be the first in Israel to teach through the use of parables (we call them Proverbs) and to correctly interpret the Torah. It is possible that the Jews were expecting a second Solomon who would interpret the Torah through the use of parables. Perhaps this is why it was said of Yeshua, “…a greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:42). The “new” of Matthew 13:52 was a Messiah who came offering a better way of living and loving.
The Kingdom of Heaven
The kingdom of heaven (mahl-KHOOT ha-shah-MAH-YEEM) is the major theme of Yeshua’s first parables. Most are found in the Gospel of Matthew. These include The Parable of the Sower, The Parable of the Tares, The Parable of the Mustard Seed, The Parable of the Yeast, The Parable of the Hidden Treasure, The Parable of the Pearl of Great Price, and the Parable of the Net (Matthew 13:1-50). According to rabbinic views at the time of Yeshua, the terms “kingdom,” “kingdom of heaven,” and “kingdom of God” were equivalent. The word “heaven” was often used instead of “God” to avoid desecrating the Sacred Name. This explains the exclusive use of the expression “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew’s Gospel (directed at a Jewish audience). In the Jewish mind, the kingdom of heaven referred, not so much to any particular period, as to the rule of God in the lives of men—taking upon oneself the “Yoke of the Kingdom” and the “Yoke of the Commandments.” When Yeshua appeared on the scene, presenting a different kingdom (one with an “easy yoke”; see Matthew 11:30), He challenged long-held beliefs. He had come to earth as a “King,” and His kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). Yeshua declared that the only way to see the kingdom of God was to be born from above. This idea was foreign to the rabbinic concept of experiencing the Reign of God.
When Yeshua began to teach in parables, no longer speaking very plainly as He did initially, it was because His “audience” had changed. There were now two groups that listened to the Messiah, His disciples and the Pharisees, who had concluded that Yeshua’s teaching and acts were of satanic origin. The kingdom that Yeshua preached did not fit their theology. He was a threat to them. He exposed their hearts. For example, Yeshua pointed out the self righteousness of the Pharisees in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in the Temple (Luke 18:10-14). “Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others” (Luke 18:9). He summarized the main point of the parable by saying, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14). When the Pharisees and Torah scholars complained that Yeshua welcomed sinners, and even ate with them, He told the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7). Yeshua expressed in this parable the great value of one sinner who repents (as opposed to ninety-nine self-righteous ones).
The Parable of the Sower
This parable is found in three Gospels (Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:4-15). “Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell by the wayside; and the birds came and devoured them. Some fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked them. But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop: some a hundred fold, some sixty, some thirty” (Matthew 13:3-8).
Yeshua explains the meaning of this parable, beginning in verse 19. He gives a comparison in agricultural terms which brings a heavenly meaning down to an earthly level. Sowing seed would be a very positive word picture for a first century farmer. The farmer would be well aware that proper soil preparation and good soil are required for a bountiful harvest.
The parable creates mental images of the sower, the seed, and the soils. The farmer’s greatest concern was the condition of the soil. In the parable, the sower is doing his job well and the seed is of high quality. The condition of the soil is the main focus of the story. Four different soil types represent four types of people and their hearts. The seed is the Word of God, the Word of the kingdom. Yeshua’s Jewish hearers would have heard this parable in the context of Torah and the spiritual values taught in Torah learning. Brad Young, in The Parables, says that Isaiah 55:11 might have been in the minds of people as they listened to this parable: “…so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose.”
While this parable is called The Parable of the Sower, the real emphasis is not on the sower, nor the word sown, but on the response of the hearers. Like all parables, this one calls for a decision. The Sower wanted His listeners to receive His message, follow Him, and serve God with their whole heart. With God, it is always about the heart! The harvest that would follow, especially the hundredfold, would be extraordinarily high—more than a first century farmer could imagine.
The four types of hearers are not just a random number. There were actually four types of disciples mentioned in early Jewish teachings. The following is a humorous saying from Jewish literature: Four characteristics of a disciple:
1. Quick to learn and quick to lose, his gain is canceled by his loss.
2. Slow to learn and slow to lose, his loss is canceled by his gain.
3. Quick to learn and slow to lose, this is a good portion.
4. Slow to learn and quick to lose, this is an evil portion.
Brad Young points out the following: “The best characteristic of a disciple is one who is quick to learn and slow to forget! The form and structure of the rabbinic saying is very similar to the four types of soil in the Parable of the Sower.” There are many other examples of this type of Hebrew parallelism in fours.
The main message of this parable is that we should be like that hearer (disciple, tahl-MEED), who received the word of Messiah’s teaching with a good heart, ready to put His message into practice. This is a decision that each person must make. This is what the kingdom of heaven is about.
Parables of the Mustard Seed and Yeast
The Parable of the Mustard Seed is found in three Gospels: Matthew 13:31-32, Mark 4:31-32 and Luke 13:18-19. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-32).
This parable begins with the standard comparison of one thing with another. Yeshua is comparing the kingdom of heaven to a very small seed. Again, the context is agricultural, very “down to earth.” The Messiah was instructing His disciples about the nature of His kingdom. Although in the natural, the mustard seed was not actually the smallest of seeds, according to the popular Jewish conception of Yeshua’s day, the mustard seed was regarded as the smallest. (All experts agree that the parables did not demand strict scientific accuracy.)
The Parable of the Yeast is considered to be a “twin parable” of the Parable of the Mustard Seed. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened” (Matthew 13:33). Both parables emphasize the same truth: While it may seem small and insignificant, the kingdom of God is of great worth, and ever increasing in the life of one who receives this kingdom (which includes a King: Yeshua!).
The kingdom of God is also a kingdom which cannot be stopped. It may start small and weak, but it is powerful to spread far and wide, transforming lives. In the Parable of the Mustard Seed, the Kingdom has an “outward” effect, penetrating the world. In the Parable of the Yeast, the Kingdom has an “inner” effect, penetrating the heart of the believer. We like what Alfred Edersheim says in The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah: “The one exhibits the extensiveness, the other the intensiveness of its power; in both cases at first hidden, almost imperceptible, and seemingly wholly inadequate to the final result…Such parables must have been utterly unintelligible to all who did not see in the humble, despised Nazarene, and in His teaching, the Kingdom.” This brings to mind scriptures such as John 1:46, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
The “tree” in the Parable of the Mustard Seed would not be a “tree” in the strictest sense of the word, but a large garden shrub that appears like a tree. The birds that lodge in the tree are a familiar Old Covenant symbol of a mighty kingdom that gives shelter to the nations. (See Ezekiel 31:6; Daniel 4:20-22.) Yeshua is indicating here that the Messianic kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, although humble in its beginnings, would grow and expand and one day give shelter to all nations of the world.
In the Parable of the Yeast, the three measures of meal was a common amount in biblical times. Yeshua was commenting here on ordinary, everyday life. His kingdom was coming to the ordinary life of people with the power to transform the ordinary into the supernatural.
It has been said that the irony of the mustard seed and the yeast (small, insignificant, weak) is the irony of the kingdom. A king coming in humility and preaching a message of love for the sinner, the outcast, even one’s enemies, was not what the Jewish people of Yeshua’s day expected. The prevailing idea of the kingdom was nationalistic and political. The multitudes would have liked to make Yeshua king to overthrow Herod. They expected Him to deliver Israel from Roman oppression. But Yeshua came to inaugurate a different kind of kingdom, a kingdom of the heart. Through parables, He sought to correct the false perceptions of the kingdom, which one day would be the greatest kingdom the world has ever known—an ever-increasing, unstoppable kingdom.
Brad Young in Jesus the Jewish Theologian says concerning these two parables: “The kingdom is a present reality for those people who choose to obey the teachings of Jesus, to accept God’s redemptive power in their lives, and to exemplify the qualities of discipleship and servanthood in a hurting and needy world. The kingdom is here! It is like a mustard seed that grows into a tree. It is like leaven that permeates the entire loaf.”
Multiple Purposes of Parable
We encourage you to delve into the parables this month. Brad Young’s book, The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation, is a treasure chest of knowledge and inspiration. Discover for yourself just what a Master Teacher our Messiah is, and how deeply rooted in Judaism His parabolic teaching was. Praying for you to find new and old treasures this month,
Praying for you to find new and old treasures this month. Love in Yeshua,
Other purposes of parables—For your personal study:
To disarm Yeshua’s antagonists: Parable of the Good Samaritan
To reveal the nature of God: Parable of the Prodigal Son
To encourage forgiveness from the heart: Parable of the Merciful King
To interpret the Torah, specifically the Shema: Parable of the Cost of Discipleship
To reveal what is in one’s heart: Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican
To stir hearts to be like God: Parable of the Fair Employer