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CCXX. THE USE AND INTENT OF PARABLES.
Matt. xiii. 13-15. Therefore speak I to them in parables, because they seeing, see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, by hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and not perceive: for this people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.
T is certain that parabolical representations are, for the most part, obscure, and difficult to be understood. It may well therefore be a subject of enquiry, Why our blessed Lord adopted that method of instructing his auditors, in preference to a plain undisguised declaration of the truth? This very question was agitated among his own disciples, who not being able to satisfy themselves respecting it, intreated an answer from himself upon the point. The reply which our Lord made to it is the subject of our present consideration. We shall, I. Explain the general import of the text
The Jews in our Lord's time were extremely averse to receive instruction
[Never were any people more blinded by prejudice than they: they heard our Lord only with a view to cavil at his word; and asked questions of him only that they might ensnare him; and though they were constrained to acknowledge that he spake as never man spake, they would not receive his testimony. They saw his word confirmed by numerous, and most stupendous miracles; and yet, instead of yielding to conviction, they were always asking for more signs. Rather than confess the hand of God in the wonders wrought by him, they ascribed them to the devil: and when that refuge failed them, they sought to destroy both him and Lazarus, lest his
having raised the dead should induce the people to believe on him. The instant they saw the drift of his discourses, they accused him of opposing the law of Moses, and of blasphemy against God. In short, they shut their eyes against the light, and determinately resisted all the methods used for their conversion and salvation.]
They exactly accorded with the description long before given of them by the prophet
[The words of the prophet in their literal sense, were an order to him to go and preach to the people, though he was apprised beforehand that they would not listen to him, or be converted by him. But they looked forward also to the times of the gospel, and were a prophecy, that when Christ and his apostles should preach to the Jews, the greater part of the nation being blinded by their own prejudices and passions, would determinately set themselves against the truth. In this sense the words were applied by St. Paul to those who rejected his ministry; and in this sense our Lord represents them as accomplished in his hearers.]
It was this state of their minds that induced him to adopt the plan of teaching them by parables
[The people shut their eyes against plain truths; and therefore our Lord taught them in an obscure way.
But here arises a question; Was the people's blindness a reason for our Lord's teaching them by parables? or, was our Lord's teaching them by parables the intentional cause of their blindness?
Beyond a doubt, the former of these positions seems more consonant with the general character of our Lord. But the more obvious construction of his words seems rather to favour the latter sentiment.
The language of prophecy is sometimes exceeding strong; and the prophets are said to do, what they only foretell as certainly to happen; consequently, when the prophecies are quoted, they are frequently to be understood in rather a lower sense than the words at first sight appear to bear. Accordingly the prophecy as quoted by our Lord represents him as speaking to the people in parables, not on purpose to blind them, but with the lamentable prospect of their rejecting his message, and of their shutting their eyes, as if they were afraid of seeing the light, and of being converted by it.
Yet there is an objection to this solution, namely, that both St. Mark and St. Luke make our Lord speak directly an opposite language. But to this we answer, that neither of
b Acts xxviii. 25—27.
a Mark iv. 11, 12. and Luke viii. 10.
Jer. i. 10. Ezek. xliii. 3.
these evangelists expressly quotes the prophecy, as St. Matthew does; they only allude to it: and therefore may be considered rather as using the words in an accommodated sense. And indeed St. Mark's own declaration in ver. 33. that" with many such parables spake he the word unto them, as they were able to hear it," shews clearly, that what he before spake in allusion to the prophecy, must be understood in a sense that can be reconciled with the declaration itself: for otherwise there would be an absolute contradiction between his two assertions. But they perfectly accord with each other, if we interpret the former as importing, that our Lord spake to the people in parables, that they might see (sufficient to instruct them) and not perceive (the full drift of his discourses, which would make them only turn away from him in disgust) if peradventuree he might (by this cautious method of instructing them) convert and save their souls.
Thus there was in this way of teaching, something favourable, and something judicial. The people set themselves against the truth; therefore our Lord withheld his plainer instructions from them: but he did so, not with a view to increase, but rather to remove, their blindness.]
Having fixed the meaning of the text itself, we proceed, in answer to the apostles' question, to
II. State more particularly our Lord's reasons for teach
ing by parables
In the whole of his ministry our Lord was influenced by benevolence. More especially in addressing the people by parables he sought,
1. To counteract their prejudices
[They were determined to reject every thing that opposed their prejudices, or their passions, and on no account to admit the idea of a suffering Messiah. The only way therefore of bringing them to acknowledge any truth, was to present it to them in such a view that they should not discern its real scope. When they saw the bearing of any question that was put to them, they would not return an answer: but,
e Here the translation of the word μre, upon which the whole depends, is altered from lest, to if peradventure. But it occurs in a parallel passage, where it is actually so translated, and where, unless it were so rendered, there would be no sense at all. See 2 Tim. ii. 25. Indeed, if it be not so translated in St. Mark, our Lord must be understood to say, that he preached unintelligibly to them for fear. they should be converted. But surely, this is a motive which we would not willingly ascribe to him, especially when his words so easily admit of a very different interpretation.
f Matt. xxi. 23-27.
when they could see no reference to themselves, they answered readily enough : and by this means they were often made to criminate themselves before they perceived the tendency of their own acknowledgments. As David in the parable of the ewe lamb condemned with most excessive severity a conduct somewhat similar to his own, and thereby pronounced sentence against himself, when he would have denied or extenuated his guilt, if it had been charged home upon him in a more open way; so, by taking them unawares, our Lord often succeeded in confounding, and sometimes in converting, those, who would have rejected his testimony at once, if they had observed at first the full scope of his instructions.]
2. To prepare them for fuller instructions
[Our Lord was willing to impart knowledge, if the people had been capable of receiving it: but it was necessar that they who had lived in such gross darkness, should be brought gradually to the light, lest they should be overpowered by too hastly a transition to the full radiance of gospel truth. He told even his own disciples, that he had many things to say unto them; but was constrained to withhold them for the present, because of their incapacity to receive them: he thought it proper to educate them as children, that he might gradually inform their minds, and mature their judgment. And this was the intent also of all his public ministrations: he administered milk to the people as babes, that they might, when grown to full age, be nourished by the strong meat which he intended afterwards to set before them.]
3. To render them without excuse if they should reject his word
[Had his instructions been unseasonably clear and full, the people might have cast some reflection on their teacher as injudicious. But when he so condescended to their weakness," they had no cloke for their sin;" they were altogether without excuse; and it was manifest beyond a doubt, that the only reason of their rejecting him was, that "they loved darkness rather than light." The judgments that were to be brought upon them, were such as never had been experienced from the foundation of the world; this opportunity therefore of filling up the measure of their iniquities was given to the people of that generation, that the equity of the divine procedure might be more manifest in their destruction.]
s Luke vii. 43. i John xvi. 12.
h Matt. xxi. 28–32. & xxii. 41-46. k John iii. 19.
Let us LEARN from hence,
1. The folly and danger of prejudice in those who hear the gospel
[Such is the force of prejudice that it will blind the eyes, and shut the ears, and make the heart impenetrably hard. Yet how many indulge it without being at all aware of their danger! They have taken up the notion that salvation by faith is injurious to morality, and that vital godliness is enthusiasm; and will receive nothing that militates against their preconceived opinions. But let the fate of the Jews convince us of the folly and danger of such conduct: and let us seek from God that "honest and good heart," that shall embrace with readiness, and improve with care, whatever God has revealed in his word.]
2. The need of wisdom in those who minister the gospel
[Much harm has been done to the interests of religion by an unguarded declaration even of the truth itself. Men should be considered as having prejudices which may be increased by indiscretion, or undermined by a prudent exhibition of the gospel. St. Paul, though as far as any man from a want of zeal, was peculiarly attentive to this duty; and has left us instructions respecting it for the regulation of our own conduct. The end of the ministry is to convert and save the souls of men: and whatever is best adapted to that end, is most worthy of our pursuit. No one should conceal the truth through the fear of man; nor should any one be backward to put a veil upon his face, when the brightness of it would defeat the end of his ministrations. Zeal and prudence should be duty combined in those to whom the care of souls is committed; and if in this respect we immitate our Lord and his apostles, we may reasonably hope that we shall not run in vain, or labour in vain.]
1 Acts xx. 20. 1 Cor. iii. 1, 2.
m Heb. v. 12-14.
CCXXI. THE NATURE AND NECESSITY OF REGENE
John iii. 3. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily I say unto thee, except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.
AS there is an essential distinction between divine and human knowledge, so is there a very great difference in