And he said to them, To you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but to them that are without…
As for the multitude, if you strain Christ's language respecting them, you might say they were punished for their blindness by His making dark to them things which He made clear to others. This has been said. You have heard of judicial blindness — blindness, that is to say, inflicted by God as the punishment of unbelief or other sin. But if this was the case, why did He speak to them at all? Did He wish only a dozen men, or a few dozens, to understand what He said? If then it was not to hide His meaning from the multitude that Christ taught them in parables, how do you account for His choosing to teach them in that way? To answer this question we have to consider for a moment —
I. WHAT A PARABLE IS. Now there is one thing certain as to these stories, that whatever might be His intention in using them, they do clear up things wonderfully. It would have taken a long discourse on true piety to show the distinction between it and false piety, which is shown in the Publican and the Pharisee; and what long discourse would have shown it so well? Remember this also, in regard to parables like Christ's — they keep close to reality, they reproduce nature and life. Now if we take all this into consideration as to the nature of parables, it is possible, I think, to account for Christ's speaking to the multitude in parables, and parables alone. In the first place, possibly there were what we may call considerations of prudence and policy in favour of this way of teaching. Look at the whole set of parables in this chapter; they all relate to the kingdom of God; and one thing they all more or less distinctly intimate, and it is that the establishment of that kingdom must be a work of time. It is like a sower who goes forth to sow; it is like the tares and the wheat which must grow up together until the harvest. As all these parables here suggest to us, time was needed for truth to prevail against error. Direct attack upon it was useless. Christ had tried that and found it unprofitable. And here the parables came in to serve the purpose. They did not assail error or assert truth controversially. Everyone could take from them and make of them what he pleased. But there was one thing certain with regard to them, and it was that they were certain to be remembered. They were sure to pass from mouth to mouth, and travel where doctrine however clear, or precept however just, would not reach. The meaning in them now open to the few would remain, and by and by might be perceived by the many. Time would ripen them for the purpose of instructing the multitude as well as the disciples. And this was their special virtue, that while they were thus fitted to preserve truth from being forgotten, they were above all fitted to preserve truth from being corrupted. Those whose minds were filled with the Pharisees' ideas of religion could hardly help misunderstanding and misrepresenting the doctrinal sayings of Jesus. But it is impossible to corrupt, or sophisticate, or distort the story of the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan. A parable cannot be qualified like a saying or a body of doctrine. It is a bit of fact, and cannot be qualified by words. It keeps its meaning pure in spite of every effort to corrupt it. It is of kin with nature, which, whatever you may say of it or of any part of it, remains nature still, and is the truth. And thus it was for one thing Christ spoke to the multitude in parables. His purpose was to teach them truth, but their minds being filled with error, they had to unlearn that first. He spoke in parables, knowing that parables would last, and that while they lasted and were working their work, they would not, because they could not, be corrupted. But the great thing was that which distinguishes parables from other figures of speech — that they keep close to reality, to nature, and to life. It was the special vice of the religion of the multitude in Christ's day, that it was wholly artificial, all sacrifice and no mercy. Their teachers taught them for doctrine the commandments of men, the thousand and one arbitrary rules about eating and drinking, about fasts and feasts, about offerings, about days, about intercourse with Gentiles, and touching the dead. The scope of Christ's teaching was exactly the opposite of this. He was for mercy, and not sacrifice; for righteousness, and not mint and anise and cumin. It suited His doctrine, therefore, to be taught in parables. The world itself, if your doctrine is mercy, is one great parable ready for your use. Reality of any kind is truth, and all truth, from the lowest to the highest, is one; so that there are books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. The truth of things, begin with it where you will, if you follow it out will lead you up to God. You can make birds and beasts, and virtues and vices talk what you please; but you cannot, if you go to nature and human life find a parable to fit a lie. Christ chose that form of teaching which brought men face to face with nature and human life, because the men He had to teach, in the matter of their religion had departed as far as was possible from the truth of things, and had lost themselves in sayings and commandments and traditions, questions and strifes of words. He put truth into a form in which it could not perish or be corrupted; He turned his hearers' minds in the direction in which they could soonest unlearn their errors and be prepared to receive His truth.
II. Now, consider THE DIFFERENT EFFECT OF HIS PARABLES UPON THE MULTITUDE AND THE DISCIPLES. As for the multitude, they had first to begin and unlearn everything they believed, before they could perceive the truth which His parables contained. Before anything in this particular set of parables here as to the kingdom of God could reach their minds, they had to unlearn all that they had learned from their teachers as to the kingdom of God being a Jewish commonwealth. The sower going forth to sow, the tares and the wheat growing up together until the harvest, the grain of mustard seed, the leaven hid in meal, the net dropped into the sea — what had these to tell them of their ideal Jewish commonwealth? They would find no meaning in these, as far as that kingdom of heaven was concerned. This, to be sure, was not to be the final effect of Christ's parables, even upon the multitude. From being brought into this school of nature and life some of them at least would begin to feel its influence in turning them away from strifes of words about rites and ceremonies. Contact with reality could scarcely fail in many cases to engender suspicion, and then distrust, of all that was fictitious; and so in the decline of error truth would have its day. But, while, in course of time this might be the effect of the parables upon the multitude, the immediate effect, no doubt, was to confuse and darken their minds. Turn, on the ether hand, to the disciples. They had, at least in part, unlearned the false. They had begun to appreciate the true. To the minds of the disciples, alive already to the value of righteousness and the worthlessness of ceremonial sanctity, how rich in instruction and in comfort the story of the Prodigal Son! — how true and how glorious its representation of the great Father as one who is never so happy as when He has to welcome back to the home of eternal goodness and eternal blessedness the erring and miserable of His children! To their minds again how full of meaning and of comfort, the parable of the Lost Sheep! — the suggestion of the Eternal Righteousness engrossed, to the neglect of suns and solar systems, in the recovery of one soul which has strayed into the damnation of evil. Think that these disciples, like the multitude, were Jews, and held, till Christ began to teach, the religious notions of the multitude. Then consider all the certainty and breadth and fulness which these parables of their Master could not but give to their new faith, — faith in God as good, in goodness as man's true life, in the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Consider under what a different aspect the world now presented itself to their minds. He said to His disciples in reference to these parables, "Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear;" and also when he added, "For verily I say unto you, that many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them, and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them." I conclude with two remarks, the first of which is, that not one religion, but every religion, that of Christ included is apt, in the common mind, to degenerate into ceremonialism and strifes of words. And, in that case, what professes to be light becomes the grossest of darkness. It was not for an age, therefore, but for all time, that Christ spoke in parables to the multitude. These parables of His, bringing us into contact with nature and human life, furnish us with a resource of inestimable value against the prevalence of irreligion, error, infidelity, not only in the world, but in the church. Thus the parables are the salt of Christianity to preserve it from corruption and extinction; they recall us from all this barren or disgraceful war of words to the sterling virtue of the Good Samaritan, and the substantial goodness of the Prodigal's Father. Again, I remark, the blessedness of Christian belief is that it is a vision of the universe as undivided. What did the disciples, who were blessed in their seeing, see? When it was given to them, as it was not given to the multitude, to understand these parables, what did they hear and comprehend? It was not that their own souls were to be saved; it was not that the Jews were to be converted, or the Gentiles to be visited by Christian missionaries. It was, that the kingdom of God, the Father and Saviour of all men, is eternal; that evil here and every. where is temporary, and good alone is forever and ever.
(J. Service, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: