The Parables in their Setting - Part 2
Denis Clapham, Birmingham
The reasons given for the King's speaking in parables are supplied by the inspired apostle himself, and they are seen to be connected with the series of parables which was spoken by the King soon after He had denounced the people as "an evil and adulterous generation", Matt. 12. 39. These are certainly strong words, but they were called for when the people had fully shown that they would not be loyal to Him. In fact they had largely refused the witness of John the Baptist, the King's forerunner; then they had disregarded the authentic credentials which Christ had presented to them Himself by His mighty works, added to which they had blasphemously attributed His power over demons to Beelzebub the prince of the demons, and had thus implied that He was in league with the Devil. Their state was evidently far worse than that of the men of Nineveh of old, for they had heard the preaching of One greater than Jonah without repenting, and, by their unbelief, they were hardened in their resistance to the royal will and proclamation.
It was just at this juncture in His course that the King really took up His parables, so that it is recorded: "and without a parable spake he not unto them,'* Matt. 13. 34. Nevertheless, prior to this He had used the occasional parable, although, it would seem, it was only when speaking to His own disciples, or to the disciples of the Baptist. To four of these earlier parables we shall now turn our attention in this paper, and first of all to
The Two Builders, Matt. 7. 24-27. This initial parable was spoken as the King concluded the first recorded major discourse which He gave to His disciples, Matt. 5. 1 to 7. 23. To the astonished crowd which overheard the discourse it sounded quite different from anything ever expressed by their scribes. It was the habit of those recognized teachers in Israel to quote the accepted "authorities" in support of statements they made, and the people, therefore, must have known, more or less, what to expect from them. In complete contrast, the King's sayings were with an authority peculiarly His own, and with such startling freshness that it was no wonder His words came as a shock to them.
At Sinai, long before, one generation of Israel were unable to bear the voice of the Lord their God, failed to keep His law, and forfeited the land of promise. By contrast, on this unnamed mountain, those of another generation listened to the King's decrees for all who would be true and loyal subjects in His kingdom, and were promised the earth, Matt. 5. 5. The question was, would they, having heard, put His sayings into practice? His hearers must be made to see the issues involved, so the King proceeded to show them by means of this parable what the difference was between the doers, and the non-doers.
It is important to remember that the King drew His illustrations from everyday scenes and objects which He saw around him. On this occasion, as He sat among the ridges of hills in the mountain district somewhere on the side of the lake of Galilee, He focussed attention on a sight so common that most would have passed it by. Not far off stood a house, possibly one of a number, as firm as the day in which it was completed. It was built on an outcrop of rock some way up the slope of a ravine. In order to ensure that it would never be moved, its builder had first wisely found the rock foundation, even digging down to it in places. But lower down the ravine were heaps of stones, strewn about, and with barely a trace of what once had been there. They were the telltale ruins of the foolish attempt of another house-builder. Sad to say, his efforts to build on the sandy bed of the ravine had been all to no avail, for a storm, so dreaded in those parts, had suddenly come, and with devastating effects had sent a great flood down the valley, sweeping all before it and destroying his house completely.
Said the King: "Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it," Matt. 7. 24-27.
The issues involved in hearing the King were thus plainly presented. There were only two kinds of hearers. To be a hearer, and a doer as well, would guarantee one's preservation in the day of the storm. On the other hand, to fail to heed the ICing's word would mean certain downfall and destruction when the storm came. So much seems clear. But what of the storm so graphically portrayed? It is surely significant that one third of the parable is given to describing its fierceness, and the onslaught it made. Can it be that the King was forewarning the people of a time of severe testing that one day would come? Some like to think of the common "storms of life" as being in view, and to regard the two builders as representing those whose efforts either succeed, or fail, to weather these. Such a view by way of application is reasonable, since it is inconceivable that anyone who first seeks the kingdom of God and His righteousness will be unsupported by God when adverse circumstances arise. But for our part, we believe that even at this early stage of His progress towards the throne the King was indicating that His subjects would only enter His kingdom, in that day when it would be established on earth, by means of many persecutions and trials. In particular, there would be a season of unparalleled tribulation, which later He prophesied so clearly would come, and that in those days, shortened for the elects' sake, the faithful would "keep their ground" unto the end, Matt. 24. 7-22.
In relation to the coming of the King, and the setting up of the kingdom, John the Baptist fills a double role. He is both the King's messenger, or forerunner, and the Royal Bridegroom's friend. When he first appeared in the wilderness with all the severity of the Prophet of Fire, it was for the purpose of making a way for the Lord, Matt. 3. 1-10. To think of such an austere and terrible person as being the Royal Bridegroom's friend as well, is not easy. Yet, long before that day of nuptial joy comes, in which he will have such a prominent part, he showed that he was well aware of the far happier service that he would then perform, John 3. 29.
Sometime after John had been imprisoned certain of his disciples came to Jesus to ask why it was that, while they and the Pharisees fasted so much, His disciples did not fast at all. By way of answer He spoke three short parables:
The Bridegroom, Matt. 9. 15; The New Garment, 9. 16; The New Wine, 9. 17.
The Bridegroom, Matt. 9. 15. "Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast". The peculiarly Galilean expression "sons of the bridechamber" refers to all the guests who were invited to a wedding, and in using it with reference to His disciples, the King was beautifully portraying that the call to follow Him and die, which His disciples heard, was also an invitation to feast and drink with Him at His wedding. A later parable has much more to say about the wedding-guests (Matt. 22. 1-14), but in this a tragic event which would befall the Bridegroom is foretold, as well as the sobering effect it would have on those who had responded to the invitation. Without enlarging on the details of what He must in due course fully prepare His disciples for, He predicts for the first time that the day would come when He would be violently taken away, "then shall they fast". However, before the tragedy happens, He will prophesy of His sure return, and of that coming day of continual rejoicing.
That there is a connection between this parable, and the two which immediately follow, is made clearer in translations other than the Authorized Version, which omits the conjunction "but"; cf. Newberry's margin; R.v. How important one word is will be appreciated if we allow for the fact that in reply to John's disciples, Jesus also had things to say to them which would help them to realize that to remain John's disciples would mean their irreparable and irretrievable loss.
The New Garment, The New Wine, Matt. 9. 16-17. "But no man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment, for that which is put in to fill it up taketh from the garment, and the rent is made worse. Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles brake, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved." With the coming of the Royal Bridegroom an entirely new order of things was to be inaugurated, but it could not be introduced at once because of the people's refusal to have their King to reign over them. In the first of these two similar parables the old garment is plainly threadbare, and soon to be discarded altogether; what was therefore needed was a new garment, one fit for a wedding, and not a patch for the old one. That is to say, John's disciples must have another Master, and receive from Him what would make them fit for a place in His kingdom. It is just possible that there is reference to the man without the wedding garment in the parable recorded in Matthew 22.1-14, as a final warning to any remaining disciples of John.
In the companion parable, the old wineskins, worn out by daily use, could not hold the new wine which was to be brought to the wedding. No doubt the joy of all present on that occasion would be such that in no sense will the wine be allowed to run out. The wedding-guests therefore must themselves undergo a change if they are to enter the kingdom, and enjoy the coming festal day; cf. John 3. 3-5.