<< PARABLES. >>
''All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables ;
and without a parable spake he not unto them :
" That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet,
saying, I will open my mouth in parables ; I will utter things
which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.''
—Matthew xiii. 34, 35.
THE parables form one of the most beautiful and instructive portions of the Sacred Scriptures. Whether one believes in their Divine character or not, he can hardly fail to be impressed with the lessons they teach and the beautiful form in which the lessons are communicated. It may be interesting and instructive to consider what a parable is, and why our Lord employed parables so often, when it would seem that a more explicit form of speech would have been better suited to the occasion. A clear understanding of the causes which led our Lord to use this method of communicating Divine truth will show that in this, as in all other respects, He was guided by the highest wisdom.
The Lord gives the reasons why He speaks in parables. One of them is that He may "utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world." It is also evident that Divine truth is given in the form of parables to adapt it to a peculiar state of mind. The Lord makes a distinction between His disciples and the multitude in this respect. " Unto you," He said, " it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God ; but unto them that are without, all things are done in parables: that seeing they may see, and not perceive ; and hearing they may hear, and not understand." The ground and force of this reasoning will appear more clearly when we see what a parable is and what relations it sustains to '' things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world," and to "the mystery of the kingdom of God," which it is given to the Lord's disciples to understand.
First, let us consider what a parable is. The original word means to throw or to place one thing beside another, so that they shall be parallel to each other, or correspond or answer to each other. A parable is a similitude taken from natural things to instruct us in the knowledge of spiritual things. The accuracy of the instruction depends upon the truth of the relation between nature and spirit. A complete parallelism between natural and spiritual things, in which the natural side of truth runs parallel with the spiritual, answering to it in every point, is a parable. A parable is not a fable, which is a fictitious composition employed to illustrate a natural or a moral truth ; it is not a figure of speech. There is nothing arbitrary in its structure. Spiritual forms and relations are presented in material forms ; and this is done, not merely in a general way, the natural forms, as it were, touching some parts of the spiritual. There is complete parallelism ; there is union at every point. A parable is a picture of a spiritual truth. It is a picture, done in material colors and material forms, which perfectly represents the spiritual counterpart.
To get an adequate idea of a parable we must pass beyond the words used to express it, to the forms and actions themselves. The material actions and forms constitute the parable, and not the words used to express them. Thus the parable of the Prodigal Son, or of the Ten Virgins, is a drama, in which great spiritual laws are acted before us, and presented in a form and manner adapted to our senses.
Parables are much more common and universal in their use than is generally supposed. In a true sense, the whole material universe is a parable. It is the effect of which spiritual forces are the cause, and these forces run parallel to it in every particular. The material world is cast into the mould of spiritual forms. Nature does notform itself. There is no power in the dead and passive mould—in carbon, oxygen, or in any of the primary elements of matter—to organize themselves into a plant. There must be a spiritual force acting into them and casting them into its own forms. Nature is a parable revealing the spiritual and Divine forces from which she lives. Trees and animals are special forms in the universal parable of the creation, which teach us special truths. They are letters in the great book, they are characters in the great drama, not selected and trained, but created for their parts.
The human face is a parable. The soul created it, in the first instance, in its own image, to be the stage on which its actors can represent the comedies and tragedies and daily history of its life. The soul stands behind the scenes and shifts them to express its own states. Every feature is a parable, and represents its part, and expresses the affection or thought whose form it is, more clearly than words can. All painting and sculpture are but copies of these parables which the face and the whole body are expressing. A smile " is a parable of some pleasant, gentle affection diffusing itself through the soul, as the morning light spreads itself over the mountains and throws its shining mantle over the hills. In itself it is only a little shifting of the scenery of the face, and yet how much it expresses ! The mother can tell, who has seen the first recognition and response to her affection in the smile of her first-born. The husband or the wife can tell, who has watched the face of estranged affection in doubt and fear, and has seen the cold and rigid muscles relax and the light of love run brightening over every feature.
A tear is a parable, and in its crystal sphere lie sorrows deeper than the caves of the ocean, and darker and wilder storms than ever swept in fury over its surface. What histories of disappointed hopes ! What tragedies of suffering and slain affections ! What wrestlings with adverse fortune ! What fears of coming evil ! The weariness of waiting, the despair of losing, the agony of death itself are imaged in a tear. It has also a lovelier office. The tear of penitence holds treasured in its crystal deeps a life of waywardness and wandering, of evil and sin, turning back to the Father's house. It is hardness of heart melting into submission to Divine truth ; it is sorrow brightening into joy ; it is the first drop from the unsealed fountains of the heart whose bitterness has been healed. A tear ! How small it is ! Nothing but a little water with a savor of salt in it, and yet it means more than ocean and cloud and storm. It is the parable of a fallen humanity, of a soul estranged from the Lord, of a nature which has become a discord in the Divine harmonies, its fears and its sorrows, its conflicts and its despair. And when the Lord would picture to us the peace and blessedness of heaven, He finds no more fitting way of expressing it than in the beautiful words, '' And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes."
The face is a parable in which are written all thoughts and all affections which are possible to the human soul. The whole body is a parable, but the face is the most clear and beautiful and the richest in meaning. It speaks of the innocence of childhood, of the purity and sweetness of angelhood ; and it can express in living and perfect forms every phase of action and every state of affection of a soul in its descent from heaven to hell, and in its ascent from hell to heaven. The material universe is a parable. How beautiful, how grand, how glorious, how full of meaning it is ! But all its meaning, all its beauty, all its grandeur are gathered into the human face, and are there written in finer lines and lovelier, and with larger and more delicate shades of meaning. Such are parables.
And without a parable the soul does not and cannot speak to another soul dwelling in a material body. How can I express my thought and affection ? How can I convey it to another soul? It can only be done by means of the material body and the material world. Speech is not possible in this world without the aid of material symbols. Sound is a parable ; light is a parable, and what a beautiful and glorious one it is ! The written word is only a conventional sign of a material act or form. No, the only access we have to one another in this life is by means of parables.
The Lord, therefore, only made special use of a universal law when He selected and arranged certain material things and natural actions to embody and express Divine truths in a form specially adapted to human conditions. He took some of the most beautiful objects of nature, and the most significant relations of men, and with infinite wisdom arranged them in such forms that they might be to the common speech of nature and of man as the ruby and emerald and diamond to earth and common stones ; and therefore, by way of distinction and pre-eminence, we call these forms of speech which lie so near to nature parables, though they are not exceptional methods of communicating spiritual truth in any other sense than that they are divinely excellent and perfect.
Having thus considered the nature of parables, we are better prepared to understand the Divine purpose in using them. It was to "utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.'' By the world here we are not to understand the material universe merely. It is the cosmos^—the order and harmony and resulting beauty and use of the Divine truth embodied in spiritual and in material forms. This order and beauty have their foundation in the Divine truth. Wherever you see powerful forces moving in harmony to accomplish beneficent ends, whether in the spiritual or in the material plane of existence, whether in church or state, in domestic or industrial life, or in the activities of nature, creating beauty for the soul or food and clothing for the body, there you see a parable teaching the truths of the Divine wisdom, and revealing the secrets of the Divine love which He at the foundation of all created intelligences and forms. It is to reveal these secrets, to admit man more fully and interiorly into the purposes of His love and the methods of His wisdom, that the Lord opened His mouth in parables.
This is a purpose the Lord has always at heart, an end for which He is always working. It is to let man into His secrets, to take him to His infinite heart, to give Himself to His children, to share His blessings with them, to teach them, to lead them,^to live for them, and, if need be, to die for them. The Lord is love itself, and He wants companionship ; He desires to tell us His secrets ; He longs to unbosom Himself to us, and to show us the hidden and most lovely forms of His wisdom ; and He adapts His speech to our capacities and to our wants. He opens His mouth in parables.
To His disciples it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom. A disciple of the Lord is a learner of His truth. So far as we become disciples of spiritual truth, we are introduced into the secrets and understand the mysteries of the Lord's kingdom. As we learn and live we pass within the veil of nature and see the truth, and become quickened with the love, of which the natural form is the parable and expression.
But to the multitude who stand without, the Lord speaks in parables, that, seeing, they may not perceive. Why should He do this when it is His purpose and the constant effort of His love and wisdom to reveal Himself to men in forms as interior and as full as possible ? Because He desires to have us take up into our affections, and appropriate to our lives, and thus make a part of ourselves, the goodness and truth He gives us. He does not desire to make machines of us, mere automatons, to grind out eifects as the mill grinds corn. He does not desire to lift us up into a light that would blind us, and to carry us along struggling against forces which would destroy us. He desires the free companionship of love, and not an enforced, unwilling presence. Besides, He knows how much we can bear, and how high we can ascend and live and feel at home, and remain, and He never seeks to raise us above that state by any force. He guards our freedom as the essential human principle in us, whose loss would be the defeat of His purpose in creating us.
The Lord knows that there would be no use, but great harm, in raising us into a state in which we could not be kept. In that case the good and truth would be profaned,— that is, they would become mixed with evils and falses. By the good received man would be drawn towards heaven, and by the evil he would become distracted,— drawn asunder. He could not live in either heaven or hell. He would be like a fish in which lungs had been formed to breathe the air, but whose organism and nature in other respects were adapted to the water. If it should return to the water, it would be suffocated ; if it remained on the land, it could not obtain its food, or enter into any of its delights.
The Lord seeks to make everything He creates homogeneous throughout its whole nature, and to give to all its faculties unity of form and harmony of action. To man He has given capacities to rise through all grades of being, from the lowest to the highest. All His providences are arranged to raise man to the highest, and give him the best. But in doing this the Lord seeks to elevate man's whole nature, not to rend and destroy it. He does not, therefore, seek to convert one faculty unless He sees that He can convert them all. He does not seek to raise either the understanding or the affections into a state higher than that which the whole nature can attain, and in which it can permanently remain, while man acts in perfect freedom. For this reason the Lord adapts His truth to man's state, giving it in the form of parables to the multitude, and speaking more plainly to those who can receive higher truth, but always with the purpose of revealing Himself to man, and raising him up to as high a state as possible, and of uttering '' things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world."
When truth is given in a plain, didactic, and positive manner, we must accept or reject it. A square issue is made, and there is no way of evading it. Not to accept is to reject ; and when decidedly rejected we are not likely to give it further thought. The Lord, therefore, presents His Divine truth, as far as possible, in familiar forms. He adapts it to man's low and weak state. He does not force the issue upon us, but seeks to prepare us for it, and to lead us up to it by orderly steps. He veils it, and holds it before us, and embodies it in forms that are attractive to us, that appeal to something in our nature. He bridges the gulf between us and Himself with natural truths, and makes it pleasant with human fancies, that He may win us to act in freedom. He makes the steps short and not too difficult, that we may not be discouraged and sink down in despair. Truth is the way : He has built it with histories and stirring natural events, which attract even the sensuous nature of childhood ; He has beautified it with symbol and parable, and made it charming with song, that every principle in man's nature, even the sensuous, may be appealed to.
The very defects which the dry and severely rational and logical mind thinks it detects in the Sacred Scriptures, their simplicity, their pure naturalness in some parts and wild fancy in others, are among the most beautiful exhibitions of the Divine tenderness and loving consideration for man in his lowest states. The Lord brings Divine and heavenly truth down into the lowest forms, and conceals its blinding splendors by the shadows of earth, tinting them with heavenly beauty, to gain recognition and awaken curiosity and to secure a lodgment for them in the memory, that He may, when time and occasion and changing state permit, give more light and reveal Himself and the grand possibilities of the soul in clearer and higher forms.
Truth in the form of a parable is peculiarly adapted to all the wants and conditions of the natural mind, and to the Lord's purpose of regenerating it. It leaves the mind in freedom. We see the truth, and we do not see it. In a purely natural state represented by the "multitude" we may see nothing but the letter, the casket which contains the jewels. But that is so beautiful that we preserve it for itself. The child and the simpleminded can admire a parable as a pretty picture alone. They do not know that there are the most precious jewels within. They do not care to know. They cannot see them, and if the casket were opened and the diamonds and rubies were put into their hands, they would throw them away ; they would be nothing but coarse pebbles to them, because their intrinsic beauty and worth can be seen only in heavenly light and by the eye opened to spiritual vision. But they are there, and when the Lord can cure our natural blindness, we can discover their heavenly value.
We can see something in a parable, all that we have eyes to see. We think we see all the meaning it has. Therefore we reject nothing. A perverted rationality cannot argue against a parable. We might as well argue against the glories of an evening cloud or the loveliness of a flower-garden. Our self-derived intelligence is not aroused. A parable does not ordinarily oflend us. We can turn it this way and that, place it in all lights and study it as a picture. It is a picture, and even the multitude can see enough of meaning and beauty to make it worth possession. They see the outward form, even if they do not perceive the inward meaning. They hear the natural sound, though they do not catch the undertone of heavenly harmony. But by these natural means they may be led into a spiritual state in which they can see the other side of the parable, which the natural represents.
And this is what the Lord designs to eflect by these natural means. He does not carry us ; He leads us.He gives us power and then encourages us to use it. He does not force the Hght upon us, but helps us to grow up to it, sharpens our sight to see it. A parable is Divine truth in natural forms. The natural image is of such a nature and so connected with spiritual and Divine truth that there is no limit to its meaning. While it contracts to the capacity of the smallest minds, it enlarges to the dimensions of the greatest finite intelligence. It does this in whatever way we view it, whether as a picture of one state or of many ; whether we regard it as a whole or in its particulars. Every fact has its significance and an orderly relation to all the other parts. You cannot take anything away from one of our Lord's parables without marring its proportions or dimming its meaning.
As parables are the natural expression of ''things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world," their beauty, fitness, and precision of meaning increase as we pass within, and rise to the spirit to which they correspond. They are like the bud which encloses within it a beautiful blossom, and within that delicious fruit. Infinite things lie enfolded within them, which we shall continue to discover as our eyes are opened. And the truth we see will be the form of some good which we shall enjoy as our affections become purified and enlarged. Thus the letter of the parable will undergo a constant transformation, more heavenly truths blossoming out of it, and more precious fruits ripening in it. Spiritual mysteries will be revealed, and the secret purposes of the Divine love and the secret methods of the Divine wisdom will be brought to light, and by means of them man will be brought nearer to the Lord. Every parable is a ladder like that which Jacob saw. Its foot rests upon the earth, its top reaches unto heaven, and on its bright rounds the angels of Divine truth ascend and descend to man, to instruct and bless him. The whole Bible is such a parable, every particular of which is given to embody and shadow forth some quality of the Divine love and some form of the Divine wisdom. Its histories, though records of deeds actually done by men, are parables shadowing forth the infinite mysteries of the Divine nature. Its plain precepts, its statutes and commandments, its sublime and lovely songs, its wild and glorious prophetic visions, and even its dry genealogies, are parables, the vesture of many colors clothing the splendors of Divine truth, adapting it to human conditions, and revealing to man in every state all the truth he can receive and appropriate. It is a law of the Divine order, founded in the nature of man and the Lord, that without a parable He does not and cannot speak unto us.
Author: Chauncey Giles, From Progress in Spiritual Knowledge, 1895