The Parables of Our Lord
by William Arnot
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Transcriber's note Printer errors: A number of printer errors and some punctuation errors have been corrected, but inconsistent hyphenation has been left as in the original. Details of the printer errors can be found in the HTML version of this eBook. Greek: This book contains a number of Greek words and phrases. These have been transliterated. To see the correct rendering, use the UTF-8 text or HTML version of this eBook.





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I. The Sower, 43

II. The Tares, 75

III. The Mustard Seed, 101

IV. The Leaven, 111

V. The Hidden Treasure, 128

VI. The Pearl, 144

VII. The Draw-Net, 160

VIII. The Unmerciful Servant, 185

IX. The Vineyard Labourers, 204

X. The Two Sons, 223

XI. The Wicked Husbandmen, 237

XII. The Royal Marriage Feast, 254

XIII. The Ten Virgins, 282

XIV. The Entrusted Talents, 299

XV. The Seed Growing Secretly, 312

XVI. The Two Debtors, 326

XVII. The Good Samaritan, 341

XVIII. The Friend at Midnight, 357

XIX. The Rich Fool, 369

XX. The Barren Fig-Tree, 378

XXI. The Excuses, 387

XXII. The Lost Sheep, 402

XXIII. The Lost Coin, 422

XXIV. The Prodigal Son, 427

XXV. The Prudent Steward, 451

XXVI. The Rich Man and Lazarus, 465

XXVII. Unprofitable Servants, 483

XXVIII. The Importunate Widow, 497

XXIX. The Pharisee and the Publican, 509

XXX. The Servants and the Pounds, 520


We have been accustomed to regard with affectionate veneration the life-work of the Reformers, and the theology of the Reformation. Of a later date, and in our own vernacular, we have inherited from the Puritans an indigenous theology, great in quantity and precious in kind,—a legacy that has enriched our age more, perhaps, than the age is altogether willing to acknowledge. At various periods from the time of the Puritans to the present, our stock of sacred literature has received additions of incalculable value. So vast and varied have our stores become at length, that an investigator of the present day can scarcely expect to find a neglected spot where he may enjoy the luxury of cultivating virgin soil: so ably, moreover, have our predecessors fulfilled their tasks, that a modern inquirer, obliged to deal with familiar themes, cannot console himself with the expectation of dealing with them to better purpose. It does not follow, however, that a contribution to the literature of theology is useless, because it neither touches a new theme, nor treats an old more ably.

The literature of one century, whether sacred or common, will not, when served up in the lump, satisfy the craving and sustain the life of another. The nineteenth century must produce its own literature, as it raises its own corn, and fabricates its own garments. The intellectual and spiritual treasures of the past should indeed be reverently preserved and used; but they should be used as seed. Instead of indolently living on the stores which our fathers left, we should cast them into the ground, and get the product fresh every season—old, and yet ever new. The intellectual and spiritual life of an age will wither, if it has nothing wherewith to sustain itself, but the food which grew in an earlier era; it must live on the fruits that grow in its own time, and under its own eye.

Nor will a servile imitation of the ancient masters suffice. A mere reproduction, for example, of the Puritan theology would not be suitable in our day; while the truth, which constitutes its essence, remains the same, it must be cast in the moulds of modern thought, and tinged with the hues of modern experience.

Engineers surveying for a railway lay down the line level, or as nearly level as the configuration of the surface will permit; but an engineer's level is not a straight line; it is the segment of a circle,—that circle being the circumference of the globe. The line which practically constitutes a level bends downwards continually as it goes forward, following the form of the earth, and at every point being at right angles to the radius. If it were produced in an absolutely straight line, it would, in the course of a few miles, be high and dry above the surface of the earth, and entirely useless for the practical purposes of life. Such would sacred literature become if in blind admiration of the fathers, the children should simply use the old, and not produce the new. As we advance along the course of time, we are, as it were, tracing a circle; and he who would be of use in his generation, must bend his speculations to the time, and let them touch society on the level at every point in the progress of the race. To throw a new contribution into the goodly store does not, therefore, imply a judgment on the part of the writer that the modern theology is better than the ancient. We must make our own: it concerns us and our children that what we make be in substance drawn from the word of God; and in form, suited to the circumstances of the age.

Still further, the accumulations of the past should be used by those who inherit them, as a basis on which to build. It is the business of each generation to lay another course on the wall, and so leave the structure loftier than they found it. The Bible, like the world, is inexhaustible; in either department hosts of successive investigators have plied their tasks from the beginning, and yet there is room.

Some observations are here submitted, more or less strictly introductory to a treatise on a specific branch of Scriptural exegesis—the Parables of Our Lord.


As the husbandman's first care is neither the fruit nor the tree which bears it, but the soil in which the tree must grow: so an expositor, whose ultimate aim is to explain and enforce the parables of Jesus, should mark well at the outset the fundamental analogies which pervade the works of God, and constitute the basis of all figurative language, whether in human teaching or divine.

The Maker and Ruler of the universe pursues an object, and works on a plan. His purpose is one, and he sees the end from the beginning: the variations, infinite in number, and vast in individual extent, which emerge in the details of his administration, are specific accommodations of means to ends.

The material and moral departments of the divine government are, like body and soul of a human being, widely diverse from each other; but one Master administers both with a view to a common end. The two departments are different in kind, and therefore the laws which regulate the one cannot be the same as the laws which regulate the other; but in both one designer operates towards one design, and therefore the laws which regulate the one must be like the laws which regulate the other. From the duality of creation, there cannot be identity between the physical and moral laws; but from the unity of the Creator there must be similarity.

Nor is it only between the two great departments of the divine government generically distinguished, that analogies may spring: within either department, analogies innumerable may be found between one species and another, and even between individuals of the same species. Between two parts of the material world, or two portions of human history, or two processes of mental effort, analogies may be traced, as well as between the evolutions of matter and the laws of mind.

It is not strictly correct to speak of the similitudes which we have been accustomed to admire in literature, as "creations of genius;" the utmost that is competent to genius is to observe and exhibit the similitudes as they lie in nature. An observing eye, a suggestive mind, and a loving heart constitute all the necessary apparatus; with these faculties in exercise, let any one stalk abroad upon the earth among his fellows, and analogies will spring spontaneously around him, as manifold and as beautiful as the flowers that by daylight look up from the earth, or the stars that in the evening reciprocate from heaven the gentle salutation.

Analogy occupies the whole interval between absolute identity on the one hand, and complete dissimilarity on the other. You would not say there is an analogy between two coins of the same metal, struck successively from the same die; for all practical purposes they are identical. Although the two objects are thoroughly distinct, as all their sensible qualities are the same, we are accustomed to speak of them not as similar but the same. In order that a comparison may be effective either for ornament or for use, there must be, between the two acts or objects, a similarity in some points, and a dissimilarity in others. The comparison for moral or aesthetic purposes is like an algebraic equation in mathematical science; if the two sides are in all their features the same, or in all their features different, you may manipulate the signs till the sun go down, but you will obtain no useful result: it is only when they are in some of their terms the same and in some different, that you can bring fruit from their union.

We stand here on the brink of a great deep. For wise ends the system of nature has been constructed upon a line intermediate between the extremes of sameness and diversity. If the measure of difference between classes and individuals had been much greater or much smaller than it is, the accumulation of knowledge would have been extremely difficult, or altogether impossible. It is by the combination of similarity and dissimilarity among sensible objects that science from its lowest to its highest measures becomes possible. If all animals, or all plants had been in their sensible qualities precisely the same, there would have been of animals or vegetables only one class: we could have had no knowledge regarding them, except as individuals: our knowledge would at this day have been less than that of savages. Again, if all animals or all plants had been in their sensible qualities wholly dissimilar—all from each, and each from all, it would have been impossible to frame classes; our knowledge, as on the opposite supposition, would have been limited to our observation of individuals. In either case Zoology or Botany would have been impossible. Man, endowed with intelligence, could not, in such a world, have found exercise for his faculties. It would have been like a seeing eye without a shining light. The power would have lain dormant for want of a suitable object. Ask the Botanist, the Naturalist, the Chemist—ask the votary of any science, what makes accumulated knowledge possible; he will tell you, it is the similarity which enables him to classify, accompanied by the diversity which enables him to distinguish. Wanting these two qualities in balanced union there could be no analogy; and wanting analogy, man could not be capable of occupying the place which has been assigned to him in creation.[1]

[1] But in order to employ analogy with effect more is needful than to make sure that the two objects or acts compared are similar without being identical: the design for which a comparison is made enters as an essential element, and decisively determines its value. Between two given objects an analogy may exist, good for one purpose but worthless for another. Given two balls, spherical in form and equal in size, the one of wood and the other of iron; and let the question be, Do these two objects bear any analogy to each other, real in itself and capable of being usefully employed? The question cannot yet be answered: we must first ascertain for what purpose the comparison is instituted. The two balls are like each other in form, but unlike in material; whether is it in respect of their form or their material that you propose to compare them? If one of them rolls along a gently inclined plane, you may safely infer that the other, when placed in the same position, will follow the same course; for although different in other features they are similar in form. But you cannot infer that because one floats when thrown into the water the other will float too, for in respect to specific gravity there is no similarity between them. Again, let two pieces of wood, cut from the same tree, be brought together, the one a cube, the other a sphere; you may safely conclude, if one swim in water that the other will swim too, because though of diverse forms they are of the same specific gravity; but you cannot conclude, if the one roll on an inclined plane, that the other will roll also, because though of the same specific gravity they are diverse forms. Two objects may be compared for the purpose of inferential analogy, although in nine of their qualities they are wholly dissimilar, if they resemble each other in one, and that the quality with respect to which the comparison is instituted. Again, although two objects be similar in nine of their properties, and dissimilar only in one, no useful analogy can be instituted between them if the object for which the comparison is made save with respect to the one point in which they are dissimilar. An acquaintance with such simple rudiments would go far to correct blunders both in the construction and the exposition of analogies.

In suggesting probabilities and throwing out lines of inquiry, analogy is of unspeakable value in every branch of science; in sacred apologetics its specific use is to destroy the force of objections which may be plausibly urged against facts or doctrines otherwise established; but it is as an instrument for explaining, illustrating, fixing, and impressing moral and spiritual truth that we are mainly concerned with it here.

God's word is as full of analogies as his works. The histories, offerings, and prophecies of the Old Testament are figures of better things which have been brought to light by the gospel. The lessons of the Lord and his apostles teem with types. Almost every doctrine is given in duplicate: the spirit is provided with a body; a body clothes the spirit. Every fruitful vine has a strong elm to which it clings; every strong elm supports a fruitful vine.

One important use of analogy in moral teaching is to fix the lesson on the imagination and the memory, as you might moor a boat to a tree on the river's brink to prevent it from gliding down during the night with the stream. A just analogy suggested at the moment serves to prevent the more ethereal spiritual conception from sliding out of its place.

In practical morals analogy is employed to surprise and so overcome an adverse will, rather than merely to help a feeble understanding. In this department most of the Lord's parables lie. When a man is hardened by indulgence in his own sin, so that he cannot perceive the truth which condemns it, the lesson which would have been kept out, if it had approached in a straight line before his face, may be brought home effectually by a circuitous route in the form of a parable. When the conscience stands on its guard against conviction you may sometimes turn the flank of its defences unperceived, and make the culprit a captive ere he is aware. The Pharisees were frequently outwitted in this manner. With complacent self-righteousness they would stand on the outside of the crowd, and, from motives of curiosity, listen to the prophet of Nazareth as he told his stories to the people, until at a sudden turn they perceived that the graphic parable which pleased them so well, was the drawing of the bow that plunged the arrow deep in their own hearts.

A man may be so situated that though his life is in imminent danger, he cannot perceive the danger, and consequently makes no effort to escape. Further, his mind may be so prejudiced that he still counts the beam on which he stands secure, although a neighbour has faithfully given warning that it is about to fall; it may be that because he stands on it he cannot see its frailty. Let some friend who knows his danger, but wishes him well, approach the spot and hold a mirror in such a position that the infatuated man shall see reflected in it the under and ailing side of the beam that lies between him and the abyss. The work is done: the object is gained: the confident fool, made wise at length, leaps for life upon the solid ground.

Although the faculty of perceiving and understanding analogies is inherent in humanity, and consequently co-extensive with the race, it is developed in a higher degree in some persons and in some communities than in others. The common opinion, that the inhabitants of mountainous countries possess this faculty in a higher measure than the inhabitants of the plains, seems to be sustained by facts. Within the borders of our own island it is quite certain that the Scotch and the Welsh employ figures more readily and relish them more intensely than the English. How far the difference may be directly due to the physical configuration of the country cannot perhaps be accurately ascertained; but doubtless the mountains contribute indirectly to the result, by rendering access more difficult, and so producing a greater measure of isolation and simplicity.

It is an acknowledged and well-known fact, moreover, that the inhabitants of eastern countries are more prone to employ figurative language than the peoples of western Europe; but it is difficult to determine how far this characteristic is due to the meteorological and geographical features of the continent, and how far to hereditary peculiarities of race.

Looking merely to the physical features of their country, you might expect that the inhabitants of Palestine would possess in a high degree the faculty of suggesting and appreciating analogical conceptions; the peculiar history and jurisprudence of the people must have tended powerfully in the same direction. Accordingly, as might have been expected from the circumstances of the nation, it appears in point of fact on the whole face of the Scriptures, that as the institutes of the commonwealth were symbolical, the language of the people was figurative. They were at home in metaphor. It was their vernacular. The sudden and bold adoption of physical forms in order to convey spiritual conceptions, did not surprise—did not puzzle them. "Ye are the salt of the earth," "Wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together," fell upon their ears, not as a foreign dialect, but as the accents of their native tongue.

It might easily be shown that no other characteristic connected with the form of the Scriptures could have done so much to facilitate their diffusion in all climes, and in all ages, as the analogical mould in which a large proportion of their conceptions is cast; but this is scarcely denied by any, and is easily comprehended by all. In another point of view, less obvious, and not so frequently noticed, the prevalence in the Scriptures of analogical forms, attaching spiritual doctrines to natural objects and historic facts, has served a good purpose in the evidences and exposition of revealed religion. The more abstract terms of a language are not so distinctly apprehended as the more concrete, and in the course of ages are more liable to change. The habit, universal among the writers of the Scriptures from the most ancient to the latest, of making abstract moral conceptions fast to pillars of natural objects and current facts, has contributed much to fix the doctrines like fossils for all time, and so to diminish the area of controversy. All the more steadily and safely has revealed truth come down from the earliest time to the present day, that it has in every part of its course run on two distinct but parallel tracks.


The parable is one of the many forms in which the innate analogy between the material and the moral may be, and has been practically applied.[2] The difficulty of constructing a definition which should include every similitude that belongs to this class, and exclude all others, has been well appreciated by expositors and frankly confessed. The parables of the New Testament, after critics have done their utmost to generalize and classify, must in the end be accounted sui generis, and treated apart from all others. The etymology of the name affords us no help, for it is applied without discrimination to widely diverse forms of comparison; it indicates the juxtaposition of two thoughts or things, with the view of exhibiting and employing the analogy which may be found to subsist between them; but several other terms convey precisely the same meaning, and therefore it cannot supply us with the distinguishing characteristic of a class. As far as I have been able to observe, hardly anything has been gained at this point by the application of logical processes. The distinctions which have been successfully made are precisely those which are sufficiently obvious without a critical apparatus; and in regard to those comparisons which bear the closest affinity to the parable, and in which, on account of the rainbow-like blending of the boundaries, logical definitions are most needed, logical definitions have most signally failed. Scholars have, for example, successfully distinguished parables from myths and fables; but this is laboriously to erect a fence between two flocks that in their nature manifest no tendency to intermingle; whereas, from some other forms of analogy, such as the allegory, the parable cannot be separated by a definition expressed in general terms, which shall be at once universally applicable and universally understood.

[2] Christ made it his business to speak in parables; and, indeed, one may say, the whole visible world is only a parable of the invisible world. The parable is not only something intermediate between history and doctrine; it is both history and doctrine—at once historical doctrine and doctrinal history. Hence its enchaining, ever fresher, and younger charm. Yes, parable is nature's own language in the human heart; hence its universal intelligibility, its, so to speak, permanent sweet scent, its healing balsam, its mighty power to win one to come again and again to hear. In short, the parable is the voice of the people, and hence also the voice of God.—Die Gleichniss-reden Jesu Christi, von Fred. Arndt, vol. i. 2.

Into all parables human motives and actions go as constituents, and in most of them the processes of nature are also interwoven. The element of human action is generally introduced in a historic form, as "a certain man had two sons;" but some of the similitudes of Scripture, which by general consent are reckoned parables, lack this feature, as for example, the Lost Sheep.[3] "What man of you, having an hundred sheep?" For my own part, while there are some that, on the one hand, I can with confidence include, and some that, on the other, I must with equal confidence keep out, I see not a few lying ambiguous on the border. My judgment inclines to what seems a medium between two extremes,—between the decision of some German philosophical expositors who are too critical, and the decision of some English practical preachers who are not critical enough. I would fain eschew, on the one hand, the laborious trifling by which it is proved that the parable of the Sower is not a parable; and, on the other hand, the unfortunate facility which admits into the number almost all similitudes indiscriminately. I shall adopt the list of Dr. Trench,[4] thirty in number, as being on the whole a fair and convenient medium; although I could not undertake to demonstrate that these only, and these all possess the qualities which in his judgment go to constitute a parable. Some that are included can scarcely be distinguished by logical definitions from some that are excluded; but so far am I from considering this a defect, that I deem it a necessary result of the impalpable infinitesimal graduation by which the fully-formed parable glides down into the brief detached metaphorical aphorism, in the words of the Lord Jesus during the period of his ministry.

[3] It is not, however, by the universal consent of critics that even this is admitted as a genuine parable. Schultze boldly excludes it; but he excludes also all the group in Matt. xiii. except the Tares. By one arbitrary rule after another, he cuts down the whole number of our Lord's parables to eleven.—A. H. A. Schultze, de parabolarum J. C. indole poetica com. Men have good cause to suspect the accuracy of their artificial rules, when the application of them works such havoc. Better that we should have no critical rules, than adopt such as separate on superficial literal grounds, things that the judgment of the Church and the common sense of men have in all ages joined together as substantially of the same class.

[4] Notes on the Parables.

Certain figurative lessons, differing from the parable on the one hand, and the allegory on the other, may be found scattered up and down both in the Scriptures and in secular literature, whose distinguishing characteristic is, that they are not spoken but enacted, and which I am disposed to regard as more nearly allied than any other to the parables of our Lord.

They seem to constitute a species of simple primitive germinal drama. Some examples occur in the history of the Hebrew monarchy before the period of the captivity. At Elisha's request, Joash, King of Israel, shot arrows from a bow, in token of the victory which he should obtain over the Syrians. Left without instructions as to the frequency with which the operation should be repeated, the king shot three arrows successively into the ground, and paused. Thereupon the prophet, interpreting the symbol, declared that the subjugation of the Syrians would not be complete (2 Kings xiii.) Another specimen may be observed, shining through the history in the reign of Jehoshaphat, when a prophet named Chenaanah made a pair of iron horns, and flattered the King of Israel by the symbol that he would push the Syrians till he should consume them (2 Chron. xvii. 10). About the time of the captivity, and in the hands of Ezekiel, this species of parable appears with great distinctness of outline, and considerable fulness of detail. When a frivolous people would not take warning of their danger, the prophet, godly and grave, took a broad flat tile, and sketched on it the outline of a besieged city, and lay on his left side, silently contemplating the symbol of his country's fate (chap. iv.) The strange act of the revered man attracted many eyes, and stirred new questionings in many hearts. Equally graphic is the representation of Israel's captivity, in the dramatic parable recorded in chap. xii., where the prophet personally enacts the melancholy process of packing his goods, and escaping as an exile.

From the subsequent history, we learn that this significant act arrested attention; the people gazed in wonder on the sign, and anxiously inquired into its meaning.

It is eminently worthy of notice that the lavish and bold imagery of Ezekiel effectually served the immediate purpose for which it was employed; it attracted the people's regard, explained the prophecy to their understandings, and fixed the lessons in their memories. It is true, indeed, that they did not repent; but this only shows that parables, even when dictated by the Spirit, have not inherent power to convert; even God's word may, through the hearer's sin, remain a dead letter in his hand. It emerges incidentally in the history that the preaching of Ezekiel was eminently popular; crowds came out to hear and see.

The ultimate spiritual success lies in other hands; but in as far as the instrument is concerned, it is proved, from the experience of this ancient prophet, that the mastery of analogies draws the people round the preacher's feet, and brings his lessons into contact with their minds and hearts.

In modern times, much argument is employed to prove that the drama may be pure in itself, and effectual as a moral educator,—argument which, however excellent it may be in theory, has hitherto proved impotent in fact. But from the beginning it was not so; Ezekiel was a dramatist; he acted his prophecies and his preachings on a stage. The warnings were in this form clearly articulated, and forcefully driven home; if they failed to produce the ultimate result of repentance, the obstacle lay not in the feebleness of the instrument, but in the wilful hardness of the subject whereon the instrument was plied. Dramatic representation in the simplicity of its infancy was a golden vessel of the sanctuary, employed in the service of God; long ago it was carried away into Babylon, and profanely used as a wine cup in the orgies of idols. Whether it shall ever be wrenched from the enemy, purified, and restored to the service of the temple, I know not.

In the general history of the world, the most interesting parable of this class that occurs to my memory is one attributed to a North American Indian in conversation with a Christian missionary. The red man had previously been well instructed in the Scriptures, understood the way of salvation, and enjoyed peace with God. Desiring to explain to his teacher the turning point of his spiritual experience, he had recourse, in accordance, perhaps, with the instincts and habits of his tribe, to the language of dramatic symbols rather than to the language of articulate words. Having gathered a quantity of dry withered tree leaves, he spread them in a thin layer, and in a circular form on the level ground. He then gently laid a living worm in the centre, and set fire to the circumference on every side. The missionary and the Indian then stood still and silent, watching the motions of the imprisoned reptile. It crawled hastily and in alarm towards one side, till it met the advancing girdle of fire, and then crawled back as hastily to the other. After making several ineffectual efforts to escape, the creature retired to the centre, and coiled itself up to await its fate. At this crisis, and just before the flames reached their helpless victim, the Indian stept gravely forward, lifted the worm from its fiery prison, and deposited it in a place of safety. "Thus," this simple preacher of the cross indicated to the missionary,—"Thus helpless and hopeless I lay, while the wrath due to my sin advanced on every side to devour me; and thus sovereignly, mightily, lovingly did Christ deliver my soul from death."


Metaphorical language, as we have seen, is deeply rooted in the fundamental analogy which subsists between the several departments of our Creator's work; and the parable is a species of figure which, for all practical purposes, is sufficiently distinguished from others, although it is scarcely possible to isolate it by a complete logical definition. Nor is it enough to say that those specimens which are found in the record of Christ's ministry belong to the species; they may be said to constitute a species by themselves. The parables which are known to literature beyond the pale of the evangelic histories are either very diverse in kind, or very few in number. The practical result is, that while we treat the parable as a distinct species of analogical instruction, we must treat the parables spoken by the Lord as a unique and separate class. As the Lord's people in ancient times dwelt alone, and were not reckoned among the nations, the Lord's parabolic teaching stands apart by itself, and cannot with propriety be associated with other specimens of metaphorical teaching. Logically as well as spiritually it is true, that "never man spake like this man."

But, when setting aside all other forms of comparison, we confine our regard to the parable, and, setting aside other specimens, we confine our regard to the parables spoken by the Lord, other questions arise concerning the internal and reciprocal relations of these peculiar compositions; should they be read and considered as so many independent units miscellaneously scattered over the evangelic record, or should they be classified according to the place which belongs to them in a system of dogmatics? or can any method of treatment be suggested different from both of these extremes, and better than either?

It is doubtless competent to any inquirer to frame the doctrines which the parables illustrate into a logical scheme, and in his exposition to transpose the historical order, so that the sequence of the subjects shall coincide with his arrangement. This method is lawful in regard to the parables particularly, as it is in regard to the contents of Scripture generally; but, as a method of prosecuting the inquiry, I think it loses more on the side of topical and historical interest than it gains on the side of logical precision. As the Bible generally is in its own natural order, both more engaging and more instructive than a catechism compiled from it, although the compiler may have been both skilful and true; the parables of the Lord, in particular, taken up as they lie in his ministry, are both more interesting and more profitable than a logical digest of the theology which they contain, however faithfully the digest may have been made.

Any one may observe, as he reads our Lord's parables, that some of them are chiefly occupied with the teaching of doctrine, and others with the reproof of prevailing sins; but when on the basis of these and other subordinate distinctions, you proceed to arrange them into separate classes, you are met and repelled by insurmountable difficulties. When Bauer, for example, has arranged them in three divisions, dogmatic, moral, and historic, he is compelled immediately to add another class called the mixed, as dogmatic-moral and dogmatic-historic, thereby proving that his logical classification has failed.[5]

[5] In reference to Bauer's classification, Limbourg Brower (de parabol. Jesu.) observes that the distinction between parables that are dogmatic and parables that are moral cannot successfully be maintained, because of the intimate union maintained in the discourses of Jesus between the revelation of truth and the inculcation of duty. This remark, in connection with its ground, is decisive not only against the particular division to which it is applied, but to all divisions, in as far as they pretend to be logically distinct and complete.

By abandoning, for the purposes of exposition, the order in which the parables have been recorded, and adopting a classification on the basis of contents or form, some incidental advantages are obtained; especially some otherwise necessary repetitions are avoided, and some subordinate relations are by the juxtaposition more easily observed; but the loss is, I apprehend, much greater than the gain. The temptation to bend the freely-growing branches of the parable, that they may take their places in the scheme, is by this method greatly increased; while historical sequences and logical relations, lying more or less concealed in the record, are in a great measure thrown away. Accordingly, I prefer the method of maintaining in the exposition the order which the evangelists have adopted in the narrative. Besides the advantage of preserving in all cases the historical circumstances whence the parable sprung, we discover, as we follow this track, several groups associated together by the Lord in his ministry, for the sake of their reciprocal relations, and reverently preserved in their places by the evangelical historians. The seven in Matt. xiii., and the three in Luke xv., constitute the chief of those dogmatic groupings formed to our hand in the ministry of the Lord. I refer to them here as examples, but defer the exposition of their sequences and relations, until it can be presented with greater advantage in connection with the examination of their contents.

A question, on some of its sides difficult, meets us here, regarding the reason why the Lord employed parables in the prosecution of his ministry. On the one hand, it is certainly true, as may be proved from all history, that comparisons between material and moral facts or laws, spring up naturally in human converse; and further, that the truth expressed in parables, if not in all cases immediately palpable, is better fitted both to arrest attention at first, and to imprint the lesson permanently on the learner's memory. But the use and usefulness of the parable in this respect are obvious and undisputed; it makes spiritual truth more attractive and more memorable. The difficulty does not lie on this side; it adheres to a second function of the parable, in some respects the opposite of the first,—the function of concealing the doctrine in judgment from closed eyes and hardened hearts. In some instances and to some extent, the parables, while they conveyed the doctrine to one portion of the audience, concealed it from another. In those cases "they are like the husk which preserves the kernel from the indolent, and for the earnest."[6] It is the method, not unknown in other departments of the divine government, of making the same fact or law at once profitable to the humble, and punitive to the proud. Not only the Lord's word, but also the Lord himself, partakes of this twofold character, and produces these diverse effects; the same rock on which a meek disciple surely builds his hope, is also the stone over which scoffers stumble in their final fall.

[6] Gerlach in Lange.

The judicial or penal function of the parable was indicated by the Lord in express terms when he explained the meaning of the sower in private to his own disciples (Matt. xiii. 11-17; Mark iv. 10-13). In these cases, however, the wilful blindness of men's hearts appears as the sin which brought down the punishment, and the obstacle which kept out the blessing. Every word of God is good; but some persons maintain such an averted attitude of mind, that it glides off like sunbeams from polar snows, without ever obtaining an entrance to melt or fructify. To one of two persons who stand in the same room gazing on the same picture in the sunlight, the beauty of the landscape may be fully revealed, while to the other, on account of a certain indirectness of position and view, it appears only as an unpleasant dazzling glare. So, of two Jews who both eagerly listened to Jesus, as he taught from the fishing-boat on the Lake of Galilee, one found in the story the word of the kingdom, refreshing as cold waters to a thirsty soul, while the other, hearing the same words, perceived nothing in them but incoherent and tantalizing enigmas. For the right comprehension of the parables in particular, as of revealed truth in general, a receptive heart is a qualification even more peremptorily and essentially necessary than a penetrating understanding. "If any man is willing to do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God" (John vii. 17).

Each of the parables contained some characteristic, or presented some aspect of Christ's kingdom. His kingdom was not of this world, and therefore it was intensely distasteful to the carnal Jews of that day. The idea did not readily enter their mind; and when it did in some measure penetrate, it kindled in their corrupt hearts a flame of persecuting rage. It was necessary that the Lord should, during the period of his personal ministry, fully develop and deposit the seed of the kingdom; but it was necessary also that he should remain on earth until the set time when his ministry as prophet should terminate in his offering as priest. Now, if he had at any period displayed all the characteristics of his kingdom in terms which the mob and their rulers were able to comprehend, the persecution that ultimately crucified him, would have burst prematurely forth, and so deranged the plan of the Omniscient. It was necessary, for example, in order to provide consolation for his own disciples in subsequent temptations, that the Lord should predict his own death and resurrection; but this prediction, when uttered in public, was veiled from hostile eyes under the symbol, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (John ii. 19). More generally, it was necessary that such features of the kingdom as its spiritual character and its expansive power should be made known to true disciples for their instruction and encouragement, but hidden for a time from persecutors in order to restrain their enmity. Parables served the twofold purpose. Tender, teachable spirits caught the meaning at once; or, if they failed, they asked and obtained an explanation from the Master in private; while those who had not the single eye, were for the time left in darkness. It was their own hardness that kept out the light; their own hardness was employed as the instrument whereby judgment was inflicted upon themselves.[7]

[7] In Matthew (xiii. 13) he speaks in parables, "because ([Greek: hoti]), they seeing, see not:" and in Mark (iv. 12), and Luke (viii. 10), "that ([Greek: hina]) seeing they might not see." Two different objects were effected at the same time, and by the same act, corresponding to those two terms; it is true that the Lord employed parables, as one employs pictures to teach a child, because his auditors were children in understanding; and it is also true that he veiled his doctrines under metaphor in order that those who were children in understanding but in malice men, might not perceive his drift, and so might not violently interfere to suppress his ministry. Thus according to the explanation which he gave at the moment, "Whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance; but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath" (Matt. xiii. 12).


Of the parables in particular, as of the Scriptures generally, it is true that faith is necessary to the full appreciation of their meaning. That you must understand the Scriptures in order to have faith, and have faith in order to understand the Scriptures, is indeed, a circle; but it is not a vicious circle. As you approach from without, you may perceive that the Bible is the word of God, and that the Christ whom it reveals is the Saviour of sinners; standing now on your new position, and recognising your Instructor as also your Redeemer, you will discover in his word a length, and breadth, and height, and depth, which were formerly concealed. In our day, as well as when the parables were first spoken, it is to his own disciples that their true meaning is made known.

Another cognate requisite to the true spiritual comprehension of these divine sayings, is sympathy with the view which Jesus took and gave of human nature in its fallen state. He spoke and acted not only as the Teacher of the ignorant, but also as the Saviour of the lost: if we do not occupy the same stand-point, and look upon humanity in the same light, we shall stumble at every step in our effort to comprehend what the Speaker meant.

These two qualifications are supreme; and they apply alike to divine revelation as a whole, and to each of its parts; there are others which are important though subordinate, and which bear more specially on the particular department of Scripture exegesis with which we are here engaged, the Parables of the Lord.[8]

[8] The Parables of the Kingdom are, as it were, a picture gallery, and we walk up and down it, examining each picture by itself. We must not forget, however, that these are heavenly pictures that hang around us,—that heavenly things are here exposed to view. A heavenly interpreter walks by our side: we must have a heavenly sense if we would grasp the meaning of what we hear and see. If our study quicken this sense within us, so that it shall grow clearer and sharper before every picture, a rich treat awaits us, for the heavenly Gallery is great.—Draeseke, vom Reich Gottes, i., 270.

1. The faculty of perceiving and appreciating analogies. It is certainly not necessary that an interpreter of Scripture should be a poet; but to possess in some measure that eye for parallels which constitutes the basis of the poetic faculty, is a most desirable qualification for one who proposes to help his neighbours in the study of the parables. It is, indeed, true that a man who possesses only a very small measure of this or of other mental gifts, may read these lessons of the Lord with spiritual profit to himself; but the pictorial theology of the New Testament is not safe in the hands of a teacher who is signally defective in the faculty to which it specially appeals. Learning, and zeal, and faith combined may, in this department, expend much labour to little purpose, for lack of power to perceive the point of the analogy. But, on the other hand,

2. A stern logic is as necessary as a lively imagination. Deficient in the analogical faculty, you cannot in this department go quickly forward; but deficient in the logical faculty, you will go forward too fast and too far. We need a well-spread, well-filled sail; but we need also a helm to direct the ship in the path of safety. Restraining, discriminating judgment, is as necessary as impulsive power. Every one who possesses even a moderate acquaintance with the literature of this department will, I am persuaded, acknowledge the justice of this observation. Some expositors of the parables, especially in more ancient times, remind one of the Great Eastern in the Atlantic when her rudder was disabled. There is plenty of impelling force, but this force, for want of a director, only makes the ship go round and round in a weltering sea. From the pages of those commentators, whose imaginations have broken loose, you may cull fancies as manifold, as beautiful, and as useless as the gyrations of a helmless ship in a stormy sea.

3. Some competent acquaintance, not only with the Scriptures, but also with the doctrines which the Scriptures contain, arranged in a dogmatic system, is necessary as a safeguard in the interpretation of the parables. A scientific acquaintance with natural history is necessary not only in order to an intelligent appreciation of the contents of a museum, but also in order that you may turn to good account your miscellaneous observation of nature; in like manner, although a correct exegesis of Scripture supplies us with our only true dogmatics, the knowledge of dogmatics, scientifically arranged, contributes in turn to a correct exegesis. This remark has been drawn from me by my own experience in the study of this department of theological literature. If we would avoid the mistakes into which his own contemporaries fell, we must read the Lord's parables in connection with the fuller exposition of divine truth which he commissioned and inspired the apostles to give. Except in some cases where an explanation is subjoined, or the circumstances exclude all uncertainty, it is not safe for us to lean on a parable as an independent evidence of a dogma. The pictorial illustrations and the more direct doctrinal statements of Scripture should go together for reciprocal elucidation and support. More especially it is extremely dangerous for a theologian, when he has a purpose to be served and an adversary to be refuted, to grasp a parable in the sense which suits his view, and wield it as a weapon of offence; in such a case he will probably do more execution upon himself than upon his antagonist. The importance of this point will be more fully seen when we consider the parables in detail.

4. Some knowledge of relative history, topography, and customs should be at hand for use; but, at the same time, these things should be resolutely kept in their own place. They may be good servants, but they are bad masters. Through a signal defect in the knowledge of oriental antiquity, an interpreter may permit some beautiful allusions to slip through his hands unperceived; but, on the other hand, it ought to be frankly conceded, and, if necessary, firmly maintained, that the profitable use of our Lord's parables does not depend on rare and difficult erudition. If a deficiency in this department infers the risk of baldness in the exposition, a redundance supplies a temptation to pedantic display. It is one thing to place some ancient eastern custom in such a position that a ray of light from its surface shall pleasantly illumine a feature of the parable that was lying in the shade, and all another thing to make the parable a convenience for the exhibition of a scholar's lore.

With more immediate reference to the exposition herewith submitted, it is enough to intimate that it is neither a compend of criticism, nor merely a series of sermons. I have endeavoured to combine the substance of a critical investigation with the direct exhortation which becomes a minister of the gospel, when fellow-sinners constitute his audience, and the Bible supplies his theme. On the one hand, no important difficulty has been consciously slurred over without an effort to satisfy the judgment of a studious reader; and, on the other hand, no opportunity has been omitted of pressing the gospel of Christ on the consciences of men.




"The same day went Jesus out of the house, and sat by the sea side. And great multitudes were gathered together unto him, so that he went into a ship, and sat; and the whole multitude stood on the shore. And he spake many things unto them in parables."—MATT. xiii. 1-3.

In Matthew's narrative, the first specimen of that peculiar pictorial method which characterized the teaching of our Lord, is not an isolated parable occurring in the midst of a miscellaneous discourse, but a group of seven presented in one continuous and connected report. Nor is the grouping due to the logical scheme of the Evangelist; we have here, not the historian's digest of many disjointed utterances, but a simple chronological record of facts. In this order have these seven parables been recorded by the servant, because in this order they were spoken by the Lord. It does not in the least detract from the soundness of this judgment to concede that some of them were spoken also in other circumstances and other combinations. There is no ground whatever for assuming that one of our Lord's signal sayings could not have been spoken in one place, because it can be proved that it was spoken at another. From the nature of the subjects, and the form which Christ's ministry assumed, it might be confidently anticipated that the parables and other sharply relieved similitudes would recur, in whole or in part, in different discourses and before different assemblies: with this supposition accordingly the facts agree, as they may be gathered from a synopsis of the several narratives.

Among the later German critics, it is distinctly conceded by Lange that these seven parables were spoken by the Lord in the order of Matthew's record, although some of them appear to have been spoken also at other times. If it could have been proved that none of the parables had ever been spoken a second time, the circumstance would have constituted a non-natural and inexplicable phenomenon.

A measure of logical order and reciprocal relation has always been observed in this cluster of parables. While some of the relations, and these the most important, are so obvious that they have been observed alike by all inquirers, in regard to others a considerable diversity of opinion has prevailed. Some, in the sequences of the group, look only for various phases of the kingdom, presented in logical divisions and sub-divisions: others find here, in addition, a prophetic history of the Church, like that which the Apocalypse contains. For my own part I am disposed to confine my view to that which I consider sure and obvious,—the representation of the kingdom of God in different aspects, according to a logical arrangement, not pronouncing judgment regarding the soundness of the prophetic view, but simply passing it by, as being from its nature difficult and dim.

The first six readily fall into three successive well-defined pairs, and the seventh stands clearly designated by its subject as an appropriate conclusion. The first pair exhibit the RELATIONS of the kingdom to the several classes of intelligent creatures with which, as adversaries or subjects, it comes into contact: the second pair exhibit the PROGRESS of the kingdom from small beginnings to a glorious issue: the third pair exhibit the PRECIOUSNESS of the kingdom, in comparison with all other objects of desire: and the remaining one teaches that the good and evil which intermingle on earth will be completely and finally separated in the great day. Thus—

{ 1. The Sower; the relation of the { kingdom to different classes of I. RELATIONS..........{ men. { 2. The Tares; the relation of the { kingdom to the wicked one.

{ 1. The Mustard-seed; the progress { of the kingdom under the idea { of a living growth. II. PROGRESS...........{ 2. The Leaven; the progress of the { kingdom under the idea of a { contagious outspread.

{ 1. The Hid Treasure; the preciousness { of the kingdom under the { idea of discovering what was hid. III. PRECIOUSNESS.......{ 2. The Goodly Pearl; the preciousness { of the kingdom under the { idea of closing with what is { offered.

{ The Draw-net; the separation between IV. SEPARATION.........{ good and evil in the { great day.

It is not a valid objection to this division that in several cases, if not in all, the subjects reciprocally overlap each other; it is, in the circumstances, natural and necessary that they should. Thus, in regard to the first pair, the work of the adversary appears in the sower, and the contact of believers with unbelievers appears in the tares; but I think these are in either case incidental and subordinate, while the leading idea of the first is the reception given to the gospel by different classes of men, and the leading idea of the second is the wile of the devil in his effort to destroy the work of Christ.

We must, however, beware of giving too much and too minute attention to the sequences and mutual relations of the parables. Most of them, in point of fact, are found in the narrative as isolated lessons, each complete in itself and independent of others. Even in this group, although the connections are interesting and obvious, they are not essential. The meaning of each specimen may be substantially discerned without reference to its place in the series. By studying each apart you may learn the lesson well; but by studying all together you may learn the lesson better.

On the face of the narrative it appears that the first four were addressed to a multitude congregated on the margin of the lake, and the last three more privately to a smaller circle of disciples in a neighbouring house; but there seems no ground for supposing that the two portions were separated from each other by any considerable interval of time or space.

I freely concede that there is some ground for the distinction between the more outward and obvious aspects of the kingdom presented in the first four, and the more inward and experimental matters which, in the last three, were subsequently communicated to a more private circle; but the distinction, though real and perceptible, does not appear to me so fundamental and so deeply marked as to justify those who make it the turning-point of their exposition.

There is a parallel which the thoughtful reader of the Scriptures will not fail to observe, although a prudent expositor will beware of attempting to trace it too minutely, between the seven parables of this chapter and the epistles to the Seven Churches of Asia, in the beginning of the Apocalypse. The two groups agree in this, that both represent by a series of examples various features of the kingdom, and various obstacles with which it must contend: they differ in that, while the examples given in the Gospels are pictures drawn by the imagination, the examples given in the Apocalypse are facts taken from history. But as all the characteristics and vicissitudes of his Church were present to the Head from the beginning, it was as easy for him to exhibit an image of its condition through the ministry of Matthew, as to record examples after they emerged in fact, through the ministry of John. In both cases—alike in the pictures presented to the Galilean crowd and the registered events sent to the Asiatic Churches—the Master's design is to exhibit the kingdom on all its sides, that the observer's view, whether of beauties or of blemishes, may be correct and full.

I subjoin for the reader's information the view of those who see in this series of parables the subsequent historical development of the Church, as it is briefly and clearly expressed by Lange: "We ... trace in the parable of the sower a picture of the apostolic age; in the parable of the tares, the ancient Catholic Church springing up in the midst of heresies; in the parable of the mustard-bush resorted to by birds of the air as if it had been a tree, and loaded with their nests, a representation of the outward Church as established under Constantine the Great; in the leaven that is mixed among the three measures of meal, the pervading and transforming influence of Christianity in the mediaeval Church among the barbarous races of Europe; in the parable of the treasure in the field, the period of the Reformation; in the parable of the pearl, the contrast between Christianity and the acquisitions of modern culture and secularism; and in the last parable a picture of the closing judgment."

The parallel which the same critic institutes between the seven parables of this group and the seven beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, is an attractive study, and some of the coincidences are obvious and beautiful; but this line of observation should be jealously kept subordinate to the primary substantial lesson which each parable contains. On the one hand, I desire that these secondary and incidental views should not by their beauty draw to themselves a disproportionate share of our attention; and on the other hand, I am disposed to respect every earnest, sober, and reverential suggestion which any believing inquirer may throw out, regarding the lateral references and under-current secondary meanings of the Lord's discourses; for they possess a length and breadth, and height and depth, which will exercise the minds of devout disciples as long as the dispensation lasts, and pass all understanding when it is done.



"The same day went Jesus out of the house, and sat by the sea side. And great multitudes were gathered together unto him, so that he went into a ship, and sat; and the whole multitude stood on the shore. And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow; and when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up: some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: and 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 sprung up, and choked them: but other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.... Hear ye therefore the parable of the sower. When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart. This is he which received seed by the way side. But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended. He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful. But he that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty."—MATT. xiii. 1-9, 18-23.

The parable is, in our language at least, so uniformly associated with this name, that it would not readily be recognised under any other designation; but "The four kinds of ground" (viererlei Acker), the title which seems to be in ordinary use among the Germans, is logically more correct, inasmuch as it points directly to the central idea, and expresses the distinctive characteristic.

At this period a great and eager multitude followed the steps of Jesus and hung upon his lips. A certain divine authority, strangely combined with the tenderest human sympathy, marked his discourses sharply off, as entirely different in kind from all that they had been accustomed to hear in the synagogue. Finding that instincts and capacities hitherto dormant in their being were awakened by his word, "the common people heard him gladly." At an earlier hour of the same day on which this parable was spoken, the circle of listeners that encompassed the Teacher had become so broad and dense, that his mother and brothers, who had come from home to speak with him, were obliged to halt on the outskirts of the crowd, and pass their message in from mouth to mouth. In these circumstances, the Preacher's work must have been heavy, and doubtless the worker was weary. Having paused till the press slackened, he privately retired to the margin of the lake, desiring probably to "rest a while;" but no sooner had he taken his seat beside the cool still water, than he was again surrounded by the anxious crowd. At once to escape the pressure and to command the audience better when he should again begin to speak, he stepped into one of the fishing-boats that floated at ease close by the beach, on the margin of that tideless inland sea. From the water's edge, stretching away upward on the natural gallery formed by the sloping bank, the great congregation, with every face fixed in an attitude of eager expectancy, presented to the Preacher's eye the appearance of a ploughed field ready to receive the seed. As he opened his lips, and cast the word of life freely abroad among them, he saw, he felt, the parallel between the sowing of Nature and the sowing of Grace. Into that mould, accordingly, he threw the lesson of saving truth. Grasping the facts and laws of his own material world, and wielding them with steady aim as instruments in the establishment of his spiritual kingdom, in simple yet majestic terms he said, "Behold, a sower went forth to sow."

Whether a sower was actually in sight at that moment in a neighbouring field or not, every man in that rural assemblage must have been familiar with the act, and would instantly recognise the truth of the picture. The sower, with a bag of seed dependent from his shoulder, stalks slowly forth into the prepared field. With measured, equal steps, he marches in a straight line along the furrow. His hand, accustomed to keep time with his advancing footsteps, and to jerk the seed forward with considerable force, in order to secure uniformity of distribution, cannot suddenly stop when he approaches the hard trodden margin of the field. By habit the right hand continues to execute its wonted movement in unison with the sower's steps as he is turning round; and thus a portion of the seed is thrown on the unploughed border of the field and the public path that skirts it. Birds, scared for a moment by the presence of the man, hover in the air till his back is turned on another tack, and then, each eager to be first, come swooping down, and swallow up all the grain that found no soft place where it fell for hiding in. Even if it should happen in any case that no birds were near, the seed that fell on the way side was as surely destroyed in another way: the alternative suggested in Luke's narrative is, that "it is trodden under foot of men."

But while the portion of the seed that fell on the way side was thus certainly destroyed, it does not follow that the rest came to perfection: "Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: and when the sun was up they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away." The stony places are not portions of the field where many separate stones may be seen lying on the surface, but portions which consist of continuous rock underneath, with a thin sprinkling of soft soil over it. Here the young plants burst through the ground sooner than in spots where the seed found a deeper bed: but when the rains of spring have ceased, and the sun of summer has waxed hot, the moisture is quickly exhaled from the shallow stratum of soil, and forthwith the fair promise dies.

But yet another slip there may be "between the cup and the lip:" even from the seed that falls on deep, soft ground, you cannot count with certainty on a rich return in harvest. Although the plants should without obstruction strike their roots deeply into the soft, moist earth, and rear their stalks aloft into the balmy air, they may be rendered barren at last by the simultaneous growth of rivals more imperious and more powerful than themselves. Unless the grain not only grow in deeply broken ground, but grow alone there, it cannot be fruitful: "Some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up and choked it." Besides those plants that are more correctly denominated thorns, we may include under the term here all rank weeds, varying with countries and climates, which infest the soil and hurt the harvest. The green stalks that grow among thorns are neither withered in spring, nor stunted in their summer's growth; they may be found in harvest taller than their fruitful neighbours; but the ear is never filled, never ripened, and the reaper gets nothing in his arms but long slender straw adorned at the top with graceful clusters of empty chaff. The roots of the thorns drank up the sap of the ground, while their branches veiled off the sunlight, and thus the good seed, starved beneath and overshadowed above, although it started fair in spring, produced nothing in the autumn.

As Truth is one and Error manifold, so in regard to the seed sown, the story of failure is long and varied, the story of success is short and simple: "Other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold." The design of the picture is to reveal the various causes which at different times and places render the husbandman's labour abortive and leave his garner empty. This done, there is no need of more. The seed, when none of these things impeded it, prospered as a matter of course, under the ordinary care of man and the ordinary gifts of God.

Three distinct obstructions to the growth and ripening of the seed are enumerated in the parable. The statement is exact, and the order transparent. The natural sequences are strictly and beautifully maintained. The three causes of abortion—the way side, the stony ground, and the thorns—follow each other as the spring, the summer, and the autumn. In the first case the seed does not spring at all; in the second it springs, but dies before it grows up; in the third, it grows up, but does not ripen. If it escape the way side, the danger of the stony ground lies before it; if it escape the stony ground, the thorns at a later stage threaten its safety; and it is only when it has successively escaped all three that it becomes fruitful at length.

In this case, the Lord himself gave both the parable and its explanation; he became his own interpreter. The Master takes us, like little children, by the hand and leads us through all the turnings of his first symbolic lesson, lest in our inexperience we should miss our way. The Son of God not only gave himself as a sacrifice for sin; he also laboured as a patient painstaking teacher of the ignorant: he is the Apostle as well as the High Priest of our profession. His instructions have been recorded by the Spirit in the Scriptures for our use; we may still sit at his feet and listen to his voice. He has taken his seat on the deck of a fishing-boat while the waters of the lake are still, and is discoursing to a congregation of Galileans from the neighbourhood who stand clustering on the shore. Let us join the outskirts of the crowd and hear that heavenly Teacher too.

He speaks in parables: he fixes saving truth in the forms of familiar things, that it may be carried away and kept. We look with lively interest on the scene which these words conjure up before our eyes; but we should look on it reverently: it has not been given to us as a plaything. Gaze gravely, brother, into this parable, for "thou art the man" of whom it speaks: it reveals the way of life and the way of death to thee. If a traveller who possesses an accurate map of his route turn aside from it and perish in a pit, it will not avail him in his extremity to reflect that he carries the correct track in his hand. Alas! a literary admiration of the parable-stories which Jesus told in Galilee will not avail us, if we do not accept himself as our Saviour from sin.

From the Lord's own exposition here and elsewhere recorded, we learn that the seed is the word of God; that the sower is the man who makes it known to his neighbours; and that the ground on which the seed falls is the hearer's heart. The main drift of the parable concerns the ground, and to it accordingly our attention must be chiefly directed. The lesson, however, is drawn, not from the inherent, essential properties of the soil, but from the accidental obstructions to the growth of grain which it may in certain circumstances contain: some notice, therefore, of the seed and the sower in their spiritual signification is not only profitable at this stage, but peremptorily necessary to the full apprehension of the instruction which the parable conveys.

SEED has been created by God and given to man. If it were lost, it would be impossible through human power and skill to procure a new supply: the race would, in that case, perish, unless the Omnipotent should interfere again with his creating power. For spiritual life and food the fallen are equally helpless, and equally dependent on the gift of God. The seed is the word, and the word is contained in the Scriptures. When we drop a verse of the Bible into listening ears, we are sowing the seed of the kingdom.

The seed is the word, but the Word is Christ: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God ... and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us," (John i.) Christ is the living seed, and the Bible is the husk that holds it. The husk that holds the seed is the most precious thing in the world, next after the seed that it holds. The Lord himself precisely defines from this point of view the place and value of the Scriptures,—"They are they which testify of me" (John v. 39). The seed of the kingdom is himself the King. Nor is there any inconsistency in representing Christ as the seed while he was in the first instance also the sower. Most certainly he preached the Saviour, and also was the Saviour whom he preached. The incident in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke iv. 16-22) is a remarkably distinct example of Christ being at once the Sower and the Seed. When he had read the lesson of the day, a glorious prophetic gospel from Isaiah, "he closed the book, and gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears." As soon as he had taken from the Scriptures the proclamation concerning himself, he laid them aside, and presented himself to the people. The Saviour preached the Saviour, himself the Sower and himself the Seed.

In the beginning of the Gospel, when the chosen band of sowers first went to work upon the ample field of the world, taught of the Spirit, they knew well what seed they ought to carry, and were ever ready to cast it in where they saw an opening. One of them, and he the greatest, formed and expressed a determination to know nothing among the people save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Twice in one chapter (Acts viii.), we learn incidentally, but with great precision, what kind of seed Philip the Evangelist carried always in his vessel, and cast into every furrow as he passed along. When a large congregation assembled in the city of Samaria to hear him, "he preached Christ unto them;" and when, on a subsequent occasion, he was called to deal with an anxious inquirer alone in the desert, "he opened his mouth and began at the same scripture"—He was led as a lamb to the slaughter—"and preached unto him Jesus." This is the seed sent down from heaven to be the life of the world.

The SOWERS, although they have become a great company in these latter days, are still, like the reapers, "few" in relation to the vastness of the field. The Lord's message to Ananias of Damascus concerning Saul, immediately after his conversion, graphically defines the office of a minister as a sower of the seed: "He is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel" (Acts ix. 15). A vessel for holding Christ and dropping that precious seed into human hearts wherever an opening should appear—this is the true idea of a minister of the Gospel. Nor is the work confined to those who, being trained to it, and freed from other cares, may thereby be capable of conducting it on a larger scale. As every leaf of the forest and every ripple on the lake, which itself receives a sunbeam on its breast, may throw the sunbeam off again, and so spread the light around; in like manner, every one, old or young, who receives Christ into his heart may and will publish with his life and lips that blessed name. In the spirit of the Lord's own precept regarding the harvest, we may all be encouraged to adopt and press the prayer that our Father, the husbandman, would send forth sowers into his field.

We turn now to the GROUND, and the various obstacles which there successively meet the seed and mar its fruitfulness.

I. THE WAY SIDE.—"When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart. This is he which received seed by the way side." A path beaten smooth by the feet of travellers skirts the edge, or, perhaps, runs by way of short cut through the middle of the field. The seed that falls there, left exposed on the surface, is picked up and devoured by birds. Behold in one picture God's gracious offer, man's self-destroying neglect, and the tempter's coveted opportunity!

The analogy being true to nature is instantly recognised and easily appreciated. There is a condition of heart which corresponds to the smoothness, hardness, and wholeness of a frequented footpath, that skirts or crosses a ploughed field. The spiritual hardness is like the natural in its cause as well as in its character. The place is a thoroughfare; a mixed multitude of this world's affairs tread over it from day to day, and from year to year. It is not fenced like a garden, but exposed like an uncultivated common. That secret of the Lord, "Enter into thy closet," and "shut the door," is unknown; or if known, neglected. The soil, trodden by all comers, is never broken up and softened by a thorough self-searching. A human heart may thus become marvellously callous both to good and evil. The terrors of the Lord and the tender invitations of the Gospel are alike ineffectual. Falling only upon the external senses, they are swept off by the next current; as the solid grain thrown from the sower's hand rattles on the smooth hard road side, and lies on the surface till the fowls carry it away. The parallel between the material and the moral here is more close and visible in the original than it appears in the English version. But our language is capable in this instance, like the Greek, of expressing by one phrase equally the moral and the material failure: "Every one that hears the word of the kingdom and does not take it in" ([Greek: me synientos]). The cause of the failure in both departments is, that the soil, owing to its hardness, does not take the seed into its bosom.

The seed is good: "The word of God is quick and powerful;"—that is, it "is living, and puts forth energy."[9] Like buried moistened seed it swells and bursts, and forces its way through opposing obstacles. A heart of clay, smoothed and hardened on the surface, may hold it out for a lifetime; but a heart of stone could not keep it down, if it were once admitted, for a single day.

[9] [Greek: Zon gar ho logos tou Theou, kai energes.]—HEB. iv. 12.

"Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world;" "If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink;" "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved;"—these and many such great solid seed-grains rain from heaven upon us in this land: shall we close all the avenues to our hearts and so leave that seed lying on the surface till the enemy carry it away? or shall the groanings which cannot be uttered, the convictions of sin in the conscience, rend at length the seared crust, that the seed may enter and occupy the life for God?

If privileged and professing hearers of the Gospel come short of the kingdom, the fault lies not in the seed—the fault lies not often or to a great extent even in the sower, although his work may have been feebly and unskilfully done. If the seed is good, and the ground well prepared, a very poor and awkward kind of sowing will suffice. Seed flung in any fashion into the soft ground will grow; whereas, if it fall on the way side, it will bear no fruit, however artfully it may have been spread. My father was a practical and skilful agriculturist. I was wont, when very young, to follow his footsteps into the field, further and oftener than was convenient for him or comfortable for myself. Knowing well how much a child is gratified by being permitted to imitate a man's work, he sometimes hung the seed-bag, with a few handfuls in it, upon my shoulder, and sent me into the field to sow. I contrived in some way to throw the grain away, and it fell among the clods. But the seed that fell from an infant's hands, when it fell in the right place, grew as well and ripened as fully as that which had been scattered by a strong and skilful man. In like manner, in the spiritual department, the skill of the sower, although important in its own place, is, in view of the final result, a subordinate thing. The cardinal points are the seed and the soil. In point of fact, throughout the history of the Church, while the Lord has abundantly honoured his own ordinance of a standing ministry, he has never ceased to show, by granting signal success to feeble instruments, that results in his work are not necessarily proportionate to the number of talents employed.

Nor does the cause of failure, in the last resort, lie in the soil. The man who receives the Gospel only on the hard surface of a careless life, is of the same flesh and blood, endued with the same understanding mind and immortal spirit, with his neighbour who has already become a new creature in Christ. Believers and unbelievers are possessed of the same nature and faculties. As the ground which has been trodden into a footpath is in all its essential qualities the same as that which has been broken small by the plough and harrow, so the human constitution and faculties of one who lives without God in the world are substantially the same as those which belong to the redeemed of the Lord. It was the breaking of the ground which caused the difference between the fruitful field and the barren way side. So those minds and hearts that now bear the fruits of faith were barren till they were broken; and those on which the good seed has often been thrown, only to be thrown away, may yet yield an increase of a hundredfold to their owner, when conviction and repentance shall have rent them open to admit the word of life.

Felix the Roman governor was a specimen of the trodden way side. His heart, worn by the cares of business and the pleasures of sin passing in great volume alternately over it, presented no opening for the entrance of the Gospel. Paul accordingly, when called to preach before him, did not, in the first instance, pour out the simple positive message of mercy: he reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come; thus plying the seared conscience with the terrors of the Lord, in the hope of breaking thereby the covering crust and preparing a seed bed for the word of life. But the earth, in that case, was as iron, and refused to yield even to an apostle's blow. From the heart of Felix the message of mercy was effectually shut out. The jailer of Philippi was doubtless equally hard in a more vulgar sphere, but his defences were shattered: in that night of visitation his heart was rent as well as his prison, and over the openings, while they were fresh, the skilful sower promptly dropped the vital seed, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved." The word entered, and its entrance gave life.

At this point the parable addresses its lesson specifically to those who have lived without God in the world, and who have lived in the main comparatively at ease. They have not a real heart-possessing, life-controlling religion, and they have never been very sorry for the want of it. They have no part in Christ, and no cheering hope for eternity. They are not ready to die; and yet they cannot keep death at bay. They know that they ought to care for their souls, but in point of fact they do not care; they know there is cause to be alarmed, and yet they are not alarmed. They neither grieve for sin nor love the Saviour; yet perhaps a dark cloud-like thought sometimes sweeps across their brightest sky—We have not yet gone in by the open door of mercy, and while we are delaying it may be suddenly shut.

The case might be understood well enough by those whom it concerns, if the same amount of attention were bestowed upon it that is ordinarily devoted to other branches of business. See the hard dry road that runs along the edge of a corn field: you are not surprised to find it barren in a harvest day; you know that grain, although sown there, would not grow, and you know the reason. The reason why the Gospel does you no good may be as clearly, as surely seen. Cares, vanities, passions, tread in constant succession over your heart, and harden it, so that the word of Christ, though it sound on the surface, never goes in, and never gets hold. Think not that the saints are by nature of another kind: they were once what you are, and you may yet become what they are, and more. "Break up your fallow ground." Look into your own heart's sin until you begin to grieve over it; look unto Jesus bearing sin until you begin to love him for his love. Tell God frankly in prayer that your heart is hard, and plead for the Holy Spirit to make it tender. The saints already in rest, and disciples in the body still, were once a trodden way side like yourself, as hard and as barren. Place your heart, as they did, without reserve in the Redeemer's hands; bid him take the hardness out and make it new. Invite the Word himself to take up his abode within you; throw the doors widely open that the King of Glory may come in. When Christ shall dwell in your heart by faith, a godly sorrow underneath will soften every faculty of your nature, and over all the surface fruits of righteousness will grow.

II. THE STONY GROUND.—A human heart, the soil on which the sower casts his seed, is in itself and from the first hard both above and below; but by a little easy culture, such as most people in this land may enjoy, some measure of softness is produced on the surface. Among the affections, when they are warm and newly stirred, the seed speedily springs. Many young hearts, subjected to the religious appliances which abound in our time, take hold of Christ and let him go again. This, on the one hand, as we learn by the result, was never a true conversion; but neither was it, on the other hand, a case of conscious, intentional deceit. It was real, but it was not thorough. Something was given to Christ, but because all was not given the issue was the same as if all had been withheld. In the rich young man the seed sprang hopefully, but it withered soon: he did not lightly part with Christ, but he parted: he was very sorrowful, but he went away.

A Christian parent or pastor, diligent in his main business and fervent in prayer for success, observes at length in some young members of his charge a new tenderness of conscience, an earnest attention to the word, a subdued, reverential spirit, with frequency and fervency in prayer. With mingled hope and fear these symptoms are watched and cherished: the symptoms continue and increase: the converts are added to the Church, and perhaps their experience is narrated as an example. This is not a deception on the part of either teacher or scholar: it is a true outgrowth from the contact of human hearts with the word of life. Man, who looks only on the outward appearance, cannot with certainty determine in whom this promise of spring will be blasted by the summer heat, and in whom it will yield a manifold return to the reaper. When you cast your eye over the corn field soon after the seed has sprung, you may not be able to detect any difference between one portion and another; all may be alike fresh and green. But, if some parts of the field be deep soft soil, and other parts only a thin sprinkling of earth over unbroken rock, there is a decisive difference in secret even now, and the difference will ere long become visible to all. Come back and look upon the same field after it has lain a few days without rain under a scorching sun: you will find that while in some portions the young plants have increased in bulk without losing any of their freshness, in others the green covering has disappeared and left the ground as brown and bare as it was when the sower went forth to sow upon it. Where the earth is soft underneath, and so permits the roots to penetrate its depths, the towering stalks defy the summer's drought; but where the roots are shut out from the heart, the leaves wither on the surface.

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