I had some misgivings about reviewing such a book as this. I’m not a theologian. Who am I to evaluate what a scholar like John MacArthur says about the parables of Jesus?
But I needn’t have worried. This is a book written for Christians who seek a better understanding of Christ’s teaching—which ought to mean all of us. Instead of abstruse and difficult scholarship, we have in Parables a treasury of common sense, accessible to all.
Not that Jesus’ parables are simple, although certainly many of them seem simple enough. But some of them do require a great deal of thought before understanding can be reached. To these parables MacArthur is a wise and patient guide, and teacher fit for adults and teenagers alike.
First, though, MacArthur takes up the challenge of postmodernism, currently a trend in seminaries and pulpits. Quite simply, this is the notion that a parable, or any other text, has no sure and certain message to deliver, but can only mean whatever the individual reader thinks it means. Indeed, for some preachers, meaning and doctrine are discarded outright, leaving us only with a story that means whatever we want it to mean. MacArthur vigorously refutes this humbug.
“The problem,” he writes, “is not that the parable has no true meaning but that those who come to the story with a heart fixed in unbelief have already rejected the truth the parable was given to illustrate” (p. xviii).
He asks, “What is the significance of Jesus’ use of stories as a medium for His teaching? … As a matter of fact, it is not really a difficult question at all, because Jesus Himself answered it plainly when He said He employed parables for a dual reason—to illustrate the truth for those who were willing to receive it, and to obscure the truth from those who hated it anyway” (p. 191).
Parables, he says, must be studied: must be thought over. “A little bit of hard work and conscientious reflection always yields rich rewards in the study of parables” (p. 192).
Postmodernism has wrought mischief in and out of the church, calling into question the very possibility of objective truth.
Why is all this important? Because truth itself is critically important, and the church today is in imminent danger of selling her birthright in exchange for a postmodern philosophy that in effect would do away with the very idea of truth.
That is ground we cannot yield. We must be willing to submit our minds to the truth of Scripture, and we must refuse to subject Scripture to whatever theories or speculations happen to be currently popular in the realm of secular philosophy (p. 202).
If all this seems, in a book review, to be focusing far too much attention on just the Introduction and the Appendix—well, we’re talking about why MacArthur wrote the book. He is a warrior for the truth of Scripture: not “your truth” or “my truth,” as secular college students and professors are so fond of saying nowadays, but truth itself—the truth.
“Truth is not judged by how it makes people feel,” MacArthur declares (p. 163). Amen.
What Does God Owe You?
He confronts another widespread error, in his chapter on the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican—the idea that one can earn or deserve salvation by doing good works that somehow make God his debtor.
“No one can justify himself before God; God alone is the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (citing Rom. 3:26).
“This principle,” MacArthur writes, “is the simple dividing line between the gospel of Jesus Christ and every erroneous or demonic belief system. Stripped down to its bare essence, every false religion ever devised by reprobate minds is a merit system. All of them teach that justification is earned or achieved by some thing the worshiper does for God…” (p. 107).
We see this all the time in paganism. The Greeks and Trojans of The Iliad were always trying to win the favor of this or that god or goddess by offering, or promising to offer, costly sacrifices. We also see, in The Iliad, that just as often as not, the sacrifices availed the sacrifice nothing and the god or goddess proved unable to help.
“The underlying error in all of that—the belief that people can gain God’s favor by being good enough—is the central lie that dominates all false religion,” said MacArthur (p. 108).
Is there any error more common in the church than that? The Pharisee in the parable boasts of his good works, but the lowly publican confesses and repents his sin. “I tell you,” Jesus said, “this man [the publican] went down to his house justified rather than the other …” (Luke 18:14).
God does not owe any man a ticket to Heaven. That ticket has already been bought and paid for by Jesus Christ alone.
The Value of a Penny
Rather than take on all Christ’s parables, MacArthur goes into depth on just a dozen of them. He often provides historical and cultural information that can give the modern reader an “aha!” moment.
For instance, in the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matt. 20:1–15), Jesus told the story of a landowner who does something that may strike us as terribly unfair. Actually, the parable offers a profound yet simple insight into the grace of God.
At the start of the day, the owner hires some day laborers to work in his vineyard. For their day’s work, he promises to pay each of these men “a penny,” according to the King James Version (Matt. 20:2).
If we modern readers don’t stop to consult a concordance, we’re apt to think, “A penny? Gee, that’s the lowest possible payment he could make!” But MacArthur corrects this mistaken impression by explaining that “a penny,” in the original Greek, is actually a denarius, a Roman silver coin. And far from being stingy, “The landowner in Jesus’ parable was unusually generous to offer day laborers a full denarius for a day’s work. It was an honorable wage, much more than temporary workers would normally receive for menial labor” (p. 62). So these laborers are already doing much better than they could have reasonably expected.
Three hours later, the owner hires more laborers; but instead of promising them each a denarius, he only says he’ll pay them “whatever is right” (v. 4). He does the same at noon and 3 p.m.—and hires a few more men at 5 p.m., “the eleventh hour,” with just one hour remaining in the workday.
When the time comes to pay the laborers, starting with the men who came last to the vineyard, the owner does something unexpected.
He pays all the men a full denarius, even those who only worked a single hour.
Was that fair to the men who’d worked the full twelve hours? We modern readers, with our minds tainted by today’s secular notions of “fairness,” would probably say no. Certainly the men who’d worked all day long didn’t think so, and they complained about it.
But for all their envy, they hadn’t been cheated, had they? The owner answers, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it now lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?” (vv. 13–15).
God’s grace, and the Kingdom of Heaven, are His to give as He chooses. There are no just grounds for envy. Indeed, we have encountered this teaching before, in the Old Testament, in Ezekiel 18:25: “Yet ye say, the way of the Lord is not equal. Hear now, O house of Israel; is not my way equal? Are not your ways unequal?”
This is addressed to those who complain of God’s mercy in forgiving sinners who, perhaps after a long career of sin, repent and change their ways; they, too, came to the vineyard late in the day—and still receive a full reward.
More Than Just Stories
This is typical of MacArthur’s approach throughout the book. He explores the parables in depth, illuminating them with nuances of Jewish law and custom, history, and sociology which will not have been considered by, or even known to, many modern readers.
Why so much detail?
Because the parables are not just stories, to be told to anyone who will make of them whatever he pleases. They are told to illustrate objective truths about God, His Kingdom, and what He requires of His people. They have explicit meanings, some of which cannot be understood unless the meaning is carefully searched out. But we already ought to know that the Bible is not a book to be mastered in a single reading. It requires, and repays, constant study and meditation.
I can’t speak for Biblical scholars, because I’m not one. But for the lay Christian who truly seeks a better understanding of God’s Word, Parables is a book that will do good service.
[Note: An excellent companion book to Parables would be Notes on the Parables of Our Lord by Richard Chenevix Trench, originally published in 1861. In this book all the parables are discussed, along with many of the interpretations offered over time. A highly useable 2015 edition of the book is available from Forgotten Books, Dalton House, London, UK, at www.ForgottenBooks.com .]