With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when He was alone with His own disciples, He explained everything. — Mark 4:33-34
Although Jesus grew up in the town of Nazareth, the Bible tells us He moved to Capernaum to establish a sort of headquarters for His earthly ministry. This was strategic. Capernaum sits on the northwest coast of the Sea of Galilee, and it was an important commercial stop along an ancient trade route.
It was there in Capernaum that our guide, Ray Vander Laan, first explained the role of the rabbis in first-century Jewish life. Apparently, Jewish men were not allowed to become rabbis, or teachers, until they were thirty years old. At that time, they would gather disciples and travel through the countryside, speaking to the local people along the way and in the various synagogues on the Sabbath. Historically, the synagogue was central to the Jewish people and the Jewish faith. It was there the rabbis explained the fundamentals of the faith to the often-confused individuals who followed them on their travels through the countryside.
Rabbis were trained to be “good shepherds” to the common people who, like sheep, were in desperate need of leadership. The rabbis were aware that the people who listened to them were, for the most part, uneducated peasant folk, so they spoke of things the average person could understand through their senses — what they could see, smell, hear, touch, or taste. Given this, it’s little wonder we read of Jesus telling parables that involve everyday items such as lilies (see Matthew 6:28), or millstones (see Matthew 18:6), or seed scattered along the side of a path (see Matthew 13:3). Teaching in parables was an art form of communication at the most primal level — and nobody did it better than Jesus.
During our tour, Ray would begin each day with us circled around him. Then we would recite the ancient Hebrew Shema, recorded in Deuteronomy 6:4:
Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.
The Jewish people have been reciting this verse every morning and evening since before the birth of Jesus. The purpose of reciting it is to declare love and allegiance to the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is also meant to testify to the world that God is One, that there are no other gods, and that we must therefore serve and worship Him alone — even if this means laying down our lives.
Jesus declared the Shema as foundational to faith when He answered the teacher of the law about what was the greatest commandment (see Mark 12:28-34). He also used parables as He taught what it meant to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31). Jesus knew the longing in the people’s hearts to understand the truths He was teaching. He loved the purity of their desire to know their heavenly Father more intimately.
I’m sure the people loved the beauty and simplicity of Jesus’ teachings, just as we do today. And I’m sure they appreciated that He never spoke down to them or belittled them, like the religious leaders of the day often did. They needed hope, and Jesus provided it to them.
Think about the best teacher you had in school. What made his or her teaching so effective? How did that person impact your love of learning?
Jesus spoke in parables so the people of His day would understand His message. What does this tell you about God’s desire for you to understand Him and His Word? How are you responding to God’s offer and seeking His wisdom?
Which of Jesus’ parables has helped you to understand more about God and how He operates? How can you use stories of faith from your own life to help someone else know Jesus?
Adapted from The Rock, the Road, and the Rabbi, copyright Kathie Lee Gifford.
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