Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: parables

The farmer and the salesman

Once upon a time there were two Bible study groups, one led by a farmer and the other by a salesman. Both groups studied the same portions of Scripture, but the discussions were not at all the same.

The farmer spent his days alone, driving a tractor up and down the fields or repairing the fence around his pasture. When he came to Bible study he was ready to talk. Any time there was a gap in the discussion he filled the time with philosophical musings about life that had come to him while he was alone or with something interesting that he had read. Nobody could think of much to say about the Bile passage, except to repeat a few platitudes they had all heard before.

The folks in the farmer’s class went home feeling they had reaffirmed what they already believed about the Scripture and didn’t think much more about it during the following week. Their spiritual lives continued to unfold along a predictable path without many challenges.

The salesman did not have a product to sell and didn’t see any need to sell himself. As a salesman he understood that the way to begin was to find out what people needed. So he would ask a question or two and let others think about it. He was comfortable with quiet moments in the discussion and never tried to fill them with chatter that would distract from searching for the meaning and application of the Scripture. Others in the class felt comfortable sharing their own thoughts and questions.

The folks in the salesman’s class went home with new thoughts about what the Scripture meant for their lives and questions about how they could be more obedient to the leading of the Holy Spirit. These people explored the Scriptures, saw new implications for their lives and talked about these things with their friends. They were growing spiritually.

This is a parable and the occupations of the Bible study leaders are inconsequential. I could just as easily have told how the farmer watched in wonder as his crops and his calves grew, knew that it was not his doing, tried to sow the seed in his Bible study and let God make it grow. The salesman could have been convinced of a particular teaching, supposedly drawn from the Scriptures, and endeavoured to sell this teaching to his class. I have chosen to write as I have because the parable is loosely based on a real example from many years ago.

My true purpose in writing this parable is that I have looked in the mirror and realize that I am way too much like the farmer, and I want to grow to be more like the salesman.

A parable about a parable

The kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it. The words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 13:45-46

Renowned investigative reporter Ernest Digger has just returned from a trip to the Middle East where he was able to track down a descendant of the merchant in Jesus’ account. Here is his report:

—Joseph ben Ezra did not want me to tell where he lives, so I will just say his home is in a small mountain village. His house is small and sparsely furnished. He does not appear to be poor or rich, but able to provide for the needs of his family by weaving carpets of traditional style.

—Mr ben Ezra, I understand that you are a descendant of the pearl merchant of whom Jesus spoke?

—Yes, through the grace of God I am one of the descendants of that illustrious man.

—What can you tell us about your ancestor?

—He was a rich man, but he sold everything he had to obtain that precious pearl. Of course he could not sell that pearl, so he turned to making his living as I am doing today. He left instructions for his descendants that they should always live humbly and simply to hour God for the great gift that he had found.

—What happened to the pearl after your ancestor died?

—No one knows. It disappeared.

—He did not bequeath it to his children?

—There were mysterious words in his testament. He said that the pearl could not be given from one person to another, but each one would have to do as he did, sell everything they had to obtain the pearl.

—Have you done that?

—I am not a rich man. All that I own would be too paltry a sum to buy such a pearl.

—Has anyone in your family obtained such a pearl?

—There are stories. I once met a distant cousin who said he had such a pearl. He told me the same ridiculous story about how I could have one too. I would have to sell everything I have, even the clam shell that once contained the pearl.

— You have the original shell?

—Yes I do.

He showed me a large oyster shell, carefully wrapped in a cloth.

—So, you have the shell, but not the pearl?

—Yes, but don’t you see how beautiful it is? See how the mother-of-pearl inside almost glows. It is a beautiful and precious thing. I cannot afford the pearl, but this treasure reminds us continually of that pearl our ancestor found.

—Still, you have only the shell, not the pearl.

—But surely that is enough. Would God require me to sell the shell and everything else I have and deprive my family of their living? That would be unreasonable.

—Thank you for your time Mr. Ben Ezra.

—You are most welcome. May the peace of God be with you.

Strangely enough, I later met several relatives of Mr. Ben Ezra. Each told much the same story and each had an oyster shell that they claimed to be the original.

The parable of the train-chasing dog

Many years ago, in the time of small farms, one such farm was located beside a railway that connected several of the big cities of the area. The farm consisted of a number of small fields, cultivated by a small tractor, and a pasture containing a few cows and their calves. There was a little valley running across one corner of this pasture with a creek where the cows could drink.

In this bucolic setting there lived a farmer with his wife, their three children, and a dog. Now this was a noble dog, whose heart was set to protect the farmer and his family from all dangerous intruders. And he proved this determination eight times a day when a great growling and howling creature approached on the railroad tracks. The dog immediately began to bark and to run towards this oncoming threat, reaching the tracks just as the last car of the train passed by. The dog continued to bark and to follow until he was satisfied that it was gone, then returned home.

There was in the same neighbourhood a person whose motives were not as noble as those of the dog. He observed that the farmer and his family grew accustomed to the barking of the dog and took no notice. This person began to walk by the pasture at odd hours, always bringing with him some treat for the dog, who soon came to regard him as a friend. Thus when this person came one night with a truck and loaded up some of the calves, the dog made no barking, for was not this his friend?

It occurs to me that I have known in my time several persons who resembled this dog. They fancied themselves to be watchmen of Zion, and began to bray loudly at the approach of any innovation that they regarded as a threat. People learned to ignore them, for were they not always braying? And did not the imagined threats always pass by harmlessly?

Yet these same self-appointed watchmen were prone to become intrigued by a speaker or a book that professed to uphold the faith, yet contained some unorthodox line of thought. As these watchmen considered and digested these ideas, they spoke of them often to others. The result was that a few others found the new way of looking at things so captivating that they left the fold to follow the errant doctrine. And no one quite knew what had happened.


A short while ago I published an item in this space entitled The Millionaire and the Scrublady, having no knowledge of who had written it.  A reader informed me that it came from Parables of a Country Parson by William E Barton. I have since obtained a copy of the book. Therein is the story of The Dog and the Limited, wherein the writer observes a dog futilely attempting to catch a passenger train. It seemed to me that the dog was not trying to catch the train but to chase it away. And in this he succeeded, as far as he could understand. Those thoughts led to the writing above.

A sense of wonder

Aslan, copyright (c) Lucy Learns Ltd www.lucylearns.com

Aslan, copyright (c) Lucy Learns Ltd
http://www.lucylearns.com

There are sober and serious Christians who object to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books and Tolkien’s Hobbit books on the ground that they are not real life stories. To which I would ask “Is this visible world all there is to real life?”

Children are aware that there are unseen forces influencing the events around them. They live in a world of mystery and wonder that is sometimes frightening, sometimes reassuring. The schools do their best to abolish that awareness of unseen wonders. What is left of life when that is gone? Emptiness, meaninglessness and despair.

The Bible is not simply a book of moral teachings, with some history and some poetry. It is a book that allows us a glimpse beyond our mortality at the wonders that God has prepared for His people, and also the great spiritual forces that are trying to prevent us reaching that goal.

There are miracles all through the Bible. We accept them as fact. But they are only a small part of the spiritual realities hinted at in the Bible. Jesus, and many others before Him, revealed important truths by the means of stories, or parables. Are they all true life stories, things that really happened? Some may have been, but even then there are details that reach beyond the limitations of this earthly life.

Consider the parable of the prodigal son. He asked for his share of the inheritance from his father, wasted it all, and then returned home. When his brother complained of the favour the father bestowed on this wastrel, the father told him “All that I have is thine.” This is beyond the earthly division of property among a father’s heirs. When we waste our spiritual heritage, it does not diminish the wealth our Father has to bestow on His other children. Likewise, when we repent and those spiritual benefits are restored, there is nothing subtracted from the spiritual heritage available to others. There is a marvellous truth here that is beyond earthly reality.

The parable of the sower conveys a similar truth. A real life farmer will sow his seed in a prepared field where it has the best chance of producing a crop. In this case the seed is the word of God and our Father is altogether profligate in the way he strews it about, in the hope that even in the most unlikely places a few kernels might take root and amount to something. He also makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. A new spiritual life can spring up in places that we think are incapable of bearing fruit.

But the Bible goes beyond parables to describe the wonders of the world that now is and the world that is to come. John saw the streets of New Jerusalem as transparent gold and each gate as made of a single pearl. He was using the words and images at his disposal to describe something that has no earthly counterpart.

And consider this image: “For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). There are many more verses like this. Will they be literally fulfilled? Yet the Scripture says that all Creation will rejoice at the coming of the Lord. There is a thrill in contemplating that great day of rejoicing.

There are works of imagination and fancy that try to twist the message of the Bible out of shape. Those we must avoid. A devoted student of the bible will find that it interprets itself; there is no need for some teacher to provide an explanation from his own imagination.

There are other works of fancy and imagination that portray humans as having magical or supernatural powers. These too should be avoided. But books that portray ordinary boys and girls, men and women, in a world of wonder and mystery, are more true to life than books that merely try to inculcate a moral lifestyle. It is not fair to children to teach that if they are honest and industrious, respectful to elders and never use bad words, that one day they will go to heaven.

They will encounter dragons and giants in life. If they do not expect such things, they may well flee and fall into a horrible snare. If they know that such things exist, and also that there are unseen helpers to help them overcome the giants and dragons, they are much more likely to face them with courage.

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