To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God; but those who are outside get everything in parables.
—Mark 4:11, NIV (Jesus speaking)
Why did Jesus teach in parables?
From watching religious programs on television, I notice that most Christian teachers love to be admired for telling it like it is. These guys don’t pussy-foot around. They describe what they feel are the ills of our society in graphic terms.
Now I would sooner wash my mouth out with soap than to talk in public like some of those guys, but even I can recognize that sometimes tough talk is necessary to cut through tough shells and penetrate into the real person inside. Sometimes it takes the shock value of frank language to cut through to a person’s inner being and lay the secrets bare. In my opinion, if frank language is used to move people to repentance, that is laudable; but if it is just used to move people to outrage, that is demagoguery. So it is a two-edged sword that people don’t always wield correctly.
So for those among us who are used to straight talk from the pulpit, Jesus’ teaching methods seem excessively gentle. We are used to people telling it like it is, but the whole essence of a parable is to tell it like it isn’t!
Modern teachers do not think up parables to get their point across, so if your only access to the Jewish world of the first century is in the New Testament, you might think that parables are a peculiarity of Jesus. You even might develop the idea that Jesus deliberately misled his listeners.
Why did Jesus teach in parables?
There were several reasons:
- It was the style of teaching of the day.
Just as today it is fashionable to tell it like it is, in those days, religious teachers always taught in parables. Volumes upon volumes of rabbinical writings from that era have survived to this day, and they all attest that parables were the way to go. People expected religious leaders to speak in parables. The teachers who were better storytellers developed a larger following.
- Parables make teachings easier to remember and apply.
In the parable of the lost son, the son got into a terrible fix, but he realized that in his situation he had nothing to lose and everything to gain by attempting a reconciliation with his father. In the parable there was a happy ending, but if you are ever in desperate straits, and you remember this parable, you might realize that even if the reconciliation doesn’t come off, you’re still no worse off. So by remembering the parable, you might attempt a reconciliation that you otherwise wouldn’t think of.
- Parables are more enduring than telling it like it is.
Social problems come and go. The way it is becomes the way it was. Old sermons addressing old social problems are out of touch with today. Parables deal with basic principles, whereas telling it like it is deals with how those principles apply to specific situations.
- If the situation changes, “telling it like it was” becomes irrelevant, but the parable lives on.
Jesus’ parables are still relevant to everyday life even after 2,000 years and technological, social, and political changes beyond anyone’s wildest imagining. Since Jesus spoke, the people in Europe, Africa, and Asia became aware of four additional continents. Yet His parables live on. On the other hand, a sermon that told it like it was about the hippie movement or miniskirts not too many decades ago would sooner move the congregation to nostalgia than to repentance.
- Parables allow you to make statements that would otherwise get you in trouble.
In old England, political commentary was dangerous, so newspapers printed transparent rhymes. All those nursery rhymes like Humpty Dumpty and Little Jack Horner were political satires. Parables and rhymes have always been a form of political or social commentary in societies where either custom or the law does not permit such things to be said in plain words. Many of Jesus’ parables made the Pharisees angry, because they taught things that weren’t to their liking, but stated them indirectly. The only teaching Jesus got in trouble for was His plain teaching that He is the Son of God.
- Parables have a time-release effect; they plant seeds that sprout later.
Jesus taught the public in pithy and memorable parables, so that people would remember them, discuss them, and try to figure out what they meant; and in this way the parables spread far beyond their original audience. Jesus deliberately withheld the meaning of the parables from the public to equip the disciples for successful evangelism later on. He explained the parables to the disciples, told them to wait for the proper time, and then shout from the housetops what they had heard in secret.
After the Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples did just that. The crowds, who were already familiar with Jesus’ parables, now heard the explanations—and that is how 3,000 converts were made on the first day of Christian evangelism.
Even in this day and age of telling it like it is, I daresay more sermons and commentaries explore the parables of Jesus than most other parts of Scripture.
Whoops! A problem
A reader pointed me to this Scripture:
[Jesus speaking:] The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
‘You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.’"
Matthew 13:13–15, NRSV
We run into a problem right away. To paraphrase the passage, Jesus says that as things stand, people have already closed their eyes and ears to the gospel. There is a chance, however, that if they understood the parables, they might repent and be saved. So He doesn't explain the parables to prevent them from being saved.
Now this doesn't seem to make sense.
Christians use various terms to make a distinction between faithful Christians on the one hand, and rebels against God on the other. It’s hard to tell who is on which side, because just as soon as we think we know, we find out we don’t. Not only are we not supposed to judge, we learn over and over that it‘s futile to try. However, for this discussion, we have to talk about those two groups of people without worrying about who is who. Not everyone uses the terms “saved” and “unsaved” for this purpose, but it’s compact terminology, so I’ll use it here.
- Who is supposed to understand the parables?
Jesus said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.”
Some people think Jesus means that the saved can understand the parables, but the unsaved are not even supposed to understand them, but there’s a problem: a person who is not saved can decide to become a Christian. At that point, they would understand the parables, even though Jesus intended for them not to. I could get dizzy thinking about this.
If we stay closer to the text, He’s only talking to the disciples. It would seem that “you” means the disciples and “they” (or “the people”) means everyone else, because at this point, according to our understanding, no one other than the disciples is saved yet. Since we weren’t among the disciples, this would mean that we couldn’t understand them—which makes me wonder the Bible would have stuff in it that no one can understand.
- Jesus came into the world not to judge it, but to save it (John 12:47)
In 2 Peter 3:9, God doesn’t want anyone to be lost, but this passage appears to say that Jesus wants quite a lot of people to be lost. Or put it this way: if John says that Jesus intends to save the world, but He says He only intends to save Liechtenstein, John is wrong. Our interpretation has Scripture fighting itself.
- Jesus told the disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel
If Jesus didn't want anyone but the disciples to understand the parables, in order to prevent people from being saved. Then the disciples can’t use the parables as teaching material, but it wouldn’t matter, since all their teaching would yield no converts.
- God’s Word does not go out void
Pretend for a moment that you can’t understand a word of Kashubian. It won't be hard to pretend that, because it’s likely you didn’t know it was a real language until now. (Check Wikipedia, I’ll wait.) If it’s any consolation, I don’t speak it either.
Imagine a scenario in which you do not know Kashubian, but I do. I come up to you and tell you, in Kashubian, to move to the side of the road to avoid being hit by a truck that’s careening down the hill out of control. If I had not warned you, you would not have been killed by the truck. Since I warned you in a language that you don’t understand, you couldn’t heed the warning and were killed. In other words, warning you and not warning you had the same result—and what is worse, I warned you in Kashubian even thought I knew you could not understand it. In other words, I warned you in vain. My words went out void.
It’s the same as the parables. If Jesus deliberately tells the public a warning they cannot understand or heed, His Word would go out void. However, according to Isaiah 55:11, God’s Word does not go out void.
However, this all makes sense if we realize that Jesus told the disciples that He was not explaining the parables to the public so that they would not understand them during His earthly ministry. After the resurrection, the disciples were supposed to shout from the rooftops what they were told in secret—that is, to proclaim publicly what Jesus had told them privately. And that would include the meaning of the parables. That’s why we can understand them today.