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Why Parables? Why not Straight Talk?

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:

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.

A Solution?

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 heard 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. God’s Word did not go out in vain, though there was a strategic time delay.