Why Parables?

Q. Why did Jesus speak to the people in parables? Didn’t He want them to understand?

A. Jesus’s answer is in Mt 13:11-16, 34 (see also Mk 4:11-12, 25, 33-34; Lk 8:10, 18):

  • 11 Jesus answered them, To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. 
  • 12 For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him. 
  • 13 Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.
  • 14 In their case, the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says, ‘You will keep on hearing, but will not understand; You will keep on SEEING BUT will not PERCEIVE.
  • 15 For the heart of this people has become dull,
    With their ears they scarcely hear,
    And they have closed their eyes,
    Otherwise they would see with their eyes,
    Hear with their ears,
    And understand with their heart and return,
    And I would heal them.’
  • 16 But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear.
  • 34 All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, and He did not speak to them without a parable.

Some say Jesus spoke in parables because people liked listening to stories. Jesus’ audience was mostly ordinary folks who were not highly educated. When He used everyday objects to teach, He grasped their attention as they can relate to the familiar. In other words, He spoke in parables to reveal truths.

Others say exactly the opposite – He taught in parables to conceal things. He did not want people like scribes and Pharisees to understand. They hardened their hearts to reject Jesus, so He hid His words from them by speaking in parables so that they would not understand.

Still others believe He used parables because His hour had “not yet come” (Jn 7:30, 8:20). He had much to teach His disciples before His atonement for the redemption of mankind. He did not want to trigger His crucifixion prematurely, so He spoke in parables until His hour had come. After His death and resurrection, His disciples would proclaim what He told them upon the housetops (Mt 10:27, Lk 12:3).

What did Jesus Himself say? He divided people into two groups:

You (His disciples)Them (the crowds)
Granted to know Kingdom mysteriesNot granted to know
Has – more givenDoes not have – taken away
See and hearDo not see and hear
 They have closed their eyes
 Otherwise, return and get healed

His disciples (except Judas) were those He chose to carry on the work after His ascension. They were given privileged information in their training so that they will make disciples of all the nations. But we need to examine the crowds more closely.

“Crowds” translates the Greek noun “ochlos”, which appears 143 times in the Gospels, 175 times in the entire NT. Sometimes the crowds are described as hostile and wicked:

  • Mt 26:55 At that time Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest Me as you would against a robber? Every day I used to sit in the temple teaching, and you did not seize Me.”
  • Mt 27:20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to put Jesus to death.
  • Lk 3:7 So he began saying to the crowds who were going out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
  • Lk 11:29 As the crowds were increasing, He began to say, “This generation is a wicked generation; it seeks for a sign, and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah.

Other times the crowds viewed Jesus favorably to varying degrees:

  • Mt 9:8 But when the crowds saw this, they were awestruck, and glorified God, who had given such authority to men.
  • Mt 9:33 After the demon was cast out, the mute man spoke; and the crowds were amazed, and were saying, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.” (Also Lk 11:14)
  • Mt 12:23 All the crowds were amazed, and were saying, “This man cannot be the Son of David, can he?”
  • Mt 21:11 And the crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee.”

The most you can say about crowds is that they are a mixed group consisting of some who stubbornly refuse to believe and even wanted to destroy Jesus, and some who eagerly heed His teaching and trust Him:

  • Jn 7:12 There was much grumbling among the crowds concerning Him; some were saying, “He is a good man”; others were saying, “No, on the contrary, He leads the people astray.”

Now, what was Jesus’ way to distinguish between the two sub-groups? By speaking to them in parables! Bright sunshine hardens clay but melts wax – same sunshine, but different results because the nature of the objects is different. Parables are Jesus’ tests to separate the two. Those whom God called will respond in faith – they will see and hear and understand. Those not called will respond with unbelief – they will close their eyes and shut their ears and will not understand.

So why did Jesus speak in parables? I think it is a combination:

  • To reveal the truth to His disciples, making it relatable,
  • To separate those who have faith from those who refuse to believe,
  • To allow time to train His disciples before He was taken from them.

What about to conceal things from the Pharisees? Perhaps, but if He did it was not too successful:Mt 21:45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. (Also Mk 12:12, Lk 20:19)

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