Why did Jesus teach in parables?

Why did Jesus teach in parables? Some thoughts on this.

Parables are cryptic and provocative riddles. They are hard to understand. Think 'whodunit' rather than 'documentary'. They puzzle, disturb and sometimes baffle people. They are not meant to be easy listening like Andy Williams or Mantovani.

So why did Jesus tell parables? On one level Jesus told his stories because he wanted to nudge his listeners to walk in the ways of the kingdom. The parables provoke people and nurture receptivity to the kingdom message but there is another reason that is often neglected. On another level Jesus' rationale for storytelling is disconcerting, abrasive and shocking.

The disciples came to him and asked, "Why do you speak to the people in parables?"

Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables:

'Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.'

Matthew 13:10 -13

How can we make sense of this strange answer? Jesus' parables reveal important truths about God’s kingdom but they also bring judgment at the same time. You can't sit on the fence, says Conrad Gempf. You have to choose. Are you for Jesus and his kingdom or are you against him?

Parables shed light on the most important issues in life and death. They also hide these truths from the hard of heart. Those who have 'ears to hear' will marinade in the parables, nibbling on them thoughtfully, imaginatively and prayerfully. Eventually they will get hold of the good news of God's kingdom.

Such people begin to see Jesus Christ in a new light. No longer, just a prophet, although he is that. No longer just a great teacher, although he is that as well. Jesus is revealed as the Son of the Living God. The One in whom all things are created and redeemed (Colossians 1:15-23).

Think for a moment about the parable of the pearl in Matthew 13:45.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

Some will rejoice on hearing this. Others will dismissively shrug their shoulders. 'I can't be bothered to puzzle this one out', they murmur listlessly, chomping on a pasty. The parable has gone in one ear and out the other.

You can't beat a good Cornish pasty. Obviously you wouldn't catch James Bond eating one but I love 'em; particularly with a good dollop of mayonnaise. But sometimes you have to put the pasty down and ponder the incredible revelation that comes with a Jesus parable. Chew on it – good and proper. Allow its deep, strange truth to penetrate your soul, your body, your mind, your loins, your teeth and your hard, stony heart!

So Jesus told parables and asked questions. This was his double-barreled shotgun; crafted not to kill enemy agents but to bring life in all its fullness. Manufactured to bring the good news of God's kingdom.

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Comments

Hi Mark,

Thanks for posting this. One of the things I have always struggled with concerning Jesus's parables are that to me, they don't seem very 'democratic' or 'egalitarian'. Rather, they seem elitist, like some kind of modernist poetry was: only the 'initiated' can access the meaning. Of course, some of the hardest and, quite frankly, incomprehensible verses in the New Testament are those which speak of God actively making it hard for people to hear his truth, which seems to go against the idea of a God who desires everyone to come to a knowledge of the truth.

I could warmly empathise with somebody who felt isolated or indeed even alienated by the way Jesus talked sometimes. It brings back emotions such as 'if only I achieve this mental state then I shall be able to understand – I shall be accepted'. It is a works thing.

On the other hand, I suppose some of the parables can be grouped together so that a single 'complex' can be diffused into different illustrations or images. Do you think that perhaps this method of disseminating truth-realities is actually a safeguard against totalitarian interpretations, which could be easily manipulated by those who seek to harm people rather than help them?

Just some thoughts, anyway.

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