Why Did Jesus Teach in Parables?
Why did Jesus use parables when he was teaching the crowds? That is a question many have asked, including his disciples. Jesus did give his disciples an answer to their question, although many find it confusing. Together, we’ll briefly look at what parables are, and why Jesus made such extensive use of them.
What Is a Parable?
Merriam-Webster defines a parable as "a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle." So, a parable is a teaching tool, and one that Jesus used often. His parables were short, ranging from a single verse (Matt. 13:33) to a couple of dozen (Luke 15:11-32). They all used everyday examples, and were relatable stories to those who heard them. And they had a truth that Jesus was attempting to get across to those he was teaching.
You might understand a parable to contain two distinct layers. On the surface, the parable was just an interesting story, one that was easily understood by the listeners and based on things within their own experience. But the parable also had a deeper meaning, illustrating a spiritual truth. In Jesus' use of parables, this truth most commonly dealt with the kingdom of heaven. And it was a truth that was easy to miss.
The Parable of the Sower: An Example
One of Jesus' more familiar parables is in Matthew 13:3-9, with the explanation following in Matthew 13:18-23. This parable goes by several names: the Parable of the Sower, the Sower and the Seed, or the Soils. This parable pictures a man sowing seed in his field. The sower cast the seed over the whole field, but not all the soil in the field was equally receptive to producing a good crop. Part of the field grew nothing, other places allowed the seed to sprout but not produce, and in some areas, the soil afforded an abundant harvest.
As Jesus explained this parable to his disciples, we find that the word of God is the seed (Luke 8:11) that the sower cast over his field. The four different types of soil that receive the word are four different ways that people respond to the gospel. Some reject it immediately. Some accept it but fall away because of trials. Others accept the gospel, but other things in their life choke it out. And finally, some embrace the gospel and become fruitful.
Why Did Jesus Use Parables?
In Matthew 13:10, Jesus' disciples asked him, "Why do you speak to the people in parables?" They seemed to find his parables confusing and frequently asked Jesus what they meant. They knew Jesus was trying to teach them something in these parables, but they found it hard to understand just what that was. So, they asked him why he didn’t just tell them directly. Why make it so hard to understand?
We might answer that the parable makes the truth it is trying to teach easier to grasp. At least once you know what that truth is. But the reason Jesus gave for using parables was quite different. In Matthew 13:11-13:
“He replied, ‘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.’"
Jesus appears to be telling his disciples that his use of parables is two-fold. The first reason is so that his disciples could learn the kingdom's secrets, while others, who were not among his disciples, would be left in the dark.
Reason 1: To Teach His Disciples
The first reason that Jesus gave for using parables was to impart "the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven" to his disciples. The parables were a teaching tool to help them understand what he had to say to them.
Take the example given above. Once Jesus had unlocked the explanation of the parable to his disciples, it made clear to them what they might expect as they took the gospel out into the world. Some people would be unreceptive to it, others would show some temporary interest, while others would embrace it and flourish.
While most of us today are not overly familiar with agriculture and gardening, this parable continues to teach us. With a minimum explanation of the sowing process, I can easily understand why some people thrive as believers while others struggle or even turn away.
Reason 2: To Prevent Understanding by Others
More challenging to understand is the second reason Jesus gave for teaching in parables. Jesus taught in parables to keep some people from understanding what he was teaching. Jesus’ use of parables served to divide his listeners into two groups: his disciples, and everyone else. His disciples would be able to learn from them. But to those who were not his disciples, their meaning was obscure. By using parables, his disciples would be enriched, but others would be further impoverished.
"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." These words from Matthew 13:12 are identical to what Jesus said in Matthew 25:29 as a part of the Parable of the Talents. And I believe that connection can help us understand what Jesus is saying about his reason for teaching in parables. In this parable, three servants were entrusted with a sum of money. Two of them invested their master's money well, while a third failed. The master commended and rewarded the first two servants, but the third one was punished. Jesus put these words into the mouth of the master as he punished the unfaithful servant. The one who was not faithful with what his master gave him lost even the little bit he had.
The disciples who followed Jesus were like the servants who faithfully invested their master's money. And they were given "the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven." The crowds who followed Jesus simply because of the miracles were in the place of the third servant. They were not interested in discipleship, and they lost their chance to be a part of the kingdom.
Another parable sheds further light on this. In Matthew 22:1-14 we find the Parable of the Wedding Banquet. In this parable, invitations to the banquet were given, first to a small group and then to the entire population. Everyone ended up with an invitation. But only some of them came and were able to participate in the banquet. The parable ends with, "For many are invited, but few are chosen." The king invited many people, but only those who responded were chosen to experience the delights of the wedding banquet.
This division of people here is the same as in the Parable of the Talents and in Jesus' explanation for why he taught in parables. Those who accepted the invitation and attended the banquet became Jesus' disciples and faithfully served him. Those who rejected the invitation are the ones for whom the meaning of the parables is obscured and who are excluded from the banquet.
Why Obscure the Message?
The preceding discussion identified those for whom the message was obscured, but it did not answer the question of why it was hidden. If Jesus had been more explicit in his teaching, might not more have turned to him and come into his kingdom? Is it possible that some were excluded simply because the message was too hard for them to understand?
To answer this, I believe it is essential to know what God wants from us. If he wanted people simply to believe he exists, he could have given us enough of a rational argument to be convincing. But clearly, belief in his existence is insufficient. The demons are convinced of God's existence and know much about God, but that belief does them no good (James 2:19). What God wants from us is faith (Hebrews 11:6), and faith is at odds with convincing proof.
So, Jesus chose to teach in a way that would be accessible to those who were following him in faith. And that would remain a mystery to those who would want more compelling proof as to who Jesus was. It is God’s will that those who do not first respond in faith will never understand the secrets of the kingdom of God.
Teaching in Parables
Jesus had two reasons for teaching in parables. The first was to enable his followers to grasp the secrets of the kingdom of heaven more easily. It was a teaching tool for them and us. And the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer continues to use these parables today to teach us the secrets of the kingdom.
His second reason was just the opposite. It hid the secrets of the kingdom from those who had not committed themselves to his lordship. Parables allow those who have faith, along with the instruction of the Holy Spirit, to learn about the kingdom. And they prevent others from doing the same. Those without faith and the Spirit are unable to understand the truths of Jesus’ parables.
Photo credit: Unsplash/Priscilla du preez
Ed Jarrett is a long-time follower of Jesus and a member of Sylvan Way Baptist Church. He has been a Bible teacher for over 40 years and regularly blogs at A Clay Jar. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Ed is married, the father of two, and grandfather of three. He is retired and currently enjoys his gardens and backpacking.