Why did Jesus speak in parables?
Jesus often spoke in parables. This itself was a bit of a puzzle to his disciples, so they asked him about it: Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (Matt 13:10). Wouldn’t it have been easier just to speak plainly so as not to have this element of confusion? Why would Jesus engage the disciples this way knowing that they didn’t always “get it”?
The best place to begin in answering the question is what Jesus said about it. After the disciples asked Jesus why, He answered in a way that could lead to even more questions, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matt 13:11-13). Jesus tells them why, but now the question is, what did Jesus mean by this response? Perhaps we can gain a little more insight into one of the most important teaching methods employed by our Lord.
From Jesus’ reply, the parables have something to do with “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.” Indeed, Jesus connected kingdom teachings to the parables in many places by prefacing them with “The kingdom of heaven is like…”. Parables said something important about the kingdom, but they did not say it in the most straightforward way. Rather, they served the purpose of both revealing truth and concealing, depending on the perspective of the hearer. To one who is tuned to hear it, more is given. Others, however, will not understand; they do not hear or see. Though it seems odd to us, parables were not meant to communicate so clearly so that no one would ever misunderstand. Many would, in fact, misunderstand because they had hard hearts. Why is this?
People needed to be ready to hear and “tuned in,” as it were, to what the parables were doing. Jesus would follow up a parable with something like, “Let anyone who has ears listen” (Matt 13:9). He quoted from Isaiah 6 to show that not everyone would hear or see. One needed to be prepared to hear the meaning of the parable, not just audibly hear words without a heart to follow through. Hearing takes active effort and intentional thought to understand. Not everyone is willing to do this. Here is where we all need to step back and ask ourselves where we fall on this spectrum. Am I ready to hear? Am I willing to act on what I hear? Or am I being hard-hearted about it all?
The nature of the kingdom was offensive to many. Who among the Romans, Herodians, and Jewish leaders would want to hear the true message of the kingdom? They had their own ideas that were being rejected and subverted by the message of Christ. If Jesus taught in such a straightforward way, his mission might well have been cut off much sooner than planned. Jesus was on His own schedule, and His teaching reflected the need for people to pay close attention to what He was saying.
Teaching in parables, then, was consistent with Jesus’ approach overall of slowly revealing who he was and what his intentions were. The parables, in effect, were similar to another way of saying, “Tell no one the vision…” (Matt 17:9). For those who wanted to know and understand, they could. For those who were not interested in the truth Jesus taught, they would not get the point. Parables would baffle them. People had to be willing, with open hearts, to listen so that they would understand. Parables, in this way, separated the truth-seekers from the hardened hearts who were only interested in self-preservation and political systems.
Even then, the disciples did not always understand and they had to ask about them. Even though there is a sense in which the language was meant for “insiders,” as some would say, the disciples were sometimes slow on the uptake. Jesus was patient as they grew in their understanding. Yet do we not all find ourselves slow to “get it” at times? Has not the Lord been patient with us? To be sure, parables force us to think, to meditate, and to take our time figuring out the implications. Parables show us that God is interested in getting disciples to think things out and think things through.
Jesus’ use of parables was brilliant. He knew what He was doing, as always. He gave us the tools to understand and gives us patience as we seek to do so. Now we need to ask ourselves, how much do I want to understand what Jesus taught? How much am I willing to put into knowing His will?