If you have spent much time at church you have probably heard that Jesus taught in parables. Most of the time when this statement is uttered it is in support of some teaching methodology or genre study issue. This is not accurate when generalized like this though. Jesus sometimes taught in parables, and when he did it was not because they are such a cool teaching aid.
Why Teach in Parables?
While preparing a lesson on this topic I could not remember the verses that dealt with the questions so I ran the phrase through my browser and found a web page (which shall remain nameless) that purported to answer the question. There was enough copyright warnings on it to scare me away from quoting any of it directly, but in summary the writer suggested several reasons why he thought Jesus taught in parables:
- Parables were the teaching style of the day.
- Parables allow teachers to get away with more.
- Parables can be used for evangelistic seeds that sprout later..
The other reasons mostly revolved around the usefulness of story telling versus making direct statements, which he then applied to modern teaching and preaching methods. It was all very nice and “sermony,” but there was one problem: None of these are the reason Jesus said He taught in parables!
Why Not Teach in Parables?
Before getting into why Jesus did, in fact, teach in parables, let’s consider some of the above reasons people often suggest.
First, if parabolic teaching was so common, what made the disciples curious about Jesus’ use of them in the first place? If such a methodology were common, they probably would not have asked Jesus why he used it.
Second, the idea that Jesus spoke in parables to avoid making direct claims and getting in trouble is problematic. When you look at the timeline of Jesus’ career, He did not begin using parables until He was already in plenty of trouble. Further, He did not stop making direct claims even after He started to use parables (which He only did once in a while).
Third, while parables can be used effectively after the fact, they often seem to have been confusing and distracting until explained. Thus – not a good teaching tool unless explanations are included. If this was Jesus’ teaching style, his apostles do not seem to have adopted it, however. I know of no instance where the apostles ever used and explained Jesus’ parables to the crowds as they evangelized.
Finally, while it might be true that parables can be used for evangelism, as it turns out, such an idea is even farther from the mark than the rest. The reason why has to do with Jesus’ actual reason for using parables.
Now, prepare yourself for a hermeneutical excursion worthy of the finest scholars of any age as I reveal my stunning process for discovering the reason Jesus taught in parables.
The key to answering the question “Why did Jesus teach in parables?” is by reading the entire sentence! Yes, when Jesus was asked why He taught in parables, He actually answered. Unfortunately, the writer mentioned above only quoted the first half of the sentence (even ending this partial quote with a period as if the sentence actually ended there). Now, the writer of the article might have gotten confused because the sentence is broken up into separate verses, but this hardly excuses a misquote, or non-biblical responses. Mark 4:10-12 reads:
“When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that . . .”
I hate to interrupt Jesus, but please note that the words “so that” seem to indicate a purpose. OK, I can’t stand the suspense any longer – here’s the rest:
“. . . so that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding . . .”
Far from wanting to be clear or memorable or evangelistic, Jesus was using parables to make sure people did not understand Him!
Now, you might be wondering why God would bother to incarnate and spend 30+ years as a human being only to speak so as to obscure His teaching. The simple answer is that . . . Ha! Did I catch you? Jesus already answered that question too. Believe it or not, we still have not reached the end of the sentence!
“. . . otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'”
The only real question left unanswered is why Jesus apparently did not want some people to “turn and be forgiven.”
Answering that question involves knowing things like:
- Who Jesus’ audience is here (which is clear from the context – start at verse 1).
- What other passages have to say about the event (i.e., Matthew 13:1-17).
- Why Jesus quotes Isaiah 6 here.
- When it was said.
Knowing the who and when this event in relation to Jesus’ overall ministry is where the answer is found. Discovering this can be difficult without a Gospel Harmony, but Matthew records this event in chapter 13 which comes right after chapter 12 . . . (hint hint!). I won’t spoil the joy of discovery for you. But in the meantime I suggest the following:
- Look for answers in the text first!
- Always look up Bible citations – even if you think you already know them (I still forget to do this sometimes, and I have paid for it!)
- Don’t assume verses are being considered in context (especially in the gospels where there is both a literary and a historical context that do not always overlap).
When I teach Bible study, one of the things I stress is that of the three standard steps (Observation, Interpretation, and Application) it is often during the observation of the text that the biggest mistakes are made. It is really somewhat shocking how many interpretation or application mistakes are caused by the failure to simply read the text. It does make for good sermon fodder though.