Why did Jesus teach in parables?

What did Jesus use parables?  Parables comprise about 35% of the teachings of Jesus (Tyndale Bible Dictionary).  They are not illustrations of his teachings; they are his teachings.  There are about 33 parables, depending on what counts as a parable.  Experts differ.  I’ve posted twice on parables , but more needs to be said, and I’ve changed my mind about why Jesus says that he speaks in parables so that his followers won’t understand him.  For if they understood him, they would be saved (Mark 4:10-12).  It’s an extraordinary statement:  Jesus doesn’t want his followers to understand and be saved.  What could that mean?

No one has ever taught using parables as extensively as Jesus.  No one even comes close.  Almost all experts believe that parables are as near as we can get to what Jesus actually said.  Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering that we know not a single one of Jesus’ parables.  We know Jesus’ parables as they are recounted by Mark, Matthew, and Luke, writing decades after Jesus’ death.  They recount many of the same parables, but each adds his own twist, sometimes significant, generally not.  There are no (or one) parables in the Gospel of John. 

What’s a parable?

A parable isn’t a correspondence between one thing and another.  It’s not an analogy.  I like Snodgrass’ definition best.

At its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought. loc 466

There are a few parables in the Hebrew Testament, almost all in the prophetic books.  This turns out to be important, for it helps explain why Jesus said he didn’t want his followers to understand.  More on this later. 

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Christ: vindicator or lamb of God?

Christ: vindicator or lamb of God?  

If Jesus Christ is the Lord’s vindicator, how can he be at the same time the Lamb of God?  In trying to understand this and more, I’m going to follow the lead of a marvelous work of scholarly imagination by Jack Miles, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.  This does not mean that I agree with it.

The winnowing fork

Consider the image of the winnowing fork, which Christ uses to separate the wheat from the chaff, burning the chaff in an endless fire.  Attributed to John the Baptist by Matthew (3:12), the image captures perfectly Christ’s self-description of his mission: to bring hope to the pious and powerless, and punishment to the rich, who have had their reward in this world (Luke: 6:23-24).  But the statement I will never understand is Christ’s explanation of why he speaks in parables.

And when he was alone, those who were about him with the twelve asked him concerning the parables.  And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.” (Mark 4.10-12)

No matter how many times it is explained to me in terms of Christ’s regret and understandable anger at those who will never understand (Young 1998, pp 263-264), I cannot make sense of Christ’s claim.  Why would he speak in code?  Are there no second chances?  This is not the statement of a loving God.  Christ’s statement has been explained as “the wistful longing of frustrated love,” but it doesn’t sound very wistful to me. 

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