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. 

The parable of the unforgiving servant: forgiveness and judgment

So that we have an example in front of us to work with, I’ll quote the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35). 

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred silver coins.  He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (NIV)

First of all, it’s a parable about the importance of forgiveness.  Ten thousand talents is an enormous sum.  One talent was worth twenty years of a laborer’s wages.  Parables deal in hyperbole, in this case emphasizing God’s enormous powers of forgiveness.  It also emphasizes God’s judgment on those who don’t.

Judgment

Many of us don’t like to talk about God’s judgment of sinners these days.  It seems somehow old fashioned.  If the king represents God, as he certainly does, then there is something troubling here.  The king is an appealing and magnanimous figure, and yet he rescinds his forgiveness and sends the unforgiving servant to be tortured.  The reversal is extreme, the king not just harsh but vindictive.      

The first thing to say is that parables are exaggerations.  That’s the point: an extraordinary act of forgiveness is paired with terrible vengeance.  Is this our God, or do we ask too much of a parable when we want perfect parallels?

Isn’t it enough to say that the parable, which is introduced with a command to forgive seventy-seven times (or 70 times 7 in some translations) tells us about the importance of forgiveness, and that we should be willing to forgive enormous transgressions many times over, as God does? 

But it’s not just a parable of forgiveness.  It’s a parable of judgment.  There are consequences.  If God’s grace is limitless, so are his demands. 

Along with the focus on mercy . . . is a focus on judgment. Should the master have done nothing when he heard what happened?  As much as people recoil from the theme of judgment, it is an integral part of Jesus’ kingdom message. The kingdom cannot be present if evil is not being named and defeated. If there is no judgment, salvation is not needed. The judgment language is hyperbole not a description of actuality, but it assures people that there will be a reckoning and that God will vindicate the oppressed.  loc 1923

This is probably the right tone to take regarding this parable, one reason Snodgrass is so helpful.  Nevertheless, there is an unrelenting severity to the God of the parables.  See for example the parable of Lazarus at the gate of the rich man (Luke 16:19-31).  He remains what is sometimes called an Old Testament God, the God of the Hebrew prophets.  There is not as much difference between the Old Testament and the New as is sometimes thought. 

Jesus says he doesn’t want people to understand his parables?

The disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”  The context is the parable of the sower, who spreads his seed on ground good and bad (Mark 4:3-8), but they were referring to his method of teaching in general. 

11 He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 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. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:

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

14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
    you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
15 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
    they hardly hear with their ears,
    and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
    hear with their ears,
    understand with their hearts
    and turn (epistrepsōsin)* and I would heal them.’ [Matthew 15:10-15; internal quote from Isaiah 6:9,10]

Present in all three synoptic gospels (Mark 4:10-13; Luke 8:9-10), the likelihood that Jesus said something like this is high.

      Why would Jesus say this?

Jesus taught in the prophetic tradition, in which the failures of the people are called out so that they might change their ways before it is too late.  They rarely do.  Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are among the prophets of the Old Testament, who warned of judgment and called for repentance.  Jesus is telling people what they don’t want to hear, and anticipates that most will not listen.  It is as though he were saying not `I speak so they won’t understand,’ but `I fear they won’t understand.  I know it is too late.’  And for the most part he was right. 

Consider the quotation from Isaiah used by Jesus, “otherwise . . . they would understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.”  To turn is to accept the teachings of Christ and experience salvation.  Some will, but Jesus knows (he knows everything) that most will not, and so will not be saved.  What sounds like a wish that people not understand is a sadly accurate prediction that they will not.  Jesus, as human as he is divine, is discouraged.

Parables are not riddles, but they are predicated on the assumption that those who are ready to “turn” will understand; the rest will not.  Jesus must explain the parable in question even to his disciples.  “Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable?  How then will you understand any parable?” (Mark 4:13)  It is as though there is a veil between Jesus and humanity, as though something has made us stupid. 

Something has, and it is the things of this world, and how attached we become to them, as though they could save us.  The parable of the rich fool (Luke 12: 16-21) is as explicit as a parable can be.  Build barns and silos for all your grain, but to what end?  God is coming for you tonight.  And we might add, if not tonight, then soon, and what good will all your stuff do you?  Invest (a common image in parables**) in the kingdom of God.  Only it will save you.

Conclusion

Th parable of the rich fool, like all parables, is about the meaning of life, and by what it should be measured.  Things, people, or the kingdom of God?  The Lord’s Prayer reminds us of this every time we pray, and this is probably the best way to think about the parables.  Not as mini-theologies, but as hyperbolic illustrations of the teachings of Christ. 

———————————–

* epistrepsōsin (ἐπιστρέψωσιν).  Strong’s concordance #1994.  The term “turn” might just as well be translated as “return.”

** See parable of the talents, Matthew 25:14-30, and parable of treasure hidden in a field, Matthew 13:44-46.

References

W. A. Elwell and P. W. Comfort, Tyndale Bible Dictionary. Tyndale House Publishers, 2001.

Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus.  Eerdmans, 2018.  All unattributed references are to Snodgrass.  I rely heavily on him.

4 thoughts on “Why did Jesus teach in parables?”

  1. I remember how, as a child, I would sit through seemingly interminable and boring religious services, except that the one bright moment came when these Gospel stories were read. Now, I recall that statement “except you are as little children you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven”. These stories speak to uncluttered minds – they are ‘simple’ in the way that Mozart’s music is ‘simple’ – they cannot be understood through intellectual arguments or sophistry.

  2. I find Mike’s comment says alot.I had never noticed before about understanding or not understanding.That is every well explained.If shows the value of slow patient thinking.
    I also wanted to look up “parabola” to find the word origin.

  3. As does yours, all of my writing encourages people to THINK, THINK, THINK! The credulous nature of the world is so disheartening as people are more willing to accept anything that will make them feel better about themselves regardless of its origin or validity, the truth notwithstanding. As for those calling themselves “Christian,” so boldly and so convinced of their “salvation,” I have to wonder if this is not, more or less, a contrary symbol like would be a badge or a ring worn by the so-called humble person to show just how humble they are.

    1. Thanks James. For me, Christianity has never been primarily about salvation. I think the Sermon on the Mount gets the basics for me. Regards, Fred

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