Those of us who have read the Gospels, or who are even remotely familiar with the teachings of Jesus, know that he often spoke in parables. Indeed, Jesus tells over 40 parables, many that are very familiar, such as the Parable of the Good Samaritan or the Parable of the Prodigal Son, two parables that are well known even among many non-Christians.
But why did Jesus speak in parables? This is the question that his closest followers asked him, trying to get a sense of the meaning and purpose of Jesus’ parables, and it is a question that many of us have when looking back at Jesus’ life and ministry. Indeed, when considering the importance Jesus seems to place on his authority as the teacher of God’s will, one wonders why he talked in stories that are riddles that are hard to understand and interpret.
Would it not have been easier, and much clearer to his audience, and certainly to us living two millennium in the future, if Jesus would have been more forthright and straightforward in his speech, offering to his listeners lists of commands that are not difficult to comprehend?
Could Jesus have not done a better job of teaching his followers exactly what he wanted them to learn if he had not been so mysterious by using parables? For sure, Jesus is clear at times, but when he communicates in parables, his meaning is very often unclear.
It is true that there is a sense that Jesus understood his own surroundings and his own culture and people, who lived in an agrarian Palestine, and who understood the cultural norms of the society in which they lived from day to day. The parables, then, are connections to the hearers through relevant allegory. Thus, the parables Jesus tells utilize images and ideas his contemporaries would have understood, and if we look at the parables, we quickly see how earthy many of them are.
So, in a real sense, Jesus was using everyday images and practices to speak about deeper theological and ethical issues. Some have said Jesus did this to make these ideas easier for his listeners to understand.
But is this correct?
Yes, Jesus does use everyday images and practices in the stories he tells, but his parables do not necessarily make theological and ethical issues easier to understand. In fact, several of Jesus’ parables are confusing. For example, the one he tells in Mark 4 about the sower who goes out to sow seed is very confusing.
Who is the sower? What is the seed? What do the different types of soil mean, if anything? Sure, Jesus explains his parable to the disciples, the only time he ever explains one of his parables, but even his explanation is confusing. We still do not know what the meaning of the parable is. Is it a call for us to be better soil so that we can receive the seed that will grow? If this is so, do we have any control over this? Can soil actually change its own capacity to be more or less fruitful?
But in an interesting answer to the disciples’ question about the meaning of the parables, Jesus seems to imply, or perhaps is very straightforward as to why he speaks in parables. He says in Mark 4:11-12,
“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”
In his allusion to Isaiah 6:9, Jesus is clearly stating that his parables are difficult to understand, and they are intended to be difficult to understand. Although he uses images and practices that the people of first century Palestine would have understood, the use of these familiar images does not translate into his audience actually understanding what he is saying.
So, again, why did Jesus use these parables, which he himself admits are difficult to understand?
Perhaps the answer as to why Jesus used these stories is that he himself was struggling to understand the mystery of God in the world. And, if it is true that Jesus was himself struggling to understand God’s purposes in the world, and was therefore struggling to make his understanding known to those around him who came to hear what he had to say about God, then we might say that the parables connect us with Jesus’ own imagination as he thought about God and God’s rule in the world.
If this is correct, then the parables are not declarations of fixed truths, but are rather journeys of the mind that Jesus invites us to take both as a community of faith, but also as individual pilgrims seeking God. These journeys of the mind, and indeed of the heart, are never ending quests for God. Perhaps this is why the parables have many various meanings, and why they, for the most part, are open-ended and ambiguous.
And this also may be why Jesus tells his disciples that he speaks in parables so that those who hear might think they understand, but they do not. He wants his hearers to struggle with the images and the actions within a parable not to find an easy answer so that they can go on their way. No, Jesus’ use of the parable is to invite those willing to invest in the struggle to take the journey with him, and to struggle to seek God.
But, in their elusiveness, Jesus’ parables describe the kingdom of God itself as elusive. If the parables about the kingdom are difficult to comprehend, how much more so is the kingdom difficult to comprehend?
Just when we might think we have it all figured out, we are confronted with a new understanding of the kingdom of God that we never expected. This is why Jesus commands us to “Seek first the kingdom of God.” This is no one time seeking as if searching for an object we can see and touch, and once we find it we can stop seeking. No seeking the kingdom of God is a continual seeking; an eternal searching for God’s kingdom that cannot be measured or adequately described by human language.
And so, Jesus uses parables to speak about the kingdom of God because these stories lend themselves to open-ended elusiveness that lead us to more seeking, more searching, and more questioning. And, because these stories lead us to further seeking, searching, and questioning, they draw us slowly out of our lives of safety, security, and comfort, to imagine the reality of God.
The parables lead us from the world we know, where we feel safe and comfortable, to imagine a world we do not know, one in which God’s kingdom has come and God’s will is done, just as he taught his followers to pray.
Jesus tells parables to draw us into the stories, not as observers, but as participants. We are meant to find ourselves in these stories as part of our journey to discover who we are in light of God’s rule and how we respond to that rule.
In this sense, Jesus’ parables invite us to imagine a God beyond our descriptions and our qualifications, to contemplate our own lives in God’s rule, and to imagine a world different from our own. And, if we are willing to participate in the journey of the parables, wrestling with hearing and understanding, we may experience more deeply the God about whom Jesus spoke through these little stories called parables.