To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God; but those who are outside get everything in parables.
—Mark 4:11, NIV (Jesus speaking)
Why did Jesus teach in parables?
From watching religious programs on television, I notice that most Christian teachers love to be admired for telling it like it is. These guys don’t pussy-foot around. They describe what they feel are the ills of our society in graphic terms.
Now I would sooner wash my mouth out with soap than to talk in public like some of those guys, but even I can recognize that sometimes tough talk is necessary to cut through tough shells and penetrate into the real person inside. Sometimes it takes the shock value of frank language to cut through to a person’s inner being and lay the secrets bare. In my opinion, if frank language is used to move people to repentance, that is laudable; but if it is just used to move people to outrage, that is demagoguery. So it is a two-edged sword that people don’t alway wield correctly.
So for those among us who are used to straight talk from the pulpit, Jesus’ teaching methods seem excessively gentle. We are used to people telling it like it is, but the whole essence of a parable is to tell it like it isn’t!
Modern teachers do not think up parables to get their point across, so if your only access to the Jewish world of the first century is in the New Testament, you might think that parables are a peculiarity of Jesus. You even might develop the idea that Jesus deliberately misled his listeners.
Why did Jesus teach in parables?
There were several reasons:
- It was the style of teaching of the day.
Just as today it is fashionable to tell it like it is, in those days, religious teachers always taught in parables. Volumes upon volumes of rabbinical writings from that era have survived to this day, and they all attest that parables were the way to go. People expected religious leaders to speak in parables. The teachers who were better storytellers developed a larger following.
- Parables make teachings easier to remember and apply.
In the parable of the lost son, the son got into a terrible fix, but he realized that in his situation he had nothing to lose and everything to gain by attempting a reconciliation with his father. In the parable there was a happy ending, but if you are ever in desperate straits, and you remember this parable, you might realize that even if the reconciliation doesn’t come off, you’re still no worse off. So by remembering the parable, you might attempt a reconciliation that you otherwise wouldn’t think of.
- Parables are more enduring than telling it like it is.
Social problems come and go. The way it is becomes the way it was. Old sermons addressing old social problems are out of touch with today. Parables deal with basic principles, whereas telling it like it is deals with how those principles apply to specific situations.
- If the situation changes, the telling it like it was becomes irrelevant, but the parable lives on.
Jesus’ parables are still relevant to everyday life even after 2,000 years and technological, social, and political changes beyond anyone’s wildest imagining. Since Jesus spoke, four additional continents were discovered. Yet His parables live on. On the other hand, a sermon that told it like it was about the hippie movement or miniskirts less than thirty years ago would sooner move the congregation to nostalgia than to repentance.
- Parables allow you to make statements that would otherwise get you in trouble.
In old England, political commentary was dangerous, so newspapers printed transparent rhymes. All those nursery rhymes like Humpty Dumpty and Little Jack Horner were political satires. Parables and rhymes have always been a form of political or social commentary in societies where either custom or the law does not permit such things to be said in plain words. Many of Jesus’ parables made the Pharisees angry, because they taught things that weren’t to their liking, but stated them indirectly. The only teaching Jesus got in trouble for was His plain teaching that He is the Son of God.
- Parables have a time-release effect; they plant seeds that sprout later.
Jesus taught the public in pithy and memorable parables, so that people would remember them, discuss them, and try to figure out what they meant; and in this way the parables spread far beyond their original audience. Jesus deliberately withheld the meaning of the parables from the public to equip the disciples for successful evangelism later on. He explained the parables to the disciples, told them to wait for the proper time, and then shout from the housetops what they had heard in secret.
After the Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples did just that. The crowds, who were already familiar with Jesus’ parables, now heard the explanations—and that is how 3,000 converts were made on the first day of Christian evangelism.
Even in this day and age of telling it like it is, I daresay more sermons and commentaries explore the parables of Jesus than most other parts of Scripture.