Roger Severino

He Spoke in Parables: What? Why? How?

Jesus often taught using parables. Three questions follow. What are parables? Why did Jesus use them as a way to teach? How do they relate to Jesus’ central message?

What are parables?

Early on, I heard the definition as “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.”  OK.  Not a bad place to start, especially if we limit the definition to how parables are used by Jesus. Jesus takes very tangible things that would have been well-known in a first-century Middle Eastern agricultural context:  farmer, seeds, weeds, shepherds, coins, fish, masters, and servants.  He uses these everyday things to communicate spiritual truth. He tells a story. Jesus begins with things that are known in order to communicate the unknown, or the spiritual truths he wishes to convey. Throughout church history, interpretations of these parables have ranged from those who wish to see in them an elaborate allegory with an explanation for every minor detail, to others who insist there is just one main idea. Though I lean toward the latter view, I think it can be an oversimplification to say that there is only one main point in each parable. New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg argues that “Jesus’ parables made one main point per main character.”[1] Perhaps that’s a good place to start.

Why did Jesus use parables?

OK, there may be a variety of reasons. Parables are stories and stories capture the imagination and are readily recalled. Using everyday tangible things to explain spiritual truths makes their apprehension more accessible. It’s been said that most of Jesus’ parables have a surprise element to them, such as the hated Samaritan who becomes the hero of the story (see Luke 10:25-37). So, parables often have a punch line, a “gotcha” moment that caught the original audience by surprise. We must somehow attempt to retain this surprise or shocking element today lest the parables lose their effect.

None of the explanations above touch on why Jesus said he spoke in parables. Let me warn you. His explanation can sound a bit troubling. If you read Matthew 13:10-17, Jesus seems to say that the secrets of the Kingdom are for his followers, but not for outsiders. Therefore, the parables can illuminate truths for some but obscure it for others. What does Jesus mean? Even a superficial reading of the Gospels makes it clear that Jesus is for the outsiders – the tax collectors, the harlots, the immoral, and the irreligious. But keep in mind, Jesus did not have much tolerance for the superficial, for crowds who flocked to him simply to see some miracle or ride the wave of popularity. Jesus is more interested in separating the true followers from those who are along for the ride. He sometimes seems to go on an anti-marketing campaign to thin out the crowds (see John 6:22-66).  I believe Jesus is saying that one function of the parables is to test the responsiveness of the hearers. The genuine are drawn in and want to learn more. For others, the parables reveal their hardness of heart and superficial interest. They don’t respond.

How do parables relate to Jesus’ central teaching?

Most of the parables are meant to illuminate Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom of God. The parables help explain the unexpected nature of the Kingdom.  Many of the Kingdom parables reveal the following about the Kingdom (taken from The Drama of Scripture by Bartholomew and Goheen): (1) The kingdom does not come all at once. (2) In the present, the kingdom does not come with irresistible power. (3) The final judgment of the kingdom is reserved for the future. (4) The full revelation of the kingdom is postponed, to allow many to enter it during the present age (see pages 145-149).

[1] Craig Blomberg, Preaching the Parables (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 15.

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