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Why Jesus the Messiah Spoke in Parables

By Edited Oct 17, 2016 0 0


Matthew, Mark, and Luke all reveal that Jesus spoke only in parables when teaching in public implying other teachers and rabbis, also used parables, but to a lesser degree or in a subordinate or explanatory aspect of their presentation. There is little doubt both Jesus and the rabbis used parables as a standard teaching device. We can also infer that people were familiar with parables because no teacher of worth would introduce a radically new form of teaching, i.e. parables, and compound the difficulty of the audience understanding the message about a subject of which few were familiar or could comprehend. Similar terminology was also present in the parables of Jesus and those of the rabbis. “Likewise, many of Jesus' parables contain within them certain vocabulary and themes that can be paralleled in rabbinic literature.” [1]

For example, the parable of the Father and the Prodigal Sons contain ideas and themes found in rabbinical parables such as the Parable of the King's Errant Son (Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:24) and the Parable of the King's Youngest Son (Sifra on Deuteronomy 33:12). Rabbinical parables were more literal or explanatory in nature as they were expounding Jewish Scripture, a known subject matter. Jesus, on the other hand, was introducing new concepts of the kingdom of heaven, and for this reason, His parables “were therefore essentially secretive. Jesus was not a universal teacher of timeless truths, but the starter of a movement that was to grow like an unobserved seed turning into a plant before anyone had realized.” [2] Despite the differences between the parables of Jesus and those of the rabbis, the two were quite comparable. “In fact, the parables of Jesus in the synoptic gospels have striking similarities to the parables in rabbinic literature.” [3] Over one-third of the teaching of in Matthew, Mark, and Luke being in parables is sufficient validation of the importance and presence of parables at the time of Jesus.

On at least one occasion as we see in Matthew 13:10-17, Mark 3:10-12, and Luke 8:9-10, the disciples question why He spoke of the kingdom of heaven in parables. If His intent is to reveal the kingdom of heaven, why would He conceal it in parables? If He is willing to explain the parables, then why does He explain them to none but His disciples? The reply of Jesus is troubling to some as it appears, at first glance, to be contrary to the essential purpose of His ministry. Even more puzzling is the answer Jesus gave includes a quotation from Isaiah. Since the conversation between Jesus and the disciples is found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we cannot summarily dismiss the issue.

Various explanations have been offered as to the intent behind these words of Jesus beyond the obvious that He did not want those outside of the disciples to understand the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. This explanation has been summarily rejected by some as “anti-Christian.” As a substitute to the reason given in Scripture, explanations have been offered to account for this seemingly contradictory statement by Jesus. These include: the writer of the Gospel of Mark incorrectly heard the words of Jesus; inaccurate translation to a language other than the original; and different meanings of what was recorded in the gospel. But the fact Matthew, Mark, and Luke all recount this conversation nullifies this argument. Some are so adamant Jesus did not speak what we read in the Synoptic gospels they claim the early church inserted the words; they were never actually spoken by Jesus. One such writer goes as far as to state that Jesus “could not have agreed with Mark's view of the purpose of the parables, for it is clear that Jesus intended that the parables should have positive results that the people should hear with understanding.” [4] These arguments sometimes claim the versions of Luke and Matthew are from Mark, and since the account in Mark is incorrect, the other Gospels duplicate the error. In this way, those who advocate this position sacrifice Mark to preserve their perspective. Others offer an interpretation of the controversial text in Mark, so it is more palatable to the Jesus they perceive in the Bible. If we continue these arguments, however, to the logical end, these raise equally unsettling questions as to the role and validity of the Holy Spirit in the writing of Scripture and the inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible.

Some kingdom parables can be seen to contain a general principle of virtuous living while others are analogies illustrating aspects of the kingdom of heaven. Everyone from the young person to the scribe could understand this level of the parables since it was simple narrative. The other meaning was the d’rash aspect of the message, and it was this underlying message that was the more critical of the two came and only those discerning and seeking would gain insight. “For those who have responded positively to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom, the parables convey further insight and knowledge while for those who have rejected Jesus and his message, the parables have the effect of only darkening the subject further.” [5] In addition to these levels of hermeneutics, there were occasional hints or remez to Old Testament passages or basic Judaic doctrine.

Since the essential purpose of Jesus was to glorify the Father, the parables were a form of glorifying the Father in that they revealed and explained different aspects of His kingdom as well as the ethical behavior of its residents. As far as the seeming injustice of some receiving while others do not refes more to whether or not the listener was receptive to Jesus, “by using parables, the Lord was revealing His patience and mercy, but at the same time, He revealed their sad spiritual condition. The parables were the words of a master Teacher, but they were also the sentences of a holy Judge.” [6] The person who is receptive to the kingdom of heaven and becomes a follower of Jesus while the one not receptive rejects the kingdom and the claims of Jesus, even what he has will be taken away.

Jesus spoke parables in a variety of circumstances from the setting of a friendly crowd to a hostile group of high priests demanding an answer. “The immediate object of the story is to be intelligible and interesting in itself, but its ultimate aim is either to stimulate the conscience, or to waken religious insight in the hearers, or both together. In other words, it has to make God and himself real to a man: so real that he is forthwith moved to genuine repentance and faith.” [7] The majority of His messages was intended as p’shat or containing only the literal meaning. “For those already out of touch with God, his enigmatic yet forceful way of revealing these secrets in parables, to illustrate the coming kingdom of heaven, will further repel and repulse. For those open to Jesus' claims, however, greater understanding and discipleship will result.” [8] It is interesting, though, that Jesus spoke of things everyone who heard could relate. He apparently “believed that human life with all its faults and frailties could furnish pointers and analogies of the kingdom of God and that our human care and concern could figure forth, however faintly, the care and concern of God.” [9] The effectiveness of the parable depends not on the eloquence and delivery of the speaker, but on the heart and receptiveness of the person hearing or, in some cases, reading the parable.

Some scholars infer passages in the gospel indicated the disciples questioned Jesus about the parable when the crowds were still present and that He explains the meaning. This is likely incorrect as Matthew tells of the disciples coming to Jesus for insight to the parables and His statement “to you,” meaning the disciples, it had been granted the mysteries of the kingdom, but not to the others. While He does explain many of the parables to the disciples, He does not expound upon every facet of the parables for they could not fully understand. This is particularly true of parables telling of the Second Coming. It would not be until the resurrection and ascension would they comprehend fully the words and deeds of the Christ. Before His trial and crucifixion, Jesus told the disciples He would send them a Helper (Holy Spirit) to abide in them and to give them the Word of truth. “So indeed he had been while he was with them; he had been their champion and helper, the one on whose guidance and support they could rely. But now he was about to leave them. He had been with them for a short time, but the other Paraclete (Holy Spirit), his alter ego, would be with them permanently, and not only with them but in them.” [10] While the information about the kingdom was veiled in parables, the call for repentance and the love of God was direct and unmistakable. Those who listened to Jesus, including the Scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees, were clearly told what was necessary. “If they had done so at any time, they could have become part of the inner circle, the intimate, and could have learned the most intimate truths of Christ thereafter.” [11]

Besides the quotation from Isaiah, there are other valid reasons and explanations as to why Jesus spoke in parables. A factor often overlooked is the audience dictated to a certain degree the method Jesus chose to utilize. The “opposition of the religious authorities was met by Jesus with destructive criticism of their systems. The crowds, again, are indeed curious and to certain extent interested in this new teacher; but their interest is apt to be focused on wonderful cures of bodily ailments than on things of the spirit.” [12] This sentiment is seen in John 6:26 after He feeds the five thousand. Another reason He spoke in such a manner was to attract the curiosity of the audience. While He could have expressed the simple truth of the kingdom of heaven, interest and retention would have been much less. By delivering the message “in some short and perhaps seemingly paradoxical sentence, or in some brief but interesting narrative;” [13] the words attracted attention and was more readily remembered. Also, by delivering the message in such a way, the impact would slip by the defenses of the listener. Rather than telling His listeners to care for their neighbors, He told the parable of The Good Samaritan to deliver the same message. Instead of bluntly warning the wrath and judgment of God were imminent, Jesus told the parable of The Wicked Tenants and The Wedding Feast. To those who rejected the ministry and messianic claims of Jesus, the parable was “a veiled form of teaching that reflected a judgment on those wh o did not wish to embrace Jesus. They were mysteries through which the kingdom and the calling were revealed.” [14]


Copyright 2016 © Craig B. Manning. All Rights Reserved.




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