Why Did Jesus Use Parables?

A parable is a short allegorical tale from which the listener is expected to take a lesson. Uniquely perhaps among religious founders, Jesus mainly relied on parables to get his message across:

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything. [Mark 4:33-34]

Parables are exceedingly rare in the Old Testament, though more common in the later Talmud and Midrash. The Jewish Encyclopedia only identifies five in the OT, just one of which is up to Jesus’ standards. This {2 Sam. 12:1-4] is a short tale Nathan the prophet told David about a poor man with a beloved sheep which a rich neighbor took and slaughtered for a visitor. Rousing the king’s wrath at this injustice;  it had the desired effect. When the prophet explained that it was about the king’s taking of Bathsheba and causing the death of her husband Uriah, David was ashamed; he saw his error and repented.

Other stories, not listed in the encyclopedia, such as the so-called “Parable of the Trees” [Judges 9:17] is actually a fable, as it’s about talking trees (which in Hebrew is also covered by the same word “mashal”). But while fables have fantastic elements, parables are more grounded in reality. Listeners tended to interpret them in terms of people and situations familiar to them. But as the identifications have to be worked out by the hearer, parables can carry information and state positions that would get the speaker into trouble if they were not disguised.

But interpretations can change with time and circumstance. Hence, the nearly-thirty parables of Jesus have provided fodder for countless, diverse sermons over the last two millennia.

But why did Jesus rely on them so much?

According to Matthew 13-10-15:

Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says:

‘You shall indeed hear but never understand,
    and you shall indeed see but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and their ears are heavy of hearing,
    and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should perceive with their eyes,
    and hear with their ears,
and understand with their heart,
    and turn for me to heal them.’ [Quote from Is 6:9-10]

This is disturbing, to say the least. It’s even more troubling when the rest of the following story of the call of Isaiah is told:

Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”

And he said:
“Until cities lie waste

    without inhabitant,
and houses without men,
    and the land is utterly desolate,
and the Lord removes men far away,
    and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.
And though a tenth remain in it,
    it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak,
    whose stump remains standing
    when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump. [Is.6:11-13]

Jesus, the Savior, doesn’t want everyone to understand? How is that possible? Why would it be necessary? Is he condemning them; hinting at the destruction of Jerusalem yet to come? Or was he trying to cover his own rear?

Like the prophet Nathan confronting the king with his crimes, this misdirection may have been necessary for Jesus’ own protection. Because the Gospel story does not begin with the parable, but the circumstances that led him to use it:

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat there; and the whole crowd stood on the beach. [Matt. 13:1-2]

The crowds were so large, Jesus had to put out from the shore in a boat to address them. The first parable he related, one of the two where we have the explanation that he gave to his disciples, was the famous Parable of the Sower :

“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched; and since they had no root they withered away. Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.” [Matt. 13:2-8]

So what’s dangerous about that? Here is the interpretation he gives the disciples:

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When any one hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in his heart; this is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the delight in riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is he who hears the word and understands it; he indeed bears fruit, and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” [Matt. 13:18-23]

Substituting Jesus’ definitions for the words in the parable (underlined are his definitions, those [in brackets] are from other sources which we will discuss later), the meaning becomes clear:

Listen! A teacher of the Gospels went out to [preach] the Word of God.

And as he [preached], some of the Word of God was heard by some but Satan snatched the word away.

The Word of God also fell on those with little [depth], who received it with joy but it could not take root.

But when the [glory of the Savior] rose, they were scorched; and since they had no [depth], they withered away.

The Word of God also fell among [cares for worldly things], to those who were overcome by the cares of the world and [the cares for riches and pleasures] grew up and choked them.

The Word of God fell on converted hearers and brought forth [nourishing doctrine] among those who heard, held fast, and bore fruit, some [in perfection], some [with pride], some [with maturity].

[Let those who can understand hidden mysteries learn]!

Now the tale is a lot easier to grasp. But Jesus wouldn’t have been wise, prudent, or kind to tell the people who had come out to hear him that most of them didn’t have what it takes. Better to keep them interested, since the true identities are hidden and some effort has to be made to understand a parable. That may intrigue the few who could get the real message and hold on to it.

But there is much more to this particular method than to just give out stories that would interest some and confuse the others. This, I believe, is a key to the ancient lost spiritual interpretation of Sacred Scripture, known and developed by the Early Fathers of the universal church. Thrown away by literalists, the loss of this method has not only impoverished our understanding of the riches of the Bible, but made our religion an offense to scientists and secular intellectuals.

It is time, in these Last Days, to restore the lost art of spiritual interpretation. I have devoted my life and studies to this great and noble task – aside from my work on clergy sexual abuse – and I think it is time to reveal my findings at last. So this year, my Christmas gift to the world will be what is perhaps a key to the Bible’s mysteries that has been hidden in the open all this time. I hope that you and other seekers will join in this quest for the hidden secrets of God.