The Purpose of Parables

Now if the Catholic Church will behave itself for a bit, let’s get on to some interesting Biblical issues.

Jesus, of course, is widely known for his use of parables as teaching devices. By my count, there are over thirty in the New Testament, all in Matthew and Luke save for two small ones that are in Mark. Despite the highly symbolic language throughout John, there’s not a single parable there.

He used a lot of metaphorical expressions in his sermons, but when Jesus started using parables, the disciples had trouble figuring them out. They asked him why, and Jesus’ answer has disturbed generations of Christians.

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables  so that, “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,  and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven! (Mark 4:10-12 emphasis added)

The idea that the Savior would try to conceal his teachings so that some might not be saved scandalizes many right down to the present day. Perhaps it would help to examine other instances of people using parables in the Bible. Jesus was certainly not the first or only one to do so.

The very first occurrence of a parable occurs in the story of King David. At this point in his history, he is king of Israel, has beaten all his enemies, and brought the Ark to his new capital of Jerusalem. Life is good. However, David has greatly sinned. The king has taken Bathsheba, made her pregnant, and sent off her loyal, brave, and unsuspecting husband, Uriah the Hittite, to be betrayed and slain in battle. So God sends Nathan the prophet to take the king to task for these sins. The prophet begins with a parable, remarkably like one of Jesus’:

When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.” (2 Sam. 12:1-4)

David is naturally outraged, demanding the rich man die and pay the poor man four times over. The ploy worked: by putting the situation in a general context, the prophet did not directly accuse the king of sin. Rather, he stirred his compassion. So  then Nathan let him have it, prophetically unleashing holy hell:

Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’ (2 Sam. 12:7-10)

He went on and on with unpleasant prophetic detail, but David immediately got the point. Instead of being furious at the prophet, the king repented. Though it wasn’t enough to save his first-born, God’s favorite fair-haired boy did manage to keep his own skin. Nathan’s parable allowed the prophet to speak truth to power.

And that’s what Jesus did, too, although it wasn’t a king he needed to fear at that point, but the enemies he had already made among the scribes and Pharisees. Yet, what caused the Savior to begin speaking in parables was the fear of being thought possessed and locked up by his own family. Here’s what happened immediately before Jesus uttered his first parable:

Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” (Mark 3:20-22, emphasis added)

Generations of believers have been horrified by this part, too, that Jesus’ very own family would think him crazy or even possibly in the power of the Devil. Yet, there it is, is our first sign that our view of Christ after 2,000 years of being shaped and reframed by preachers to make it more acceptable and “safe” is decidedly not that of the early Christians.