Why Did Jesus Speak in Parables?

Why did Jesus speak in parables? The standard answer, in one sense, seems to be the exact opposite of what Jesus told us. The typical response to that question is that Jesus spoke in parables to make his teaching clearer to his audience. After all, they tell us, parables are earthly stories with a heavenly meaning. Most people view the parables as sermon illustrations designed to bring clarity, but this is only half true. According to Jesus, parables were also intended to hide the truth from those unwilling to believe.

Jesus was a good teacher, of course. He was the best of all teachers. So good that he used the parables not only to enlighten but also to conceal. In Matthew 13:10-16, Jesus tells us exactly why he spoke in parables. He says it has been given to some people to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but not all. In other words, he does not reveal the truth of his kingdom to everyone. Though all can hear, not all are spiritually awake to understand.

To those whom it has been given to understand, not only have they been blessed, but more will also be given to them, and in abundance. However, to those to whom it has not been given, even what they think they have will be taken away. Thinking about those unwilling to understand, Jesus then tells the people, “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.”

Jesus is not contradicting himself here. He uses the words “see” and “hear” in different senses each time he uses them. When he begins by saying they will see and hear, he talks about physically seeing and hearing. He is saying their eyes and ears work. They will see and hear the works and words of the Lord, but they will not understand them spiritually. That is the second way he uses “see” and “hear.”

He then quotes a passage from Isaiah to show them that he is the promised Messiah, and he is fulfilling what was foretold long ago. This passage in Isaiah gives us a little more insight into why they do not understand. It is because their hearts had grown dull. They were spiritually dead.

This is the condition of every one of us in our natural state. This is how we come into the world. Our spiritual eyes and ears are closed, and we suppress the truth in unrighteousness when we hear it. However, all that the Father gives to Jesus will come to him (John 6:37). They will hear, understand, and respond. For those of us who hear, he has awakened us out of our spiritual slumber. We were spiritually dead, but he has given us new life.

When Jesus speaks in parables, he is giving more light to those who have been blessed with spiritual understanding, and he is concealing his truth from those who are unable to hear. This truth is why Paul says the message of the gospel has two different effects depending on the spiritual state of the hearer. In 2 Corinthians 2:15, Paul says, “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.” To those being saved the gospel is life, but to those who are perishing, it is foolishness and only sinks them lower into ruin.

To those to whom it has not been given, Jesus speaks in parable so they will not understand. Their spiritual blindness is willful. It is their own doing, just like ours was before he gave us new sight, and he is under no obligation to provide them with fresh eyes. But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they understand. Spiritual sight is a gift from God. We have no reason to boast; only be thankful for grace. Never forget, the good soil that the seed falls on is only good because the Holy Spirit has made it so; that is why it bears fruit.

Why did Jesus speak in parables? That depends on which audience you have in mind. For the elect, he is giving them greater insight, but for those he does not foreknow, those who have closed their eyes, he is obscuring his spiritual truth in earthly stories.

Our problem with Jesus’ teaching here is not that we do not understand what he is saying; our problem is that we often do not like what he is teaching, so we try to reinterpret it according to our tastes. However, when we do that, we underestimate how deep our bondage to our sinful nature was, and we miss the glorious truth that our coming to faith is indeed a resurrection from spiritual death. We once were blind, but now we see. If the parables speak life into our soul, the only proper response is to praise God for our salvation.

-D. Eaton

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 the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one 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. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: “You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.” For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.

– Matthew 13:10-16

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