By Michelle Lee-Barnewall
Why did Jesus teach in parables?
We can find the answer in Matthew’s Gospel, where the disciples directly ask Jesus why he speaks in parables. Scripture tells us,
The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”
He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.’
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’” (Matt 13:10–15)
Although the parables teach about the kingdom of heaven, the true message is only received by those who have willing hearts. Those who are open will seek Jesus for more clarification of the message, like the disciples do. Jesus calls them “blessed” because they are able to see and hear spiritual truths.
However, those who are hardened will simply be confused or, even more, reject Jesus and his message. In this way, parables reveal God’s secrets to some but conceal them from others. Indeed, for those who are unresponsive, even what they have will be taken away, and they will become even more hardened.
Parables expose something about our hearts
The parables are teaching opportunities, but they also expose the nature of people’s hearts. Jesus’ use of Isaiah compares the crowds with Israel, who continually rejected God and his prophets. However, the disciples are blessed because they are able to grasp the nature of the kingdom of heaven.
In this way, the parables reveal to us a balance between a dependence on God’s divine revelation and human effort. We must ultimately rely on God to reveal his truths to us. But it is also our responsibility to cultivate hearts that are open to his truths, even when they are painful and not what we might wish to hear at the moment.
Parables reveal to us a balance between a dependence on God’s divine revelation and human effort.
The parables also serve as a warning. When presented with God’s truth, we should not turn away! It is interesting to note that Jesus does not begin teaching with extended story parables until the incident with the Pharisees in Matthew 12, when they accuse Jesus of healing the demon-oppressed man by Beelzebul rather than the Holy Spirit. When they could not accept Jesus’ more direct proclamations of truth, they found themselves even further from his life-giving message.
Are we inclined to believe or be skeptical? Trust or turn away? Ultimately, are we open to God’s work in us however he chooses?
We must be people who are willing to submit to God’s truth, which means that the orientation of our hearts matters.
This post is adapted from Surprised by the Parables: Growing in Grace through the Stories of Jesus, released by Lexham Press on January 22. Advance praise includes recommendations like this:
The parables are some of the most important teachings we have from Jesus, but many modern readers of the Gospels find them puzzling. Why did Jesus teach like this? What was his message? Lee-Barnewall packs deep wisdom into this concise book, shedding light on context and unpacking how the parables are stories of divine grace.
— Nijay K. Gupta, associate professor of New Testament, Portland Seminary
Written with passion and candor, Michelle Lee-Barnewall investigates the parables’ historical setting and invites readers to ponder their teachings in light of their own circumstances. She explains the puzzles in the parables as she develops their lessons on discipleship. This beautifully written exploration of the parables draws the reader to the feet of Jesus.
— Lynn Cohick, provost and dean, professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary
The headings and title of this post are the additions of the editor. The author’s views do not necessarily represent those of Faithlife.