Why the Parables? Reflections on True Understanding

by R. Wesley Hurd

In much of his public teaching, Jesus uses stories, sayings, and parables that most of his audience does not understand. Clearly, Jesus is saying something important. But his puzzling stories and responses catch his listeners off-guard—as they catch us off-guard when we read through the Gospel accounts. Look, for example, at the following incident in Jesus’ ministry:

While He was still speaking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and His brothers were standing outside, seeking to speak to Him. And someone said to Him, “Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to you.” But He answered the one who was telling Him and said, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward his disciples, He said, “Behold, My mother and My brothers!” (Matthew 12:46)

Jesus’ response seems abrasive, and we do not immediately comprehend the meaning of his words. Why didn’t he speak more directly?

In Matthew 10:34, we see another example of Jesus speaking provocatively, this time to his closest disciples:

Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.

In both Matthew passages, Jesus makes enigmatic and confrontational statements to his audiences. In the first instance, Jesus says that seeking him and believing his Gospel message radically realigns the nature of our relationships to fellow humans. In the second example, he says that finding him and believing his message is an absolute priority—even over loving relations with immediate family. In these two passages, Jesus appears to be calling all relationships—indeed, all of reality—to be accountable to him first. Something about who Jesus is and what he offers to a person is valuable above all earthly possessions and is absolutely, authoritatively vital to human life and destiny. And yet Jesus obscures this important information beneath an offensive style of communication that tends to hide its meaning. Why does he do this?

Jesus’ strategy

Jesus is dealing with a formidable problem. He rightly discerns the naïve, untaught, and willful ignorance resident in each person listening to him. How might he penetrate this obtuseness with the lifesaving truth? He chooses a strategy that philosopher Søren Kierkegaard calls “indirectness.” That is, Jesus uses artful, parable-like statements and stories whose meaning is not easily grasped. His audience may hear the words Jesus speaks, but they do not “hear” his meaning and its significance unless they “understand” what he says. Biblically, “to hear” is “to understand.”

It is important to grasp what is meant here by “understanding.” In Matthew 15:16, Jesus chastises his disciples who, like the Pharisees, have been confounded by another of his difficult sayings. He asks them, “Are you also without understanding?” The root of the word translated “understanding” here is sunesis. The biblical writers often use this Greek word to denote the proactive intelligence that both desires and critically discerns concepts and their relationships to each other, with the result that someone possessing this “understanding” truly grasps both facts and their implications for living life. The Apostle Paul used this word when he wrote to the Colossian church expressing his desire that they might attain to spiritual wisdom:

…attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding [sunesis], resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Colossians 2:2b-3)

This priceless understanding unlocks the door leading to saving faith. Yet, multitudes of people, both in Jesus’ time and throughout history, have tragically lacked this rarest kind of understanding—in their individual lives and in how they comprehend the world.

Jesus knows how vitally important this understanding is. Yet he employs what appears to us as veiled parables and stories to convey his message. We can only conclude that Jesus is convinced that this indirect form of communication is the most effective for his purposes. From the Gospel narratives, two reasons emerge for why Jesus pursued this indirect strategy.

Fulfilling Prophecy

The first reason can be found in Matthew 13:34-35, where Matthew quotes part of Psalm 78 to explain why Jesus spoke in parables.

All these things Jesus spoke to the multitudes in parables, and He was not talking to them without a parable, so that what was spoken by the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world.”

To understand Matthew’s reference, we need to look at Psalm 78, which reveals a history of Israel’s ragged, unbelieving response to a faithful, merciful God. Yahweh had miraculously provided virtually all of Israel’s needs as He rescued and redeemed them from the horrors of Egyptian captivity, and the psalm highlights His total faithfulness. God gave Israel direct signs of His reality, presence, and loving posture toward them; the invisible, transcendent God manifested Himself directly and unmistakably to them. Yet their response was a willfully ignorant clamoring for more (direct) signs and provisions. They completely missed the deeper implication and purpose of the signs as evidence of God’s offering them a relationship: Israel would be His people, and He would be their eternal, merciful savior.

By referring to Psalm 78, then, Matthew reveals one reason why Jesus spoke in parables. Jesus’ obscure, indirect statements constituted God’s continuing judgment on Israel’s history of collective, rebellious hardness of heart. Because of their hardness of heart, Jesus obscured from them the truth to be found in his teaching. Hard, difficult-to-understand parables and sayings obstructed his audiences, who were yet another generation of God’s people rejecting a true relationship with Him.

So then, much to the consternation of even his close followers and disciples, Jesus persisted in speaking in “veiled” sayings because he was fulfilling the prophetic warning to and judgment on God’s obstinate people. Through miracles, signs, and blessings, God had revealed Himself clearly and directly to Israel for hundreds of years. Yet they refused to prepare their hearts to hear and understand the significance of this direct revelation. And when their Messiah appeared, they once again preferred their self-inflicted blindness to the Truth Who stood before them. Jesus did perform direct signs and miracles to authenticate his identity, just as God had done when He led Israel out of bondage in Egypt. But then Jesus spoke to them in parables, fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy, which Jesus quotes to his disciples:

“You will keep on hearing, but will not understand; and you will keep on seeing but will not perceive; for the heart of this people has become dull; and with their ears they scarcely hear, and they have closed their eyes…” (Matthew 13:14-15a)

Inviting Seekers

There is a second reason Jesus spoke indirectly through perplexing stories and sayings. The parables constitute a powerful invitation to “hear” what he and God’s prophets had been saying to Israel for generations. Because parables are indirect communication, the people who heard Jesus speak had to engage his words personally; they had to pursue the meaning and significance of his words. Jesus intends the veiled meaning of his words to be revealed to anyone willing to engage in the task of actively seeking the truth to be found in them.

Parables are powerful, artfully crafted stories and sayings that function to break down normal, expected, direct perception. Signs and miracles speak plainly and directly. Parables require personal investigation, pondering, and perseverance to uncover their meaning. When Jesus points to his followers and says, “Behold my mother and my brothers,” his hearers must move past the obstructing indirectness of his words and think through the possible meanings to get to the heart of his message. The veiled nature of his words forces the truly interested seeker to move past the initial temptation to ignore Jesus’ words or respond passively. Instead, the seeker must do the hard mental and spiritual work that leads to the fruit of apprehending Jesus’ intended meaning.

This seeking signals the existence of a desiring mind and heart ready to dig deeper. The individual who digs deeper, wrestling with the obscurity of Jesus’ words, has started on the path to developing “eyes that see” and “ears that hear”—a path that can lead to understanding. Understanding occurs not just when the truth is perceived, but when truth penetrates the heart and transforms a person’s vital perspectives on life.

Summing up

Jesus’ use of stories, sayings, and parables results in two effects:

1) The indirect communication obstructs the truth from those whose hearts are not open to it, a strategy that fulfills the prophecy found in Psalm 78. When Israel looked for and needed direct signs of God’s reality, presence, and provision, God gave them plenty. But direct signs did not lead Israel to faith. As a judgment, the Messiah comes speaking in puzzling parables that obscure immediate apprehension of the truth so that in seeing they do not see and in hearing they do not hear.

2) Jesus’ indirect communication invites openhearted, genuine seekers to seek further. The parables provoke the hearer to engage the puzzling sayings and the profound questions they raise. This intriguing “provocation of obscurity” thus fosters an interest in knowing more. Jesus’ strategy is to “puzzle” those who will hear him out of their darkness and self-deception. Jesus thus employs what has been called “a rhetoric of awakening” to stun the listener to awareness of how he, Jesus, is the truth.

Pursuing truth can be frightening. And, in the end, finding the truth is only the first step. Receiving the truth on personal terms leads to letting it settle into our life so that we make wiser and wiser choices. In biblical terms, this is “understanding.”

My life has taught me in the most painful ways that being foolish is easy and being wise is difficult. Wisdom has many sources in human experience, but for the believer, wisdom about how to live and be a truly good human creature is ultimately the fruit of persevering faith. Over time, faith—that is, choosing to believe God, choosing His way of seeing what is real, valuable, and enduring—yields understanding of both one’s self and the world in which one exists. Over time, faith fed by the truth found in the Scriptures inevitably results in a view of life and reality that grows in wisdom in spite of our sin and propensity for willful ignorance.

Copyright September 2007 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

R. Wesley Hurd