For Christians, the Bible is our primary source of wisdom and guidance. As the Word of God, the Bible helps us discern how to live well as we grow in our faith, and one of the best places to find valuable teaching are the words of Jesus. Throughout Jesus' ministry on earth, he shared a vision of life lived as God intended, of embracing the Kingdom of Heaven now. One of the primary ways Jesus shared his teachings was in the form of parables. In fact, parables make up approximately one-third of all of Jesus’ recorded teachings.
Why did Jesus speak in parables? How does this form of teaching help us to internalize the lessons of the Gospel? We’ll briefly consider the parables of Jesus and offer insights into the ways in which these profound lessons can be applied in our lives.
What is a Parable?
One of the most common definitions of a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Put another way, a parable is a story about a simple subject, used to illustrate a deeper message. Stories of this type have a surface-level point or purpose—in the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the story is literally about a shepherd going to great lengths to retrieve the missing sheep from his flock. But, for those who look closer, there is an other spiritual truth present in parables—the Parable of the Lost Sheep illustrates God’s relentless pursuit and care for us.
What is the Purpose of Parables?
Once we understand what a parable is, the next obvious question is why did Jesus choose to teach in this format? What is the purpose of presenting lessons in parables? Biblical scholars and theologians have offered a few different perspectives on why Jesus spoke in parables.
Bringing the Spiritual into the Mundane
One posited reason for Jesus’ use of parables is that they invite us to explore the miracle of the Gospel in an approachable way. Rooted in an aspect of daily life or commonality (a farmer planting seeds, a woman searching for a lost possession, etc), parables are intended to feel relatable and familiar. When people asked Jesus big spiritual questions, such as, “What is the greatest commandment?” or “How many times must I forgive someone?", Jesus answered in a simpler place and illustrated the how the ways of the Kingdom of God are at play in our daily lives.
To Invite Us to Look Closer
Another common explanation for why Jesus spoke in parables comes from Jesus’ own answer to this question. In Matthew 13, the disciples ask Jesus why he teaches in parables. Jesus answers,
“To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given, and they will have an abundance of knowledge. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them. That is why I use these parables, For they look, but they don’t really see. They hear, but they don’t really listen or understand. This fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah that says, ‘When you hear what I say, you will not understand. When you see what I do, you will not comprehend. For the hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear, and they have closed their eyes—so their eyes cannot see, and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them.’” --Matthew 13:12-15
To fully understand a parable, one is required to lean in, to look closely, to reflect. Many who heard Jesus teach in parables walked away confused or frustrated. They saw only the surface.
Some have taken this to mean that Jesus was concealing his meaning from most people. There is a sort of logic to this point of view. Many in Jesus’ day were unhappy with his teaching and felt threatened by it. The established teachers of the law and Roman authorities were particularly suspicious of the radical vision of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus spoke of. Parables do provide a veil of deniabilty, with their deeper meaning concealed beneath a simple story.
However, many scholars have cautioned against taking this explanation of Jesus’ use of parables to mean that he was intentionally preventing people from understanding his teachings. Rather, they assert that the deeper messages about God and His kingdom were missed because people did not want to hear them. Those who closed themselves off to God and the moving of the Holy Spirit, who refused to have their perspectives challenged, would necessarily miss Jesus’ intended meaning.
This applies to us still today. God is constantly active and speaking to us. Are we listening? Parables push us to be active—to open ourselves up and allow Jesus to shape us according to his truth. Those like the disciples who believed in Jesus and desired to grow in faith and understanding are able to perceive the fullness of Jesus' teachings.
There is so much to learn and reflect upon in the parables of Jesus. Parables invite us to consider the impact of the Good News within our daily lives; they elevate the mundanity of our world to a place of spiritual significance. By leaning in and fully immersing ourselves in God's Word, we can glimpse the mysteries of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaims. Jesus' teaching is all about encouraging us to live as God intended here and now, and parables can show us how.
To learn more about the parables of Jesus and his earthly ministry, take a look at the Gospels set from Alabaster.