Why did Jesus teach in parables?

by Richard on October 2, 2005

Mark D Roberts considers the book of Job:

Yet Job is also one of the messiest of all the books of the Bible. It doesn’t lay out a systematic theology of suffering. Rather, it tells a story, the main part of which is a complicated dialogue. There are no easy answers here, and the conclusion of the book comes as quite a surprise. Even after you’ve finished Job, you might not be sure what to make of it.

These words struck a chord with me. I preached tonight at a harvest festival service where the gospel reading was Mark 4: 1-9, the parable of the sower. It’s such a familiar story, I was anxious to find a new angle on it. Not easy, since the gospels record that Jesus gave the explanation, leaving little for the preacher to do!

I found myself asking why it was that Jesus used parables. Mark records Jesus saying that he taught this way that ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding’, which is counter-intuitive to say the least. Teaching in order to be deliberately obscure is not teaching! The most common assumption I’ve encountered is that Jesus told simple stories to engage with simple folk, using idioms that they’d understand. But apparently the disciples did not understand. We’ve become so familiar with the parables of Jesus, so used to what we think they mean, that we perhaps find their puzzlement difficult to understand.

Stories, by their very nature, are open-ended. They may have a meaning, but the meaning you take is not always the meaning that’s intended. It’s easy to be suspicious of this. Most of the time we’d rather have clear, consistent and (preferably) concise instructions. Stories offer ambiguity, and that can be hard to deal with. Textbooks for preachers often say something like: “Remember that a parable is not an allegory. It is a story with one clear simple message; the preacher’s task is to offer that message.” But the more I think about that sentiment, the more sure I am that it is rubbish: no story, however simple, has only one clear and unambiguous message.

That’s the point of parables, I reckon.

The truth about God cannot be packaged, systematized and presently neatly and tidily. How could it possibly be? The truth about any of us cannot be told that way, and if it is true of Mr Dai Jones of Swansea, it is all the more surely true of God. No, the truth about God (to borrow a phrase from my friend Kim) must be crept up on, circled around. Parables do not attempt to ‘explain’, but rather offer a truth which must be met and lived with, chewed over and digested. (Horrid mix of metaphors there!) The depth of God’s truth can never be fully plumbed. That’s why Jesus taught in parables.

And that’s why God’s revelation is a man, not a text.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }


Milton Stanley 10.03.05 at 1:23 pm

Excellent post, Richard. I quoted liberally from your post at my blog this morning. Peace.


Wood 10.03.05 at 2:03 pm

Amen, chief.


DH 10.03.05 at 3:29 pm

“And that’s why God’s revelation is a man, not a text. ?”

It’s both if you get my drift. :)


Richard 10.03.05 at 6:13 pm

I get your drift.

But I’m sticking by my original sentence.


DH 10.05.05 at 3:37 pm

Don’t you think it can be both? I know many on my side take the Bible more than Jesus which is wrong but that doesn’t take away the Spirit that moves from God’s Word which is the Bible. Many of time I was convicted of sin by reading the Bible. Not that the bible is over God but it is God’s Word. I don’t place the Bible over God but when God says something I want to do what it says and not do what it says not to do. To say that God can’t use the text of the Word for conviction of sin I feel places limits of what God can use that in all actuality is not there. Something to think about. :)


Tony Bickley 01.12.07 at 12:26 pm

The Bible is as much the Word of God as is Jesus who is the embiodiment of the Word of God. Everything that the Bible say (in its origional Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts is true and is from God; it is carried from the very breath of God. Just as our words are carried from our mouth on the breath that we breath, so the bible is both inspired by God and breathed by God. Everything that the Bible says in harmony with the mind of God, and everything that Jesus said and did was also in harmony with the Word and will of His Father. Jesus is the Word, He is the voice of creation and the onlyu person of the Godhead to be manifested in human form. We cannot seperate God from His Word, just as we cannot seperate the nature of the father .on, or Holy Spirit, niether can we say that His Word is either less or more than He Himself, or any part or person of the Trinity. this is the importance of the Bible. As to Parables, they are earthly tales with a heavenly meaning and they are hid to the unsaved becasue they need to be elevated from their earhtly setting by the indwelling power and revelation of Gods Spirit: they still have to be read in the Bible.

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