The Purpose of Jesus' Parables

"And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” Jesus answered them, “To you it as been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to them it has not been granted. For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have even what he has shall be taken away from him” (Matthew 13:10-12).

Something about Jesus’ parables stood out to the disciples. Perhaps they thought Jesus’ teaching would be more effective if he spoke plainly instead of using illustrations and veiled messages. Or maybe they themselves were puzzled by the parables’ meanings, as Jesus implies in Mark 4:13.

The disciples would have been familiar with parables in general, since the Old Testament contained many, and frequently the rabbis of Jesus’ day used parables as a teaching tool. Paul Earnhart notes that “what must have surprised the disciples was not their unfamiliarity with parables, but the sudden shift to an approach heretofore uncharacteristic of their Teacher. Jesus attributes the change in teaching to a change in the attitude of His hearers.”

Jesus’ statement to the disciples in Matthew 13:11-12 implies a dual purpose to the parables. First, they were intended to illustrate the “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” to those willing to hear. Jesus used parables to teach profound truths about heavenly realities in simple and thought-provoking ways. Before the parable of the mustard seed Jesus asked rhetorically, “How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it?” (Mark 4:30).

We have little issue understanding the illustrative purpose of the parables, but there is another, more difficult, reason Jesus spoke in parables. This, in fact, is what Jesus focuses on in His response to the disciples’ question. Jesus quotes from Isaiah 6:9-10 where Isaiah is called to proclaim God’s word and therefore “render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim.” This is quite similar to God’s sending Moses to Pharaoh and telling him beforehand, “I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go” (Ex. 4:21). It is not so much that Moses’ message, Isaiah’s preaching, and Jesus’ parables hardened soft hearts, but that they revealed the already callused nature of those hearts. God’s word—and how we receive it after hearing—reveals the true condition of our hearts.

The language of Matthew 13:14-15 does not describe people who are eager to hear what God has to say. Instead, their hearts are dull, their ears deaf, and their eyes heavy. This does not happen by accident, but by willful negligence or stubbornness. And this can happen to Christians too (Heb. 3:12-13). This language is frequently used throughout the Old Testament of God’s people so rebellious and foolish they turn their backs when God speaks (Isaiah 43:8; Jer. 5:21, 23; Ezek. 12:2).

What can be said when someone denies the undeniable, as the Jews did countless times? When they rejected Jesus’ miracles and message, they were showing themselves unfit to receive God’s word at all. Later in His ministry, the Jews pressed Him, “How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered them, “I told you and you do not believe” (John 10:24-25). Jesus had told them a hundred different ways, but still the refused to accept it.

The parables were not designed to blind the eyes of the honest and sincere. Jesus was not being arbitrary or unfair. He was bringing a lamp to shine in the darkness, not conceal it under a basket or bed (Mark 4:21-22). Yet, because the darkness hates the light, Jesus’ parables confused, angered, and embittered the stubborn. “The same sun which melts the wax hardens the clay” (Paul Earnhart).

Jesus’ parables divided the humble from the proud. After Jesus compared Himself to a shepherd, many in the audience said, “He has a demon and is insane. Why do you listen to Him?” Others were saying, “These are not the sayings of one demon-possessed. A demon cannot open the eyes of the blind, can he?” (John 10:19-21).

Jesus’ parables are just as powerful today. To every one of them we will respond somehow, either with humility and understanding (or at least, seeking to understand) or with scoffing and rejection. There is no middle ground. You will either be better or worse for hearing. You decide.