A parable ( παραβολή ) is pretty much what one would naturally think it is. We don’t get any earth-shattering revelation from the Greek word. A parable is an illustration, metaphor, or simile comparing two things, usually one more familiar than the other, in order to make a point. In short.
In today’s church the usual reason we hear for why Jesus of Nazareth often spoke to the People in parables, is that He was the great storyteller and He used His storytelling prowess to masterfully illustrate and set forth divine lessons in charity, justice, and life in general. The trouble with this explanation is that it is not what the Lord Himself says. Let’s take a look.
Matthew 13, redacted for the purpose of this blog without doing violence to the meaning. (NASB) (The parallel passages are in Luke 8 and Mark 4)
1 That day Jesus went out of the house and was sitting by the sea. 2 And large crowds gathered to Him, so He got into a boat and sat down, and the whole crowd was standing on the beach.
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3a And He spoke many things to them in parables, saying,…
…10 And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” 11 Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. 12 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. 13 Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.
14 In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says,
‘You will keep on hearing, but will not understand;
You will keep on seeing, but will not perceive;
15 For the heart of this people has become dull,
With their ears they scarcely hear,
And they have closed their eyes,
Otherwise they would see with their eyes,
Hear with their ears,
And understand with their heart and return,
And I would heal them.’
16 But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. 17 For truly I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
The Sower Explained
18 “Hear then the parable of the sower….
For our purposes, a few things are worthy of note here.
Jesus’s closest friends, His disciples, did not themselves understand why He taught the people in parables. Otherwise, why ask, right?
It is also implicit in their question (Luke 8:9 and Mark 4:10) that they themselves didn’t necessarily understand what they meant either. Hence Jesus’s explanation beginning in verse 18. “Hear then the parable of the sower….”
Much (like REALLY much) more could be said about this passage, but the take-home point for this short piece is that Jesus Himself declares that the purpose of His parables is, in fulfillment of Isaiah 6, to HIDE the truth from those to whom it has not been given.
The lessons in them are about salvation and the kingdom of heaven. Not social justice and charity and transforming culture on earth. That’s why only those chosen for heaven are given the true explanation. The Lord mentions the “kingdom of heaven” eight times in this chapter as the reason for all eight parables, and explicitly declares them hidden except to those to whom “it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of HEAVEN,…” (emphasis mine)
If the purpose of His teaching was to transform the world, it seems He would have said that instead of specifying heaven, and would want as many as possible to understand what He taught. Not hide it from most of them, which indeed it is to this day if I take His word seriously no matter who or what it makes me wrong about. Far from a precedent for teaching the unbelieving world God’s truth using fictitious stories, Jesus’s parables were in fact designed to hide His truth from the world, of which most of the Jews in fact were, and to reveal it to His own. (Which is a major component of the biblical use of art in general, but that’s a much larger story for a different time)
As a bit of an aside here, John Calvin is most instructive in his commentary on verse 12 regarding the “goodness” of those dead in sin, but living under common grace.
“And he that hath not, even that which he hath shall be taken from him.’
This may appear to be a harsh expression; but instead of saying, that what the ungodly have not is taken from them, Luke softens the harshness and removes the ambiguity by a slight change of the words: and whosoever hath not, even that which he thinketh that he hath shall be taken from him.
And indeed it frequently happens, that the reprobate are endued with eminent gifts, and appear to resemble the children of God: but there is nothing of real value about them; for their mind is destitute of piety, and has only the glitter of an empty show. Matthew is therefore justified in saying that they have nothing; for what they have is of no value in the sight of God, and has no permanency within.
Equally appropriate is the statement of Luke, that the gifts, with which they have been endued, are corrupted by them, so that they shine only in the eyes of men, but have nothing more than splendor and empty display. Hence, also let us learn to aim at progress throughout our whole life; for God grants to us the taste of his heavenly doctrine on the express condition, that we feed on it abundantly from day to day, till we come to be fully satiated with it.”
John Calvin – Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels
Feel-good stories of secular “love” and sacrifice and goodwill, may… well… feel good, but unbelievers falling into each other’s arms in broadminded peaceful tolerance for each other for instance. does not impress the God of the bible.
Making people feel better about themselves in their sin is the exact opposite of the biblical principle of applying the law to them so it can show them their need for the penal substitutionary blood atonement of the only begotten Son of God, thus revealing them with us, to be among those to whom: “it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of HEAVEN,…” (emphasis mine).