Q. Why Did Jesus Speak in Parables?
…reading this pericope (Matthew 13:10-15), I fail to see the reason why Jesus, at least in this case, spoke to the people at all. Does he not plainly say that the little faith they might have had, would be taken away from them anyway? He seems to make no exception. So why address them?
… You probably will receive countless emails…each day, so if you do not answer my mail I fully understand.
Thank you for your instructive commentaries on Bible.org,
Thanks for the question. It is a good one.
Let me begin by saying that my failure to make an immediate response is not an indication of our disinterest in you or your question. It is simply a matter of the volume of emails we receive and of limited staff. In addition, I try to give some thought to the question before answering.
That out of the way, let’s get right to the matter of our Lord’s use of parables in Matthew 13 and also in Mark 4. The preceding context provides us with an important clue. The authority of our Lord’s teaching was underscored by the miracles He performed, often while He was teaching. And by this Jesus’ authority was evident, as was the lack of authority on the part of the Jewish religious leaders:
28 When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; 29 for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes (Matthew 7:28-29, see also Matthew 8:9; 9:1-8; Mark 1:21-27, etc.).
The initial approach of the religious leaders who opposed Jesus was to try to show that there was no miracle, such as we see in the case of the man born blind in John chapter 9. But when it became obvious that Jesus was indeed healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, casting out demons, and even raising the dead, the religious leaders changed their tactics: they accused Jesus of performing His miracles by the power of the devil (Matthew 12:22-30; Mark 3:22-27). Since the work of our Lord Jesus was carried out in the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:21-22; 4:1, 14) to call Jesus’ miracles the work of the devil was blaspheming the Holy Spirit, the source of our Lord’s power. Our Lord’s response to this was strong. While all other blasphemies can be forgiven, those against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. The reason, as I understand it, is that it is the Holy Spirit who convicts men of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:7-11), and it is He who is God’s instrument in drawing men to faith in Christ for salvation (John 3:1-10ff.). So, from this point on, the unbelief of those who called the work of Jesus the work of the devil was their doom. So far as these opponents of Jesus are concerned, He spoke in parables so that they would hear, but not understand, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 6:9-10 (Matthew 13:10-15; Mark 4:10-12).
Jesus’ purpose for parables differed, depending upon the hearer. For the disciples, Jesus taught in parables to provoke their deeper thinking, with the goal of giving a full explanation in private:
33 With many such parables He was speaking the word to them, so far as they were able to hear it; 34 and He did not speak to them without a parable; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples (Mark 4:33-34).
But there were others, besides the enemies of Jesus and His inner circle of disciples. There were those like Nicodemus, who were fascinated with Jesus and His teaching, some of whom became believers later on (see John 3; 7:50-52; 19:38-40). Notice those who were secret believers, like Joseph of Arimathea (John 19:38), along with others (see John 7:13, 31; 8:31; 10:42; 12:42). That is why Jesus repeated the words,
9 “He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 13:9).
And so early on in His teaching, Jesus began to teach in parables, to conceal the truth from His enemies, to provoke interest and belief in others, and to instruct His disciples, both publicly and privately. But late in His earthly ministry Jesus employed parables for a very different reason. It was to convey a message to His enemies, who now grasped the meaning of His later parables, while keeping His disciples in the dark, so to speak, regarding coming events:
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them. 46 When they sought to seize Him, they feared the people, because they considered Him to be a prophet. 1 Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying, . . . (Matthew 21:45-22:1).
This provoked His adversaries to plot His death, even at a time and in a manner that they did not wish.
3 Then the chief priests and the elders of the people were gathered together in the court of the high priest, named Caiaphas; 4 and they plotted together to seize Jesus by stealth and kill Him. 5 But they were saying, “Not during the festival, otherwise a riot might occur among the people” (Matthew 26:3-5).
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted together how they might trap Him in what He said. (Matthew 22:15).
It also prevented His disciples from hindering His death, as it needed to take place in order to fulfill prophecy, and to provide salvation for lost sinners. (Remember what Peter did with that sword? John 18:10).
I should add one comment regarding your statement that “the little faith they might have had would be taken away from them.” Jesus does not say that their faith (great or small – and remember what he says about small faith in His parable in Matthew 13:31ff. and 17:20) will be taken away. I believe He is saying that what truth has been revealed to them will be taken away. Speaking in parables was entirely consistent with this. The truth was now concealed from those who rejected the truth they had already received. It would be as if they never heard or had it at all.