Why Did Jesus Speak in So Many Parables? #333
Happy Tuesday, dear friends! We are two days away from Thanksgiving, and I was reminded today that not only is this the day that the Lord has made, but 2020 is the YEAR that the Lord has made, so let us even rejoice and be glad in this most difficult of years.
Today’s Bible readings include two chapters from 1st Chronicles, 19-20, Jonah 3, Luke 8 and 1 Peter 1. We are talking about parables today, and they are at the front of my mind recently because our church is going through a series on the parables of Jesus. First, we should discuss what a parable is. Literally, the word means to ‘cast beside’ or put next to. It is an illustration or analogy that teaches or helps you understand a truth. In the parables of Jesus, there is a certain element of mystery – almost riddle-like, because the parables are generally not meant to be rapidly understandable. In that way, they separate those who are really quite interested in truth and the Words of Jesus from those who are only superficially interested. They are meant to stop us in our tracks and think and consider, and often Jesus would say “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” after a parable. This means that not everybody will understand the parables, and very interestingly – that is absolutely on purpose. It may surprise you to know that Jesus did NOT intend everything He taught to be immediately understood.
The parables are amazing illustrations of truth and go well beyond merely a “do this and don’t do that” style of teaching. But why did Jesus use so MANY parables – nearly three dozen?
I will suggest two reasons:
#1 Jesus’ answer to that question, 10 Then the disciples came up and asked him, “Why are you speaking to them in parables?” 11 He answered, “Because the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know, but it has not been given to them. 12 For whoever has, more will be given to him, and he will have more than enough; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. 13 That is why I speak to them in parables, because looking they do not see, and hearing they do not listen or understand. Matthew 13:10
This is a fascinating answer, and I suggest it is very related to John 6:44 44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up on the last day. So it is God who opens hearts to salvation and God who opens ears to the teachings of Jesus. The Gotquestions team explains it like this:
Jesus explained that His use of parables had a two-fold purpose: to reveal the truth to those who wanted to know it and to conceal the truth from those who were indifferent. In the previous chapter (Matthew 12), the Pharisees had publicly rejected their Messiah and blasphemed the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:22–32). They fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy of a hardhearted, spiritually blind people (Isaiah 6:9–10). Jesus’ response was to begin teaching in parables. Those who, like the Pharisees, had a preconceived bias against the Lord’s teaching would dismiss the parables as irrelevant nonsense. However, those who truly sought the truth would understand. Gotquestions.org
(Speculation alert!) The second reason that I’d give has to do with the almost riddle like aspect to the parables – they are mysteries, and not immediately obvious as to their meaning. For the second half of 2020, I have taken up a new hobby: metal-detecting. I had an old hobby type metal detector before, bought on a whim on the way to the beach years ago, but it wasn’t a good one, and I barely used it. We might have found a quarter or two with it and several bottle caps…but this year, I got a newer and better metal detector, and actually got fairly seriously into the hobby. It has been great fun, and I’ve actually found quite a few interesting things, including coins over 100 years old, and some other fairly interesting artifacts. Most of the things I’ve found, I could have bought at a coin or otherwise store…but I would have valued that which I bought easily much less than that which I have sought for, dug for, and worked to get. For instance, among my favorite finds are a pair of 1936 and 1940 walking liberty silver half-dollars. In their current condition, they are probably worth $50-60 dollars total, because they are in really good condition, but I would not sell them for hundreds, because they have a different sort of value to me. I value greatly my finds with the metal detector, and don’t plan on selling them, but passing them down to my kids. Why do I value them so much? I don’t know, but it might just have something to do with the satisfaction of having found them. I think there is a very similar dynamic working with the parables. Consider this Proverb:
It is the glory of God to conceal a matter
and the glory of kings to investigate a matter.
I think we can apply this dynamic to Scripture: Jesus has embedded or concealed great Kingdom truths in His parables. They aren’t immediately obvious for the most part, but for the one who prayerfully studies the Word in a deep way and thinks deeply on these teachings, it seems the truths are revealed much as a buried treasure is dug up. It is a kingly thing to investigate and a Godly thing, at times, to conceal a matter. So the parables represent concealed treasure, I believe, that we need to dig for…or, actually listen to…with spiritual ears.
Here’s Piper on why Jesus taught in parables and why it is important to listen to the Word:
“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” That means it’s not enough to have ears on the side of your head. Everybody has those. But there is another kind of ear that only some people have. And those can hear. “He who has ears to hear let him hear.” There is a spiritual ear, or a heart-ear. There is an ear that hears, in the preaching of the Word, more than mere words. There is a beauty and a truth and a power that these ears hear as compelling and transforming and preserving. That’s the kind of hearing Jesus is calling for. That’s what this text is about.
Then to stress the issue of hearing even more, Luke tells us how Jesus explained the purpose of parables in his situation. In verses 9–10, “his disciples began questioning Him as to what this parable meant. And He said, ‘To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is in parables, so that “seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.” ’ ” This is a shocking word. To those whom Jesus has chosen, the mystery of his kingdom is opened and he gives them the gift of understanding. Verse 10a: “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God.” Understanding the kingdom of God is a free gift of God for those whom Jesus has chosen as his disciples.
But then he says (in verse 10b) that for the others the reason for his parables is “so that seeing they may not see and hearing they may not understand.” The issue is hearing again. “Hearing they may not understand.” That means there are two kinds of hearing: one with the physical ears of the head and one with the spiritual ears of the heart. “Hearing (with the physical ears), they do not understand (with the spiritual ears). And this he says, is one of the reasons he uses parables—“so that” hearing, they may not understand. In other words, the parables are part of Jesus’ concealing and hardening ministry as well as part of his revealing and saving ministry.
The Word Saves Some and Hardens Some
This hard word is a quote from Isaiah 6:9–10 where God tells Isaiah his ministry to Israel will not only be saving for some but hardening for others. God says to Isaiah, “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive; keep on looking, but do not understand.’ Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed.” In other words, time had run out for these people and the Word of God was no longer effective to save them, but was only effective to render their hearts insensitive, and their ears dull, and their eyes dim.
This teaches us something very important about preaching. Even when preaching the Word of God does not soften and save and heal, it is not necessarily ineffective. This preaching of the Word may be doing God’s terrible work of judgment. It may be hardening people, and making their ears so dull that they will never want to hear again. There is a judgment in this world—not just in the world to come (Romans 1:24)—and oh, how we should flee from it. Which in this text means: take heed how you hear! Don’t be cavalier in the hearing of God’s Word week after week. If it is not softening and saving and healing and bearing fruit, it is probably hardening and blinding and dulling (see 2 Corinthians 2:16).
The Effectiveness of Hearing
Which brings us to the last mention of hearing in this text. It comes in a surprising place. I would have expected it to come right after the parable—right after verse 15. But it comes in verse 18: “So [= therefore, the conclusion of the matter] take care how you listen [hear!]” That’s the point of the text. And that’s my main point this morning. Take care how you hear. Preaching is one thing—and it is crucial. But hearing is another thing—and it is just as crucial. There is nothing in this text about the effectiveness of preaching. It is all about the effectiveness of hearing. The point is not, “Take heed how you preach.” But: “Take heed how you hear.”
John Piper, Sermons from John Piper (1990–1999) (Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God, 2007).