To help us draw closer to heaven ...
The first thing that comes to my mind with the question, why did Jesus speak in parables, is that it was common practice to use parables and fables to teach a moral or religious lesson in days of old.
Aesop’s Fables come to mind – who can forget The Boy who cried, Wolf? My wise old dad would often quote this fable to bring his naughty children into line! Today, I can still not tell a lie because of the teaching!
Parables, like fables, are a powerful way of teaching; Jesus was fond of using parables to describe his mission – we can assume this because he delivered thirty-eight in total.
I can identify some reasons why Jesus taught in parables; I am sure there are more, though.
The parables contained the shocking and revolutionary message of God’s kingdom coming closer to earth in a manner that left many listeners wondering, trying to think it out, but never quite able to pin Jesus down.
They were intended to make the hearers talk and question and think, whereas otherwise, they might well dismiss what Jesus had to say.
Moule has an apt quote: You cannot teach people by spoon-feeding; you must set them a puzzle to think out for themselves; those who start to crack it are getting somewhere. There is no shortcut to understanding.
This accounts for the sting in the tail of many parables – i.e. the complaining elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Son.
In Judea, where Jesus taught, the culture was rural and familiar with the farming cycles. So, it made good sense for Jesus to use rural farming as a framework to explain his mission – which he often did.
This was nothing new, though, because, in the well-known Psalm 23 (written 1,000 years before Christ came to earth by King David of Israel), God is likened to a shepherd, leading his goats through dangerous paths to find food and water.
Jesus’ parables often harked back to the Old Testament promises made by God to the prophets of old and had echoes of ancient scriptural hope. The parables implied these hopes were now being realised; even though nothing like how they had imagined it would happen, it would resonate with Jewish listeners.
A classic example is The Parable of the Lost Sheep, where Jesus is referencing Psalm 23 to imply that He is now the Good Shepherd. You can find out more about Psalm 23 here.
It is also worth mentioning that I believe this to be a timeless method of communication used in both the Old and New Testaments. By referring to God’s creation when explaining a biblical truth, the lessons can just as well be understood today and reduce opportunities to distort the message.
Finally, it was prophesied in two places in the Old Testament that the long-awaited Messiah would come speaking in parables.
In Psalm 78:2-4:
2 I will open my mouth with a parable; I will utter hidden things, things from of old—
3 things we have heard and known,
things our ancestors have told us.
4 We will not hide them from their descendants;
we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord,
his power, and the wonders he has done.
Jesus used parables to demonstrate he was the long-awaited Messiah, and he referred to the prophecy in Psalm 78, here in Matthew 13:34–35, as he directly quoted the psalm:
34 Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. 35 This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet:
“I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”
Another Old Testament prophecy was fulfilled when many people did not understand the prophecies. Isaiah 6 9-11 foretold this would happen; this would have been another sign that Jesus was the Messiah:
9 And he said, “Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
10 Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.”
Some say the parables are earthly stories with heavenly meanings, but Professor Tom Wright clarifies this view slightly:
The message remains very much about what ought to be happening here and now, on ‘earth’, not just in ‘heaven’.
Simply Jesus; Tom Wright
For me, I understand that when Jesus was born, heaven came closer to earth. Through his teachings and parables, he tells us how to draw closer to heaven.