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A Year Through the Gospels: Week 11 – The Purpose of Parables

March 27, 2016

Darryl Sluka

This is the eleventh installment in a yearlong series. You can find the previous installments here.

Matthew 13:10-17 – The Purpose of Parables

Matthew 13 introduces a new element to Jesus’ teaching: parables. Up until this point, Jesus taught rather matter of factly. In the sermon on the mount, his teachings were clear and specific. His parables in and after chapter 13, on the other hand, are neither of those. Certain parables, such as the parable of the lost sheep or prodigal son, give us an in depth look into the nature of who God is and the lengths he is willing to go to save us. But when parables are first introduced in Matthew, it seems as though the purpose behind them was to keep people from understanding Jesus’ message. Why did Jesus adopt a new style of teaching that would keep the people he is trying to reach from understanding? When you understand the purpose behind parables, you understand that revealing specific aspects about the nature of God was not their sole purpose. In fact, there was a deeper reason behind the implementation of parables that makes Jesus’ comments in Matthew 13:10-17 much more understandable. Furthermore, it will help link the stories of the Old Testament with the message of the New Testament to create one bigger picture of the works of God, both those that he has done and those that he will do.

What Are Parables?

Parables are illustrations derived from real life scenarios to bring understanding about what is being taught. These scenarios were not from actual stories that Jesus had heard of and decided to use as an illustration. They were hypothetical scenarios, but they were still culturally possible. For example, the parable of the hidden treasure in Matthew 13:44 was not outside the realm of possibility during Jesus’ time, but Jesus was not retelling a story of a real man who found hidden treasure in a field and the actions he took to acquire it. Parables do not have literal or historical people behind them; the man in that parable did not exist, nor did the field, nor did the treasure. Jesus used the scenario of a man finding hidden treasure in a field to illustrate what the kingdom of heaven is like and what it is like to find it.

What is the Purpose of Parables?

The definition of a parable is fairly easy to understand; the purpose of a parable, however, is not as easy. As mentioned above, parables are not the clearest form of teaching, so why did Jesus use them so often? Matthew 13:10-17 gives us a reason as to why Jesus used parables, but it is not necessarily the explanation we would have liked. It says:

“Then the disciples came up and asked Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?”  He answered them, “Because the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know, but it has not been given to them. 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. For this reason I speak to them in parables, because looking they do not see, and hearing they do not listen or understand. Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says:   You will listen and listen, yet never understand; and you will look and look, yet never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown callous; their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn back— and I would cure them. 

“But your eyes are blessed because they do see, and your ears because they do hear!For I assure you: Many prophets and righteous people longed to see the things you see yet didn’t see them; to hear the things you hear yet didn’t hear them.”

It may seem like Jesus did not say much, but he revealed a few different things. First, Jesus said that the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given to the disciples. Through an act of grace, God chose to reveal the secrets about his kingdom (that is, the good news entailed in the kingdom of heaven) to these few men who followed Jesus. They did not earn the knowledge of the secrets; in fact, their merits would have disqualified them from receiving such knowledge, but God chose to give it to them anyway. Secondly, Jesus tells them that whoever has, more will be given, but those who do not have will lose everything they think they have. What Jesus means is this: those who have the message of good news about the kingdom of heaven will be given more in the kingdom of heaven; those who do not have the message of good news will lose everything they have stockpiled for themselves here on earth. Thirdly, he says that even though the people are looking at him and listening to what he says they do not see him for who he really is or understand what his message really means. It is almost as if they looked right through him. Fourthly, Jesus harkens back to a prophesy about these people in Isaiah 6:9-10 to justify his claims. Fifthly, Jesus tells his disciples that they are blessed for seeing and hearing such things because many who came before them longed to see and hear but did not- despite these people being prophets or righteous. This points highlights the grace that was bestowed upon the disciples. They received grace first of all for the ability to come to know to good news of the kingdom of heaven and secondly because they did so by seeing and hearing the son of God in the flesh- something many people longed for but only few experienced. These five points give insight into this passage as a whole, but the prophecy of Isaiah is the critical piece for our purposes in this post.

The reason behind Jesus’ parables is rooted in Isaiah 6. In Isaiah 6 we see the calling of Isaiah and the message he was to deliver to Judah. Despite the fact that Israel was God’s chosen people, especially the nation of Judah, the first five chapters of Isaiah contain God’s judgements against Jerusalem and Judah in general. After these judgements, in which God calls Judah wicked, he sends Isaiah to proclaim a message to the Jews:

“And He replied: 

Go! Say to these people: Keep listening, but do not understand; keep looking, but do not perceive. Dull the minds of these people; deafen their ears and blind their eyes; otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears, understand with their minds, turn back, and be healed.”

(Isaiah 6:9–10 HCSB)

This was a message of judgement. God, as seen in the first five chapters, was disgusted with Judah. He judged them for their wicked actions, and their punishment was that their ability to be reconciled to God be put on hold. They would look for the opportunity of reconciliation, but they would not see it. They would listen for its message, but they would not hear it. They would no longer be able to recognize the opportunity of reconciliation; instead they would see it as a hinderance. They hardened their hearts towards God and his commands, so God hardened their hearts towards understanding his message of reconciliation. Now, as verses 11-13 reveal, this judgement was not eternal or indefinitely. God appointed a time when the blinders would be lifted from the Jewish people so that they may understand his message and come to be healed. However, the judgement did demand that only a remnant of the people would receive such an opportunity. That being the case, the Jews during the time of Jesus were living within the time of judgement and were therefore rendered incapable of understanding Jesus’ message. A key part of this is that if the Jews were to approach God with humility and ask to be healed, God must heal them because of who he is. That is why he says in Isaiah 6:10 “Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts and turn and be healed” (ESV, bold added). Ultimately, God wants them to be healed, but his justice demands that there be a time in which they cannot be healed. Thus, Jesus taught in parables so that this prophecy of judgement from Isaiah would be fulfilled. The Jews were already hardened to his message, but to ensure that the judgement would be fulfilled and their understanding hindered, he used parables.

Parables can be confusing, and the purpose behind them can seem unsettling, but we must understand them. Understanding their direct applications for our lives can be fairly straightforward, but understanding their purpose and the role they play within the greater picture of God’s work throughout history is much more difficult. Despite the level of difficulty, it is important that we reach that level of understanding so that we can start to see the stories and passages of the Bible as one narrative and one big picture instead of isolating each story or passage for our own purposes. Seeing the Bible as one narrative and the works of God as one big picture fills us with more wonder about who God is, which leads us to worship him more.

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