It’s remarkable how pervasive the assumption is that Jesus told stories for the same reason that aspiring preachers and teachers today are urged to tell stories—to get people’s attention, entertain, illustrate the point in a homely and accessible fashion, provide vividness, bring clarity, and so on. I came across it this morning in an MA hermeneutics paper that I am marking. The student suggests that the rabbinic practice of telling stories to communicate spiritual or heavenly truths would have been familiar to first century Jewish audiences. So Jesus would have been speaking “in a familiar currency”, which would have facilitated “maximum understanding amongst the audience”. She then quotes from Fee and Stuart’s classic How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth : “Jesus was not trying to be obtuse, he fully intended to be understood”.
I don’t have a copy of the book to hand so I can’t check the context, but presumably the student has not seriously misrepresented their view. In any case, the argument of the essay is that Jesus spoke in parables in order to make his teaching about the kingdom of God as clear and simple as he possibly could, and I suspect that a lot of people share that opinion.
For those outside everything is in parables
The problem is that the one passage in which Jesus does explain why he spoke in parables suggests quite the opposite—that he was indeed being obtuse, that he spoke in parables precisely with the intention of not being understood:
And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’” (Mark 4:11-12; cf Lk. 8:9-10)
The quotation is condensed from the passage in Isaiah where the prophet is commissioned to speak to Israel:
And he said, “Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ 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.” Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the LORD removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. (Is. 6:8–12)
Isaiah is not told to speak to the people of Israel in parables, but clearly Jesus makes use of an apparently cryptic literary form in order to make the point that first century Israel was in the same wretched condition as eighth century Israel and faced the same outcome—the devastation of its cities and the decimation of its people. The incomprehension generated by his teaching in parables was a prophetic sign of coming judgment on the nation. The disciples are let in on the secret of the kingdom of God but they still need to have the parables explained to them (eg., Mk. 4:13-20).
On one of the few occasions when we are told that his hearers did get the point, judgment on a rebellious people is clearly in view. The parable of the tenants of the vineyard, who kill the owner’s son in order to get the inheritance, concludes with their destruction. The chief priests, scribes and elders “perceived that he had told the parable against them” (Mk. 12:12). The story, of course, is Jesus’ retelling of Isaiah’s parable of Israel as a vineyard that has failed to yield justice and righteousness and is threatened with destruction:
And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down…. For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry! (Is. 5:5, 7)
I will open my mouth in parables
At first sight Matthew has a rather different explanation for Jesus’ use of parables:
All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.” (Matt. 13:34-35)
The Old Testament passage in view here is Psalm 78:2-4:
I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.
But the Psalmist then proceeds to tell a long story about how the northern kingdom of Israel—the Ephraimites—repeatedly rebelled against the God who had brought them out of Egypt, culminating in their rejection by God, the destruction of the temple at Shiloh, the Assyrian exile, and the choice of the tribe of Judah, mount Zion as the place of his sanctuary, and David as shepherd of his people. So when the Psalmist opens his mouth in a parable, the “glorious deeds of the Lord” of which he speaks include both judgment on a rebellious people and the choice of a faithful king.
For Jesus the parables were not a pedagogic device but a prophetic device. They were, by virtue of their form as much as their content, a rebuke to the leadership of Israel and a warning of coming judgment. Indeed, I think we have to accept that pretty much the whole of his teaching has this eschatological orientation. He was not a purveyor of general moral and spiritual wisdom. He was an eschatological prophet—albeit, in the end, a prophet of his own kingship.