I imagine Jesus walking along the road with his followers, passing by a farmer sowing some seed in the springtime, or passing a field during the time of harvest, with sunlight breaking through clouds. Maybe they were passing a caravan of merchants, or a nobleman heading out on a long journey, and Jesus begins to tell a story. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”
Jesus understood that telling stories and speaking in parables was a way to teach his unsuspecting followers heavenly lessons from the world around them.
Story communicates truth in a way that teaching doesn’t. Story is something understood on a more emotional level. And parables, like all stories, operate on multiple levels simultaneously.
In the gospels we often get a “behind-the-scenes” glimpse into the parables of Jesus as he took time to explain them to his disciples, away from the crowds, and for their ears only.
Once, the disciples asked Jesus why he always taught in parables. Why didn’t he just come out and speak to the crowds plainly, they asked. And we might sometimes wonder the same thing. But his answer may be surprising. Instead of saying, people understand stories better on an emotional level, or launching into an exposition on how theirs was a culture with a rich tradition of oral storytelling, Jesus gives an answer that is more cryptic than some of his parables.
I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: ‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, And seeing you will see and not perceive; For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn,
So that I should heal them.’ (Matthew 13:13-15)
To understand Jesus’ answer we have to remember why he came.
Acts 10:38 sums up Jesus’ ministry well when it says, he went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil. This is the lens that we most often view Jesus’ ministry through. And it’s true. He proclaimed the beginning of his ministry by quoting Isaiah’s prophecy of the Savior who was to come, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.”
But Jesus had an “undercover” mission, too. His mission was to come and die for the sins of the world, thereby doing the ultimate good for all mankind. It was God’s plan for Jesus to go to the cross and die. Jesus knew this was his mission. But in order for him to complete this thing that he was born to do, he had to be “despised and rejected of men” (Is.53:3).
He explains to his disciples that if he spoke plainly then the people would understand clearly that he was Messiah, and if they accepted him, he would not have been able to fulfill his mission. Going to the cross was the most important thing he could do.
So he taught in parables. He spoke in mysteries to those whose ears were not able to hear. But his heart was to teach the Kingdom coming, and he often took his disciples aside and explained to them more fully the meaning behind the story. And the best news of all is that Jesus said, “blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear.” So as we read the parables we can find the deeper meaning Jesus intended for us who believe.