Q: I have heard that Jesus told parables to confuse people. Please explain.
Answer: Scripture gives insight into Jesus’ usage of parables, but the purpose was broader than confusion. First, we should review scripture to understand why Jesus used parables to relay his messages. Next we can think about the relevance of the morals or messages for our everyday religion.
According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a parable is a “short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle.” It is a simple narrative used to deliver the message with a setting, limited characters and actions. Basically, it is a process of comparison that starts with the familiar everyday life and leads to a deeper understanding.
Parabolic literature was included in several books in the Old Testament with the intention stated in Psalm 78:2-4, “I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old, which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us. Telling to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, And His strength and His wonderful works that He has done.”
One of the moving tales in 2 Samuel 12:1-15 reveals God’s forgiveness and judgment. Nathan tells King David a tale. “There were two men one rich and the other poor. The rich man had many flocks, but the poor man had nothing, except one little lamb, and it grew up together with him and his children. It was like a daughter to him. The traveler came to the rich man, who took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man.” To the King’s surprise, Nathan reveals that the rich man is David who killed Uriah, took his wife, and sinned against God. Nathan told David, “The Lord also has put away your sin and you shall not die; but the child who is born to you shall die.” This tale reveals human flaws and gives insight into God’s way.
In the New Testament, 55 parables are included in Luke, Mark and Matthew. Jesus used the parables extensively in his three-year teaching ministry. He told the interesting stories about everyday life which caught the attention of many people. The crowds enabled Jesus to teach more freely for a short period of time because the leadership limited their restrictions to avoid uprisings.
Many people have said that it is not enough to read scripture; it requires meditation. This point is very true about parables because deeply rooted in the simple stories are storehouses filled with the mysteries of God. When asked by the disciples why he used parables, Jesus said that he would fulfill the words of the prophet and reveal the mysteries from the foundation of the world. In Matthew 13:11-13, he spoke to his disciples, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” Most people need to learn how to see and hear.
It is believed that God challenges those who come to him to study the messages and then to look into their hearts for the deeper meaning of his mysteries. By following the dictates of their hearts, they would be guided by the spirit to profound truths. The first steps were taken by freewill then carried by grace. In other words, the soil must be prepared and the seeds or roots must be nourished for survival and fruitfulness. This important message can be found in most of the parables. I encourage the study of the parables because they remain relevant. They teach morally sound lessons in the ways to interact with each other and reveal a path for those with open hearts to discover God’s mercy and justice.
Two parting thoughts from scripture that are applicable to daily life, “Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” (Matthew 15:11) and “This is my command: Love each other.” (John 15:17)
Earl Crow’s column is published Saturdays in the Winston-Salem Journal. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.