Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Why did Jesus teach in parables?

DAY 18

Morning Reading - Genesis 42-43 
Evening Reading - Matthew 13:33-58

I have noted before that in Matthew's gospel narrative, Jesus is identitfied as the New Moses. Just as Moses was known as the great teacher of the Law and is traditionally identified as the author of the first five books of the Old Testament, so also is Jesus portrayed as a great teacher and Matthew intentionally structures his narrative around five distrinct teaching discourses of Jesus. Mattthew 13 is the third teaching discourse of Jesus and is primarily comprised of parables.

The parables of Jesus can broadly be divided into two categories: "kingdom" parables and "teaching" parables. The purpose of "kingdom" parables is to illustrate some characteristic of the kingdom of God. Often Jesus will begin these parables with a statement of comparison ("the kingdom of heaven is like...") or an inquiry ("to what shall I compare the kingdom of God?"). In Matthew 13, Jesus provides five brief parables regarding the kingdom of heaven. The other general category of parables can be referred to as "teaching" parables, which serve to illustrate some particular theme of the spiritual life (faith, discipleship, love, forgiveness, sin, etc.). Often the "teaching" parables have more complex story lines with mutilple characers.

The parables of Jesus are a distinctive element of his teaching. No other teacher in the Greco-Roman world used parables to the extent that Jesus did. The purpose of the parables seems to be to simultaneously conceal and reveal. For those whose ears and eyes are closed to the message of the kingdom, the parables will only further confuse the issue, but for those whose hearts are open to the kingdom message of Jesus, the parables can serve as a source of illumination. However, even if we think we understand what Jesus is saying in particular parable, we can never fully grasp of depth of the parable's meaning, which is part of the function of parabolic teaching.

New Testament scholar Felix Just provides the following observations regarding the nature of parables:
  • The meaning of most parables is not so obvious, or at least it shouldn't be. If we assume we know what Jesus is talking about, we are probably missing the main point; if we are too familiar with the story (having heard it so often before), we might not think carefully enough about its real meaning.
  • Most parables contain some element that is strange or unusual. They should cause you to say, "Wait a minute! That's not how farmers do their work! That's not what kings usually do! That's not what normally happens in nature!" And this strange element should cause you to think!
  • Parables do not define things precisely, but rather use comparisons to describe some aspect of how God acts or interacts with human beings. Yet to say "A is like B" does not mean that "A is identical to B in all respects"; so one should be careful not to misinterpret or misapply the parables.
So, take some time this week to read and meditate on the parables of Jesus - there is always something new to learn!


  1. I'm posting this before I read your blog so it will be interesting to see what is above this. : ) Matt 13:33-58:  Prophecy and Parables -- many of these are still over my head and I will have to get other sources to learn more. verses 33 (leaven) and 44 (hidden treasure) especially.  I was happy that Jesus himself explained the parable of the weeds.  No offense to all the many learned folks that try to explain the Bible through the ages but it is great to get it from Jesus.  I am always sad that Jesus was rejected in Nazareth.  They were TOO close to him to be able to see anything else I guess.

  2. It is a true blessing to always have something new to learn.