“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. – Mark 4:9-10
I have often been perplexed by Jesus’ reasoning for why He used parables – mostly because Jesus’ answer seemed to be the opposite of what I had always been taught. Typically, people see Jesus’ parables as His way of making it simple, approachable and culturally relevant. When He taught to simple country farmers, He used stories about wheat, sowing and reaping; if Jesus had been ministering to urban hipsters, He would have told stories of macchiatos, ironic mustaches and bands no one has heard of. You know, “meeting them where they were at” kind of thing. I remember watching a pastor at a conference passionately defend why it was okay to play AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” in their Easter service because he was “meeting people where they were at”, likening it to being the equivalent of Jesus telling a parable. (Yes, that actually happened)
But when Jesus’ disciples ask Him what His parables mean, He seems to give a very contradictory response:
“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.
Jesus quotes Isa. 6:9-10 to explain the purpose of parables (We see this more fully quoted in the parallel account in Matt. 13:14-15). For those who believe in Jesus, the parable is loaded with spiritual truth, but to those who do not believe, it is just a story. I have found Matthew Henry’s explanation of the matter to be very helpful,
“He taught them many things, but it was by parables or similitudes, which would tempt them to hear; for people love to be spoken to in their own language, and careless hearers will catch at a plain comparison borrowed from common things, and will retain and repeat that, when they have lost, or perhaps never took, the truth which it was designed to explain and illustrate: but unless they would take pains to search into it, it would but amuse them; seeing they would see, and not perceive; and so, while it gratified their curiosity, it was the punishment of their stupidity; they willfully shut their eyes against the light, and therefore justly did Christ put it into the dark lantern of a parable, which had a bright side toward those who applied it to themselves, and were willing to be guided by it; but to those who were only willing for a season to play with it, it only gave a flash of light now and then, but sent them away in the dark. It is just with God to say of those that will not see, that they shall not see, and to hide from their eyes, who only look about them with a great deal of carelessness.”
– Matthew Henry’s Commentary on Mark 4
Henry explains that there are two types of listeners to Jesus’ teaching – those who “willfully shut their eyes against the light” and are entertained by the story alone, and those who desire to learn the spiritual truth behind the story. After Jesus tells the parable of the four soils in Mark 4:3-8, notice a group of people as well as the twelve disciples approach Jesus and ask Him to explain what He meant by it – Jesus doesn’t reserve the interpretation of the parable for the twelve disciples, but is open for anyone who desires to understand. The desire to understand, apply and believe Christ’s teaching is the difference between the two types of people Henry is talking about. It is entirely possible to enjoy listening to a preacher, without any desire whatsoever to apply what he is saying to your life; God explains to Ezekiel that this is how his people view him,
“As for you, son of man, your people who talk together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, say to one another, each to his brother, ‘Come, and hear what the word is that comes from the Lord. And they come to you as people come, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear what you say but they will not do it; for with lustful talk in their mouths they act; their heart is set on their gain. And behold, you are to them like one who sings lustful songs with a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument, for they hear what you say, but they will not do it” – Ezek. 33:30-32
Jesus is not interested in just growing a big following, He often speaks in a confusing way without explaining Himself, in order to thin out those who are not willing to believe in Him (John 6:26, 52-65). Jesus is interested in creating disciples who take His Word seriously, who are not satisfied with a cavalier or light-hearted attitude towards Christ’s teaching, but will wrestle with it and bring it to the feet of Jesus in prayer and ask Him, “Will you help me understand this?” This requires a humble awareness of our own limitations, a trust for God to help us understand, and a serious commitment to studying God’s Word (1 Cor. 2:7-14). When we approach it in that way, the parable then becomes an aid to understanding. After we have humbled ourselves and thought deeply over the spiritual truths behind the parable, it then goes from a perplexing mystery to a helpful tool – creating a memorable metaphor or story to illustrate weighty realities.
I think therein lies the dual-purpose of parables: 1) to weed out those who are proud and do not truly desire to submit themselves to Christ’s teaching and 2) to humble those who do desire to understand by causing them to not understand it immediately and rely on God’s illuminating work.