Why did Jesus speak to people in parables? Scholars are agreed beyond doubt that Jesus taught in parables. The parable is a type of speech act in which the speaker attempts to draw comparisons between one thing and another. In fact, the Greek word parabolē might best be translated “comparison.” A parable may be encased in a narrative or in similitudes, by which something is said to be “like” something else. It is generally thought that “parable” translates the Hebrew mashal, which has a broader range of meaning than “parable,” and includes riddles, proverbs, allegories and fables. Though other Jewish teachers taught in parables, there are distinctive elements to Jesus’ parables.
Too dry? Let me tell you a story.
Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!
Now do you understand?
There is more than one reason that Jesus spoke in parables, but one of the crucial reasons is that people remember stories better than they do definitions. Stories attract people of all ages and allow us to visualize vital scenes. Most people remember their favorite childhood stories or recall telling their children the same story over and over. Stories pass on meaning encrypted in simple characters and everyday events.
It is not that parabolic narratives are always easy to understand, but the impact emerges from every nook and cranny of a parable, like some sort of linguistic English muffin, dripping with significance. Parables do not shut meaning down, they open it up. This is true when Jesus explains to his disciples why he uses parables to teach in general and when he is interpreting the particular meaning of a parable he has just unfolded for his listeners.
When the disciples ask Jesus why he speaks to the crowds in parables, he explains, “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand’” (a citation from Is 6:9). This prophetic explanation indicates not the power of the story, but the opaque nature of the parable for those who do not seek meaning. Yet Is 6:10, also cited by Jesus, stresses that his listeners must “look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn—and I would heal them.” Meaning is present for those who diligently seek it out.
Jesus makes meaning present when he interprets the parable of the sower and so offers a model of diligent seeing, hearing and seeking. The seed is the “word of the kingdom,” and the places where it is sown represent the condition of the human heart that receives the word of the kingdom. Some seed is snatched away from those who lack understanding; others receive it joyfully, but the seed grows quickly and withers; while others receive it but are later drawn away by the “cares of the world and the lure of wealth.” But the seed, the word of the kingdom, which falls “on good soil” bears fruit and yields “in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
Jesus unveiled the parable of the sower and offered the disciples an interpretation only when the disciples approached him to ask why he taught in parables. Jesus explained that “to you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” The reason the secret “has not been given” is not that Jesus desires to hide the truth but that he wants his followers to seek the truth. And the interpretation of the parable of the sower coincides with the broad range of hearers to whom he was just speaking. Jesus is performing the parable: Are you rocky ground? Thorny ground? Good soil? How can you tell? Listen: Who comes asking questions and seeking meaning?