Why Jesus Spoke in Parables

Most who have been around church for a while are familiar with the parable of the sower in Matthew 13:1-23.  In short, the sower goes out and sows seed all around and various things happen as a result of where the seed falls.  In verses 1-9, Jesus tells the parable to the great crowds that have gathered to hear him speak, without giving any explanation of what the story means.  Then, thankfully for us, in verses 18-23, Jesus explains to his disciples exactly what the parable meant, comparing the seed to the gospel and the various places the seed falls to the people who hear the gospel.

In my experience, this is how the parable is almost always preached — we hear the parable in verses 1-9, the explanation in verses 18-23, and an application for us (e.g., an exhortation to look at our heart and see what kind of “soil” we are).

But the verses in the middle of the parable and explanation got me thinking about how the parable of the sower is presented in Matthew 13.  Between the parable and the explanation are verses 10-16, in which Jesus answers his disciples’ question, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”  Similarly, we could ask why God, knowing in advance how this was going to be recorded in Scripture, presented the lesson as a parable and subsequent explanation.  Why not just cut to the chase?

Jesus gives the answer to both questions in the least-discussed portion of the story — verses 10-16.  His answer is shocking.  He essentially says, “I speak in parables so they won’t understand what I’m saying.”  Jesus says, “To you [disciples] it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to [the multitudes] 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.” (Matt. 13:11-13).

To that we might respond, “Well that hardly seems fair!  Jesus intentionally keeps the true meaning of what he’s saying from the multitude, the ones that arguably need to hear it the most?”  Jesus, though, puts the blame squarely on the people.  Quoting Isaiah, Jesus says the people will “hear but never understand” and “see but never perceive” because their “heart has grown dull and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.”  (Matt. 13:14-15).  In other words, even though Jesus purposefully keeps the people in the dark through his use of parables, the people still bear the blame for the condition of their hearts.

To the disciples, however, Jesus says, “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.  For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”  In other words, the condition of the heart that allows the disciples to understand is a gift.  And to them that the gift of spiritual sight has been given, Jesus gives the further gift of the explanation of the parable.  That’s what Jesus meant by saying that more will be given to the one who has.

So, as important as the parable lesson is, that’s not the only lesson that Bible gives in its presentation of the parable.  Behind the truth of the parable is the truth that all men stand condemned for the condition of our rebellious hearts.  We don’t even deserve to hear the truth.  In our sin, we won’t understand it or respond to it anyway.  But Jesus graciously reveals his truth to those God has chosen to give a new heart and new mind through faith in the perfect righteousness of Christ.

No room to boast there, which I think is precisely the point.

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