Why Did Jesus Tell Parables?

Joseph Francis Alward
November 5, 2000

Parables are simple stories which are meant to
illuminate an idea or religious concept, and
parabolic teaching is thought to have been
a very common Jewish rabbinic practice.  
Many parables were told by
Jesus, including the parable of the Good
Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the Sower
and the Seed, but, according to the authors of
Matthew and Mark, these parables were not
meant to be understood by anyone other than
"the lost sheep of Israel".  Jesus told these
parables to prevent the Gentiles from
understanding the word of God, and thereby
prevent their entry into the Kingdom of Heaven.

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Mark Said Jesus' Parables Mystified Outsiders

Following Jesus' parable about the sower of seeds, Mark has Jesus tell his disciples that he wants to make sure only his followers hear the truth and understand the mysteries, while the Gentiles remain in the dark. Mark then tells us that Jesus, when he is alone with his disciples and out of the earshot of unworthy Gentiles, speaks to his disciples directly and without the need for parables. Here is Mark's story:

And he began again to teach by the sea side: and there was gathered unto him a great multitude.....And he taught them many things by parables....And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable. And he said unto them... Unto you [his disciples] it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: [in order] that... they...not perceive...and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.....But without a parable spake he not unto [his disciples]: and when they were alone, he expounded ALL THINGS (emphasis by editor) to his disciples.  (Mark 4:1-34)

Thus, Mark tells us that Jesus, without speaking in parables, "expounded all things to his disciples". Since Jesus did not want those outside his group of followers to know the mysteries of God, he spoke to them in parables in order that they would not learn that which is necessary to be saved.  Mark's view receives support from Paul in a letter he he wrote to church members in Corinth, Greece, a city he chose for evangelizing:   "But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them
." (2 Corinthians 4:3-4) Thus, Paul is telling the reader that God gives up on those who he believes are lost and hides from them the light of his son's glorious gospel.

Matthew:  Parables Hid God's Message from the Gentiles

The same day went Jesus out of the house, and sat by the sea side. And great multitudes were gathering together unto him.....And he spake many things unto them in parables saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow; And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up: Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.  And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.

....And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because [in this way] they...see not... and hear not, neither do they understand.  (Matthew 13:1-13)

Matthew cites scripture to justify his having Jesus hide God's message from the Gentiles:  "And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive."  (Matthew 13:14)  The scripture to which Matthew refers is the one in which the command is given to "shut the eyes" of the Gentiles:  "And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed."  (Isaiah 6:9-11)

This is not the only time Matthew demonstrates his belief that God's message of salvation was not to be wasted on Gentiles. Matthew has Jesus give his famous speech urging his followers to ignore them:  "Go not into the way of the Gentiles....but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel....I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  (Matthew 10:7, Matthew 15:24)