The Purpose of Parables

How often have you heard the reason that our Lord spoke in parables was to tell a story that would be easily relatable and understandable to His audience? Generally speaking, our (at least mine) understanding of the use and meaning of parables is similar to the familiar Aesop’s fables, namely the oral expression of religious or moral truths through worldly or cultural, usually mental, pictures. We sometimes call these word pictures. Perhaps there is some element of truth here, but perhaps not, particularly when we turn to the pages of Scripture and see Jesus defining His purpose for using parables.
The transliterated Greek word, parabole, means a comparison, likeness, or similitude.  Literally, it means, “a placing of one thing by the side of another, juxtaposition, as of ships in battle”.  Sometimes we hear it described by its more simple definition, “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.”  Usually with this definition we hold up our own story telling efforts, as with Aesop’s fables, as an example by saying that a parable is a simple, relational way to convey or teach a spiritual reality.  In the New Testament, often agricultural parables are used to paint the word picture because that was familiar to the culture at the time. Jesus first uses parables in Matthew 13 (Mark 4, Luke 8) and it is there that we find the purpose for them. Beginning in Matthew 13:3, “And he told them many things in parables…” and running through the end of the long chapter, our Lord provides a number of parables interwoven with their meaning and in particular, highlighting their purpose. Following the details of the Parable of the Sower (or Soils) in Matthew 13:3-9 we read a question posed by Jesus’ disciples concerning the purpose of parables, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” To which He provides a lengthy reply:
11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 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. 13 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. 14 Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
“‘“You will indeed hear but never understand,
    and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
15 For this people’s 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.’
16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 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.

Matthew 13:11-17
In this passage we find a two-fold purpose for parables. First, we see Jesus telling His disciples that they have been divinely granted the spiritual ability to, “know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, they, as a distinct group, were given spiritual ears to hear, eyes to see, and minds to perceive the truths that Jesus was proclaiming about the Gospel of the Kingdom. Here, we might say, is where our typical understanding of the purpose of parables normally begins, but unfortunately also ends, because there is another purpose, “but to them it has not been given.” In other words, there is another group, them, who have not been divinely given spiritual ears, eyes, nor perception.
We may be tempted to stop here and offer a question by way of objection, “Wait, the answer Jesus provides as to why He speaks [to them] in parables is because His disciples have been granted eyes to see and ears to hear but the rest of the audience [them] has not been granted this same ability? Then why speak to them in parables!” To answer this, we turn to the next section of the passage for further explanation. This begins in verse 12, “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.” Continuing in this verse to explain the why, our Lord indicates that to those who have been granted the spiritual ability to see, hear, and perceive, more will be given. In other words, added clarity, unto an abundance. This is often referred to as the doctrine of illumination. Those to whom the eyes and ears have been given, which we may simplify to say those who have been born again, will not be left abandoned as infants in a cradle but will be given more food – spiritually speaking, nurturing them unto maturity. The passage turns once again to the negative purpose of parables in verses 13-15, again providing additional clarity. Jesus reiterates that he speaks to them in parables because they can’t see, hear, or perceive. His statement is buttressed with a quote from the prophet Isaiah, specifically chapter 6:9-10. Turning there, including surrounding verses for context, we read the following:
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” And he said, “Go, and say to this people:
“‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
10 Make the heart of this people dull,
    and their ears heavy,
    and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
    and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
    and turn and be healed.”
11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”
And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
    without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
    and the land is a desolate waste,
12 and the Lord removes people far away,
    and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.
13 And though a tenth remain in it,
    it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak,
    whose stump remains
    when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump.
Interestingly, this quotation from Isaiah follows upon the majestic vision that Isaiah had been given of the throne room of God. It was in context of that vision that we read of God calling for one to send, a call which Isaiah answers. His commissioning is then accompanied by the words to say to the people, which in its essence is a statement of judgment against the people. God directs Isaiah to preach for the purpose of hardening their hearts. This is a further reminder of the dual function of God’s word, a double edged sword. It can both soften the calloused heart and further harden the hardened heart. When our Lord quotes this passage, He installs Himself as the One to answer the call and He subsequently pronounces the words of this judgment, declaring it fulfilled through His teaching via parables. Put simply, the second purpose of parables was to be a form of judgment on them. The reason, according the prophecy of Isaiah, now fulfilled again in Christ, was because the peoples hearts were hardened. Is there then a discrepancy between the passage in Isaiah, where he was to preach and make the people’s hearts hard, and Matthew where Jesus says that the people’s hearts had grown dull? No, especially when we consider that this passage from Isaiah 6 is quoted elsewhere, namely in the related gospel accounts from Mark 4:12 and Luke 8:10, as well as John 12:40, Acts 28:26-27, and Romans 11:8. Puritan Matthew Poole provides some insight into the difference in the statements
Matthew seemeth to speak of the more proximate cause; Isaiah, Luke, John, and Paul of the higher but remoter cause. Matthew, of their sinful act preceding; John, Luke, Paul, and Isaiah, of the judicial act of God, consequent to their sinful act. Matthew Poole
We find a similar paradox with God’s dealing with Pharoah, namely that He hardened Pharoah’s heart in some passages and that Pharoah hardened his own heart in others, so too here. Jesus’ teaching in parables was both a way to communicate spiritual truths to those who had been divinely given ears to hear, eyes to see, and hearts to perceive as well as the purpose of judicial hardened of those who had not been divinely granted these graces. The use of parables clearly played a significant role in the teaching ministry of our Lord. However, we do injustice to their purpose, and one of the chief purposes of our Lord’s earthly ministry, if we consider them quaint bedtime stories to teach people about the gospel. They had a dual purpose, as did our Lord, and as does the Word of God today. It pronounces both salvation and judgment.

About the author

Christian saved by grace through faith.

Click in the box below to subscribe and get new content delivered straight to your inbox. Or leave a comment to join the discussion.

%d bloggers like this: