The parable is a comparison or similitude, a short simple, usually fictitious, story from which moral or spiritual truth is drawn. The parable as a teaching tool is effective in at least five ways: (1) They capture and grip our attention. (2) They stimulate thinking ability. (3) They stimulate feelings and reach the sense of right and wrong of the heart. (4) They assist in our ability to recall. (5) They are always applicable to human life, in every generation. The primary reason the Bible writers use parable is to teach. However, they assist in other ways as well.
Matthew 13:13, 34-35 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
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. 34 All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, and without a parable he would not speak to them. 35 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”
Think back over the past year or two, can you recall an illustration or parable that your pastor used to make a point stand out in his sermon? Parables that are effective cannot be quickly forgotten. Parables can breathe life into words, teaching lessons that we can scarcely forget. Donald A. Hagner noted, “that the parables have the effect of illuminating the subject of the kingdom for those who are willing to accept the message and of darkening it for those who reject the message of the present reality of the kingdom.” Often we think best in pictures; therefore, parables can make ideas easier to grasp. Jesus Christ has been more skillful at using parables than any other teacher on earth. It has been 2,000 years and billions have recalled with ease the many parables that Jesus spoke. Why did Jesus use parables so often in his teaching and what made them so effective?
The apostle Matthew gives us two reasons why Jesus used parables as a teaching tool to the extent that he did. He wrote: “All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, and without a parable he would not speak to them. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:n ‘I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.’” (Matthew 13:34-35) The prophet that Matthew was quoting was the composer of Psalm 78:2. That Psalmist wrote centuries before Jesus Christ under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This means that hundreds of years in advance that the Father foreknew that the Son would teach with parables to such an extent. Certainly, the Father and the Son value this form of teaching.
Second, Jesus himself explained that he used parables to examine the hearts of the people, to filter out those who were not receptive to the truth. After he shared the parable of the sower to “large crowds,” his disciples asked: “Why do you speak to them in parables?” Jesus answered: “To you it has been granted to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him. 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. In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says, ‘’With hearing, you will hear but never understand, and Seeing, you will see but never perceive.’ For the heart of this people has become dull, and with their ears they heard unwillingly, and their eyes they have closed, otherwise they would see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’”—Matthew 13:2, 10, 11, 13-15; Isaiah 6:9, 10.
His parables seem simple enough on the surface level, what is it exactly that filtered out those who were not receptive to the truth? There were some listeners among the people, who had to dig deeper to get the full meaning of the parable. Only those who are humble with a receptive heart were moved to ask for more information. (Matthew 13:36; Mark 4:34) Jesus’ parables, then, revealed the truth to hungry hearts that were open and responsive; however, at the same time, his parables concealed the truth from those who had proud, arrogant hearts. Jesus was undoubtedly a very extraordinary teacher! In future articles, we will examine some of the factors that made his parables so effective.
Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 390.
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