This is a question the disciples put to Jesus in the 13th Chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel. Many of us still ask that question.
Part of the answer is that human beings were made to love puzzles. We find in ancient cultures deep appreciation for the riddle, and in biblical cultures appreciation for teaching through use of mashal or allegory. Consider the modern equivalent, the meme, which we all like trying to decode, even if we don’t always succeed at it.
A good parable is something that you chew over, and look at from different angles, with a group of friends or relatives, sharing insights and arguing over meaning and interpretation. They are, in essence, discussion starters.
But St Matthew’s Gospel provides us with a reasonable answer to why Jesus used parables, and why after a period of public ministry without parables He started using them almost exclusively.
The beginning of Chapter 13 says, ‘that same day, Jesus left the house and sat by the lakeside, but such large crowds gathered round Him that He got into a boat and sat there. The people all stood on the shore, and He told them many things in parables’.
So what happened earlier that day?
Chapter 12 has Jesus curing a blind and dumb demoniac and then He gets accused of being Beelzebul, and then the scribes and Pharisees ask for a sign (none of the previous healings and miracles are enough for them, they want to set the conditions for a sign they will accept, God has to dance to their tune first before they will consider dancing to His), and then family members demand words with Him, so it hasn’t exactly been a good day for Jesus. For all His efforts up to this point don’t seem to be bearing the fruits of repentance He has been looking for, otherwise He would not in Chapter 11 have called down reproaches upon the Galilean towns where most of His miracles had been worked.
In order for any of us to get closer to God in our lives, something has to change. If we do the same things, how can we expect different outcomes? Yet frequently our response is, ‘I don’t want to change’, ‘I don’t need to change’, ‘there’s nothing in my life that needs changing’, ‘I am quite content as I am thanks, quit trying to upset my equilibrium’, ‘the person sitting over there needs more change than I do’. And this seems to be exactly what Jesus was facing, crowds of people happy to see miracles happen, and happy to listen to good teaching, and happy to continue doing so, (Jesus had very high entertainment value), but very few allowing that teaching to transform the way they were living.
So we see Jesus in that post lunch / siesta time go and sit by the lakeside, letting prayer and natural beauty do their work in freeing Him from the frustrations of the morning. It is a time of pause. It is a time of re-set. It is time to try a different approach to the hearts of His listeners.
The easy to understand stuff, the sermon on the mount, the miracles and healings, haven’t born the expected levels of fruit. Something different is needed, something that engages hearts and minds more, something that requires some personal effort.
As Jesus sits on the lakeside, gradually the crowd gathers behind Him, and an expectancy grows. This time when Jesus preaches, it is different. This time He begins to use parables.
The first parable, the sower and the seed, is very instructive.
What is the purpose of sowing seed? To get a good harvest. And where is that good harvest?
It isn’t in those who aren’t paying attention (seed on the path).
It isn’t in those who get excited about what Jesus is saying, and then do nothing much about it (seed on rocky ground with little depth) or fall away very quickly.
It isn’t in those who make a start, and good progress, and then give up halfway through the process (seed among thorns).
It is in those who go through the whole process of transformation, in those who wrestle with the words of Jesus until they come to understanding, and then let that understanding change the way they live.
And how do you get to that sort of harvest? By using parables.
Because those who aren’t interested won’t bother.
Because those who want quick and easy answers will give up without much of a struggle.
Because those who will give it a go, and attempt to come to understanding, but who fail to reach full understanding because the cost of change is beyond them, will sooner or later give up.
Because those who patiently work at understanding, and who persevere at it, until the understanding fully comes and who then change their lives accordingly, they are the kind of disciples you really want. And using parables is an efficient way of finding them. These are the ones who make mature commitment to discipleship, and the process takes time, it isn’t quick.
Parables are how you find disciples from among the crowds.
There are at least two implications for us:
Firstly, that if the word of God is not challenging us nor changing us, then we haven’t understood it properly. Jesus really wants to see fruits of repentance in us. Why? Because change is the gateway to the kingdom of God and our greatest happiness. ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand’ is what both Jesus and John the Baptist preached.
Secondly, if you issue a call to action, the ones you want aren’t in the first wave of responders, nor in the second wave of responders, the ones you really want are in the third wave of responders, on them alone can you build something that will last.