Jesus and the Parables: What was Their Purpose?
All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, and he did not speak to them without a parable.
When Jesus spoke to the crowds, or even to small groups, he would tell stories called parables. These stories were rich in vivid imagery to reinforce the listeners’ memories. In total, there are forty-five parables. Most are found in the first three books of the Gospel: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There is only one parable in John.
So why did Jesus use this vehicle to convey his message?
The primary reason was to create a lasting memory. Most communication in the first century was done orally. Scholars put the literacy rate in Judea at just three percent in the first century. Not because the average Judean was inferior in intellect, but because the format of language in the first century was far different than what exists today. Hebrew was written right to left, as opposed to today where almost all languages flow left to right. Secondly, Hebrew didn’t use vowels. The last and final impediment was that there was no spacing between words. So the sentence, “See Jane Run,” would be expressed as “NRNJS.”
The hurdle to become literate was much higher in the first century. Speakers of this generation would use vivid stories to convey their message, like Aesop’s fables. Likewise, Jesus used parables. Jesus knew that for the masses to receive his message, he had to use a vehicle that could be easily understood and, as importantly, retained.
Thus the use of parables.
Jesus also used everyday life in the parables to explain the messages of God. Jesus didn’t talk above the heads of the masses but instead spoke in ways by which they could identify. Thirty-five of these parables related to people’s occupation. For instance, in Matthew [9:16], Jesus says, “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse.” Jesus is making a point that his message is new and a matter of the heart, and that attaching it to the legalism of the Pharisees would not work.
Thus the comparison to cloth.
Certainly, the crowds would have understood that rough wool would not create a reliable patch. By connecting a common and understandable metaphor of sewing to the message of transitioning one’s faith from legalism to one coming from our hearts, Jesus made it accessible and relatable to the masses.
Consider perhaps the most famous parable—The Prodigal Son—found in Luke [15:11]-32. We all know the story of the son who received his inheritance in advance and then wasted the money only to later return embarrassed and dejected. Fully expecting to be admonished and punished, his father instead throws a party to welcome him back. Jesus’s point in this story was to describe how God treats those who fall from faith and return.
A classmate describes her understanding of the story by saying, “I immediately felt welcomed and have come to realize that our Father’s love is perfectly described in the person of the father of the Prodigal Son. Not only was he ready to welcome me back, he was waiting for me, greeting me with unconditional love—not dismissing my absence, but celebrating my return, and fully embracing me, whether I deserved it or not!” Ditto for me.
What is the universal message and purpose of the Parables?
Thomas Rauch, in his book Who Is Jesus?, explains this as follows: “They challenge our customary way of seeing our world, draw us out of our complacency, force us to ask questions, to rethink our values.” They create imaginative thoughts from hearing or reading them. They aren’t long texts that require extensive time to be set aside to absorb and analyze them. They become visual by connecting our daily lives with short bursts of insight.
This was Jesus’s way of talking and speaking. He didn’t use long theological, polysyllabic words – He used common words and expressions. He didn’t come to convert the Pharisees, he came to speak to the masses. Jesus definitely was not an elitist.
He showed he cared about the people enough to speak their language, not to talk down to them. He was their shepherd and wanted them to know that he heard their voices.
Jesus knew that people want to be respected and not talked down to. He knew the way to their hearts was through their ears. No, Jesus wasn’t an elitist seeking power. He already had the power; he wanted to share the message.
This was God speaking to the people of God.
What is remarkable, is that the Parables still are that way for the twenty-first-century reader. Perhaps an interesting Bible study would be to read all forty-five in forty-five days. In this short amount of time, we will get the messages Jesus delivered in a year’s time in a little over a month.
Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman
Dr. Bruce L. Hartman is the author of Jesus & Co. and Your Faith Has Made You Well.
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