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Why Did Jesus Often Speak in Parables?

Former university professor of marketing and communications, Sallie is an independent publisher and marketing communications consultant.

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A parable, by definition, is “a statement or comment that conveys meaning indirectly by the use of comparison, analogy, or the like.”

So why did Jesus use this form of storytelling? Why did he choose parables as his way to convey meaning, instead of simply speaking directly? Surely those hearing the parables he told had to put their brains to work, extra hard, to understand what he was trying to get them to understand. Why did he do it? Wouldn’t it have made things a lot easier to just spit it out? To just say what was on his mind using simple words? Why did he choose, instead, to make people work so hard to “get” what he was saying? Did he just love puzzles? Or did he like the idea of making people figure out puzzles in order to get on the same page with him?

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Surely the disciples and others who heard him speak had to listen intently and actively participate in hearing, in order to understand what Jesus was saying. I think I have realized at least one answer to the question about why Jesus used parables, and guess where I found it? In one of his parables. In Luke 8: 5-18, Jesus actually explains why he sometimes spoke to his disciples in parables. The scripture says:

“A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bore fruit a hundredfold.”

As Jesus spoke, he cried out, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear!” When he said that, his disciples asked him, “What might this parable be?”

He said to them, “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand. Now,” Jesus said, “the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. Those by the way side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved.”

Now, I'm no preacher, and certainly no Sunday school teacher, but I do believe in God and in the words of the Bible. And since I'm entitled, as is anyone, to have thoughts on this, I think by that last statement, he was saying that it is better for us, in terms of grasping the essence of something and making it useful to us in our lives, when we have to work hard for understanding. Something that is too easy to get is also easily forgotten.

The Parable of the Talents, illustrated.

The Parable of the Talents, illustrated.

Jesus knew it was going to get worse for us. He knew it would come to the point where we would almost always be hearing the word of God casually while going through our daily lives. He knew it would get to where it seemed we were always standing by the way side, in our own lives, hearing the word of God in the midst, and in the challenges and during the calamities of modern living.

I think he was foretelling what a lot of us know to be true; that it is easy to forget all about God when we’re going through so much every day, with all kinds of things going on. With the dogs barking, the kids fighting or crying or begging us to get something for them, the hubby or wife needing or wanting this or that or something else, losing jobs, looking for work, losing homes, the bills waiting to be paid ... well, with all those things, from mundane to magnificent, that can come with the daily living of our lives, it can be hard to allow the word of God to be taken into consideration.

He was trying to get us to understand that even though we act and react in the moments of our lives, we still have to work hard to keep God's words in our hearts and in our mind, so that it can be of help to us. And I believe the harder you have to work to understand something, the more you appreciate what you learn from it.

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Next, Jesus spoke of “They on the rock.” He said, “They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away.”

Can anything be planted inside a rock? Or be expected to grow well and bountifully in rocky soil? I think the rock Jesus is talking about here is a solid, hard, impenetrable thing. Water, something essential to the growth of things planted, cannot get inside a solid rock. Not even the word of God can catch root and grow in a heart that is like a rock. You can put seed there, on the rock, but as soon as the wind blows over it, that seed is gone.

Temptation, I think, is like the wind. If you allow it to, it will take you everywhere.

Do you know, or have you ever known, someone whose heart was like that? They might be an avid churchgoer, someone able to recall and quote scripture with the best of them, but as soon as Monday rolls around, it takes very little temptation to coax them away from living according to what that scripture said? They're the first ones ready to "roll," to do and overdo anything and everything the Bible tells us either not to do at all, or to do in moderation.

Next, Jesus spoke of the seed that fell in the thorns. “And that which fell among thorns are they,” he said, “which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection.

Could he be saying here that when we allow ourselves to become more materialistic than spiritual, more caught up in the cool and beautiful things of the world, with all its gadgets, fun, thrills and adventures, fashion and style, looks and crooks, and cares and woes, that what we’ve really done is to allow God’s word to fall among thorns? And then, after only giving it a casual glance or thought here and there, every now and then, we wonder why it brings forth no fruit in our lives?

While we are actively worshiping our homes, our friends, our hair, our things, our computers, our movies, our music, our television shows, our stars of stage, screen and this or that kind of tube, our cooking and eating, we are actively putting anything and everything before thoughts of God in our minds and in our lives. Then, as soon as tragedy comes, we wonder why God seems to have left us behind, to our own devices. When the truth is, we have actually become worshipers of things, instead of worshipers of God. God has not left us behind, we have left God behind.

Then, finally, in the parable, Jesus speaks of “that on the good ground.” He says there are, “they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience. No man, when he hath lighted a candle, covereth it with a vessel, or putteth it under a bed; but setteth it on a candlestick, that they which enter in may see the light.”

Ah, what could be clearer than that? And even though his words couldn't be clearer, to make sure he was understood by those listening, and by those of us hearing his words centuries after he spoke them, Jesus then said,

“For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither anything hid, that shall not be known ….”

God’s word is not a secret, he said. It is not something with codes you have to be a safecracker in order to crack. No. God’s word is available to each one of us, fully and clearly, when we seek it.Then Jesus said, “Take heed therefore how ye hear: for whosoever hath, to him shall be given; and whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he seemeth to have.”

Through this parabolic scripture, I believe Jesus was teaching us that when we truly desire to understand God’s word, we will allow it to be planted in our minds and in our hearts. He warned us about the perils of listening while not really hearing God’s word. He said we must “take heed how we hear.” To me, that means it is important to participate actively in the hearing of the word, to listen with the intent of applying what we are hearing to our own lives. Otherwise, we will miss the true meaning of the words, and we will not gain anything good in our lives from it, because we will have missed out on understanding. When we fail to get understanding, even the things we thought we understood about God and how he wants us to live, stuff we thought we had a good grip on, because we fail to truly comprehend it, even that understanding will eventually deteriorate or fade away.

I know, because it has happened to me. When I’m going through a particularly rough time, it can be nearly impossible to believe in the word of God. I can allow my troubles to become so large in my life, so all encompassing, that the word of God seems small, very small indeed. In fact, my heart can become like a rock, yet the word of God is still like rain. And rain, still, cannot penetrate a rock. I've found that one way I can turn my heart from a solid rock back into “good ground,” is to do all I can to keep prayer first and foremost in my life, each and every day. And even that doesn't always work. But faith does. Even when I don't feel like praying, I say a quick prayer that I will keep believing, and then my faith saves me, every time.

That's what I think Jesus is teaching us through this parable, and that's why using parables is an effective way to teach. Jesus knew that. He knew that while the word of God is simple, it is not ordinary, as are the words of us mortal humans. He knew and appreciated, and wanted us to know and to appreciate, that God’s word is special, that it was written to be consumed by people who need wisdom and understanding.

Jesus told us that hearing and seeing the word is casual when we don’t invest our heart, soul and spirit into our seeking. He emphasized that when hearing is done in a casual manner, it will have no “roots.” Also, he taught us that when we hear in a weak and temporary mode, it’s likely we won’t connect with and internalize the word of God.

Not really connecting leaves us open to the influences of the world, and the world is more than obliging in bringing its cares and woes into our lives in full force. The world wants to become bigger to you than God, and Jesus wants us to know that when we allow things to come between us and receiving the word of God, God's word cannot bring forth fruit in our lives. But when you work hard to get the understanding and the wisdom, it is not easy to let go of it. That means it is more likely you will understand and internalize it, and when you do that, it will be there for you to use effectively and fruitfully to meet the needs of your life, every day.

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