Why Jesus Taught In Parables
Yesterday we looked at how story can be used to share truth in a way that can be more easily received or just more beautifully and creatively shared. Today, let’s look at the example Jesus gave us for sharing truth through story: parables.
There are a lot of scholarly arguments out there for why Jesus spoke in parables, and I encourage you to study up if you’re interested in further analysis. For my purposes regarding holistic body theology and what we do with our bodies in the world, I have four reasons to share with you today.
Jesus spoke in parables…
1) so that only those whose hearts were ready would understand. Part of Jesus’ reason for sharing truth in parables was to fulfill the Isaiah’s prophecy that some would hear and not understand (Is 6:9-10; Mt 13:13-15). In fact, Jesus even used a parable to explain why he spoke in parables in Luke 8:4-15. As he later explained to his disciples, the hearts that were ready to hear God’s truth would understand, and the seed of truth would take root in their hearts and grow (vs. 15).
Sometimes we’re not ready to hear a truth from God. Maybe we’re locked in sinful behavior. Maybe we’re overcome with guilt and shame. Maybe we’re already wrestling with different truth from God, and adding one more would be too much all at once. God knows us intimately, from the hairs on our heads to the deepest secrets we won’t even admit to ourselves. God knows just when to reveal truth to us, when we’re finally ready to receive it and make use of it in our lives, and that revelation will never come too soon…or too late.
2) so that there would be more room for people to relate to the story in different ways. Most of the time, when Jesus told a parable, he was speaking to a crowd of people. These people were made up of both men and women, children and adults, poor and wealthy, religious leaders and laypeople. Often when Jesus was teaching, he had a different message for each audience, but rather than address each group individually, which would have taken forever, Jesus told one story that would teach each group a different lesson.
Take, for example, the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37). Now, Jesus is speaking to the “expert in the law,” so the most obvious meaning of the parable is directed at people who fit in that category. But not everyone listening to the story was an expert in the law. Should they have just watched a fly land on some bread or pick blades of grass while Jesus was teaching a lesson that didn’t apply to them?
Consider the characters in this story:
a traveler – the victim of multiple crimes
a group of robbers – the perpetrators, motivated by greed (maybe hatred or anger) but not brave enough to act alone
a priest – the “man of God” who was more concerned about keeping the letter of the law (blood was considered “unclean” and required purification rituals) than showing compassion
a Levite – the member of the “priestly” clan, see above, also a man of importance and influence in the community
a Samaritan – the member of a group hated by Jewish people for their conflicting beliefs on correct worship of God who provided sacrificially to help the traveler despite racisim
an inkeeper – the man who provided the means to help the traveler heal, but only because he was paid
Ask yourself, who would you be in the story? Be honest. Maybe you take advantage of people when they’re vulnerable. Maybe you feel working with victims is beneath you or too much trouble. Maybe you are willing to help, but only if you get something back.
Jesus’ parables are multidimensional, multilayered, and designed with every member of the audience in mind–not just the people present on the hillside that day, but the people who have been reading the parables for centuries after.
3) so that he could get to the deeper truth behind the black-and-white Jewish law in a short time. For all his 33 years on earth, Jesus only spent 3 years in ministry. In only three years, Jesus had to squeeze in all the truth and promise and love available to the community of God in the present time and in all the time to come. Jesus had only three years to usher in the kingdom of God. And that was before the Internet and Skype and media and blogs and all the technological advances of our day. Jesus had only three years to bring the truth to the world, and he had to depend on human minds and hands to remember his teachings and write them down for future generations.
At the time that Jesus was teaching, Jewish law had expanded from the 10 Commandments of Moses’ time to hundreds of detailed, specific laws for every daily action, word, and thought. If Jewish law were a funnel, the 10 Commandments would be at the broad end at the top, and the law in Jesus’ day would be the little tip at the bottom. They had a law for everything, an exhaustive list of dos and don’ts that spanned a person’s entire existence from birth to death. So when Jesus showed up in town and started teaching, the experts wanted to know what laws Jesus was upholding, what laws he was breaking, and why.
But Jesus reminded his listeners in Matthew 5:17 that he had come to fulfill the law, to bring God’s truth for righteous living to its fullest completion, in freedom. That’s a tall order for only three years of ministry. Jesus’ parables were a way to reach down into the deeper truth of God, cutting through the black-and-white theology of their day. By refusing to engage in endless debate, Jesus was able to leave a timeless message of love, grace, and mercy through story.
4) so that human beings with human ears could through a human story relate to the divine truth in the human/divine Jesus. More than anything else, Jesus’ parables are a reflection of God’s choice to relate to us through the Incarnation. God sent Jesus–the Truth–in human form to walk like us, talk like us, and be like us. Jesus, the divine/human being, chose to speak to us in story, with human characters and a divine message. Our Emmanuel, this God-with-us, chose to bridge the gap between divine truth and human understanding with stories that allow us to meditate, ruminate, debate, delve, dwell, and finally discover some kernel of the Truth that God loves us, knows us intimately, and designed us to love and know God and each other in just the same way. The story of God is more than just written words in the Bible; the Word of God came as living flesh to live out the story of God among us.
If that doesn’t get you excited, I don’t know what will. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at how we can follow Jesus’ example to love and know intimately our brothers and sisters in the community of God, the body of Christ.