You don’t have to read many books on preaching to find the common notion that Jesus’ parables were basically like sermon illustrations. It usually goes something like this: Jesus lived and ministered among first-century rural and agrarian people. Thus, he told parables about sowers sowing, seeds growing, and enemies planting weeds among the wheat. He did this, it is said, in order to illustrate the nature of the kingdom in stories that people could understand. And the moral of the story in the handbooks on homiletics is that preachers should go and do likewise; fill the sermon with stories and illustrations to contextualize the gospel and help people understand the message. Well, every preacher wants his or her sermons to be communicated effectively and understood. The problem with the above line of reasoning comes with the suggestion that Jesus’ parables are functioning like sermon illustrations. A quick look at the text would seem to suggest otherwise.
Consider Mark 4, where Jesus tells the well-known parable of the sower. Mark says that later when Jesus was alone with the twelve, they asked him about the parables. Apparently, they didn’t understand the stories. And if you are expecting the parables to be good little sermon illustrations, then Jesus’ answer will surprise you. He quotes portions of Isaiah 6:9-10 to explain that parables are used with a very specific purpose, namely so that “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven” (Mark 4:12). Wait a minute! Jesus speaks in parables so that people will not perceive and not understand and not repent. What kind of sermon illustration is that? Oh, wait, maybe it’s not a sermon illustration at all. Maybe Jesus is doing something completely different. Mark tells us later that Jesus used parables with the crowds but explained everything privately to his disciples (4:34). Apparently, the parables were not intended by Jesus to make everything plain, clear, and accessible.
I’m preaching on this passage next Sunday. I’ve got a few thoughts on what is going on, but I’d be very interested to hear what others think. Feel free to comment and share your thoughts.
Why did Jesus speak in parables? Why did he speak to the crowds in ways that were designed to disguise what he was up to? Why did he want to keep people from understanding? Why explain things privately and only to the disciples?