Who Understood Jesus’ Parables?

Jesus was a master storyteller, and constantly used them to teach his hearers. In Matthew 13:10-17, following the Parable of the Sower, the disciples ask Jesus why he taught in parables.

10Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
“‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. 15For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’
16But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

via ebibleteacher.com

The common understanding of Matthew 13:10-17 is that the result of Jesus teaching in parables was understanding for some, but confusion and misunderstanding for many others. Some call this the result of the parables, whereas others go so far as to say that Jesus intended to teach in a way that would be unclear. I’ve never been entirely comfortable with this interpretation, since it seems to indicate that Jesus was less than concerned with his hearers understanding his message, which seems to run contrary to the desires of Jesus as portrayed elsewhere in the gospels (Luke 19:41-42).

In a recent Theology class, Gerry Breshears suggested essentially the opposite of this common understanding. He believes that Jesus taught in parables in order to make explicitly clear what it is that he was teaching. This is not to suggest that everyone had the same level of understanding, or that people accepted the message, but that Jesus’ parables communicated simple truths that would have been easy for his listeners to understand. There are complexities and nuances of meaning to be sure, but the core message of each parable was clear. The result of the parables was not a bunch of confused listeners, but rather people who understood the point Jesus was trying to get across in his story, and rejected it. I think this makes better sense of the quoted passage from Isaiah, and other similar passages. These were people whose hearts, for the most part, were already hard towards God. When Jesus, in his teaching and his parables, clearly drew a line in the sand, the choice was forced. Some were driven to respond to the radical message with repentance, others with rejection.

What do you think? Did Jesus tell parables in order to obfuscate, so that only those who dug through the murk would understand, or to make his message abundantly clear so that those who accepted the message would repent and those who spurned it would do so knowingly?

for an interesting read on how to read the parables, check out this post by Tim Gombis.

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3 thoughts on “Who Understood Jesus’ Parables?

  1. I think Gerry’s explanation ignores how the Evangelist frame Jesus’ parables. Jesus appeals to Isaiah’s “hearing but not hearing” theme and that seems (to me) to be a hint that Jesus was understood to use parables to sift the crowd. Mark’s Gospel use Jesus’ secrecy as a major theme. I think it was part of how Jesus functioned.

    One thing of note is that Jesus’ disciples often ask for further clarification while the crowds do not. I think Jesus separated true disciples from the crowds through parables because true disciples continue seeking while the crowds depart.

  2. I’m not entirely sure I’ll fairly represent his position, but I’ll give it a shot.

    In regards to the disciples asking for further clarification, he suggested that the disciples were obviously privy to more time with Jesus, and were able to go deeper into the nuance and depth of the meaning of his parables. However, the main point of each parable would have been clear to the disciples, and all hearers. His comparison was along the lines of a 101 class being taught to all in the parables, and a 501 class being taught to the disciples in the extended discussions.

    As for the use of Isaiah, his understanding is that Isaiah’ message (and Jesus’) was a call to repentance, and essentially drew a line in the sand, forcing a response. Not an actual misunderstanding of the message, but an unwillingness to accept. A continuing in their hardness of heart, rejecting instead of accepting the truth of the message.

    To bring up your second point again, those who hear the message and decide to trust Jesus’ message would therefore choose to follow him and would desire to go deeper than the initial teaching.

    I’ll have to look into the secrecy theme in Mark…I haven’t explored that yet.

    thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Pingback: Elsewhere (11.19.2011) | Near Emmaus

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