Ever wondered why Jesus told stories about the kingdom of God? Wouldn’t it be better if he just told us plainly what he wanted from us? If you think so, let me offer you a challenge: put Jesus’ kingdom vision into plain words. Any attempt to reduce Jesus’ message to an imperative (what we should do) fails miserably: it feels lame, heartless, uninspiring.
Jesus’ kingdom vision takes us beyond what is to what could be. You can’t do that with analysis; it requires imagination.
Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.
— Albert Einstein.
Jesus’ parables were cameos of the kingdom of God, visual stimuli for our imagination. They transport us from injustice and oppression to a world where humans are reconciled with their heavenly king, and therefore give each other the same dignity, care and restorative grace that our sovereign has given us.
That message can only be achieved with parables — analogies that take us from where we are to where our king intends his world to be.
But there’s another, more basic reason why Jesus used parables to paint pictures of his kingdom. In announcing his kingship, he rejected the power-grabbing propaganda mechanisms people normally use. How else could Jesus make his kingship claim?
Sixty-three years before Christ, General Pompey conquered Jerusalem and Palestine came under Rome’s control. In 40 BC, the Roman senate declared Herod to be “King of the Jews.” What do you think happened to anyone who questioned their authority? (Hint: what happened to John the Baptist?)
If the kingdom was present, the king was present. In announcing the kingdom, Jesus was calling people to recognize their king:
Matthew 10 7 As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ … 32 “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.
King Jesus never threatens, “If you don’t accept my authority, you’ll have me to answer to!” He says, “If you don’t accept my authority, you’ll have my Father to answer to.”
The parables are about his kingship. He is the anointed ruler, restoring God’s kingdom on earth. But the parables are not the propaganda we hear when domineering bullies seek power. They’re the stories of a meek ruler inspiring our imagination for how life could be under divine rule.
Next time we’ll look at the answer Jesus gave for using parables. (I think it matches the second reason above.)
What others are saying
Kyle Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Eerdmans, 2008):
The parables of Jesus presuppose the kingdom they seek to disclose. … Parables were the means Jesus used most frequently to explain the kingdom of God and to show the character of God and the expectations that God has for humans (p.2).
Language creates a world, and the proclamation of the kingdom makes a new reality available (p.171).
Brian C. Stiller, Preaching Parables to Postmoderns (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 30:
The parabolic form is like a stealth bomber, sweeping undetected under the radar of postmodern angst, yet able to deliver that which is biblical and Christ-centered.
N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (London: SPCK, 1996), 176 (emphasis original):
The parables are not simply information about the kingdom, but are part of the means of bringing it to birth.
[next: Why parables? Jesus’ answer]
2 thoughts on “Why parables?”
Thanks so much for this post. I found it very helpful.
I did wonder how you read Matthew 13 in light of the parallel passages in Mark 4:11-12 and Luke 8:10? If I understand correctly, it seems like you’re saying that Jesus spoke to the crowd in parables because he knew they would reject his kingship; he spoke in parables so as not to press the issue. But in the parallel passages, I get the sense that Jesus is actively hiding the truth of the kingdom from the crowds. What are your thoughts?
Thank you for your thoughtful comments and question, Savannah.
Some scholars have spoken of a “Messianic secret” as if Jesus was being deliberately elusive. That’s based on the “so that” (ἵνα) of Mark 4:12, and a couple of other texts such as “tell no one” in Mark 8:28.
It’s more likely that Jesus was protecting his disciples (Mark 8:31-37), and the ἵνα of Mark 4:12 is about Scripture being fulfilled.
Jesus was revealing the kingdom, and relying on his Father to reveal the king.
More on that: