Why Does Jesus Speak in Parables?
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus tells 46 parables (an allegorical story used to teach a spiritual lesson). In Matthew 13:10, immediately after Jesus delivered his first parable to the people, one of his disciples asks him why speaks in parables. Jesus gives a pretty straightforward answer:
Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
Jesus doesn’t just want people to hear the word and take it at face value. He doesn’t want us to memorize verses and repeat them verbatim without truly understanding them. He wants us to think about what we’re hearing and seeing so we can really understand the deeper meaning of the Word.
Parable of the Sower
In Jesus’ first parable, he tells the story of a farmer who is scattering seeds. The seeds fall on several different areas. Some fell on rocky spots, but died because the shallow soil didn’t allow enough protect from the sun. Others fell among the thorns, but they also died because the thorns choked the plants. Still others fell along the path but were eaten by birds. Only the seeds that fell in the soil were able to grow roots and flourish.
Since this is his first lesson delivered as a parable, Jesus goes easy on the people by telling them the meaning. He explains that the seeds that fell along the path symbolize people who hear the Word but don’t understand. The seeds that fell on the rocky spots represents people who listen to the Word for only a short time. The seeds that fell among the thorns symbolize people who hear the Word but are too concerned with their own troubles and material life to really pay attention. The only seeds that flourished were the ones that landed on fertile soil, much like the only people who flourish under God are those who hear the Word, understands it, and continues to seek it out.
Parable of the Weeds
Starting in Matthew 13:24, Jesus gives his second parable, which also involves a farmer. He tells of a farmer who has planted a field of wheat. One night, some of the farmer’s enemies come and plant weeds throughout the field. When the wheat sprouts, so do the weeds, and the farmer’s servants ask him if they should remove the weeds. The farmer replies that they should leave them until the wheat is ready to harvest, lest they accidentally uproot the wheat.
Jesus doesn’t explain this parable until a little bit later, in Matthew 13:36-43. He explains that the farmer represents himself, the wheat represents his followers, and the enemy of the farmer represents the devil. In addition, the time of harvest symbolizes the “end of the age” and the harvesters symbolize angels. When the farmer commands his servants not to separate the weeds from the wheat until harvest time, Jesus meant that those who do evil will be ‘weeded out’ from those who follow the Word, but not until the end of times.
Parables of the Mustard Seed and Yeast
During the time Jesus was delivering these parables, mustard seeds were some of the smallest seeds the Israelites planted. Despite its small size, mustard seeds resulted in large plants that often reached eight to ten feet tall (according to The IVP New Testament Commentary Series). In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed. What he means by this is that despite its small beginnings, word of the kingdom of heaven has spread.
The parable of the yeast is often talked about in connection to the parable of the mustard seed because it carries a similar message. Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to yeast worked into 60 pounds of dough, which is much more than people usually made at once. Because it is such a large amount, you would have to knead the dough for quite a long time to work the yeast throughout all of it. Much like the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus is saying that despite the difficulty of spreading the word of the kingdom of heaven, it will be spread among all the land and work itself into our lives.
Parables of The Treasure and the Pearl
In Matthew 13:44-46, we again find two parables mentioned together. In the first, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a treasure in a field. A man finds the treasure, but since he doesn’t own the field he can’t take it. He reburies the treasure and, despite what was probably a significant cost to himself, buys the field so he can ‘find’ the treasure. Jesus is saying that although finding and spreading the word of the kingdom of heaven can be costly to ourselves, it is ultimately worth it because we will find even greater wealth.
In the parable of the pearl, a merchant is looking for pearls. He finds a very expensive one, but to afford it he has to sell all of his other belongings. This carries a similar meaning to the parable of the treasure: to find the kingdom of heaven we may have to give up other things.
Parable of the Net
This parable is very similar to the parable of the weeds. Jesus tells of a group of fisherman casting nets into a lake. The pull the net to the shore once it is full and separate the good fish from the bad. This is similar to how the angels will separate the “wicked from the righteous” (Matthew 13:49).