Jesus speaks in parables because he is veiling himself and giving us a chance to respond without coercion, but rather in voluntary love and surrender. But there is another reason why Jesus speaks in parables. Here is an excerpt from Mark 4 —
9Then Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” 10When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. 11He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12so that, ” ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'” (Mark 4:9-12)
He who has ears to hear, let him hear. Many crowds were there listening to Jesus’ messages, but they did not end up following Jesus nor really believing his message to the point of banking their entire lives on him. In other words, they did not have ears to hears, meaning they heard the words but lacked spiritual understanding of what those words meant.
In v10, we see that even the disciples lacked spiritual understanding initially. That is why when the Twelve were alone with Jesus, it is noted that they asked Jesus about the parables. Because even they did not have the ears to hear and understand what the parables meant on their own. In that sense, they were no different from the crowds.
In v11-12 – Jesus answers why he speaks in parables. It sounds odd that Jesus would say he doesn’t want some to turn and be forgiven. I thought Jesus wants everyone to be saved.
It’s because Jesus doesn’t want people to be saved merely through a teaching, a lecture, a parable. If that’s the case, the religiously inclined in that group could hear a parable, boil it down to 3 sermon points, believe and be saved. Wait a minute, you may be thinking, I thought belief did save us.
The key here is the fact that the disciples asked Jesus for clarifiction. It was important that the disciples asked Jesus because he wants us to be saved by a relationship, not a religion. In asking Jesus the questions on our hearts and him listening and teaching us the hidden meanings, a relationship is formed and through that relationship with Christ we are saved.
We’ll see how this theme of a relationship is what Jesus is really after, not teaching a lecture.
Because the disciples asked for the hidden meaning of the parable in a private conversation (in relationship), starting in v13-20, Jesus begins to explain the meaning behind the parable of the sower, explaining how our hearts need to be cultivated to be like the good soil.
13Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? 14The farmer sows the word. 15Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. 16Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. 17But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 18Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 19but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. 20Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.” (Mark 4:13-20)
Next, Jesus shares the parable of the mustard seed.
30Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. 32Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.” 33With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. 34He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything. (Mark 4:30-34)
He always used a parable when speaking to his disciples. And the disciples must have had many questions and it is recorded again that Jesus EXPLAINED everything when he was ALONE with them.
This kind of secret knowledge and spiritual understanding does not come from reading a blog or even listening to a sermon. Hearing the words of Jesus is just the first step. Many crowds of people in Jesus’ day as well as today gather around to hear sermons, but it is not the sermon that saves us. A sermon is just the beginning. It is an invitation into a relationship and it is this relationship that saves.
Like the disciples, we need to have alone time with Jesus. Hearing a bible study is just the first step. You have to take what you hear and wrestle with it until Jesus gives you true understanding as you relate with him and spend time with him.
This is the difference between second-hand knowledge and derived knowledge.
It’s like going to a math lecture and you hear a lecture about some mathematical proof and it kind of makes sense, but as soon as you leave, it is still fuzzy and you can’t do the problems.
But while doing the problem set later that week, you invested the time and energy to understand, and you met with your prof and TA and finally you were able to derive the mathematical proof yourself. That’s when understanding begins. Because you put in the work to derive knowledge instead of just hearing it second-hand.
The same goes for our spiritual lives. Jesus invites us to derive spiritual understanding in our alone time with him. To keep seeking him until he gives us deeper spiritual understanding.
In addition, we need each other, other believers. The disciples had their personal questions, but we see hear a group of them gathering around and having a discussion about what they just heard. That is a picture of church. We gather together around the person of Jesus and ask for spiritual understanding. The shy ones may not ask, or you may be too sleepy that day to ask the right question, but someone like Peter asks the first question, then it triggers another and we begin to feed off of one another. Where 2 or 3 are gathered, Jesus will be in our midst. The disciples asking about the parables is a model for church.
Lastly, there are certain things you learn because Jesus reveals the mystery behind a parable or truth, then you obey and align your life to that truth. But that’s not always how we gain spiritual understanding. Many things you obey first, then you learn the lesson in the midst of your obedience or as you look back and reflect after the obedience has passed.
For example, there is a world of difference between reading about how to ride a bike — keeping balance, don’t stop pumping those legs, head straight — and actually riding it and learning through our cuts and bruises.
Faith often works this way. You can pray and pray and pray about faith, but often it is only after we take a step of faith and we see God catching us that we realize what faith really is.
Most importantly, we have to keep in mind that more than gaining deeper spiritual understanding, more than even obedience and seeing the fruits of our risk taking, all of this is secondary to the relationship that is forged as we keep seeking Jesus with our questions, as we cast all of our fears before him, and as we walk with Jesus each day.