FACT CHECK: The Real Reason Jesus Preached in Parables

andy stanleyJesus captured the interest of large crowds with techniques that you and I use. First, he told stories to make a point. Jesus was a master storyteller. He would say, “Hey, did you hear the one about…” and then tell a parable in order to teach a truth. In fact, the Bible shows that storytelling was Jesus’ favorite technique when speaking to the crowd. “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowds in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable” (Matt. 13:34). Somehow, preachers forget that the Bible is essentially a book of stories. That is how God has chosen to communicate his Word to human beings. There are many benefits to using stories to communicate spiritual truth:

  • Stories hold our attention. The reason television is so popular is because it is essentially a storytelling device. Comedies, dramas, the news, talk shows – even commercials – are stories. 
  • Stories stir our emotions. They impact us in ways that precepts and propositions never do. If you want to change lives, you must craft the message for impact, not for information.
  • Stories help us remember. Long after a pastor’s clever outline is forgotten, people will remember the stories from the sermon. It is fascinating, and sometimes comical, to watch how quickly a crowd tunes in when a speaker begins telling a story and how quickly that attention vanishes as soon as the story is finished.1

jesus teaches parablesOkay, so I know it might be considered somewhat taboo to refute a book written a decade ago, but I bring it up because I think Rick Warren’s view presented in The Purpose Driven Church is still commonly held by most contemporary evangelical churches today. Besides, I just preached through Jesus’ explanation for the reason He preached in parables in the Gospel of Mark, so it makes an easy post given that I’ve already studied the issue.

The argument usually runs something along the lines that Jesus used “life on life,” simply stories to entertain the crowds, to appeal to their tastes; every time He spoke to them, He told simple stories (i.e. parables) to teach them. Now, we would all agree that we should speak with an understandable simplicity, but the assumption being made here is that simplicity is juxtaposed against depth. Overall, they generally have a negative tone toward expository verse by verse preaching, assuming it’s boring and fails to meet people “where they’re at.” In fact, I think the overall perspective of verse by verse preaching is shockingly negative (represented by Andy Stanley’s quote above. Click here for a more full critique of that quote in its context). As I was combing through Warren’s book yesterday though (for the first time in several years), I had quite forgotten how stock full it is of straw men arguments, but these reflect the general perspective on, shall we say, “our kind” of preaching.

While Jesus taught profound truths in simple ways, many pastors do the exact opposite; they teach simple truths in profound ways. They take straightforward texts and make them complicated. They think they are being “deep” when actually they are just being “muddy!”2

Well, I agree that it’s unfortunate that there are many preachers that are simply difficult to follow; they don’t spend sufficient time ironing out their thoughts or making sure they understand the text themselves before preaching it. But Warren’s implication is that we believe we should be deliberately confusing and boring:

Some pastors actually think they have failed in their preaching if people enjoy a message.3

Seriously? Frankly, that’s ridiculous and I don’t know of ANYONE who actually thinks that. The problem is, Warren’s primary objective, and when he writes about preaching, he’s primarily talking about preaching to unbelievers, so he asks, “Do people ‘delight’ in your messages?”4 secretThe problem is, there’s a big difference between believers “delighting” in our message and an unbeliever “delighting” in it (to use the word “delight” in the way Warren uses it, to “entertain”). You might even say that it was because of the massive unbelieving crowds’ “delight” in Jesus sermons that He did, in fact, speak in parables.

But He did that as an act of judgment against them, not to appeal to their pallets. This is what is so perplexing to me when it is argued that Jesus taught in parables and simple stories to grip the attention of the crowds and to “hold their attention,” “stir their emotions,” and “help us remember.” Jesus spoke to the unbelieving crowds to deliberately obscure His message.

Warren says that Jesus “spoke in terms that normal people could understand.”5 Actually, Jesus spoke in parables so that they could not understand. To use Warren’s vernacular, Jesus was being deliberately “muddy.” After all, that was what provoked the inquiry of His disciples in the first place! “Why do you speak to them in parables” (Matt. 13:10)?

Was it because they were so shocked by Jesus’ simplicity? Was it because the rabbis taught with such obscurity that they were surprised by Jesus’ clarity? Was it because the scribes deliberately made their messages complicated to “show off” their intellectual prowess, but Jesus taught with such plainness that He came off as a simpleton?

fact check

Parables were actually very common in the first century! In fact, they were the most common method of teaching among the scribes! So why should they be surprised that Jesus would teach in the same way? Especially if these “simple stories” are actually helpful to get His point across?

Well, Jesus actually tells us why He speaks in parables, and Mark 4 shows us that what He did was a little different.

The “Parable of the Soils” in Mark 4 (the parallel account to Matt. 13) functions as a template for the way Jesus taught in parables. If you notice, He tells the parable (a story that is intended to come alongside of your point/lesson) in verses 3-9. But then take a look at verse 10:

As soon as He was alone, His followers, along with the twelve, began asking Him about the parables.

Now, this is a huge crowd Jesus is speaking to in verse 1. Many commentators believe that this may very well be the largest crowd Jesus ever spoke with on a singular occasion, a number up to 20,000 people! If you wanted to capitalize on an opportunity to get your message out there, this was it! So of course Jesus’ followers are going to be perplexed, because Jesus told the story but evidently, He failed to tell them the whole point!

confused baby“Jesus,” His followers are effectively asking when “He was alone,” “Why are you telling them parables without telling them the point!?” In other words, “Why are you just telling them riddles?” “Why aren’t you being clear?”

This is how He responded, so that (which introduces a purpose clause – “so that,” “for the purpose that,” “for the reason that”) seeing they may not see and not perceive, and while hearing they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven (vs. 12).

There’s really no way to get around that one.

Jesus explicitly stated that He is teaching in parables so that they would not understand Him, because if they did understand Him, they might return (repent) and be forgiven!

Wow.

Jesus would only explain the meaning of His parable to His close, inner circle (vs. 11), but to the unbelieving masses, those to whom Warren says Jesus spoke in parables in order that they would understand, Jesus would only speak in confusing riddles so that they couldn’t be forgiven. 

That being said, I’m not going to buy into Warren’s thesis, which I think expresses the consensus view of most of today’s preachers. In fact, do we really want to listen to what men say who play so loosely with Scripture to promote their agenda? I will work instead to preach in an understandable, meaningful, engaging, convicting, yet profound  and deep way, so that I, with my congregation, can rejoice in the depths of God’s Word. I believe that it’s by plunging these depths (which by the way, is the Webster definition of “profound”), that we will be best equipped to do the work of the ministry, and I will do that, by being faithful to the text, even when it’s a hard saying, like when Jesus explains the real reason He spoke in parables.

 

  1. Warren, Rick. The Purpose Driven Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995).
  2. Ibid., 233.
  3. Ibid., 231.
  4. Ibid., 231.
  5. Ibid., 232.