The Mysterious Purpose of the Parables

Why did Jesus teach in parables?1 You’d think that, since He actually gave an answer to this question,2 scholars would have already reached a consensus. But a considerable number of commentators have heard Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question and come to vastly different conclusions of what He meant by it.

Some say Jesus taught in parables to conceal the truth from the hard-hearted—as a judgment on unbelief.3 Others believe the parables gripped and entertained the masses, thus inviting them into a discourse of profound divine themes without requiring that they be scribes or academics.4

On one end, then, some commentators see the parables as a sign of God’s holy judgment. On the other, some see parables as a sign of God’s “accommodating grace.” The parables conceal the truth. Or the parables reveal the truth. How could people come to such various conclusions from the same data?

I believe the proliferation of opinions on the parables provides a clue. Perhaps many people have seen different purposes in the parables because parables actually have many purposes. We need not choose just one. The difference between the one or the other purpose does not lie in the content of the parables themselves, however, but in the people hearing them.

Jesus taught in parables because that literary form, unlike so many others, faithfully reveals God as He is while at the same time also permitting all listeners to be revealed as they are. Parables accomplish this by preserving the possibility of decision in the listener. Parables reveal God and human beings simultaneously, challenging, though never forcing, the listener to first agree with God’s view of things and then seek reconciliation to and communion with Him through repentance.

How Jesus Answered Our Question

And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” –Matt. 13:10–13

All three Synoptics give an account of the disciples asking Jesus to explain either the aim or content of His parables (Matt. 13:10–17; Mk. 4:10–12; Lk. 8:9–10). Though Jesus’ answer in all three Synoptics differs according to the purpose of the Gospel author, two common features emerge in all the accounts. First, Jesus says that the disciples have been given the secrets or mysteries of the Kingdom, whereas non-disciples have not. Second, Jesus quotes from Isaiah 6:9–10 in all three accounts.

To the first point, we must ask: what are the “secrets” of the kingdom? Has Jesus given the disciples an esoteric hermeneutical key that he gave to no one else? Or did he give them discrete bits of privileged information—not methods for understanding, but merely knowledge? Further, who actually did the giving of these secrets? And second, many questions also arise concerning the repeated use of Isaiah 6. One could ask whether unbelievers lacked the “secret of the Kingdom” by God’s choice or their own. To many, it seems unfair of God to hold people accountable for not living according to truths He willfully withheld from them.

So we must address each of these issues in their place:

  1. What is the “mystery” of the Kingdom?
  2. Why did some receive the “mystery” and others did not?

If we can come to even partially satisfactory answers to these questions, we will have made much progress toward understanding why Jesus preached in parables, and why the Church still needs parables today.

The Background of the “Mystery”

Let the name of God be blessed forever and ever,
for wisdom and power belong to Him.
It is He who changes the times and the epochs;
He removes kings and establishes kings;
He gives wisdom to wise men
and knowledge to men of understanding.
It is He who reveals the profound and hidden things;
He knows what is in the darkness,
and the light dwells with Him.
To You, O God of my fathers, I give thanks and praise,
for You have given me wisdom and power;
even now You have made known to me what we requested of You,
for You have made known to us the king’s word. –Dan. 2:20–23

What does the word “secret/mystery [Gr., μυστήριον, mustērion]” used in the Synoptics mean?5 To answer this question, we must look backward and forward from the Gospels. First, how does the Septuagint use the word? Second, how does it fit into other New Testament contexts?

The word mustērion occurs in only one non-apocryphal Old Testament book in the Septuagint—Daniel.6 It occurs eight times in Daniel 2 to translate the Aramaic רָז (raz). Recall the context of Daniel 2: Nebuchadnezzar did not trust his magicians, so he decided to test their trustworthiness by asking them to recount a “secret” dream he refused to tell them, as well as its interpretation (Dan. 2:5f). In this case, getting the details of the dream right constituted a far greater challenge than interpreting it. Recall also that, after Daniel had proved himself trustworthy in the Daniel 2 episode, the king willingly disclosed a future dream to Daniel and the other magicians (4:7), asking only for the “interpretation.” Of interest, in none of the future dream/vision contexts of Daniel does it describe any interpretation as the revelation of a “mystery.”

A vitally important truth for our discussion arises from this. At least as far as one can tell from Daniel, “mustērion” and “interpretation” should not be equated, since the dream and the interpretation together constituted the “mustērion” revealed to Daniel by God (Dan. 2:26–27), with the dream itself being the far more “difficult” and miraculous part. Nebuchadnezzar did not want to know merely what his magicians could make of his dream from their own learning and creativity. He longed for a “faith-worthy” (Aram., מְהֵימַן, mᵉheman) interpretation (Dan. 2:45), and he therefore required of them an impossible insight into his own secret counsels—one he seems to have recognized only God/the gods could give (Dan. 2:10–11; 4:8–9, 18; 5:11).7

Daniel agreed with Nebuchadnezzar’s assessment. He confessed: “But as for me, this mystery has not been revealed to me for any wisdom residing in me more than in any other living man, but for the purpose of making the interpretation known to the king, and that you may understand the thoughts of your mind” (Dan. 2:30). Further, Daniel 1:17 indicates a profound distinction between the God-given ability Daniel possessed to understand “visions and dreams” and the mere “knowledge and intelligence in all literature and wisdom” which his friends had likewise acquired. Apparently such learning proved inadequate for understanding visions and dreams, as desirable as it might prove in other contexts. Remember, the magicians possessed great learning and intellectual capacity as well (being learned men and “academics”), but they stood helpless to discern Nebuchadnezzar’s mystery.

I think this lies at the heart of “secret” or “mystery” here and in the Gospels. Whatever various kinds of information divine mysteries might contain, their first defining earmark must remain that God alone reveals them in His time. And additionally that God reveals “mysteries” to do something as much as to say something.8

This understanding of “mystery” (as hidden “speech-acts” only God can reveal) holds for the rest of the New Testament as well. Paul uses the word mustērion to refer to “God’s hidden wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:7), “hidden in God” (Eph. 3:9), “kept secret for long ages past” (Rom. 16:25), “hidden from the past ages and generations,” but now “manifested to His saints” (Col. 1:26), “made known” to us by God “by revelation” (Eph. 3:3). Confirming Daniel’s confession, Paul declares that the mystery does not derive from “superiority of speech or wisdom” (Rom. 11:25) lest the hearer “be wise in [his] own estimation” (1 Cor. 2:1).

The Content of the “Mystery”

To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but to those who are outside, everything becomes in parables. –Mark 4:11

Therefore, any definition of the “mystery” the disciples received which focuses primarily on the “solution” or “interpretation” to a parable proves erroneous, unhelpful, and anachronistic here and elsewhere. It misses both the God-oriented impossibility of getting at the mystery through any human art, and it also misses the fundamental nature of the revelation of mysteries as a “speech-act” and not merely informative words.

Many scholars fall into error here, believing that the “mystery” the disciples received amounted to “secret information” to decode the parables (i.e., Jesus’ private explanations of the parables which “outsiders” did not receive). For instance, Morna Hooker writes:

It is clear that [Mark] saw in the parables some explanation for Israel’s rejection of Jesus—that is, that the people of Israel had failed to respond to him because they had not understood his teaching, and they had not understood his teaching because they had not been able to decipher the parables.9

To be fair, this supposition makes sense on the surface, especially considering that Mark 4:11-12 directly precedes an “allegorical” explanation of the Parable of the Sower apparently reserved for the disciples alone. This pericope has proved so vexing to opponents of allegory that, rightly rejecting a Gnostic view of the “mystery,” many of them go so far as to say Mark “erroneously” inserted this purpose statement between the Parable of the Sower and its explanation. Going even further, these same exegetes often discard the allegorical explanation as a later editorial addition, leaving only the bare parable to fend for itself.10

To be frank, I fail to see how the arbitrary reconstruction of our text with no manuscript evidence amounts to an improvement over the reverently misguided and often benign speculations of the Alexandrians. Additionally, we do not require such an arbitrary redaction of Mark’s Gospel to avoid the dangers of Gnostic speculation and error. Quite simply, the revealed “mystery” does not consist of mere information or an interpretive method, despite the surface appearance of the text, and this alone adequately resolves the dilemma, at least on this issue.

It seems clear that the Synoptic authors did not consider the “mystery” to be merely secret information or a decoding method. First, in all three Synoptics, Jesus says that the mystery “is/has been given [Gr., δέδοται, dedotai]” to the disciples, not that it is about to be given in the secret explanations of the parables He went on to propound. The disciples already possessed the already-given mystery. I think this implies that He wouldn’t have bothered to give them the explanation if they had not already received the mystery. How could the mystery be the explanation if the disciples already possessed the mystery before Jesus gave His explanation?

Further, the Gospel writers make it clear that the unbelieving people rejected Jesus’ plain speech as well as His figurative speech. Did Jesus not teach plainly and publicly in the synagogues, perform obviously divine miracles, and call all to repentance, announcing the arrival of the kingdom of God (Matt. 4:23; 9:35; Mark 1:39; Luke 4:15; John 18:20)? How much more information did His audience need to make the right decision? Nineveh received the barest and most begrudging Gospel ever recorded, and yet not even their livestock escaped the vehemence of their repentance (Jonah 3:4f). Jesus makes mention of this fact: “The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Matt. 12:41; cf. Luke 11:32). 

Additionally, the Gospel writers make it clear that even the most hardened of the religious opponents of Jesus had the literary and rabbinic acumen to “get” the parables.11 In fact, it seems the unbelieving religious leaders rejected Jesus’ teaching and Jesus Himself not because they didn’t understand Him, but precisely because they did understand Him (Mark 12:12; Matt. 21:45).12

In other words, Jesus could have given every explanation to every parable to every Pharisee, and as many of them as did reject Him still would have. In fact, they might have rejected Him sooner.13 Saying otherwise betrays a fundamentally Gnostic view of divine wisdom and salvation. The problem, then, of the unbelieving Jews has nothing to do with a failure of their intellect or a divine withholding of any information that would have made any difference. It has everything to do with a lack of faith in God’s divine revelation of Himself in Jesus. The before-hidden mystery of God which had been given to the disciples was in fact the revelation of God in Jesus (Col. 2:2), through the revealed mystery of faith, and unto the revealed mystery of wisdom. The problem of the parables is the problem of Jesus. As G. Campbell Morgan puts it: “With reverence let it be said that the Lord Himself and the whole fact of the Incarnation is a parable.”14

Jesus is the ultimate mystery—the ultimate divinely-revealed speech-act (Jn. 1:1), and we receive this mystery of wisdom through the mystery of faith.

How the Disciples “Got” the Mystery

But the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance. –Luke 8:15

Even if we define a “mystery” as a divine speech-act only God can reveal in His time, and even if we believe that the central mystery God reveals in the Gospel is Himself in Jesus, we haven’t yet understood why the disciples received this mystery and the Pharisees did not. In order to dig into this, we should consider who received God’s mysteries in the rest of the Bible and how.

We might naturally look to Daniel given our previous discussion, and from Daniel 10:12 we would learn that God responded quickly to answer Daniel’s inquiries because Daniel from the beginning “gave [his] heart to understanding and to humbling [himself] before the face of [his] God.” In fact, over and over, we see this same trend. The wisest man that ever lived, Solomon, humbled himself before God at the beginning of his way, and asked for a “hearing heart” (1 Kings 3:9), recognizing his own inadequacy as “but a little child” (1 Kings 3:7). Solomon’s proverbs, along with the rest of the wisdom literature of the Bible, repeatedly emphasize that the humble “fear of YHWH” lies at the heart of wisdom and knowledge (Job 28:28; Ps. 111:10; Pr. 1:7, 29; 2:5; 8:13; 9:10; 15:33; 22:4). Such was Moses’ humility (Num. 12:3) that he could receive the communication of God “mouth to mouth, even openly and not in dark sayings [Heb., חִידֹת, chidōt—“parables”]” (Num. 12:7).

Notice again that mysteries from God involve information, but the information itself does not constitute the mystery. Additionally, the information God reveals in His mysteries to humble believers cannot be received or retained afterward independently of God. The deposit of divine mysteries in a book or in a proverb or in nature continues to be completely opaque to unbelievers, even after God reveals these mysteries to believers and they publish them abroad.

God calls even divinely revealed mysteries in a fool’s mouth as useless as lame legs (Pr. 26:7) or pernicious as thorns in a drunkard’s hand (26:9). To truly know wisdom and mysteries from God is to know God and to keep knowing God. As David said to Solomon, “If you seek Him, he will let you find Him. If you forsake Him, He will reject you forever” (1 Chr. 28:9; cp. 2 Chr. 15:2). And as Solomon himself warns, “Cease listening, my son, to discipline, and you will stray from the words of knowledge” (Pr. 19:27).

With all this in mind, we can come closer to a more biblical definition of “mystery”: a divine speech-act only God can reveal and only the humble can apprehend. Perhaps the finest summary of this for our purposes is Psalm 25:14—“The secret of YHWH is to those who fear Him, and He will cause them to know His covenant.”15 The “outsiders” in Jesus’ day rejected the truth of God’s mystery because they rejected the fear of YHWH in pride. He had made His truth as plain as possible. He couldn’t have made it more plain actually. They could not see it because they would not. They did not fear God or believe Him. The disciples did believe Him. That’s the difference. The genius of the parables is that they reveal this difference even while they sincerely invite all hearers toward repentance and faith.

The Place of Isaiah 6:9–10 in the Synoptics

He said, “Go, and tell this people:
‘Hearing hear, but do not understand;
Seeing see, but do not know.’
Dull the heart of this people,
harden its ears,
and blind its eyes,
lest it see in its eyes,
and in its ears hear,
and its heart understand
and turn and restore it.” –Isa. 6:9–10

As with so many aspects of this discussion, scholars disagree over why all three Synoptics quote Isaiah 6:9–10 in Jesus’ parable purpose statement. For instance, Richard Longenecker argues that Matthew and Mark were “driven by questions regarding Israel’s rejection of its Messiah or about the minority status of believers in Jesus among Jews.”16 There might be some truth to making distinctions between the Gospel writers’ varying purposes for the quotation, but it seems clear from all three Synoptics that Isaiah functions as an explanation for the purpose of the parables more than as an apologetic for their effects.

Most commentators want to avoid this purpose orientation any way they can, and for understandable reason. For no matter what kind of linguistic gymnastics you do, it seems rather clear that at least one purpose, and perhaps the purpose, of the parables was to harden unbelievers and ensure their condemnation.17 For instance, Jeremias leaves only a little room for viewing the parables as gracious condescensions:

 . . . the parables of Jesus . . . were preponderantly concerned with a situation of conflict. They correct, reprove, attack. For the greater part, though not exclusively, the parables are weapons of warfare.18

But a few things must be kept in mind here. First, God did not harden the hearts of unbelievers by withholding any information that would have made any difference. Everyone has more than enough information to come to the right decision. I have already, I hope, hammered this in sufficiently. I can hardly stress it enough given the still-Hellenistic spirit of our age. Second, grace insults the hearts of the proud, so we need not cringe away from the full import of our texts merely to avoid impugning Jesus’ grace. Because, third, the parables still represent a “gracious accommodation” to the believer quite fitting to the Incarnate Word:

The primary example of divine accommodation is the incarnation of Christ, the divine appearing in human form (a living reminder that “God is Love”). Moreover, Christ during his ministry characteristically taught in parables, themselves a literary mode perfectly embodying the larger principle of accommodation—the revelation of divine mysteries by means of the humble and familiar.19

But grace, no matter how great, cannot be received without humility. In fact, the greater the grace, the more it stings our pride. The blessing of grace, whatever glories it might hold for the humble, appears as a curse to the proud. In truth, unbelievers convinced of their own goodness find few things more insulting or presumptuous than a divine offer of forgiveness.

Consider that Naaman, the proud Aramean captain and “great man” (2 Kings 5:1), almost wouldn’t receive healing in the dirty, humble waters of the Jordan—perceiving it as an outrageous insult. That is, until he repented at the insistence of his servants and received cleansing as of a “little child” (2 Kings 5:11–14).20 Jesus emphasized that the proud cannot gain entrance to the kingdom: “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3–4). As we discussed, this humble and persistent faith represents the only difference between the disciples and unbelievers.

This really does not solve our dilemma entirely however. We have merely shifted it from one place to another. Even if God or Jesus has not withheld secret information from unbelievers and even if He remains gracious, could it not be said that He has at least withheld the humble faith or the humble heart necessary to receive His mystery and grace? And, beyond that, does it not seem from Isaiah 6:9–10, and the ways all four Gospels use it, that God actively and intentionally hardens the hearts of at least these specific unbelievers in Israel?

One can almost ignore these issues with Matthew and Luke, both of whom seem to give more of a descriptive gloss on the hardening of hearts, as if to say, “This happened, and it fulfilled prophecy.” But the use of the quotation in Mark and John affords far fewer retreats to the reader who, like me, feels a need to defend the fairness of God and also refuses to alter the text. Since this concern arises especially in John, we’ll turn there first.

Isaiah 6:9–10 in John’s Gospel

But though He had performed so many signs before them, yet they were not believing in Him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet which he spoke: “Lord, who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” For this reason they could not believe, for Isaiah said again, “He has blinded their eyes and He hardened their heart, so that they would not see with their eyes and perceive with their heart, and be converted and I heal them.” These things Isaiah said because he saw His glory, and he spoke of Him. –John 12:37–43

John’s Gospel alone does not include any teaching of Jesus which we could technically label a “parable.” John never even uses the word, opting for παροιμία (paroimia, “figure of speech”) instead in only two places (John 10:6; 16:29). It might seem odd, then, that I think John provides any help in understanding how the Gospel writers relate Isaiah’s prophecy to parables. Precisely because John does not use the parables as the catalysts of “hardening,” but rather miraculous signs, we can make a number of fruitful connections.

First, our definition of a “mystery” as a speech-act divinely revealed to the humble would mean that both the miraculous signs21 and the parables reveal essentially the same mystery of God (i.e., Jesus) to those who will hear. Though the miraculous sign functions more as act than speech, and the parable as more speech than act, both fall under the broader category of God’s revealed “mystery” as a “speech-act.” John’s use of Isaiah 6 helps us sharpen and deepen this connection.

Second, John’s quotation of the Septuagint here is rather free and peculiarly striking. In the original text, Isaiah received a divine imperative to dull, harden, and blind the unbelieving people. Here, John makes it explicit that God Himself hardened Israel. Isaiah may have been the instrument of hardening, but God accomplished His own purposes through Isaiah’s speech-acts. Similarly, God accomplished His purposes of hardening those who crucified Jesus through His signs and parables. Any attempts to get around this in the other Gospels will prove ultimately futile. God purposed to harden the unbelieving Jews with the revelation of His mysteries, and even this hardening constituted a mystery—a hidden purpose of God revealed to us through Paul (Rom. 11:25).

In all of this, we must remind ourselves that, in every case where God has hardened a person or people, He has had some great work at hand. Whether you consider the hardening of Pharaoh to accomplish the salvation of the Israelites (and perhaps countless Egyptians)22 from Egypt, the hardening of the Israelites that led to the exile which He used to disseminate His witnesses and prepare the world for Jesus, or the hardening of the religious leaders which resulted in Jesus’ death and our salvation, God has never hardened anyone to no purpose.

Further, we must absolutely insist that God’s hidden purposes lie on one side of time and space, while our responses to Him lie on the other. God’s sovereignty and hidden counsels play no part whatsoever in excusing us from obedience. As Donald Hagner explains:

Belief and receptivity, on the one hand, are attributed to the grace of God. For the words of verse 11 [Matt. 13:11], “to know the mysteries of the kingdom has been given to you”—which occur in the form of a divine passive—indicate that God is the source of the disciples’ knowledge, as well as their receptivity to that knowledge (cf. 11:25–27). Unbelief and unreceptivity, on the other hand, are attributed to the hardheartedness of those who do not respond (hence the full quotation of Isa 6:9–10).23

It remains true that the unbelieving Judeans who crucified Jesus did so from the outworking of their own nature. And the same means God used to harden them, he used to soften others. The parables most specifically function as a speech-act in their capacity to reveal their listener while they reveal their Author. They do not merely communicate. They sift, entice, and challenge. Blomberg claims that parables “conceal as well as reveal. More precisely, they lead the reader unwittingly along until he or she acknowledges the validity of the vehicle (picture-part) of the parable and is therefore forced to side with the storyteller concerning the tenor (spiritual truth) as well.”24

How the Parables Serve Their Purpose

Jesus chose the perfect tool to accomplish God’s purposes when He took up parables. First, their lowliness and familiarity made them accessible to common people, while this same quality offended and hardened the proud. Parabolic hiddenness operates as a Trojan horse of truth. By the time the hard-hearted or the humble realize they peer into a mirror at an antagonist or a supplicant, neither can deny the truth their hearts unwittingly confirm. This power of the parable can result in repentance (2 Sam. 12:5, 13). Or it can result in outrage (Mark 12:12; Matt. 21:45). But it will not leave the listener indifferent.

Second, the parables preserved the precious seeds of Jesus’ teachings even when those who accepted and believed His teachings didn’t yet understand them—which the disciples often did not. Just as the faithful fathers of Israel told “dark sayings” and “parables” of old to their children (Ps. 78:1–4), so the disciples remembered and retold the parables until Pentecost, though they clearly did not yet fully understand them until then. For this reason, even the most vehement source critics accept the parables as authentic.25 Richard Trench offers helpful words on this that we should still heed today in our own teaching:

Had our Lord spoken naked spiritual truth, how many of his words, partly from his hearers’ lack of interest in them, partly from their lack of insight, would have passed away from their hearts and memories, and left no trace behind them.26

Third, parables operate as both truth and “proof,”27 since they do not distort the natural realities everyone with senses has materially experienced repeatedly from birth. Truly, anyone who hears a parable sees in it what he has always seen, whether or not he understands, and hears in it what he has always heard, whether or not he accepts it. Even in their plainness, and perhaps especially in their plainness, the parable re-enchants and recharges the mundane with divine wonder for those who believe. And it condemns the unbelieving in the same stroke, since it so clearly correlates to every material fact they have ever known to be true. As Trench has written:

[Parables] have this point of likeness with the miracles, that those, too, were a calling of heed to powers that were daily working, but which, by their continual and orderly repetition, which ought to have kindled the more admiration, had become wonder-works no more, had lost the power of exciting admiration or even attention, until men had need to be startled anew to the contemplation of the energies which were ever working among them.28


We still need parables today, for all the reasons a need ever existed for them. God still reveals mysteries to His people. And He still clothes these mysteries in all the flesh of the ordinary. The proud still despise these common elements. But to the humble, parables can reveal the heart of the divine mystery—God’s condescension to us in the Incarnate Word.

Merely teaching what the parables mean will not suffice, for the “information” behind them does not preserve their method or their mystery. I agree with Blomberg that “. . . if a contemporary communicator wants to re-create as much as possible the original power, force or dynamics of the parables’ speech-acts, they do well to consider contemporizations that preserve a narrative and even parabolic form.”29 So many Christians think themselves “too grown up” for stories and images, and so despise Jesus and His methods without realizing it. Trench again offers us a vital and much-needed word on this. May we hear it and heed it:

Man is both body and soul, and, being so, the truth has for him need of a body and soul likewise: it is well that he should know what is body, and what is soul, but not that he should seek to kill the body, that he may get at the soul. Thus it was provided for us by a wisdom higher than our own, and all our attempts to disengage ourselves wholly from sensuous images must always in the end be unsuccessful. It will be only a changing of our images, and that for the worse; a giving up of living realities which truly stir the heart, and a getting of dead metaphysical abstractions in their room.30


“The Sower,” Jean-François Millet (oil on canvas, 1850)

  1. Though the definition of parable is worthy of its own treatise, for the sake of narrowing the scope of the present one, I will define a parable as a narrative illustration that unifies an ordinary phenomenological experience with an extraordinary spiritual significance without distorting either. This differentiates it from myth and fable, where the ordinary might be distorted for the sake of the spiritual truth or “moral” of the story. A parable could be called a well-hidden allegory, since the allegorical nature of it needs to be hidden in order for its purpose as a speech-act to be accomplished.
  2. Recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 13:10–17; Mk. 4:10–12; Lk. 8:9–10).
  3. For instance, Leopold Fonck (in The Parables of Christ, E. Leahy, trans. (Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic Books 1918), 37) wrote: “Hence we can and, in fact, we must say that our Lord had a special object in these parables regarding the unbelieving people. The clear and concurring words of the three Evangelists leave no room for the least doubt on this point. . . . The special aim and object . . . in these parables . . . was: That the Jews might see the image and not recognize the truth; might hear the words and not understand their deeper import.” And again: “The Fathers of the Church interpret the words quoted concerning the object of the parables in this sense of a just punishment of God” (p. 39).
  4. For example, Morna D. Hooker (in The Challenge of Jesus’ Parables, Richard N. Longenecker, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 92) wrote: “We may confidently assume that the purpose of his teaching was to stimulate response, not prevent it”; and G. Campbell Morgan (in The Parables and Metaphors of Our Lord. (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1943), 17) wrote: “Our Lord did not intend then in the use of the parable to prevent men seeing, but to help them to see.”
  5. It is plural in Matthew and Luke, singular in Mark. Some translations use “mystery,” some use “secret.” The Greek root word is the same in all three accounts.
  6. μυστήριον occurs in a number of places in the Apocrypha: Judith. 2:2; Tob. 12:7, 11; 2 Mac. 13:21; Wis. 2:22; 6:22; 14:15, 23; Sir. 22:22; 27:16–17, 21. In most cases, it refers to the “secret” counsels or revelations of a friend or king which must not be betrayed. Daniel has more influence and weight, especially for Aramaic speakers, but we should still consider how the Apocryphal usages might have informed the first-century audiences concerning this word.
  7. The term here is ambiguous since the Aramaic אֱלָהִין (elahin), similar to the Hebrew אֱלֹהִים (elohim), can mean either “God” or “gods.”
  8. Does it surprise us in the least that the God who created by His word in the beginning should continue to act through His word into the future?
  9. Morna D. Hooker, “Mark’s Parables of the Kingdom,” in Richard N. Longnecker, ed., The Challenge of Jesus’ Parables (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 88. See also T. A. Burkill (in “The Cryptology of Parables in St. Mark’s Gospel.” Novum Testamentum 1, no. 4 (1956): 249): “The parables are designed to conceal the truth from the multitude; and they are obscure in themselves. To be understood they must be accompanied by special clarifications such as the explanation of the parable of the sower given in vv. 13–20”; and Schuyler Brown (in “ ‘The Secret of the Kingdom of God’ (Mark 4:11).” Journal of Biblical Literature 92, no. 1 (1973): 62): “The secret of the kingdom of God finds its initial disclosure in the allegorical explanation of the parable of the sower.”
  10. This was the view for instance of Joachim Jeremias, and many who have followed in his footsteps (in The Parables of Jesus, rev. ed. (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1963), 18): “Mark, misled by the catchword παραβολή, which he erroneously understood as parable, inserted our logion (Mark 4:11–12) into the parable chapter. If, however, Mark 4:11f has no reference whatever to the parables of Jesus, then the passage affords no criterion for the interpretation of the parables, nor any warrant for seeking to find in them by means of an allegorical interpretation some secret meaning hidden from the outsiders.” C. H. Dodd (in The Parables of the Kingdom, rev. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961), 4) agreed, discarding the explanatory portion of Mark 4 as a later apostolic teaching that had no place in the original logion.
  11. According to C. H. Dodd (in The Parables of the Kingdom, rev. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961), 4): “Among Jewish teachers the parable was a common and well-understood method of illustration, and the parables of Jesus are similar in form to Rabbinic parables.”
  12. As Craig Blomberg says (in Interpreting the Parables, 2nd. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 45): “. . . even Christ’s enemies apparently understood his parables at a cognitive level.”
  13. This explains the secrecy of some of the miracles and teachings far better than the Gnostic explanation. Jesus knew precisely when His time had or had not come.
  14. G. Campbell Morgan, The Parables and Metaphors of Our Lord (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1943), 16.
  15. The Hebrew for “secret” here (סוֹד, sōd) is the closest Hebrew equivalent to the Aramaic רָז and throughout the Old Testament emphasizes the personal sense of being a “confidant.” Such confidence could obviously be lost if one were to betray trust. Concerning humility and wisdom, see also: Prov. 11:2—“When pride comes, then comes dishonor, but with the humble is wisdom.” and Prov. 13:10—“Through insolence comes nothing but strife, but wisdom is with those who receive counsel.”
  16. Richard N. Longenecker, “Luke’s Parables of the Kingdom,” in Longenecker, Challenge of Jesus’ Parables, 136.
  17. Especially in Mark’s use of the fairly straightforward purposive conjunction ἵνα (hina) to begin the quotation.
  18. Jeremias, Parables, 21.
  19. Anne Williams, “Gracious Accommodations: Herbert’s ‘Love III’ ”. Modern Philology 82, no. 1 (1984): 15.
  20. Consider also “all the arrogant men” left behind after the exile who viewed Jeremiah’s offer of divine protection in Judah as a curse of death rather than a promise of life (Jer. 43:1–3).
  21. The very use of the word “sign (Gr. σημεῖον, sēmeion)” for Jesus’ miracles indicates that Jesus’ works pointed to some truth beyond themselves, similar to the parables.
  22. Considering Ex 7:5, 9:20–21; 11:3; 14:18 together with the “mixed multitude” which accompanied Israel in the Exodus (Ex 12:37–38), we can surmise that many Egyptians did indeed come to know YHWH on account of His miraculous signs.
  23. Donald A. Hagner, “Matthew’s Parables of the Kingdom,” in Longenecker, Challenge of Jesus’ Parables, 105.
  24. Craig L. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables, 2nd. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 75. These comments are similar to Dodd’s (in Parables of the Kingdom, 11): “The parable has the character of an argument, in that it entices the hearer to a judgment upon the situation depicted, and then challenges him, directly or by implication, to apply that judgment to the matter in hand.”
  25. For example, Jeremias begins The Parables of Jesus with these lines: “The student of the parables of Jesus, as they have been transmitted to us in the first three Gospels, may be confident that he stands upon a particularly firm historical foundation” (p. 11).
  26. Richard C. Trench, Notes on the Parables of Our Lord (Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1953), 25.
  27. “The parable appropriated from the world of nature or man, is not merely illustration, but also in some sort proof. . . . They are arguments, and may be alleged as witnesses; the world of nature being throughout a witness for the world of the spirit, proceeding from the same hand, growing out of the same root, and being constituted for that very end.” Trench, Notes on the Parables, 12–13.
  28. Trench, Notes on the Parables, 17.
  29. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables, 190.
  30. Trench, Notes on the Parables, 24.

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