Why Did Jesus Talk in Parables?

I believe it was to force everyone to think for themselves and learn what it means to implement their faith through God’s eternal Kingdom Principles, in their own situations in real time as life uniquely happens.

God could have made the Bible a million page rule book filled only with yes/no answers to all of life’s questions, situations, circumstances and experiences so that we would never have to think for ourselves in how we are to apply our faith in our own contexts – whether in Jesus’ day, our day today, or if the Lord tarries, days of generations to come after us.

Jesus could have spoken a majority of the time in concrete words communicating a simple message not through parables but in commands, to his friends (the disciples), his critics (the religious gatekeepers) or his audience (the general public as he taught).

But Jesus didn’t.

He knew that such a thought process, as easy as it would be to communicate and walk away, would not easily work for every situation or solve every problem in every circumstance throughout all of the generations to follow. Jesus could have taken the easy way out, and he didn’t. He had enough faith in us not to take the easy way out either. Jesus could have constantly spoken in commands as easy as he completed any of his unreal miracles. But he chose not to. He knew such a medium would not be sufficient to draw people closer to him (one biblical example for what I am suggesting: The countless stories throughout the Old Testament about the Israelites and their inability to fall in line with the simplistic command-based Holiness Code).

If what I am saying were not true the Bible would not be filled with stories, narratives and overarching transcultural and transgenerational principles; it would just be completely filled with simple one sentence statements of yes and no, communicating one word answers to everything that could ever possibly happen in any way, time, situation and circumstance from Jesus’ time until Jesus comes back.

And if that’s how you read the Bible you’re missing the point of what it means to live out our faith in a bold, Jesus-modeled countercultural way in today’s culture. 

Start living your faith.

As my wife says,

Life is not theory.

Much love.

www.themarinfoundation.org

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About Andrew Marin

Andrew Marin is President and Founder of The Marin Foundation (www.themarinfoundation.org). He is author of the award winning book Love Is an Orientation (2009), its interactive DVD curriculum (2011), and recently an academic ebook titled Our Last Option: How a New Approach to Civility can Save the Public Square (2013). Andrew is a regular contributor to a variety of media outlets and frequently lectures at universities around the world. Since 2010 Andrew has been asked by the United Nations to advise their various agencies on issues of bridging opposing worldviews, civic engagement, and theological aspects of reconciliation. For twelve years he lived in the LGBT Boystown neighborhood of Chicago, and is currently based St. Andrews, Scotland, where he is teaching and researching at the University of St. Andrews earning his PhD in Constructive Theology with a focus on the Theology of Culture. Andrew's research centers on the cultural, political, and religious dynamics of reconciliation. Andrew is married to Brenda, and you can find him elsewhere on Twitter (@Andrew_Marin), Facebook (AndrewMarin01), and Instagram (@andrewmarin1).

  • Melissa

    “Life is not theory.”

    I *love* it! Good on your wife!

    And good on you for really trying to understand Jesus and letting His heart, His words, His actions be a lamp unto your feet. My prayer for you today: that all of the junk we accumulate as humans is cleared away from you so you can continue to hear Him clearly, follow Him compassionately, and rest in Him completely.

  • Eugene

    That’s a great, question, Andrew! And I have a different answer. :)

    In my opinion, Jesus talked in parables because people weren’t ready for the message. (Matthew 13:10-11) You can only bend a branch so far before it breaks.

    “I know you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are ready to kill me, because you have no room for my word.” (John 8:37)

    Jesus was constantly on the verge of getting arrested and/or killed for telling basic truth about himself. (John 8:58-59)

    He was condemned and persecuted by the Jews even for healing a man on the Sabbath! (John 5:16-18)

    Now try to imagine what would happen if he decided to condemn slavery. Or support gay marriage. Or tell the people about evolution.

    …And that’s why you can only read these things between the lines (or in ambiguous phrases like “Love your neighbor”).

    • http://www.loveisanorientation.com Andrew Marin

      Interesting thoughts! What I was trying to communicate are the ‘overarching principles’ (you call them “why you can only read these things between the lines – or ambiguous phrases like “love your neighbor”). I feel we’re generally talking about the same process. The Bible could have been a full rule book of lists for all time, including the answers to everything you mentioned. But that’s not how Jesus communicated. There is something to that.

      • Eugene

        Yep, my answer doesn’t contradict yours. Jesus knew that his words would be relevant today, and parables surely seem to be a good way to make people read “between the lines”. Otherwise, we would get the same legalistic approach Jesus condemned Pharisees for.

  • Drew

    There may be a variety of reasons for using parables. I think stories generally carry much more emotional impact than a set of guidelines. They are deeper and more nuanced than a set of rules in a manual. I’m guessing that stories and parables were also particularly appropriate for the time in which they were delivered.

    • http://www.loveisanorientation.com Andrew Marin

      I think they’re still really appropriate as well :) I’m a big fan.

  • Ty Grigg

    Drawing from Klyne Snodgrass’ work, Jesus’ parables are prophetic instruments. They tell stories or make analogies that lower people’s guards and then in the words of Kierkegaard, “they wound from behind.”

  • http://www.blogoneanother.com/ Jon Reid

    Andrew, I got some pushback on my blog for saying, “If we are not being confused or disturbed [by Jesus's parables], then we may be missing the real teaching.” To me they are like Zen koans: not giving simple answers, but inviting us into conversation, into a relationship that wrestles with God like Abram did. http://www.blogoneanother.com/2010/08/the-good-samaritan-a-disturbing-story.html

    • http://www.loveisanorientation.com Andrew Marin

      I totally agree that they are an invitation into conservation with God in how they apply to our current contexts! I just don’t see any other reason why Jesus would have so consistently used them…

  • David

    I think the power of stories lies in our ability to relate to them, and to see ourselves, or even those we know, in them. Stories can be powerful enough to allow ourselves to connect with others by seeing ourselves in the story: through the situations, through the characters, through the relationships. Sometimes stories help us laugh and sometimes they help us cry, because stories have this strange power to make us connect. We somehow find ourselves taking part in the story, and in one sense, it then no longer matters whose story it was: when we connect, the story works beyond its original context – and it becomes our own.

    In telling stories, Jesus was helping people connect with what he was saying, and to find themselves in what he was saying. This goes some way to explaining the range of reactions to his stories, the good and the bad. Because it’s our involvement—the involvement of our very selves, of all the depth and complexity and mystery of who we are—within one or some or even all of the strands of the narrative in stories that enables us to identify where we are in the story, and to find meaning for ourselves.

    Such an intimate involvement leaves us with questions, questions of how we react, where we go and what we do. Because, ultimately, we’re left wondering how we connect. How do we connect with others? And, sometimes, how do we connect with ourselves?

    • http://www.loveisanorientation.com Andrew Marin

      It wouldn’t be faith (Heb 11:1 – being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see) if we had everything laid out before us.

  • pm

    Jesus acknowledged how the Pharisees were highly educated yet lacked insight into the kingdom-building mission. Parables and picture-evoking stories were designed for involving the Lost Sheep for finding a Way that reached out across the educational divide into the places that were unclean, dirty, and sun-baked paths trodden down under the Big-Boot of Religious Leadership Groups.

    He actively taught how such unclean stuff came from the heart and not from the outside of a cup. He saw how these Groups fought and debated against each other. They missed the concept as summed up in Gal 5:14-15: “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.”

    Jesus didn’t take their sides to join their in-fighting. Instead, he actively engaged by going among his people with a handful of followers to show them how this greater love was revealed from the beginning. He challenged the status-quo all the while staying in One-ness with the One who sent him. No greater love.

    • http://www.loveisanorientation.com Andrew Marin

      No greater love, indeed pm!!!

  • http://opendoorpeople.com Adam

    He did, however, use commands as well. These commands were always some outworking of Love God and love neighbor. “A new command I give to you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know you are my disciples.” John 13:34-35. I agree, there were not a great number, but we do have the sermon on the mount and others. I also agree with your comment about the stories. I do think Jesus meant for His disciples to think carefully. Maybe some needed commands to begin, to walk into the truth, and others needed parables. With a wide range of people, I believe he brilliantly challenged them all in some way.

  • http://mikeismessedup.blogspot.com/ Mike Ellis

    Andrew, your ministry was one of the inspirations behind my latest blog post: Hugging Men In Underwear http://mikeismessedup.blogspot.com/2010/09/hugging-men-in-underwear.html

    • http://www.loveisanorientation.com Andrew Marin

      Wow – that was an awesome post! Thanks for sharing it Mike.


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