What is a parable? A parable is a flexible term; it can stretch to include a variety of things. But, at its base, a parable is a metaphorical story or saying. By using a metaphor, a parable compares two things. It describes one thing by likening it to something else. Jesus teaches us about the kingdom by comparing it to a mustard seed.
Why did Jesus preach in parables? The inside circle of disciples, the twelve apostles and others, are given the secrets of the Kingdom. But the outside crowds receive only parables. This contrast between secrets given and parables discloses that parables are obscure—they are encryption. A revealed secret is open and clear teaching, full access.
If a parable is the opposite of this, then it is truth incognito. Parables hide truth behind odd images, weird comparisons, and ambiguous terms. Parables are like riddles without an answer key. But why would Jesus camouflage the truth of his preaching from the outside crowds behind brain-teasing parables? This seems like anti-evangelism.
Why did Jesus preach in parables?
Jesus gives his reasons from Isaiah 6. With parables, the outsiders will not perceive; they won’t understand and so they will not repent and be forgiven. Parables keep the people clueless and closed off to repentance, which is punitive and it fits with the context of Isaiah.
In Isaiah, the prophet had already been preaching to the people. God had sent numerous prophets to his people. But the Judeans had ignored, persecuted and rejected every last word from the Lord. Therefore, God changed his preaching from being clear to vague to seal his hard-hearted people for judgment.
Their willful stubbornness is punished by keeping them in the dark. And what was true for Isaiah is the same for our Lord. The crowds still flock to Jesus, but their interest seems to be only in his healings and not his gospel message.
The scribes have condemned Jesus over and over and are already drawing up plans to murder him. They even labelled him demonic, claiming he got his power from the Devil, and the crowds gave their assent by saying that he has an impure spirit. This is a deep-seated repudiation of our Lord; it is a wicked rejection of the truth of the Son of God. And so, for those who blaspheme the gospel in clarity, they get parables to lock them into unrepentance and ignorance.
The Lord gives lucid teaching to those who bow the knee to Christ
Yet, for those who bow the knee to Christ, our Lord gives lucid teaching. To those who believe, the Lord grants even more truth in full display. Unbelieving rejection is punished with confusion, but humble belief is rewarded with abundantly clear truth.
This ambiguity is evident in the parable of The Sower, as Jesus doesn’t inform us of his topic or state his thesis, and he doesn’t mention his points. Randomly, he just states that the sower went out to sow:
Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:1-9)
A farmer planted his grain. In Jesus’ day, nearly everyone was connected to agriculture in some way or another. The city folk knew about farming just as much as the farmers. This is like saying, a dairyman went out to milk his cows.
Then, when you plant by scattering seed, which was common, the seed ends up in good and bad places. The birds get some. If the soil is shallow, the grain won’t survive the hot sun. Weeds claim some grain, but other grain gives you a good harvest. The story seems mundane and unremarkable at first glance.
The Old Testament can help us to understand the meaning of Jesus’ parables
Yet, there are a few details that make us think twice. First, is the sower careless or being normal? That is, would a good farmer make sure his seed didn’t fall on the path? Or is this just unpreventable when planting by scattering? We are not sure. Second, it’s clear that you cannot spot the good soil by looking. The rocks are under the surface.
The thorns also germinate and grow with the grain. These are thorn seeds tilled under along with grain seeds. By looking at the topsoil, it all appears good—the dangers lie below, unseen. Yet, besides these, what clues are there to help us understand? Well, the first place to head is the Old Testament.
In a few places, God is likened to a sower (Isa. 5:1-2; Ps. 80:8-9; Jer 2:3). He sowed Israel in the promised land. After exile, the Lord promised to replant his exiles for a greater harvest (2 Sam. 7:10; Jer. 32:41). Maybe, Jesus is talking about God and Israel? Though, more commonly, this imagery of sowing and reaping is used for the retribution principle (see Prov. 1:31, 22:8; Hos. 10:13; Gal. 6:7). You reap what you sow—obedience yields blessing and disobedience results in being cursed. Jesus could be warning the crowd that they better be careful how they sow. Our Lord, however, doesn’t give us enough to go on. There is not sufficient information to choose an interpretation, and he might be talking about something totally different.
The Parable of the Sower is about kingdom preaching
Furthermore, Jesus’ conclusion is bit scary. Jesus opens with a call for us to hear, and he concludes, “he who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9). This is not about a hearing test, but it is about your heart. It is a call to spiritual understanding in order to respond properly. Jesus’ point is that you better heed this parable or you are in trouble. While there are serious and dangerous consequences if we fail to grasp what Jesus is talking about in this parable, this is disheartening. It’s like being given a math problem, without the formula to solve it, or being told to win the game without knowing the rules.
Hence, even though the twelve apostles were handed picked by Jesus, they have no idea what this parable is about:
And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that
“‘they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.’”
And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” (Mark 4:10-13)
The disciples have to take Jesus aside when they are alone to get the answer key, and our Lord is not happy with them. He chides them as dunces and treats this parable as “Elementary, my dear Watson”! Jesus graciously grants the formula to decipher the hieroglyphics of the parable.