The parables of Jesus offer us yet another dimension of His teaching. But knowing what we know about Christ, should we really be surprised that He found so many creative ways to talk about the kingdom of heaven? After all, doesn’t the subject matter lend itself to the highest and most powerful expressions we know?
Working from Matthew’s gospel, we’ve already seen a parable used in the story of the two builders at the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount (7:24-27). But that was at the end of an extended message whose meaning was clear and the parable simply served to illustrate the importance of putting into practice the teachings of Jesus. When we get to chapter 13, the landscape has completely changed. Matthew informs us that Jesus “did not say anything to them without using a parable” (v. 34). If Christ hadn’t spoken so clearly to the point that the parables were about “the kingdom of heaven” (v. 11), we would be tempted to say that parables in chapter 13 didn’t illustrate the subject—they were the subject! (Nonetheless, v. 11-17 does qualify them as a sub-topic).
It’s also important to note that the parables of chapter 13 aren’t as anywhere near as readily transparent as the story of the two builders. We know that because when we read them we have something of the same reaction that the disciples did in v. 10 when they asked Jesus, “Why do You speak to the people in parables?” I take this as a thinly veiled objection on their part that what Jesus has just said is difficult for any of them to understand. And it’s true. Many of the parables leave us scratching our head. Even after we hear Jesus’ explanation of the parable we still may not fully understand it it—there are elements that confuse us and parts we are uncertain of.
There’s a reason Jesus has moved in this direction in His teaching. We’ve seen the rejection of Him growing in chapters 11-12. Matthew lists Pharisees, Jesus’ family, and four references by Christ to a “generation” (11:16ff) that is “wicked and adulterous” (12:39) and will be condemned (v. 41-42) as forming the foundation for this. That’s a substantial basis—the religious leaders, the people, and your family. As a result, Jesus begins to speak differently. He speaks in a way that won’t be understood by those who don’t want to understand and will be understood by those who want to understand. That’s the essence of 13:11-17 when understood in the overall context of what’s happened in Jesus’ ministry.
Parables then are in a sense, insider talk about the kingdom of God. As Jesus’ focus and attention was turning from teaching the crowds to almost exclusively teaching the twelve and preparing them for what was ahead, He adopted a method consistent with that. He taught in a way that would lessen the crowds and (ultimately) deepen the disciples.
It’s hard for us to appreciate this aspect of insider knowledge due to the fact that more has been written and said about the teachings of Christ than any other subject known to man. It has been dispersed on all continents and in every country. Even the most militant outsider today has access to the insider truths of the kingdom. All of that makes it difficult to appreciate what Jesus was doing and what it must have been like. Nonetheless, making the effort to do so provides a helpful context for understanding the parables.