Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

79. Why Parables? (Matt. 13:10-17,34,35; Mark 4:10-12,21 -25; Luke 8:9,10,16-18)

The instruction given by Jesus was now being built more systematically on parables. So the twelve, and others who also had left all in order to be with him continuously, came asking not only for explanation but also: “Why speakest thou into them in parables?”

Revealing truth

In reply Jesus gave two reasons. The first: “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (cp. 1 Cor. 1:21-28). As means of revealing truth about the kingdom, the parables were a matchless medium. Jesus knew better than any man that all do not have the same spiritual capacity or insight. But parables enable a man to grasp what he is ready for. Before reaching his teens a child can learn some essential truth from a parable, led to it by his love of the story. Later the fundamental character of the essential lesson begins to dawn on him. Yet all his days, if he is of a mind to do this, he may keep on returning to the story, meditating on its details, its context, its relevance to modern situations, and always finding further instruction, deeper wisdom.

It was not with direct reference to the power of his parables-though it might well have been-that Jesus was to say: “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes” (Lk. 10:21).

Hiding truth

The Lord’s other reason for this reliance on parables is hardly what one would expect. It is, according to Mark and Luke, “in order that seeing they may see and not perceive; and hearing they may hear and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven” (Mk. 4:12).

The meaning of this saying appears to be so stringent that some have sought an alternative, less drastic, interpretation. It is a fact that the prophets of the Lord were often described as taking dramatic action against their contemporaries when actually they were merely pronouncing with divine authority the fate that God was to bring on them. “I have hewed them by the prophets, I have slain them by the words of my mouth” (Hos. 6:5). “See, I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build and to plant” (Jer.l:10). In a literal sense Hosea and Jeremiah did none of these things; they declared that these judgments would come to pass.

In similar fashion, it has been suggested, Jesus foretold the outcome of his use of parables -that the religious leaders who should have been the first to accept him would be blinded and confused by them, and left without the new life which they as much as any were in need of.

However, careful attention to the words seems to require the harder meaning, that by his parables Jesus aimed at their confusion. After all, if he knew that the consequence of using these parables would be their blindness, then in his systematic reliance on this medium he was ensuring their downfall. Is that any difference worth mentioning?

Various details reinforce this general conclusion. “Unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables” (Mk. 4:11), that is, they remain just parables, unelucidated whether by personal insight or the Lord’s private exposition. “Them that are without”! Luke’s phrase is: “the rest”. Here is as clear a declaration as could be wished that the gospel of Jesus is esoteric. He neither sought nor expected the conversion of the mass of the nation. Parables help to draw the line of demarcation the more clearly.

As Matthew Henry concisely put it: “A parable is a shell that keeps good fruit for the diligent, but keeps it from the slothful”.


The fateful passage from Isaiah 6, made yet more powerful by its repetitions, is as determinist in character as it could well be: “Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes, lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn again, and be healed” (v. 10). Here, in the Hebrew text, the verbs are causative, and the meaning of the word “lest” inescapable.

Even if, in some way, it were possible to evade the inevitability in these words of Jesus, what is essentially the same teaching is to be found in a parallel passage in Romans 11:7,8. Here, quoting similar words from Isaiah 29:10 about the rejection of Israel, Paul says: “The election hath obtained it (i.e. God’s righteousness), and the rest were blinded: according as it is written, God hath given them the spirit of slumber: eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear, unto this day”. Whatever the method, here the intention and outcome are clearly the same. So even if the difficulty were evaded in Matthew 13, it still remains in these words of Paul.

The apostle John’s use of the same grim Isaiah passage is accompanied by the comment: “Therefore they could not believe...” At the Exodus the Glory of the Lord was brightness to Israel, and darkness to the Egyptians (Ex. 14:20).
It is important, then, to go back to Isaiah 6 and see it (as Jesus himself evidently did) as an actual prophecy of his own work, and therefore a directive as to the principles and methods he should follow. The word “fulfilled” (Mt. 13:14)-literally, “filled up” — seems to imply that there had been one fulfilment already, in Isaiah’s day, but that it was to have a yet more important fulfilment.

The prophecy describes one who found himself in the presence of the Glory of God and aware that an outpouring of heaven’s wrath on Israel would be well-deserved. He felt himself contaminated by his nation’s sin and also involved in their impending judgment (v. 5). But heaven’s approval imparted to him a power of witness he could not otherwise have achieved (v. 6,7). It was a sorry task that lay before him-to tell the nation it had forfeited divine favour (v. 9,10). Israel’s judgment meant that soon they would be scattered from their fair land (v. 11,12). Henceforth God’s blessing was to be reserved for the faithful remnant among them, the holy seed (v. 13).

It was not merely Isaiah’s experience, not merely a prophecy of retribution to come in his day. It was also a prophecy of the work of Christ, as one who, though sharing the defilement of those to whom he ministered, was nevertheless blessed and guided by heaven as no other prophet of Jehovah ever was. The obstinacy of spirit and animosity against his person which he encountered meant that the nation was writing its own condemnation. Now his teaching by parables would finally shut up all their faculties against appreciating the truth of God which he taught. More than this, in due time there must come a scattering of the people and “a great forsaking in the midst of the land”. Only the faithful minority, the Lord’s tenth, would ultimately find salvation.

This Scripture spoke its message of warning to Israel with such brutal clarity that it came to be quoted by all four gospels and also at the end of Acts as a bitter summary of the nation’s tragedy -they rejected the best gift their God could offer, and He rejected them.

Blinding clever men

The effectiveness of Christ’s parables in blinding the hostile rulers of Israel to the teaching they embodied is adequately demonstrated by the fact that it was not until the last parable spoken by Jesus in public that there is any indication that these adversaries saw what he was getting at: “they perceived that he had spoken this parable (of the vineyard) against them” (Lk. 20:19).

There is something rather amazing about this fact, for, whatever their profounder significance, so many of these didactic stories told by Jesus seem to have their essential meaning written on the surface. It is easy to overlook that the modern reader of the gospel inherits not only the gospel record of the parables but also the authoritative interpretation of them given by Jesus himself. There is also the special emphasis which the gospels give to certain aspects of the Lord’s teaching which makes the interpretation of the parables a much easier task. It would be an interesting experiment to put the parable of the sower before some “intelligent” atheist vaguely aware of Christ and his teaching but who has never read the gospels for himself, to see just what he might make of it.

Blessing the humble

By contrast, Jesus assured his loyal disciples of incomparable blessing: “Blessed are your eyes, for they see; and your ears, for they hear” (Mt.l3:16). He was not speaking of miracles seen and teaching heard, but of spiritual insight imparted to them through the medium of these parables which at present bewildered them. The phrases correspond to those about eyes being blinded and ears heavy. But why, one wonders, did Jesus not also promise receptive hearts, to contrast with those which were to “wax gross”?

To emphasize the degree of blessing which the disciples now enjoyed, he added: “Verily I say unto you, that many prophets and righteous men (and kings-such as David and Hezekiah) have desired to see those things which ye see, and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them” (13:17). Their privileges, and those of the disciple today, far surpass the blessings of ancient patriarchs and prophets who “received not the promises, but saw them afar off” (Heb. 11:13). Abraham rejoiced to see the day of Christ (Jn. 8:56), but what could he know compared with the richness of detail about Jesus which the four gospels supply?

Peter has a wonderfully eloquent passage describing how the Old Testament prophets “enquired and searched diligently” the things which the Holy Spirit revealed through themselves concerning “the sufferings of Christ and the glory that should follow”. They “searched who, and what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify” (1 Pet. 1:10,12). Nor was this inspired curiosity restricted only to holy men of an early dispensation. “Which things angels desire to
look into”! Yet by contrast with this heavenly excitement many a “saint” of modern times can hardly bring himself to a cursory reading of the gospels twice a year. Blessed indeed are their eyes and ears, for they find time for futile and soul-destroying television programes instead.

“That it might be fulfilled”

In characteristic fashion Matthew adds his own Biblical commentary to the answer Jesus supplied to the question: “Why parables?-”that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.” The context of this quotation from Psalms 78:2 is illuminating.

First, there is the repeated emphasis on the instruction of children:

v. 3.
“Which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us”.
v. 4.
“We will not hide them from their children,”
v. 4.
“shewing to the generation to come the praises of the Lord”.
v. 5.
“Which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children:”
v. 6.
“who should arise, and declare them to their children:”
v. 8.
“and might not be as their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation.”

From this point on, the psalm is entirely about those “fathers”, a long and detailed recital of their stubbornness and rebellion. The purpose of the psalm, then, is to warn the growing generation against the evils perpetrated by their fathers. All this is simple enough. Nothing could be more obvious. Yet the psalmist describes it as “a parable” and as “dark sayings of old” (v. 2). This is as plain a directive as could be wished that the reader is to look into the psalm again and see yet further meaning in the experiences of Israel catalogued there.

Paul supplies a fascinating commentary (1 Cor. 10:1-11). There he lists ten distinct allusions to the experience of Israel in the wilderness, describing them as “types of us” (v. 6); “all these things happened unto them typically”! (v. 11)

So a further purpose behind the history in Psalm 78 is to encourage the reader to see it all as a parable. Behind the history of the chosen people is an allegory of the experience of others chosen to know God’s redemption-and providential leading.

Thus, by his quotation of Psalm 78 Matthew bids the student of his gospel see the same two-; fold character in historical psalm and in gospel parable. There is the attractive simplicity of a story children may delight in. There is profound spiritual allegory, ever revealing hidden facts of truth.

Varying appreciation

The corresponding comment in Mark is this: “And with many such parables spake he the word unto them, as they were able to hear it”. The words imply that the truth which the parables revealed was according to the spiritual insight of the individual. Yet none were able to grasp all that the Lord intended: “When they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples” (Mk. 4:33,34).

There are those who maintain that a parable is merely intended to teach one main idea (the rest being just trimming). Here in a phrase is demonstration that such are being too easily satisfied. If, for example, the lesson of the Good Samaritan is only that I must love my neighbour, and my neighbour is any man whom I find in need, then this is something a child can grasp at first hearing of the story. Further acquaintance with the parable reveals greater depth than this. The Lord’s own explanation of his parables (Sower and Tares are outstanding examples) teaches very plainly that whilst the main idea is supremely important, and never to be lost sight of, the details also are to be seen as having special designed significance. There are times, doubtless, when the reader finds himself in difficulties with the interpretation of details in the parables. The wise student will attribute these difficulties more to his own lack of insight than to the inadequacy of the method, much less to flaw in the design of the parable.

The varying degree of appreciation that is possible with the parables of Jesus, and indeed with all the rest of his teaching also, seems to have been in the Lord’s mind when he proceeded to warn and exhort those who had the benefit of the fuller explanations given to them privately: “No man when he has lighted a candle (a lamp), covereth it with a vessel, or putteth it under a bed; but setteth it on a candlestick, that they which enter may see the light”.

The lamp and its light
There is some doubt as to whether this is a homely domestic allusion or whether the Lord spoke about the candlestick in the Holy Place of the temple (Study 52). The key words here are used in the Law with reference to the latter. In
(particular the word for vessel describes the snuffers of the lamps (Ex. 30:27; 25:37,39 ,LXX). And the strange phrase: “those who enter in” (not “those who are already there”) is precisely the description of priests going into the “Holy Place.
Also, in the next saying: “For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest”, the words seem to refer to the sanctuary of the Lord (Ps. 27:5; 31:20; 81:7) and the manifestation of divine glory.

The only function of a lamp is to give light. Those who have a special endowment of knowledge have a moral responsibility to make it known. Manifestly this was spoken with reference to the community of the Lord’s own disciples (his word concerning the Pharisees and critics was: “Let them alone; they be blind leaders of the blind”). So today the application of this principle in the ecclesia is: “There is nothing hid (in the more obscure parts of Scripture) which is not to be made manifest (by those who know it); neither has anything been kept secret, but in order that it should come abroad” (v. 22). He who learns Christ must also teach what he learns.

“Christ’s rule was: show your light when it will glorify God and benefit men; the world’s rule: when safe and beneficial to self” (A.B. Bruce; Expos. Gk. Test.)


Jesus was not content with one reminder of this personal responsibility. Again and again, positively and negatively, he re-stated it: “Take heed what ye hear (literally: look well at what you are hearing”). These disciples were to be assiduous in their attention to every word that fell from his lips, so that they would be well-equipped to pass it on to others not so immediately blessed as themselves. “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you: and unto you that hear shall more be given”. The words have little force, except as a promise that the teacher diligently sharing his knowledge of Christ shall himself receive a greater blessing than he imparts.

All experience goes to shew the truth of this. Countless times it has been proved that, except a man be a hyprocrite of extraordinary quality, the mere recital of what Christ was and taught, brings it all home to the soul of the teacher with renewed vigour and influence. He learns more than he teaches. Hence, of course, Paul’s exhortation to “covet earnestly the best gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31; 14:1,39) — and since no man may be an. apostle today, his highest possible aspiration is that of prophet and teacher (1 Cor. 12:28). It is specially true of those who fill this role that “he that hath, to him shall be given” (v. 25).

Conversely also: “Whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he seemeth to have”-the Greek phrase means: “that which he is confident that he has”. In Matthew the context suggests reference to the scribes and the rest in the nation who deemed themselves “rich and increased in goods and having need of nothing”. But in Mark it would seem that the Lord was laying it on his disciples as a solemn duty to others and to themselves to be ever talking about that which they have learned in Christ and have come specially to appreciate. Indeed, those who have come under the fascination of the gospels have no need of this warning. For them “the words of a man’s mouth (the Son of man’s) are as deep waters, a full-overflowing brook, a well-spring of wisdom” (Pr. 18:4).

How appropriate it is, then, that Jesus should twice weave into this discourse the simple words with their ever-needful exhortation: “if any man have ears to hear, let him hear” (Mk. 4:9,23). In this particular context there is here, almost certainly, a further reminder that the reader of the parables should never be content with the first superficial meaning.

Another sowing parable

Another parable of sowing, by its emphasis on different details, forces home the same lesson: “So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how” (Mk. 4:26,27; cp. Ecc. 11:1-6).

Here is the picture of the humble farm-hand whose job it is to sow the seed. This done, he has other tasks to keep him busy-”night and day” is a phrase always associated in Scripture with diligence or unremitting activity. (Mk. 5:5; Lk. 2:37; Acts 9:24; 20:31; 26:7; 1 Th. 2:9). Day after day passes, and the sower is ever occupied with new tasks. But his sowing shows results. Germination, growth, coming to a head, ripening-the natural sequence follows in its course although the humble worker who began it all does not really understand any one of these marvellous processes. Then comes the day of harvest when the owner sends forth a reaper to gather in the crop, to the satisfaction of ail who have been concerned in the operation.

It is a picture of the teacher’s work. He must sow his seed, or there is no hope of a crop of any sort. But once it is sown, the ultimate blessing of growth and harvest is something outside his control. Rain and sunshine and soil fertility all play their part; and from field to field, and from season to season, these elements vary, so that harvests vary also. But the essential factor-the biggest marvel of all-is the astonishing life-vigour in the seed. All that is needed is that it be given the opportunity to germinate.

Could Jesus have put into more telling words, or into fewer words, the responsibility of the man who has learned the teaching of Christ? Always there must be readiness to sow broadcast the seed of the kingdom. It is not for him to judge beforehand the ultimate outcome of such efforts. Success and worthwhile harvest depend on many other factors outside his control. Only let him remember the inherent vitality of the seed. The entire process of growth, familiar though it may be, is too mysterious and wonderful for him to fathom-”he knoweth not how” (ls. 55:8-11; 61:11; 1 Cor. 3:6,7; Jn. 3:8,10; Ecc. 11:1-6). His part is simply to have faith in the working of God and to give the seed an opportunity to make new life.
This reading of the parable is not free from difficulty. In particular, its conclusion seems to shout for reference to the Lord Jesus himself: “When the fruit is brought forth, immediately he putteth in the sickle because the harvest is come”. There is here a quotation from Joel 3:13, which is undoubtedly about the crisis of the Last Days (see also Rev. 14:14-16). And in the parable of the tares, the harvest is interpreted as the Day of Judgment (Mt. 13:39-42).

But then, on this view, what meaning for the phrase: “he knoweth not how”? Erasmus long ago suggested the valid alternative: “it (the growing seed, representing the disciple maturing to a life in Christ) knoweth not how”.

From this point of view, the sower is Christ himself (as in Mt. 13:37). The ground is the human race, very earthy. He sleeps and rises a night and a day-the Lord’s death and resurrection-and in due time, after what seems to be a long slow natural process, when God’s purpose ripens there will come harvest and judgment.

Here is yet another reason why Jesus taught in parables. Such an amazing amount of valuable detail can be compressed into a brief memorable word picture. Men could not help but listen to these vivid illustrations. And, once heard, they were not to be forgotten. The hearer could then ruminate on the story at leisure, and, slowly, thankfully, grope his way to further truth.

Notes: Mt. 13:10-17

Mysteries. Here (and in Mk. Lk.) only in the gospels. It comes 8 times in Daniel 2 — “the mystery of the Kingdom” — and hardly anywhere else in O.T. (ls. 24:16 Theod. = Rev. 17:5). In Paul there is marked emphasis on the gospel to the Gentiles: Rom.ll:25; 16:25; Col. 1:26,27; Eph.3:8,9.
Because. But in Mk.: in order that. If there is no disposition of the will to be instructed, parables make truth harder for such to grasp. The Lord does not cast his pearls before swine.
Heal them = be forgiven (in Mk.). Cp. Ps. 103:3.

Mark 4:10.

Asked him concerning the parables. But there were earlier parables. Had they asked also about those, without the gospels mentioning the fad? Doubtless the disciples asked for explanation of many another parable. The plural here: “parables”, when Mk. has so far given only one of the current sequence, might imply that Mk. knew of the other parables, might even hint (contrary to universal assumption) that when writing he had Mt. before him.

Luke 8:9

What might this parable be? Here the verb ‘to be’ is used in the sense of ‘signify, stand for’. Cp: “This is my body;” and also Rev. 1:19,20; 1 Cor. 10:4. There are many examples of this.

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