When Jesus spoke his parables, he did not do so to make his message easier to grasp at the time. This is a misunderstanding, based in part on modern assumptions that the intent of any “illustration” must surely have been to clarify, not to cause further curiosity. But as superficially appealing as this assumption might be, it simply ignores the straightforward testimony of the Biblical text. Jesus himself said that the purpose of parables was not to clarify, and to make that point, quoted some strong words from the prophet Isaiah [6:9-10] which implied that the purpose of a parable might even be to obscure! Even His disciples were puzzled. [See Matthew 13:10,36]
So, if not even Jesus’ disciples could understand the point of the parables without a special briefing session, what was the point of a parable? Why say something that was deliberately obscure, and then cry out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear?” How could someone be held to account for not comprehending something that needed more explanation? It sounds perverse.
All this has to be kept in its context. The parables were deliberately obtuse but this was not intended to be perverse, but tantalising! Those who heard the parables would know that they had heard something profound: they just did not have the right key to work out what it all meant. Jesus knew that. When the disciples came to Jesus and asked what they meant, he began to give them the keys they needed: the one who sows is the Son of Man, the seed is the Word of God, the enemy is the devil, there is a harvest at the end of the age, and so on. But even then, just as also in Isaiah’s day, Jesus knew that they needed more before His words would be understood. This ‘more’ he gave them after his resurrection as he explained to His disciples the whole thrust of the Old Testament, His identity as the Son of Man, and His place in the world-wide saving purposes of God.
We can know all this in advance as we come to a parable. We therefore have a great advantage over the original hearers: we know how “the story of Jesus” ends. We know of the cross, the resurrection, and Jesus’ subsequent ascension into heaven. We know that He is going to come back. We also know of the place of the Word of God and the wonderful work of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sent in the fullness of time at Pentecost to be with every believer in a gracious and personal way. Now, and only now, can we return to the idea of a parable as a help to our understanding. Once we have the key, but not before, the central meaning of a parable becomes “obvious”. [So, if we share a parable with someone who does not know Jesus, we must also show how it is to be understood in His unique context.]
So, how shall we use the parables for ourselves? The way Jesus intended! They are to stir up questions, as we ponder on how a particular illustration fits the kingdom of heaven and our place in it. They send us to other part of the Bible. They ask us questions as well as give answers; e.g. which soil do our lives parallel [Matt 13:18-23] and are we properly dressed [Matt 22:12]? They increase our faith when we “don’t seem to see any results” after all our evangelism. They increase our patience, but at the same time stir our zeal.
One thing is clear. So many parables warn of separation, rejection & darkness that we cannot miss the point: a false faith is of no value now or on Judgment Day. It is as useful as a weed! So, when Jesus celebrates His great Supper [another parable] at the end of history, make sure you are there on His terms! [Matt 22:1-14]