Why Does Jesus Speak to the Crowds only in Parables (Mt 13:34)?

by Edmond Lo

From the Book of Wisdom and the Psalm passages that rejoice and exult in God’s omnipotence, justice, and forgiveness; to the Pauline teaching on praying through the Spirit who searches our hearts and “intercedes with inexpressible groanings”; to Jesus’ mysterious parables on the kingdom of heaven, this Sunday’s readings capture nicely some of the important Christian teachings for our spiritual nourishment.

As always, the readings are as rich and plentiful as grapes hanging from the vine. But what really catches my eyes is this line in the gospel reading: “All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables. He spoke to them only in parables, to fulfill what had been said through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation (of the world)’” (Mt 13:34-35). Why does Jesus speak to the crowds only in parables? And when the underlying meaning of the parable is finally revealed, he makes sure that only his disciples are privileged to know the answer (c.f. Mt 13:36). Is this favoritism or what? Is his disciples the only people he cares about? Question, question, and more questions.

On the question of why he speaks in parables, this is Jesus’ explanation: “To you [the disciples] 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 again, and be forgiven” (Mk 4:11-12).

For many people, Jesus’ answer only makes things worse! It’s as though he is confirming our suspicion, that he is indeed playing favoritism. This is hard teaching! Who can accept that?

Having read the gospel through and through for so many years, I have not encountered one single instance where Jesus’ words are mere gibberish that makes no sense. Could this line here be an exception? When stuck, it helps to turn to the scriptural scholars for enlightenment. My favorite scriptural scholar and theologian is Pope Benedict XVI whose works have guided me exceedingly well over the years.

According to Benedict XVI, Jesus’ explanation is essentially a citation from Isaiah 6:9-10 where God asked the prophet to admonish his people who had continued to disregard or reject his words from generation to generation due to hardness of heart: “Go, and say to this people: ‘Hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive’. Make the heart of this people fat, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed” (note 1).

In the prophetic tradition of ancient Israel, God sent his prophets to communicate his words to the people of Israel and their leaders. But invariably they failed. From Moses to Elijah; from Isaiah, Jeremiah, to Ezekiel; right down the line to John the Baptist, the last Old Testament prophet; persecution, imprisonment, torture, and death were pretty much the order of the day. By citing Isaiah, Jesus puts himself in the line of the prophets, suggesting that his destiny is a prophet’s destiny, i.e. people will reject him, too.

Reject him they did, just like all the prophets before him were rejected. In fact, he was crucified. But unlike all the prophets before him, the failure of this Prophet is paradoxically also his success! The people’s failure to understand him and their decision to crucify him are the reason why they can ”turn again and be forgiven” (Mk 4:12). For this Prophet is not just another prophet. He is THE Prophet promised by God - a Prophet who is like Moses (who took Israel out of Egyptian enslavement); a Prophet who will take the new Israel out of Satan’s enslavement (c.f. Deut 18:15).

Reading the Bible is a very personal experience for me. More than a mere discourse on faith and morals, the Bible is God talking to me in a very personal way. Through his sacred words and sweet utterance, God reminds me among other things what He has done to me over the years – a complete transformation of my heart, removing my heart of stone and putting in me a heart of flesh (c.f. Ezekiel 36:26). As I read the readings of this Sunday, God’s voice is once again reverberating deep in the core of my being.

For so many years, I was the Israel that rejected God’s prophets time and again. I even “tortured and killed” them in the sense that they were totally ignored by me. Woeful and deep in sin was me! For so many years, I longed to hear the truth. But what I heard was the mumble jumble of the parables due to my hardness of heart. Finally I can hear now - loud and clear, delightful to my ears and edifying to my soul! I hear not because I’m smart, but because God is forever loving and merciful. He mysteriously knew how to turn our sin against him – our hardness of heart, to the point of nailing his only Son to the cross! – into a powerful, amazing, and redeeming grace. That’s how much God loves us! Who in his right mind wouldn’t choose to accept this amazing grace? I did, and now I hear him well. What about you?

Note 1: Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, part I, pp. 189-191.