In church one Sunday I asked people why they thought Jesus spoke in parables. Many of the answers were to be expected: People like stories; stories can more effectively communicate a point; stories cause us to think; stories stick with us; and so on. While I believe that all of these statements carry truth, none of them are the reason Jesus gave as to why He spoke in parables.
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? (Mk 4:10-13)
So why did Jesus speak in parables? He quotes Isaiah as His answer. He speaks in parables so people won’t understand. And just to make it even more complicated, He doesn’t want people to understand because if they did, they might turn from sin and be forgiven.
Feeling uncomfortable? This pretty much goes against everything we’ve ever been taught in church, doesn’t it? Aren’t we supposed to water everything down and pull as many cheap sales moves as we can to win as many souls to Heaven as possible? And yet here’s Jesus intentionally trying to complicate His lessons so people won’t get it!
But then again, that’s not totally unlike Jesus. After all, this is the guy who once preached such a hard message that “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him“ (Jn 6:66). Marketing wasn’t really His strong suit. He didn’t try to make things easy so people would follow Him—in fact, He made things exceedingly difficult. He very intentionally pitched a hard gospel because He wanted us to live intentional lives. He’s not just looking for believers, He’s looking for those who will live this Christianity thing out.
All of this being said, however, we should remember that the rest of the Bible does tell us that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4)—and we could go on to cite many more passages like this to make the same point. So it’s definitely not that God doesn’t want people to receive salvation. Therefore, we need a different understanding of this passage.
What helps us bring this passage into clarity is the fact that “Mark is a gospel more of revelation than of concealment; or, at least, of a concealment designed to lead to revelation” (Wright, N.T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. p. 630).
With this in mind, we can see that even when Jesus hides truths in the gospel of Mark, it’s actually so that they can be discovered and revealed to us as we engage the mysteries.
And who are these truths revealed to? Those whom God chooses; for Jesus said that, “no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (Jn 6:65). And who does the Father grant access to? The answer throughout the Bible seems to be anyone who is willing to truly follow Him. And so in the end, parables are for those seeking God. As for those who don’t care, the concealed truth will fly in one ear and out the other.