Jesus' teaching style took people by surprise. It was captivating and approachable. He taught in short allegorical stories called parables. In fact, Mark tells us that when Jesus taught, "He did not say anything to them without using a parable" (Mark 4:34a, New International Version). That's why people were amazed at His teaching. The way He communicated was accessible to everyone, but it still carried an authority that first-century Jews had never experienced.
Here are three reasons Jesus taught in parables:
1. Parables were easy to understand
A lot of spiritual discussions revolve around abstract concepts and ideas. Because of this, some people avoid them as impractical and unhelpful. Jesus wanted to bypass the teachers of the law and take His message straight to the people, which means He had to communicate in a way that would resonate with them.
By using parables, Jesus was able to share religious truths that could immediately connect with His listeners. When these truths corresponded with things from their daily lives—like bread baking, farming, and traveling—they understood.
People become more engaged when they listen to a story. They're not merely involving the parts of their brains used for processing language. They engage the same areas of their mind that they would if they were experiencing the story themselves. As people heard the parable of the prodigal son, they'd feel shocked at a child asking for his inheritance early, or empathy as the young son began to suffer. Engaging people's imaginations allowed Jesus' teaching to really hit home.
2. Parables are easy to remember
It's not enough that Jesus’ words would be easy to grasp; they needed to be memorable. A story gives the listener a hook to hold onto and an easy method to communicate the same lesson to others.
Our brains want to process information based on patterns. We interpret new information and choices through a lens of prior experiences and knowledge. Parables allowed salt-of-the-earth folks to connect abstract spiritual ideas with patterns that were meaningful to them. When new information is presented in a familiar narrative form, our brains are better able to retain that information.
Jesus' parables had a familiar story-like cadence that people identified with:
- Challenge or problem
This allowed Christ's listeners to remember and communicate these same truths to others easily.
3. Parables reveal the hearts of the listeners
Sometimes people only value concepts that are complex and difficult to understand. It makes them feel smart and important. This describes many of the Pharisees. People like this dismiss ideas that are too accessible. But that's because instead of seeking truth, these leaders wanted to be the sole owners and administrators of esoteric concepts. Because Jesus' parables were accessible to everyone, the Pharisees likely dismissed them as silly and irrelevant.
This fulfilled Isaiah's prophecy that people would be "hearing, but never understanding; ever seeing, but never perceiving" (Isaiah 6:9b, NIV).
Jesus shared the truths of the kingdom in ways that even a child could grasp. But because of their hardness of heart, many in Israel would not accept them. Jesus addresses this fact when the disciples ask Him why He speaks in parables.
"Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables: 'Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand'" (Matthew 13:11–13, NIV).
The enduring importance of parables
In the Great Commission, Jesus encouraged His disciples to go out and make more disciples. Part of that responsibility included "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:20a, NIV). The fact that Jesus' teachings were so easily understood and memorable made this command possible. And why Jesus' teachings are so easy to grasp and share today!
Do you have a favorite parable? Leave us a comment, tell us which one and why it's your favorite.