Why didn’t Jesus explain his parables to everyone?

Q. I have a question about something I read today in my quiet time in the gospel of Mark. Why didn’t Jesus explain all of his parables to everyone who was listening?  Instead, it says he explained them to his disciples later, but for the public, everything was in parables. Is it because he knew the crowds were just “fans” who thought the things he said were interesting but not important? Jesus even says,”otherwise they might turn and be forgiven.” That sounds strange to me. Doesn’t he want each and every person on earth to believe, even though he knows there are many who won’t believe?

Vincent van Gogh, “The Sower,” 1888

Jesus says the things you’re wondering about when he’s explaining the Parable of the Sower to his close followers.  As I observe in my Mark study guide, it may appear that he doesn’t want “those on the outside” to understand, since he says that when they listen, they will be “ever seeing but never perceiving” and “ever hearing but never understanding.”  However, Jesus is actually quoting these phrases from the book of Isaiah.  That was how God described what the response of the hard-hearted Israelites would be when he sent Isaiah to speak to them.  These words explain what happens to someone whose heart is hardened, as represented by the first kind of soil in the parable.

(I discuss the passage in Isaiah in this post, in response to a question about whether God actually hardens people’s hearts so they won’t believe.  As I say there, “God really wants people to respond positively to his warnings and invitations and so be rescued. But the language here reflects God’s knowledge of the people’s confidence in their own strategies and his realization that they will choose their own way even more stubbornly when they’re challenged. And so God tells Isaiah, ironically, to go and make the people even more insensible and resistant. Whatever their response, the reality of the situation needs to be proclaimed.”)

Back here in Mark, it’s clear from the Parable of the Sower that other kinds of responses are possible, since the parable eventually describes the seed finding good soil and bearing much fruit, representing those who not only believe, but help others to believe.

It’s even clearer from the next parable that Jesus wants everyone to understand.  He uses a lamp to illustrate that he’s not deliberately concealing the truth about himself; he wants this to be “brought out into the open,” and ultimately it will be.

And so he invites everyone in the crowd, right after telling the Parable of the Sower, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”  Jesus wants people to hear and understand–if they want to themselves.  In other words, as has often been observed, parables were the perfect vehicle for Jesus’ purposes because they either reveal or conceal the message, depending on the state of a person’s heart.  They reveal the truth to those who are open to it, but conceal it from those who aren’t ready for it yet.

That’s why, after telling the parable about the lamp, Jesus also warns his listeners–most likely the entire crowd once again–“Consider carefully what you hear.”  If people don’t understand, it’s not because God doesn’t want them to understand, it’s because of how they’re listening.  They might be just “fans,” as you put it, listening carelessly to what Jesus says as some kind of novelty or diversion.

I think you actually model the kind of response Jesus is looking for.  You’re not just reading his words in your daily quiet time as some kind of religious duty.  You’re thinking carefully about them, and if something bothers you, you don’t just gloss over it, you try to find out what it means.

Keep doing this!  That’s what it looks like to be someone who truly has “ears to hear.”

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

2 thoughts on “Why didn’t Jesus explain his parables to everyone?”

  1. Insightful response.

    Would this give credence to The Gospel of Thomas as a set of sayings which were even more cryptic than the parables and consequently deeper meaning?

    1. I think not, actually. As I also say in this post, “It’s even clearer from the next parable that Jesus wants everyone to understand. He uses a lamp to illustrate that he’s not deliberately concealing the truth about himself; he wants this to be ‘brought out into the open,’ and ultimately it will be.” The Gospel of Thomas, by contrast, presents the Gnostic view that the truth is something secret and esoteric, only for those who possess gnosis (knowledge).

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