Why Parables?

June 14, 2015

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA

The 3rd Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 6 
Samuel 15:34-16:13; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; Mark 4:26-34

(Gospel text is provided at the bottom of this post)

We begin our staff meeting each week with the Morning Devotional in the Prayer Book. As part of this, we read the gospel passage for the upcoming Sunday and share our thoughts about it. This past Tuesday, after hearing the gospel lesson you just heard, the question was raised: “Why did Jesus teach in parables, anyway?”

It’s a legitimate question. Even the disciples ask it. But the response found in scripture might surprise you. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus replies:

To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that

‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,

and may indeed listen, but not understand;

so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’” (Mk 4:11b-12)


I thought the whole purpose of the gospels was to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah; to share the good news of Christ in the world; to open the doors for all to come and embrace the love and forgiveness of God, made manifest through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Speaks Near the Treasury, by James Tissot

Jesus Speaks Near the Treasury, by James Tissot

So, why are the teachings given in such a way that’s confusing; in parables? What’s the point? In this age of immediate gratification, where information is available, literally at your fingertips, thanks to the iPhone, doesn’t this parable-approach risk losing the audience?

How are we supposed to interpret these parables? Even when we do, how do we know if we got it RIGHT? Isn’t that the goal, after all, to be RIGHT! To have THE ANSWER to how God works and what God wants from us? Just tell me plainly what I must do, and then I can decide if I’m willing to or not. Opt-in or opt-out. Just give me the facts, please!!

thinking image
But, in using parables, it’s as if Jesus had already read the bestselling book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.[i] If you’re not familiar with the book, it provides countless research studies that help reveal more explicitly how humans think; what prompts us to make the judgments and decisions we make. He talks about our mind as working in two different ways, and he names these two ways: System 1 and System 2 – not very sexy, but there you have it.

System 1 is the “Fast Thinking” System. It acts automatically based on reflex and limited information. Although it makes a lot of assumptions, it gets to a conclusion very quickly. It bases decisions on “What you see is all there is.” An example provided involved having people read the sentence: “Ann approached the bank.” After reading the sentence most people imagine a woman walking into a building to conduct a financial transaction.

But, if prior to reading the sentence they had been told that Ann was on a canoeing trip and was paddling down a river, then the assessment of the sentence “Ann approached the bank” changed considerably. Now most people pictured a woman in a boat moving toward a river bank.

System 2, by contrast, is the “Slow Thinking” System. It requires more effort. It doesn’t take things at face value, but instead, digs deeper before making a decision. Unfortunately, System 2 is lazy. It often defaults to whatever System 1 has decided. But when we really need to make a decision; when we’re facing something really important, the hope is that we will slow down and use our System 2 thinking.

Now, while Jesus certainly hadn’t read this book, by teaching in parables he seems to have a grasp of how humans behave. When we consider why Jesus used parables, if we go the Fast-Thinking path, we’d return to the passage I read earlier and we’d decide that he DID intend to keep some in the dark, and let only those closest to Jesus, navigate the mystery of God.

But, instead, let’s hit the brakes a bit and use our Slow-Thinking mind. Let’s see if we can discern more fully what Jesus might be up to when he uses parables.

The first parable told by Jesus in Mark’s gospel is the familiar story of the sower that sowed some seeds. Some fell on the path and birds came and took them. Some fell on rocky ground, and although they came up quickly, the shallow soil couldn’t sustain their feeble roots and they withered. Others were sown among thorns, and although the plant grew, it was ultimately choked out by those nasty thorns.

Jesus explains to his disciples that the seeds being sown are “the word;” that is, the word of God. Although it isn’t stated overtly, it’s inferred that Jesus is the sower who “went out.” You see, so far in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been doing a lot of “going out” from place to place healing and teaching. So, similarly, the sower “went out to sow seeds…”

Jesus explains that these various situations – the birds, the shallow soil, and the thorns – are like the worldly distractions and the lack of depth of roots. These things prevent the word of God from growing into its full potential, and it does not survive.

1976 Godspell_049McC

Godspell @ St. John the Divine, Houston (197x) The Good Seeds!

But, the parable also speaks of the seeds that fall on the good soil; soil that is ready to receive it; soil that doesn’t get distracted but takes the time needed to cultivate the word, and it bears fruit abundantly – 30, 60 and even 100 times its potential!

Using THIS parable as the starting point, Mark is foretelling that similar things will happen with Jesus’ words and teachings. Some will hear and grow, and some will not. But the intention of the gospel is not to prevent learning; not to create an obstacle, but instead, to invite fuller participation by the hearers.

Keeping our Slow-thinking mind engaged, let’s look a little further into why Jesus used parables. The most direct answer seems to be given immediately before today’s gospel lesson. It says:

He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given…” (Mk 4:21-25a)

Jesus’ intention is for the light to be shown, not to be hidden. What’s more, those who are willing to put in extra-effort will get the benefit of their work and then some!

You see, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is all about single-mindedness and intentionality. In the same way, to get connected with God; to live into this life we call Christianity, requires some intentional work. We have to use our Slow-thinking, not just our Fast-thinking. The parable-style teachings of Jesus seem like riddles, and don’t provide clear-cut explanations, because WE need to be part of the process. What’s more, the Holy Spirit needs to be part of the process.

The Holy Spirit continues to reveal God to us through time. The parables also continue to speak God’s word to us through time. The Bible is a Living Word because God continues to be revealed anew as our understanding of the world changes.

The riddles of life and how God would have us be must continually be discerned. From today’s reading we heard:

[Jesus] also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

mustard-seed-faithThe likelihood that the small mustard seed of Jesus’ teachings would grow into the largest of scrubs is unimaginable! Mark’s gospel foretells this in the midst of the mystery of not knowing HOW it will happen.

And while the mystery of that growth is not ours to understand, that growth is ours to TEND to. If we are walking through our Christian life only in Fast-thinking mode, we will not effectively nurture the seeds entrusted to us; the work that God has given us to do.

Found on junjunfaithbook.com

Found on junjunfaithbook.com

And, reading slowly, we notice that there is a reason for the bigness of the shrub. It isn’t just to be big. That would be the worldly motivation – to be the biggest and best shrub ever!!!!  No, the purpose of the large branches is so that the birds can make nests in its shade. That is, to provide care and compassion to those in need. ALL those in need.

If we LISTEN and HEAR with our Slow-thinking mind, we allow ourselves to grow more fully into who we are meant to be on this journey of life; in our walk in faith. When we embrace that love and compassion are at the heart of Jesus’ message to us – Jesus’ COMMAND to us – then, with each parable we face, each riddle of life, we can discern where love and compassion are found.

Jesus tells us that all who do the will of God are his mother, brothers and sisters. But, how can we do the will of God if we don’t take time to figure out what that is for us, in our lives, at this time.

During this summer, I invite you to intentionally slow down your thinking – slow down your living – long enough to truly discern where YOU are in your life, and where GOD is in your life.

The hectic-ness of the outside world and the need for immediate answers makes this a very “radical” kind of behavior, but, if done intentionally it can be quite fruitful for your spiritual journey.

You are worth the time, and God is with you there.

Then, just wait… and see what grows!

Photo by Jody

Photo by Jody


Gospel Text:

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. (Mk 4:26-34)


[i] Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

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