Why did Jesus tell parables?

One of my friends recently showed me this youtube video.  It’s a comedy sketch about Jesus telling the parable of the lilies of the field. [1]

The humour lies in the idea that neither Jesus nor the crowd understand the parable.  Jesus tells a parable that is deliberately absurd, knowing that the crowd’s admiration for him means that when they do not understand it they will not question Jesus or think for themselves but simply accept that they are too unintelligent to comprehend it.  Sure enough, the members of the crowd pretend to understand the parable in order to impress Jesus and to avoid social embarrassment.  Thus, Jesus is shown to be a fraud who manipulates his followers and the crowd is exposed as gullible and shallow.  This circle of deceit is broken when one disciple questions the parable, openly derides it as nonsense, and Jesus is unable to explain or defend it against the questioning.

The sketch reminded me in several ways of a lecture given by John Dominic Crossan about the parables of Jesus, also on Youtube.  First, Crossan argues that Jesus chose to use parables precisely because they provoke the audience into thinking for themselves.  Crossan believes that Jesus preached a participatory eschatology and thinks that parables were the most appropriate medium for this message because they necessitate the very participation and collaboration that the message seeks to promote.  Indeed, Crossan encourages his audience to imagine Jesus telling longer and more detailed versions of the parables in front of a crowd of people who are not afraid to question or interrupt him by thinking out loud.  This means that the sketch, by portraying the crowd as afraid to engage with the parable or to think for themselves, misses the very reason why Jesus told parables.  Second, Crossan also emphasises how Jesus would have failed if the crowd had taken the parable literally by asking whether or not it ‘really is’ true.  The example he gives is the crowd asking whether or not the parable of the Good Samaritan ‘really did happen’ as a historical event.  Focusing on this aspect of the parable means that the audience has missed the point, very much like the sceptical disciple portrayed in the video.  It is ironic that the only example of audience participation given in the sketch is one where the disciple takes the parable literally!


1. This parable is found in Matthew 6:25-34 and Luke 12:22-34. It’s interesting to compare it with Psalm 104, with which it bears some similarity.

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One response to “Why did Jesus tell parables?

  1. Pingback: PaJRtB S01E03 – Parabolic | Paul and Jamie Read the Bible: The Blog·

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