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The Parables

Jesus spoke in parables for easy teaching by using images. He spoke in short sayings or aphorisms and in short stories, the parables, which could be easily remembered. He thus leaned on the oral traditions of the early people and on the oral tradition that was necessary for the illiterate to remember teachings.

Mark explains, “Using many parables, Jesus spoke the word to them, so far as they were capable of understanding it. He would not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything to his disciples when they were by themselves.” G38

Luke also recalls why Jesus instructed with parables. Luke tells, “His disciples asked him what the parable might mean and he said, “To you is granted to understand the secrets of the kingdom of God, for the rest it remains in parables, so that they may look but not perceive, listen but not understand.” G38

Matthew is the clearest on parables. His account is as follows. “The disciples went up to him and asked, “why do you talk to them in parables?” In answer, he said, “Because to you is granted to understand the mysteries of the kingdom of Heaven, but to them it is not granted. Anyone who has will be given more and will have more than enough; but anyone who has not will be deprived even of what he has. The reason I talk to them in parables is that they look without seeing and listen without hearing or understanding. So in their case what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah is being fulfilled:

Listen and listen, but never understand!
Look and look, but never perceive!
This people’s heart has grown coarse, their ears dulled,
They have shut their eyes tight to avoid using their eyes to see,
Their ears to hear, their heart to understand,
Changing their ways and being healed by me.
But blessed are your eyes because they hear! In truth I tell you, many prophets and upright people longed to see what you see, and never saw it, to hear what you hear, and never heard it.” G38

The parables had multiple functions. They attracted people always avid of a good story. They were short stories easily listened to by people and even by children. Jesus was helping to make everybody better understand and remember his message in images. Jesus was brilliant in the imagination with which he brought forward his aphorisms and parables. The parables had a didactic function. Yet at the same time, as Jesus stressed, there was mystery in the parables. For they needed faith to be really understood as to their moral and spiritual meaning. Somebody who had no faith would only hear a story and not listen with his heart. Such a person would not become a believer and not pierce the true meaning of a parable. Only the ones open to Jesus’ message would look for a deeper meaning and understanding. The parables were simple stories and at the same time a commitment of the person listening to the parables, an opening of heart, and an act of faith. Jesus explained the moral and spiritual meaning of the parables to his disciples but he mostly refrained from doing so in public. This was enticing talks and rumours, so that his fame as one who spoke in mysteries grew. People discussed the parables, tried to discern the moral message and thus kept interested in Jesus.

To painters however, the parables, like the miracles, were wonderful stories to be depicted. The parables also offered the occasion to depict secular themes by which the artists could show other images than Jesus, Mary or the apostles. Painters eventually took up all parables as subjects. And some stories such as the parable of the Prodigal Son were more popular than other ones because they contained more religious or moral meaning or were references to the real final drama’s of Jesus’ life: his suffering, death and resurrection.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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