As I mentioned last time in this space, we often have the perception of the gospels as more or less unstructured ragbags of “tales and sayings about Jesus” in which the evangelist just tosses out collections of yarns about Jesus, some stories he told and a jumble of memories from people who give us random recollections and then conclude the proceedings with the story of his trial, death, and resurrection. With the exception of putting an infancy story at the front (in Matthew and Luke), everything else in the first three gospels appears to the modern reader to be a sheaf of shuffled stories about Jesus, sometimes in similar and occasionally identical language, but with extra stuff in this gospel or missing stuff in that. It is easy, given that perception, to miss the subtle fact that these books are, in fact, brilliant literary works that are carefully organised and artfully arranged.
Take parables. Most people assume that Jesus starts speaking in parables right away in the gospels and that his purpose in doing so is obvious: simple stories to tell simple truths to simple folk in simple language, since those people were 2000 years dumber than we are. But in fact, none of that is true. So what’s really going on with parables?
Matthew, recall, is organised into five books (bookended with the infancy and passion narratives) in order to recall the five books of Moses, the Torah. Each of these books is divided into a narrative section (telling stories about Jesus) and a discourse section (recounting sayings of Jesus). In the narrative section of Book III (Matthew 11-12), Matthew has contrasted those who oppose Jesus in their blindness and pride with his spiritual family (“Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.”) Now, in chapter 13, Matthew commences the discourse section and it is here—significantly for the very first time in his gospel—that Matthew begins to record the parables of Jesus.
For the very first time? Yes. In the first two books of Matthew’s gospel Jesus’ teaching is not parabolic. The Sermon on the Mount (the discourse section of Book I) and the Missionary Discourse (the discourse section of Book II) both employ clear language, not parables. It is only here, after Jesus has found the leadership of Israel so hardened against him that they accuse him of being possessed by the “prince of demons” (Matthew 11:24) that he begins to obscure his message by delivering it in the form of parables. Why?
For an answer we must (as usual with Matthew) look back at the Old Testament. Recall that Matthew is himself a Jew writing to Jews in the literary tradition of Israel. His mind is steeped in the Law and the Prophets. And when we consult these books we discover that there are two parables in the Old Testament that are most prominent: Jotham’s parable and Nathan’s parable.
Jotham is a prophet who tells a parable to King Abimelech in Judges 9. Abimelech was not supposed to be king, but after he killed his seventy brothers, there was nobody left to fill the job. So Jotham told Abimelech a parable about a bramble who was made “king of the trees” after other, worthier trees were passed over for the job. In short, Abimelech is the bramble.
In the same way, in 2 Samuel 12, Nathan told David the parable of the rich man who stole the poor man’s one lamb and offered it to his guests. When David replied, “The man who has done this deserves to die!” Nathan answered, “You are the man!” and spelled out for him his crime of adultery and murder with Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite.
Why then are parables told in the Israelite tradition? Because leadership has become corrupt and corruption has blinded those who say they see and deafened those who say they hear.
And that, as we shall see next time, has everything to do with why Jesus starts to speak in parables too.