Mark 4 presents us with a rather confusing interaction between Jesus and the disciples. After teaching the parable of the sower, Jesus instructs his disciples on the nature of speaking in parables. He says, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.'” (Mark 4:11-12). What exactly is Jesus saying here? Does he speak this way to purposefully confuse people so they won’t understand? Isn’t the point of teaching about God to help people clearly understand the Word, not confuse them even more?
Here are two thoughts to help clarify the nature of parables.
1. A critical phrase Jesus speaks in this conversation comes in Mark 4:11. Jesus speaks of “the secret of the kingdom of God.” In Matthew’s Gospel, this is referred to as the “kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 13:11). The “secret” or “mystery” of God’s kingdom should not cause us to think of a Sherlock Holmes story that requires a detective to uncover and solve all the hidden clues to formulate an solution, but rather it speaks of a progressive and gradual revelation of how God is breaking in His kingdom on Earth. Jesus, obviously, is playing the central role in all God is doing to bring down His kingdom from heaven. What was happening right before the disciple’s eyes was precisely what the prophets of old spoke of and yet were never able to see. This is why Jesus says in Matthew 13:17, “For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” Thus, as we have seen since Genesis 1, God has sovereignly and gradually revealed the nature of His kingdom and the extent of its arrival on earth. He continues to exercise His sovereignty in Mark 4 by bringing a certain number of people on the “inside” of God’s plan while limiting the number of others who will understand. In other words, we see once again a demonstration of God deciding to whom and when His kingdom is revealed. Salvation belongs to the Lord.
2. Speaking in parables also points to the receptibility of a person’s heart to the messianic rule God is ushering in through Jesus Christ. Those who are hard-hearted receive a type of warning and judgment through the use of parables. But those who are open-hearted, that is to say “has ears to hear”, receive a blessing of learning about the gradual yet definite coming of the kingdom of God. The same remains true for people all over the world today. Those who have closed their hearts and minds to the truthfulness of God’s word will still be judged by it, but will not understand its spiritual meaning. But those who humble themselves to the word of God will experience the treasure trove of God’s cosmic work within. As we say so often on this website, it all comes back to the heart.