daily biblical sermons

Jesus spoke in parables, because the multitudes were not yet ready to understand the clear preaching of the gospel
Fr. Steven Scherrer
Homily of Thursday, 16th Week of the Year, July 23, 2020
Jeremiah 2:1-3, 7-8, 12-13, Psalm 35, Matthew 13:10-17


Biblical quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted




“Then the disciples came and said to him [Jesus], ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ And he answered them, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says: “You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them”’” (Matthew 13:10-15).



One of Jesus’ most characteristic ways of preaching to the multitudes was in parables taken from daily life. The problem, though, was that the multitudes that listened to him did not understand the inner meaning of these parables. They understood the storyline alright, but they did not understand the point of it, it’s spiritual meaning. Even Jesus’ own apostles did not understand the parables, and so afterwards they asked him privately what the parable meant, and to them Jesus gave the key to understanding its spiritual meaning. He did not, however, give this explanation to the multitudes. So they went away well entertained, listening to interesting stories from their daily life, but did not really know what it all meant and what Jesus was trying to teach them.



So we could ask ourselves why he did this. And that is exactly what his own apostles asked him, “Then the disciples came and said to him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’” (Matthew 13:10). And Jesus tells them the reason, namely, that he doesn’t want the multitudes to understand the gospel message yet, because they are not yet ready and capable of understanding it. He does this because he has already given them much, which they totally misunderstood.



So Jesus has decided that at this point in his ministry he is only going to really clearly preach the gospel to his own apostles and inner circle of disciples, but not to the multitudes. So he says to his apostles, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given … This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matthew 13:11, 13).



In St. Mark’s version of this saying Jesus explicitly says that he preaches in parables so that the people will not understand: “But for those outside everything is in parables; so that [hina] they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again and be forgiven” (Mark 4:12). St. Luke’s version (Luke 8:12) says the same as St. Mark’s version.



Furthermore, even to his own apostles and inner circle Jesus did not explain everything, and they did not really understand the nature of his mission and exactly what the gospel was all about until after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and Pentecost. But now we live after Pentecost. This is the time for clear gospel preaching.



Could you imagine what would have happened if Jesus had simply preached the clear gospel message without any incomprehensible parables? What would have happened if he were to say, “I am the Messiah. I am God, God’s divine Son, sent by God the Father, for there are three of us in God, namely the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and I have come to take your sins upon myself and be your representative and substitute and die vicariously to suffer the punishment that you deserve for your sins so that God in all justice might withhold from justly punishing you for your sins, since your sins have already been punished in my death on the cross, so that when you put your faith in me, God will declare you ungodly sinners righteous and reckon to you his own righteousness.”



If you think that the people had trouble understanding the inner meaning of his parable about the sower sowing seeds in different kinds of soil, do you think that they would have understood the clear gospel message any better? At least with the parable of the sower they would have been well entertained by an interesting story, even though they went away scratching their heads about what it all might mean; but had he clearly preached the gospel message, they would have angrily rejected him as a madman and would have completely abandoned him, never to listen to him again.



But after Pentecost his apostles would basically preach this clear gospel message, and since his death and resurrection had already taken place, many would accept this message with faith, receive baptism, and experience justification and salvation from their sins. So we are in a different salvation-historical age now than Jesus was during his public ministry. We can now preach clearly and fearlessly the full gospel message, something which Jesus could only do to the multitudes in basically incomprehensible parables, as far as their inner meaning was concerned.



So we might want to ask why Jesus bothered to preach in parables at all if of nobody could understand them without further explanation, which he did not give them. The answer is that his apostles and inner circle of disciples would remember these parables and their private explanation to them and after Pentecost would finally understand their deeper meaning and begin to preach this deeper meaning without even using the parables in most cases, as we see in the sermons of the apostles in the book of Acts. They simply preached the kerygma, the basic outline of the gospel message, without parables about seeds, sowers, leaven, and mustard seeds.



But for us today, we use Jesus’ parables in our preaching, and now we interpret them in light of his explanation of them and in the context of the full gospel message, which we now know, believe in, and understand.



Should we use parables today when we preach? Some think that we should. My own feeling is that if we base our sermons on the gospel of the day, they often contain Jesus’ own parables, which we can then explain in terms of Jesus’ private explanation of them and in terms of the full kerygma or gospel message. Furthermore the parables of Jesus have far more authority than any story that we might make up ourselves, because his parables are divine revelation, given to us by God himself, and so we should discover their deeper meaning and then preach our sermon on that. Then we can, if it seems appropriate, make an application of our message to contemporary issues and problems in both the Church and the world so that people can see how this teaching applies to our world and our lives today.



“The disciples inquire why he used this more obscure, and to many unintelligible, mode of teaching [parables]. He said, Because it is given to you – Who have forsaken all to follow me, whose minds are divested of prejudice, and open to receive the truth in the love of it; to know, experimentally and practically, as well as to understand, the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven – That is, the more deep and spiritual matters relating to the Messiah’s kingdom, especially such as respect inward and vital religion” (Joseph Benson, 1749-1821). In other words, Jesus preaches clearly and gives the key to understanding the parables to those who have renounced all to follow him and are open to receive the truth with faith and love.



“But to them [the multitudes] – Who have not been prevailed upon to forsake any thing in order to follow me, and who are obstinate to such a degree that they will not hear any thing contrary to their prejudices and passions, it is not given [to know the mysteries of the kingdom]: For whosoever hath – That is, improves [makes good use of] what he has, uses the grace and blessings imparted according to the design of the Giver, to him shall be given – More and more, in proportion to that improvement [good use of the teaching]. But whoever hath not – Improves [uses] it not, from him shall be taken even what he hath –” (Joseph Benson).



So we see that Jesus gauges his teaching according to his audience and their ability to understand and according to the degree of their faith in him or lack thereof. So to the multitudes he speaks in basically incomprehensible parables and withholds their necessary explanation; while to his inner circle of disciples he explains everything clearly.



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