Jesus used parables as a form of teaching because, like the rabbis during this time, he wanted to convey ideas with simple word-pictures so people could understand the concept of God and the kingdom of God. Jesus used images from the world around him to recreate situations people would recognize. Jesus painted portraits with simple language because he knew a good picture could make an impact more than a lengthy sermon. He also knew that using ordinary objects, people, and situations would reveal truth more successfully than complex notions. By using ordinary things to point to another aspect of reality, Jesus could talk about hidden things that were visible to those who had eyes to see and ears to hear. Jesus knew this form of communicating was successful because it caught attention and caused people to think. Jesus was not simply telling stories when he spoke with parables; he was teaching people how to live and how to live for God and this helps them have better relationships with God. Part of the mystique surrounding Jesus the man and teacher was the fact that he told such compelling stories and parables without turning them into moral tales. His style was laid back and this suits the parable because it allows
Parables are an art form in many ways. They are to be understood by all but there is always a deeper meaning that many might miss if they do not stop to ponder the parable. Simon Kistemaker agrees with this notion, adding, "The parables Jesus told are unique in structure and design. They exhibit artistry with respect to unity, coherence, balance, contrast, recurrence, and symmetry" (Kistemaker). One reason why parables work is because they have double meanings. They have literal meanings, which are usually apparent and they have deeper meanings, which are not so apparent. The not-so-apparent meaning lies beneath the surface, so to speak and it reveals a lesson about God and his kingdom. It takes time and thought to uncover these deeper meanings. Herbert Lockyer claims Jesus taught with parables to "enlighten, exhort and edify" (Lockyer 18) those who were open to his messages. Jesus adopted the form of teaching in parables because those exposed to his words were diversified in character and religious belief. Because plain language did no good with this type of varied audience, Jesus used figures and similitudes to cause people to reflect and make them consider their salvation. Using parables also serves other purposes, says Lockyer. A parable's "merit of worth" (17) lies in it being a "test of character" (17). Parables attract and are "sure to be remembered, (17) says Lockyer because people are "more apt to remember illustrations or stories, than other things delivered in a sermon" (17). Parables also cause people to think and study what is being taught. Parables attracted all listeners but only those thoughtful enough would actually come to understand their meanings. As a result, parables stir emotion and hold attention. Another purpose parables served was the fact that they always pointed to some truth. Cosmo Long writes, "what men think out for themselves they never forget; the exercise of their mind makes it their own" (Lang qtd. In Lockyer 18). Because of this, parables preserve truth.
Not all parables are the same. Nicholas Burbules writes that Jesus taught with four types of parables. The first consists of a question form, which was "typically applied in cases where the interlocutor is either hostile, or simply slow to make a connection" (Burbules). Most of these parables are not generally open-ended and the questions are "leading, and so (ironically) it is often in these questioning moments that we actually see Jesus the moral teacher as the most directive" (Burbules). Another form of the parable is more second type of moral teaching is more logical and straightforward" (Burbules). A prime example of this kind of parable is the "Sermon on the Mount." Another type of parable is typically seen as a proverb or an "aphoristic style that is strongly based in the Jewish wisdom tradition" (Burbules). These kinds of parables "encapsulate in a memorable, pithy way some insight into human conduct or character, often framed provocatively or in a paradoxical manner" (Burbules). An example, says Burbules, are the "many who are first will be last and the last first" and "physician, heal yourself" parables. The variety of parables allowed Jesus to reach a wider audience.
Another significant aspect of Jesus' parables is the fact the, on their own, they are "almost entirely devoid of explicit moral directives" (Burbules). Burbules writes that Jesus had "almost nothing to say about the varieties of conduct that constitute specific immoral acts" (Burbules). Jesus relied on figurative utterances to suggest:
Moral guidance requires more general guideposts, and that moral sensitivity is not gained primarily through exhortation, but through the thoughtful internalization of proverbs, examples, and cases, the analysis of which opens up a process of moral reflection that guides conduct in a less determined manner. (Burbules)
Another important aspect of parables is the fact that they were oral. Simon Kistemaker claims "Jesus' teaching method involves the hearers or readers in the context of the parables. It removes them from their comfort zones and places them in the story to become active participants' (Kistemaker). Those listening to Jesus range from those like the prodigal son to those like the Pharisee. The educated as well as the uninformed could hear Jesus and understand his parables, if they chose to listen to what he said. Jesus invited them to come and participate in the "joy of the forgiven son who personifies the tax collectors and moral outcasts. But if they refuse to come, they in effect are the ones who are lost and dead" (Kistemaker). This sums up the meaning behind the messages but Kistemaker also points out that Jesus used examples in his tales that were "true to life and people relate to them without any difficulty" (Kistemaker). He also related stories of events that "could have happened in the daily lives of the people of that day. Anyone could readily identify with the roles people filled, work that they did, relations that were broken and restored, losses they sustained and happiness they experienced" (Kistemaker). Here we see another reason why the parables were so successful. Almost anyone could relate to these stories because they did not, in any way, exclude anyone. There was no gap between the speaker and the hearers of the word. Parables were allegories, acting as "objects of interpretation, in which circumstances of the world are taken as symbols for spiritual truths" (Burbules). It should be noted, however, that parables are not simply illustrative and their meaning "cannot be exhausted in a simple summation" (Burbules). This sounds complex but the beauty of parables lies in their simplicity.
Jesus was, in many ways, the new kid on the block when it came to teaching and reaching people. He was doing it and he was reaching people in profound ways. Kistemaker maintains Jesus "taught new truths as the messenger commissioned to make known God's will and Word" (Kistemaker) and he did it in a different way that won attention. He aimed to "impart the message of salvation in a clear and understandable manner" (Kistemaker). Part of the magic of the parables is that they are "timeless and universal" (Kistemaker). They address "people of all ages, nationalities, and races. In their crispness, they sparkle; they are novel, pertinent, and always exhibit inherent power. (Kistemaker). Because of thee qualities, they enrich life -- especially the Christian walk with God. They make issues more clear and they make certain situations possible because they show people how to see them through the prism of God's love.