Are the Parables of Jesus Confusing on Purpose?
Imagine looking at a painting in an art museum. In a line of similar framed pieces, this particular work catches your eye. There are intriguing colors and shapes but no discernible rhyme or reason to them. The painting speaks to you, but the exact meaning isn’t clear to you at first glance.
Art is created to communicate something, but we may not know exactly what it communicates. This begs the question: if an artist has something to say with their work, why not say it in a less ambiguous way?
We would argue that this approach would stifle the message rather than amplify it, and we think Jesus might agree.
The Parables of Jesus as Works of Art
Jesus is an artist and, at times, a mysterious artist willing to provoke his audience. Jesus worked in the medium of parables, which are short, fictitious narratives populated by vivid metaphors. But why would Jesus—a teacher with the world’s most important message—choose to communicate this way? And if the artistry of Jesus is at all abstract, how can we be sure of what he meant to say?
Farmers, Seeds, and Unexpected Metaphors
A great example of Jesus’ creativity on display shows up in Matthew chapter 13. Jesus presents his audience with a collection of parables, each of them rich with metaphor, but they are not what you would expect.
For example, Jesus tells his audience a short story about a farmer planting seeds (Matthew 13:3-9). In the story, some of these seeds are eaten by birds before they can take root. Some seeds land on rocks and can’t take root, and some seeds grow but are choked by thorns and brambles. But in Jesus’ story, one final set of seeds manages to take root, grow, and proliferate, becoming a generous crop.
Later, when asked by the disciples to clarify the story’s meaning, Jesus tells them it is about the Kingdom of God—a new, inbreaking reality of a world being brought under the reign of a good king. And how did he best capture the power and majesty of this concept in metaphor? Bronze chariots? A stampede of buff warriors? A tidal wave? A hurricane?
Nope. Some farmer planting seeds, most of which don’t grow at all.
Parables: Confusing on Purpose?
Jesus’ imagery is so unexpected that immediately after he concludes his parable (Matthew 13:10), his followers ask him point blank, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”
Jesus’ answer is surprising. Drawing from the prophet Isaiah, he explains that his parables are intended to be ambiguous, at least for some people (Matthew 13:11-13).
In the book of Isaiah, the prophet experiences a powerful vision in which God commands that he warn Israel about their coming judgement, even though they are so far gone that they will not hear Isaiah’s message (Isaiah 6:8-13).
In fact, God says that Israel is going to be chopped down like a tree, and even the remaining stump will be scorched. But out of this stump, a holy seed of hope will grow. Isaiah tells King Ahaz the bad news about Israel’s impending doom, but he also begins to unpack this idea of a holy seed, saying, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).
In the next few chapters, Isaiah describes this seed of hope as a shoot growing from the stump, a coming king that will be empowered by God’s Spirit to rescue God’s people, unite all nations under his kingship, and rule with justice and peace forever. So why did Jesus refer to this message from the prophet Isaiah to explain his use of parables?
The Parables of Jesus as Prophetic Tradition
Isaiah uses imagery and metaphor to communicate something powerful, and Jesus is attempting to do the same with his parables. Even more important, at this point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ disciples have come to believe that he is the messianic king long promised to initiate God’s Kingdom and restore Israel. Jesus understood that, not unlike Isaiah, much of his audience was closed off to his message. So how would he spread his message that the Kingdom of God had arrived?
To Those Who Have, Even More!
The parables of Jesus operate within a well-known paradox in artistic expression. You can water down the creativity of an artistic message so that it becomes comprehensible for a wide audience, but there’s a catch. The more watered down the message, the weaker it becomes for those who have “ears to hear.”
This explains why Jesus often preferred to communicate truths about God’s Kingdom in parables. The people who already have the message, who are already accepting of it—they’ll get even more (Matthew 13:12). For those who won’t accept Jesus’ message, the parables will only further confound them. His message, like Isaiah’s, had a paradoxical effect on his listeners. The power of stories—even cryptic, metaphorical ones—will penetrate the hearts of some while hardening the hearts of others.
Is Jesus Purposefully Excluding People?
Jesus is not shrouding his message in mystery to include some while excluding others. He understood that not everyone would miss the parable’s meaning. And any curious listener could stick around to ask, along with the disciples, about the parable’s meaning (e.g., Luke 8:9). Jesus tells his friends, “Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear” (Matthew 13:17). For centuries, Israel had been waiting for the Messiah. Isaiah never got to see this “Immanuel,” the “holy seed,” but now this ragtag group of young people are seeing him with their own eyes and hearing him with their own ears.
The Artistry of Jesus: Complex and Unexpected
And yet, even to friends of Jesus, the Kingdom of God is often mysterious. Sometimes Jesus alleviates that mystery, but sometimes he doesn’t. In one story, Jesus tells a crowd that unless they eat his flesh and drink his blood, they have no life in them (John 6:48-53). In another, he claims to be capable of destroying the temple in Jerusalem in the span of three days (John 2:18-22). In both cases, much of Jesus’ audience is at best baffled (John 2:20) and at worst outraged (John 6:66).
And in neither story does Jesus unveil his metaphors. But why?
Because Jesus is an artist. He is not only concerned for communicative clarity—sometimes he seems completely uninterested in it. Jesus doesn’t want to simply tell his audience something and end there. He wants to know and be known—what he’s like, how he talks, and why. Though his artistry confused his audience, it also drew them in close to ask questions, learn more, and see the beauty of the way he was communicating.
Jesus wants to speak truth to the deepest level of the soul.
Artists want to communicate, but they also want to be known. We all do. So does God, in whose image we are created. The world’s most noteworthy artists could have just written whatever it was they wanted to say on a big white canvas. We would have all understood, but we probably wouldn't be talking about it right now.
So How Should We Read the Parables of Jesus Today?
As we read parables, we shouldn’t focus on mining the text for doctrine or sifting for one-liner life lessons. Jesus is concerned with the power of creative imagery, symbolism, and beauty, and we should be too. He wants his audience to do more than listen and think; he wants them to imagine and feel, to be challenged and provoked.
Good art is like that.