Synoptic Gospels

Jesus Did Not Tell Stories Simply to Make His Meaning More Clear

The headline of this post will not be all that shocking to those who have carefully studied the Gospels, but I suspect others will find it surprising.

It is not uncommon to hear people claim that Jesus spoke in parables because, as a good teacher, Jesus wanted to make his meaning easy to understand. Stories, it is often said, are the best means for a teacher to accomplish this goal. Some will therefore say that if Christians want to be effective in proclaiming the Gospel message, they need to tell better stories.

In some Christian circles this principle is taken even further. Christians, we are told, can best spread the Gospel by making movies and writing books that highlight “the good, the true, and the beautiful.” Christians today should avoid being explicit about their faith. Telling a great story, simply speaking, is seen as a form of evangelizing. Since Jesus “taught through stories,” it is claimed, this is the best means of reaching people. If most people do not hear any actual Christian content in these stories, no need to fear. After all, Jesus’ stories were often not explicit in their meaning either.

Yet this greatly oversimplifies the portrait of Jesus we find in the Gospels. Indeed, the Gospels portray Jesus as telling stories in order to conceal his message. A classic illustration of this is found in Mark. After Jesus told the Parable of the Sower, we read:

And when he was alone, those who were around him with the twelve asked of him about the parable. And he said to them, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God: but to those who are outside everything is to in parables so that ‘seeing they may see, and not perceive, and hearing they may hear, and not understand, lest they should turn and it be forgiven them’ [Isa 6:9, 10].” (Mark 4:10-12; my translation)

Mark 4:10-12; my translation

Parables are not simply told to make Jesus’ meaning clearer. Stories are not always self-explanatory. Those who insist that “stories” will convert souls are overestimating the medium. If one wants to make the meaning of a story clear, one must interpret it. This is precisely what Jesus goes on to do privately with the disciples after telling the Parable of the Sower. Jesus explains,

And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? And how will you understand all the parables?”

Mark 4:13; my translation

Here is the point: the meaning of Jesus’ stories is not always self-evidently clear; they require careful explanation. In this, Jesus acts like Old Testament prophets such as Nathan. You might recall that Nathan convicted David of his sins of adultery and murder by telling him a story that he did not first understand. Notice that Nathan had to explain the story for it to have its desired effect (cf. 2 Samuel 12:1-15).

So, instead of trying to communicate an idea through a simple appeal to a story, let me be blunt: stories do not substitute for explanations. Preachers who prefer to communicate through anecdotes rather than careful exegetical explanations of the biblical accounts miss the point of Mark 4. And attempting to spread the Gospel with nice stories that serve as substitutes for detailed expositions of the biblical accounts is an endeavor that will ultimately fail.

Finally, beware: if you think your story is going to evangelize others, realize that it likely will not unless it is accompanied by clear teaching. That, it seems to me, is part of Jesus’ message in Mark 4. Jesus told stories that, for a time, concealed his message. But in the end, he made his teaching clear. It did not win him any awards.

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