“You need to tell more stories when you preach. People like to hear stories. Jesus told parables so that even kids could understand.”

I received this sermon feedback from a pastor a few years ago. While the critique was probably deserved, I was puzzled in the moment about the grounds for it. Is it really true Jesus told parables so that he could be more easily understood?

This question lies at the heart of the Parable of the Sower.

Famously in this parable—described as the key to understanding all the rest (Mark 4:13b)—Jesus seems to say he speaks in parables not so that he will be more easily understood, but precisely so that his hearers will not hear and understand, “lest” they repent and be forgiven.

What are we to make of this hard saying?

What Did Jesus Say?

Appearing in Matthew 13:1–23, Mark 4:1–20, and Luke 8:1–15, this parable is one of the most important Jesus told. As he subsequently explained, it focuses on the results seen when the sower’s seed (“the word”) lands in various heart conditions. Seeds on the path are devoured by birds (“the evil one”); seeds sprouting in rocky soil are withered by the sun (“tribulation/persecution”); seeds sprouting among thorns are choked out (“cares of the world”); but seeds in good soil produce manifold crops. Importantly, Jesus describes the last category of seed as “the one who hears the word and understands” (Matt. 13:23).

Jesus tells the parable publicly to a crowd, but privately to his disciples (Matt. 13:10). And he offers an explanation that has baffled readers for generations.

The three evangelists (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) give slightly different renderings but agree on two key things:  

  • At stake in parables is the “secret/mystery” of the kingdom of God. Enclosed in each parable—some more directly than others—is something about Jesus’s proclamation and inauguration of the kingdom.
  • Parables play a surprising role. When Jesus gives his reason for speaking in parables, he does not say, “So that even children can understand,” let alone, “Because people like entertaining stories.” Rather, he offers almost the opposite reason. There are slight differences between Matthew and Mark/Luke. Matthew reads “because seeing they do not see,” while Mark and Luke read “so that seeing they may not see.” Though at this stage Matthew is somewhat less harsh than the others, his lengthier account concludes (with Mark) that parables produce such results “lest” or so that the hearer will not turn and be forgiven.

In other words, Jesus speaks in parables so that some will “hear” his teaching and “see” the coming kingdom but not truly “hear and see” (and consequently, not respond with repentance and faith). One immediately uncovers the tension here: Is Jesus saying his preaching is designed for failure to produce results? Is he intentionally being obscurantist to turn people away?

What Does Jesus Mean?

The key to unlocking Jesus’s words is staring right at us in the text. Explicitly in Matthew and implicitly in Mark/Luke, Jesus reveals he fulfilling Isaiah’s words. During Isaiah’s famous commissioning, God charges him:

Go, and say to this people: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed. (Isa. 6:9–10)

While the three evangelists render this command in slightly different ways, all capture the basic sense. Jesus’s harsh “lest” is rooted in Isaiah’s prophecy.

Isaiah sees a vision of the Lord and is charged to preach to the nation. His life is spent proclaiming impending judgment for many and restoration for a remnant. God tells him at the outset, however, his preaching will sometimes produce the opposite of what Isaiah may desire: it will make some more dull and unresponsive, not less.

While Isaiah’s ministry stirred up faith in some, it further hardened others who were already straying from God. Almost shockingly, the Lord tells Isaiah his prophetic ministry is designed, in God’s mysterious plan, to produce division in the nation between the repentant and unrepentant.

When Jesus, then, takes Isaiah’s commission on his own lips, he’s revealing that his ministry will produce the same result.

But why parables?

Softening, Hardening

One clue to why Jesus would frame his parable ministry this way can be found in the word itself. “Parable” in English is familiar enough, normally referring to short stories with multiple levels of meaning (literal, moral, and so on). But in Greek and Hebrew, the word encompasses stories, riddles, taunts, proverbs, and more—and its use in the Gospels is similarly varied.

The Old Testament reveals that prophets speak in parables as part of their mission. For instance, Psalm 78:2–4 describes the prophet as a “opening his mouth in a parable . . . declaring glorious deeds of the LORD.” Likewise, Ezekiel complains, “Ah, LORD God! They are saying of me, ‘Is he not a maker of parables’” (Ezek. 21:4)—to which God tells him to keep preaching against Jerusalem (Ezek. 21:7).

Prophets use parables of all sorts to veil and unveil truth, to bring hearers to the point of recognizing their own self-judgment, and to produce a response to God.

So what exactly is Jesus doing in parables? Identifying himself elsewhere as a prophet (Matt. 13:57; Luke 13:33), Jesus claims to be continuing, even culminating, the prophetic mission Isaiah exemplified. Like the prophets of old, Jesus used parables to reveal the mystery of the kingdom, to stimulate reflection on sin, to call people to repentance—and to produce the opposite among those hardened against him.

Those with hearts prepared like good soil, who “have ears to hear” (Matt. 13:9), delight in the glorious simplicity and profound truths of Jesus’s parables; to these God “has given to know the secrets of the kingdom” (Matt. 13:11). But to those hardened against God, parables are designed to remain mundane stories about horticulture, vineyards, fishing nets, real estate economics, traveling, or banquets—nothing more. For such people, parables remain opaque, veiled, even quaint—as does the gospel itself.

On close inspection, then, Jesus is not being obscurantist for its own sake. His parables render the gospel and its demands in earthy colors. But as we know from elsewhere in Scripture, the gospel hardens some even as it softens others. Indeed, it’s precisely through this mystery of hardening and softening that the kingdom advances.

John 12:40 applies Isaiah 6:9–10 to Jesus’s preaching ministry to explain how many who heard his words “could not believe.” Likewise, in Acts 28:24 Paul explains the net result of his own ministry—“some were convinced by what he said, but others disbelieved”—by appealing to Isaiah 6:9–10 (cf. Acts 28:26–27). This is seen most clearly in the way the hardness of those who rejected Jesus prepared the way for the cross, which, in turn, opens up the kingdom for those who receive him.

Sovereign Mystery

In short, the theology behind the Parable of the Sower, and John’s take on Jesus’s ministry, and Paul’s take on his own ministry—stemming from Isaiah’s ministry—is that the Lord’s sovereignty in salvation proceeds in a sometimes puzzling but self-glorifying way.

The seed of the gospel is freely and lovingly scattered to any and everyone. But the soil is what matters, and God alone can prepare it to receive the seed and yield the manifold crop of repentance and forgiveness. This frees the preacher to sow the seed faithfully, and then watch God work to change sinful hearts according to his sovereign will.