Those Pesky Parables

fishing boat bible

Have you ever wondered why the Jesus character depicted in the Christian bible stories supposedly used those wonderful parables instead of speaking directly about matters as one's eternal soul? It seems like he would have wanted to be as clear and unambiguous as possible in such a high-stakes situation. After all, people's "souls" were at risk! Did he use parables just to entertain or inspire his audience, or did he have another purpose in mind?

Given the lack of clear evidence to support the existence of a historical Jesus from outside the bible, I suppose we don't have much choice but to consult it for answers. Fortunately, countless Christians over the ages have assured us that any answer anyone could ever seek to any question can be found in the pages of their magic book. I suppose it must be our fault we didn't figure out important scientific discoveries like germ theory from reading it. But yes, we should consult it here to see whether it can shed any light on why Jesus apparently preferred not to speak plainly to his audience.

Sure enough, we soon find the answers we seek. According to the book of Mark (4:11-12), it sounds like these parables did serve a purpose other than entertainment or inspiration. It sounds as though their function was to confuse Jesus' listeners so that most of them would go to hell.

4:11 And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables:

4:12 That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.

With the parables, Jesus presented his audience with a high-stakes comprehension test. He spoke in riddles to see who might be able to decipher them. Fail his test and you will spend eternity being tortured in hell because you misunderstood something. Sounds like a great guy, that Jesus. Maybe it is a good thing he probably never lived.

I don't know about you, but I don't recall any of the ministers I listened to all those years ago ever quoting these passages from Mark during their sermons. I wonder why? Perhaps they didn't want to have to explain it away.

Too easy? Looking for something a bit more cynical? Maybe the function of the parables, written quite a while after the period during which Jesus supposedly lived by authors who had never met him, was merely to be ambiguous enough that they would require interpretation. After all, if this stuff was made too accessible, there wouldn't be as much of a need for clergy, would there?

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2010. It was revised and expanded in 2020.