Why Parables?

In The Oral and the Written Gospel, Werner Kelber addresses the question of why Jesus speaks “only in parables” (Mk 4:33-34) in Mark.

With parabolic discourse language is pressed toward its limits.  … The message to be delivered in each case can barely be uttered at all, and never in straightforward language.  This is symptomatic for speaking in parables.  something is left unsaid, and it is this unsaid that matters most. (64)

For example, Nathan could not come right out and condemn King David for using his royal power to take Uriah’s wife and have Uriah killed.  So he introduced his condemnation with less than straightforward language in the form of a parable:

[Nathan said to David], “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor.
The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his morsel, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him.  Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”
Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die;  and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”
Nathan said to David, “You are the man. …” (2 Sam 12:1-4)

Kelber also cites Jotham’s parable to Abimelech in Judges 9:8-15 as a similar example.  He has a good point here:  you use a parable when you cannot say something directly.

Fast-forward now to the Gospels, in which parables have multiplied like rabbits.  Mark explicitly states the purpose of Jesus’ parables in 4:12, a verse that has confounded scholars for centuries:

And [Jesus] said to [his disciples], “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.” (4:11-12)

You tell a parable in order to express something that you can’t say in plain language.  Mark is a work of literature most likely written somewhere around 65-75 AD.  Could it be that the parables were actually not spoken by Jesus but were written by Mark to address issues current 35 years after Jesus’ death? Mark could not have Jesus directly addressing issues in Mark’s own day, and still maintain some semblance of verisimilitude in the story.  So is it possible that he resorted to parables to get around this limitation?

This is one of the questions I am working on addressing in my festschrift article.


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