Parables were a strong feature in the teaching ministry of the Lord Jesus. Indeed many would go so far as to say that parables were his characteristic means of communication, that principally the Lord was a story teller, and that therefore all means of Christian proclamation ought to be story telling. However, the Saviour employed other means of discourse depending on His purpose and the prevailing circumstances (note his Jerusalem ministry), and the notion that He told parables to successfully reach the populace with maximum effect is to contradict His own statement. The 'story and drama' school of thought in the modern church is founded on a false premise. The Lord did not use parables to achieve instant comprehension among the members of His audience, but rather to perplex them, and sift out enquirers as to the true meaning of the narrative.
Christ's resorting to parables was a judgement upon His listeners, many of whom had already rejected His plainer declarations. The mass communication of Jesus was not for the sake of crowd appeal, but to call out those who were being prompted to seek “the secrets of the kingdom of God” (v9). The general public was happy with the mere content of what seemed to be an amusing or moralistic tale. They admired the Saviour's powers of imagination and His vivid speech. They might chuckle where they felt it was appropriate, or nod their heads at some example of human folly, but the idea that the Lord was imparting something salvific never entered their heads. They were spiritually obtuse, which is the abiding principle in natural man until the miracle of illumination occurs by the working of the Holy Spirit. St Paul confirms this fact in his letter to the Corinthians, and in his very successful and eventful public ministry we have no record of him relating parables: “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom, but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned”. (1Cor.2:13-14) It is of value to note that the Lord's ministry was intended to call out the remnant from Israel (“So too, at the present time there is remnant chosen by grace”. Romans 11:5), whilst Paul’s evangelism was the opening essay into the Gentile world which was not under the same specific judgement as Israel, for it had rejected the law of God in the conscience, but not yet the prophetic revelation concerning the Saviour.
A superficial reading of the New Testament concludes that Jesus set out to be an entertainer as well as a teacher, and that style prevailed over content. His aspiration was to be broad in appeal rather than deep in meaning. His quotation from Isaiah, a prophet who lived with rejection and indifference, runs counter to the sentiment that Jesus fostered the favour of the masses. For the majority of His hearers the enigmatic words of the parables were confirmation of divine displeasure. God had addressed this nation in the clear speech of the prophets and the stirring warnings of the Baptist. Now He speaks to puzzle them, and only Jesus' private explanations to those who craved an interpretation made sense of the cryptic tales. To aver that Jesus spoke in the form of simple tales accessible to all is to defy words that are unmistakably comprehensible. Not that Jesus was the cause of His hearers’ bafflement; He was simply permitting them to continue in their chosen course of spiritual obduracy and non-receptiveness. He simply deferred to their self-imposed sentence of spiritual death. In speaking to them, rather than remaining silent, He left them without excuse, for any concern for their souls should have driven them to Him with urgent questions without delay. People may admire oratorical skills and displays of brilliant eloquence from the pulpit, they may require amusement and diversion, and retain examples of wit and the gist of anecdotes, but unless the Holy Spirit gives them 'ears to hear' their listening is in vain.
In every proclamation of the word of God people are listening on two levels. There are the 'tasters' as John Owen calls them, and there are those gripped by the message of mercy, who seize upon it believingly to the saving of their souls. Preachers have to choose their audience. Will they opt for being 'pulpiteers' as Spurgeon called the crowd-pleasers, or will they preach solid divine truth in reliance on the Spirit who will home the Word to those marked out for life: “And all who were appointed for eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). Like everything else in life, preaching must be enterprised in dependence upon the sovereignty of God, and not proceed in confidence upon the wit and winsomeness of man. You see how the tendency to praise men for preaching, or exalt any to celebrity status, is decried by the Word of God: “So then, no more boasting about men!" (1Cor.3:21).
A brilliant oration may accomplish nothing spiritually and a pedestrian attempt at preaching may be used mightily. Paul is often glibly referred to as an arresting public speaker; he did not take that honour to himself. “When I came to you brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony of God. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with the demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power.” (1Cor.2:1, 3-5) Elsewhere Paul acknowledged that some adjudged him in his person 'unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing'. (2Cor.10:10) It is not the spokesman or his language that moves the soul Godwards, but the Spirit who wields the instrument and makes it effective in the calling of the chosen. “For what makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” Therefore Paul says in the light of the operation of divine sovereignty in speaker and hearer, “You will not take pride in one man over against another”. (1Cor.4:6-7)
The inevitable conclusion is that true preaching and genuine hearing are gifts of the Holy Spirit, and therefore the Word is not to be accommodated to public taste on the mistaken basis that the Lord Jesus made concessions to the people's desire for amusement and something light. His adoption of the parabolic method was not to be jovial or amiable, but to separate the casual and easily satisfied listener from the intent and life-seeking hearer. The former was moved by natural curiosity: the latter was prompted by the Spirit. Hearing the Word of God is always a privilege and a solemn moment, for it reveals the true intent of the heart, and illustrates the necessity of grace, as Isaiah's observation that suggested our Lord's parable of the sower establishes, “So it is my Word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Is. 55:11)