The first occurrence of the Greek noun parabolē in Mark’s Gospel occurs at 3:23 and then thirteen more times, most frequently in chapter 4 (vv. 2, 10, 11, 13, 30, 33, 34), a discourse devoted to parables and their use by Jesus in his ministry. In our English translations this noun is transliterated as “parable” and English lexica indicate that it means “a comparison.” Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (1981) add “a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or religious principle” (823). In scholarly treatments of Jesus’ parables attempts are made to classify different types of parables, even though the Greek text generally uses a single term to describe every variety of “comparison” that Jesus offered.
What did this Greek term mean for Jews like Jesus living in Galilee in the first century AD? When Jesus uses this term to describe various kinds of communications strategies, would his contemporaries consider his usage of this teaching tool “normal” or “unusual”? What kind of Jewish and non-Jewish teachers would use such a rhetorical device and for what purpose? Would his usage of parables indicate to his audience the nature of Jesus’ discourse, i.e., philosophical, political, religious, prophetic? Within Jewish writings, in what contexts and for what purposes were parables employed? These are important questions because in Mark 4:11 Jesus tells his followers “to you the ‘mystery’ of the kingdom of God is given, but to those outside all things happen in parables (en parabolais).” How should we interpret this use of the term?
It seems that Jesus’ followers “were questioning him about the parables” (4:10), i.e., why he is using parables in his communications. And so Jesus answers the question in the next verse. Up to this point in time (Mark 2-4) Jesus has incorporated parables only in responses to the crowds or the Jewish religious leaders (2:18-22; 3:22:27; 4:1-9). The writer’s comments in Mark 4:33-34 indicate that all of the parables in Mark 4 were addressed to the crowds (“without parables he was not speaking to them, but privately to his disciples he was explaining everything”). Similarly Jesus addresses the parable in 7:14-15 “to the crowd,” in 7:24-30 he converses with the Syro-Phoenician woman, and the parable of the Tenant Farmers in 12:1-10 he directs to the Jewish religious leaders. Only in 13:28-37 does he incorporate parables into discourse with his disciples. So in Mark’s Gospel parables are “for those outside” and the narrative consistently follows this principle. Even though Jesus asserts that his followers have access to “the mystery of the Kingdom of God,” that he is discussing in his parables, they often need his help to interpret the parables.
Jesus paraphrases parts of Isaiah’s description of his prophetic call (Isaiah 6:9-10) to explain why he uses parables in his public discourses. Although some segments of Mark 4:12 continue to challenge commentators, e.g., the meaning of hina and mēpote, Jesus seems to suggest that his use of parables relates to his call to Israel “to repent and put confidence in the good news” (1:15). However, Israel is persisting in its spiritual blindness and deafness. As a result they will not experience forgiveness. Jesus’ use of parables indicates that God’s actions in Jesus are somewhat ‘hidden’ and those who hear his teaching and see his miracles need to press into the significance of who he is and what he is proclaiming. Everything Jesus does has a deeper significance related to God’s covenant promises revealed to Israel in past centuries. However, they must acknowledge the authority of Jesus if they are to discern his significance. He is “the Son of Man” and those who understand Daniel’s vision (Daniel 7) will appreciate who Jesus is.
If parables in Mark’s Gospel function by communicating through the surface story a more profound level of meaning, then people of faith will perceive in Jesus and his teaching a deeper meaning related to God’s purposes, i.e., he is the Messiah. He may not act or teach according to Jewish expectations of the Messiah, but this is in reality his identity and function. Many in Israel heard about Jesus and categorized him as prophet, but not Messiah. Others rejected any claims that Jesus made to divine authority and categorized him as a heretic. For such people “all things happen in parables,” i.e., they define Jesus in their terms, not in God’s terms. They fail to recognize the significance of Jesus’ miracles and exorcisms.