We would assume that Jesus wanted his parables to be understood as after all, he was sent to be the saviour of all mankind. The problem is, there is strong textual evidence that Jesus tried not to be understood. Therefore, if the gospels are correct, then Jesus wanted to be misunderstood which is not very compatible with being the messiah.
All Jesus’ parables, in one way or another, bore on a definite historical situation – the coming of God’s kingdom in his ministry – and they were usually aimed at particular groups of his contemporaries. When you look at the gospels and their parables you need to have a open mind and consider things such as, what was it that Jesus really said? What did they mean for the evangelists? What purpose do they have for the gospel writers when writing their gospels and what do they mean to you? I believe that when NT Wright says, that “the function of the parable was to draw the hearer into the story and to challenge their own world view” that Jesus did not intend his parables to be easily understood. The idea to challenge shows that it is not easy to understand to begin with.
There is no doubt that Jesus used parables as a way of teaching about the Kingdom of God and ways to gain entry into the Kingdom. The purpose of parables would have been to take an everyday situation and give it a religious spin, allowing people to take a message from it. The rabbis of Jesus’ day used them as a common teaching device, so we can assume that Jesus’ audience would have known how to solve them. However, Mark sees the parables as something else – for him they are ‘riddles’ to test whether a reader or listener has appropriate understanding – they are ‘secrets of the Kingdom of God’ for an elite. They can’t be kept ‘secrets of the Kingdom of God’ or ‘riddles’ to test people if they were simple to understand. They had a special meaning behind it and in order for Jesus’ message to shine through he needed only the true believers to solve the puzzle. Jesus himself was hard to understand so it makes sense if his teaching is just as difficult.
One of the reasons Jesus taught in parables was to challenge people to think about the meaning of the story. Some people may have come to Jesus expecting to hear thorough theological sermons and would go away baffled and disappointed by the simple stories he told. No one could understand the parables unless they dedicated themselves to making the connection between the point of the story and their own lives. In this sense the parables are much more than just illustrations of a point – they are intended both to filter out those who were not serious about listening and are also a way to bring God’s truth to life in the hearts of those who heard and understood.
Jesus made this purpose clear when he said that “to those on the outside everything is spoken in parables so that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding, otherwise they might turn and be forgiven’” (Mark 4:11-12; also Matthew 13:10-15; Luke 8:9-10). These verses should not be understood as the only purpose for which Jesus used parables, as in other cases it is clear from the context that He used them to illustrate the teaching for His disciples or to challenge people in the crowd and even His opponents to respond like in the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Rather, these verses from Mark 4 should help us to avoid a simplistic understanding of the parables as simply “illustrations” and they should show that the parables are much more about challenging people to think.
In Mark 4:13 Jesus asks the disciples: “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?” He then proceeds to explain the parable for them, or at least to explain the points of reference. In one sense the Parable of the Sower could be called the key to all parables since it is “parable about parables” or more correctly a parable about how people respond to the teaching of Christ. If they cannot understand even this parable they will be unable to understand any parable. Thankfully, however, they have come to the right place and Jesus teaches them what the parable is really about. We don’t know how many times He did this, but we are reminded that Jesus’ intention was that those who had faith in Him and who would surrender all else to follow Him would be able to understand the parables. Jesus didn’t simply it for anyone as the whole point of it is to challenge people’s faith and their devotion to God.
Although Jesus’ parables may be initially difficult to understand, it was Jesus’ intention that through them those who approach them with faith would understand important truths. Parables do have meaning, and the meaning of any parable will be about the nature of the Kingdom of God. The parable connects this principle about God’s Kingdom into the lives of the hearer by relating it to a principle of everyday life. It would not have meaning if just anybody could understand his parables – as only a true believer would be able to unpick them and reveal the hidden message. The whole point of speaking in parables in the first place was so it will show the divide on who were the believers and who weren’t.