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Question: Why did Jesus teach in parables?

Answer: Some of the Savior’s most memorable teachings were in the form of simple stories called parables. These were more than just interesting anecdotes about ordinary objects or events. They contained profound truths about the kingdom of God for those who were spiritually prepared.

Matthew 13:10-16

10 And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?

11 He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven (because you want to learn spiritual things), but to them it is not given (because they do not want to learn of spiritual things).

JST Matt. 13:10-11: For whosoever receiveth, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance. But whosoever continueth not to receive, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.” The point is that these people don’t want to understand the Savior’s teachings.

12 For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.

13 Therefore (for this reason) speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand (they don’t understand spiritual things because they don’t want to).

14 And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias (Isaiah), which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive (you are so far gone spiritually that you can’t understand spiritual things):

15 For this people’s heart is waxed gross (they have become hardhearted), and their ears are dull of hearing (they are deaf to spiritual things), and their eyes they have closed (they don’t want to see spiritual things); lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them (these people are intentionally avoiding conversion to Christ).

16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear.

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Frank F. Judd Jr. has taught:

Jesus Christ was the greatest teacher who ever taught,” declared President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985). One of the Savior’s most striking teaching methods was His use of parables. Concerning the parables of Jesus, President Howard W. Hunter (1907–95) said: “They are so simple a child can understand, yet profound enough for the sage and philosopher...Each of the parables spoken by the Savior seems to teach a principle or give an admonition regarding the attributes necessary to qualify for exaltation.”

Two Kinds of Parables

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The word parable comes from the Greek paraballo, which means “to set beside” or “to compare.” A parable, therefore, is a simple story in which the narrator compares the common experiences of his listeners to some divine truth (see Bible Dictionary, “Parables,” 740–41). Jesus primarily employed two types of parables, depending upon His audience.

The first is what we might call “parables of instruction,” which the Savior used to teach His disciples and curious seekers about basic gospel principles. These parables included such commonplace people and objects as a sower, an empty house, a great supper, a lost coin, a steward, a servant, laborers in a field, sheep and goats, as well as vines and branches. The principles taught include “faith, repentance, baptism, development of talents, forgiveness, perseverance in doing good, being a profitable steward, charity, mercy, and obedience.”

Other parables might be described as “parables of rebuke” which the Savior directed toward those who had ill will for Him. The parables of the two sons, the wicked husband-men, and the marriage of the king’s son (see Matt. 21–22), which specifically condemn those who were conspiring against Him, are examples of this type of parable.

The Savior sometimes used a single parable to both instruct and rebuke. For example, the parable of the lost sheep teaches on one occasion about Heavenly Father’s genuine concern for our welfare (see Matt. 18:12–14), while on another occasion, it delivers a rebuke to a group of Pharisees and scribes for their self-righteousness (see Luke 15:1–7).

Why the Savior Used Parables

One day when a great multitude was gathered to hear His teachings, the Savior taught in parables. Soon thereafter the disciples asked Him, “Why speakest thou unto them in parables?” He responded, “Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given” (Matt. 13:10–11). Alma taught Zeezrom the same principle: “It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God … according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him. And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full” (Alma 12:9–10).

Those who heard the Savior’s parables of instruction, therefore, were able to understand those principles they were prepared to receive. Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has said, “As the Master Teacher, Christ tailored His tutoring, depending upon the spiritual readiness of His pupils.” In this way the parables both reveal and conceal at the same time. The Savior was not so concerned with concealing when He used parables of rebuke. To His enemies, He said, “Unto you that believe not, I speak in parables; that your unrighteousness may be rewarded unto you” (Joseph Smith Translation, Matt. 21:34).

The Master Teacher’s parables show both the justice and mercy of God at work among those who hear them. “Two men may hear the same words,” wrote Elder James E. Talmage (1862–1933). “One of them listens in indolence and indifference, the other with active mind intent on learning all that the words can possibly convey; and, having heard, the diligent man goes straightway to do the things commended to him, while the careless one neglects and forgets. The one is wise, the other foolish; the one has heard to his eternal profit, the other to his everlasting condemnation.”

Source: Come, Follow Me–For Individuals and Families, p. 46; The New Testament Made Easier, Part 1, Volume 2, by David J. Ridges, p. 37; New Testament, “Parables of Jesus: The Priceless Parables,” by Frank F. Judd Jr., Ensign, January 2003.