Before we get into the question asked above, we might want to define the term, and also set some ground-rules. The term “parable” comes from two Greek words which mean “to throw alongside.” If you have an object lying on the ground, and you toss something next to it, that’s what’s described here. The idea is comparison. That’s why Jesus started many of his parables with the words “The kingdom of heaven is like. . .”
But just like with narratives, we have to exercise some caution. First, a parable is not an allegory. An allegory is a story in which every character symbolizes something else. Character X represents a concept like freedom, while character Y represents some other concept like sin. In a parable, by contrast, not every character has to symbolize something. Another thing to keep in mind is that parables illustrate, but they’re not a source of theology. You have to go the didactic (teaching) portions of Scripture (like the Sermon on the Mount or a letter from Paul) to know how to interpret a parable.
So why did Jesus use parables? Well, part of it is because of the atmosphere in which Jesus was teaching. There was speculation all over the place about the Messiah. Many (if not most) Jews believed that the Messiah was going to be a great military leader who would liberate Israel and kill all the Roman soldiers. His audience included enemies, namely the religious leaders, who would constantly be listening for any talk that might be interpreted as seditious or rebellious, so they could hand him over to the tender mercies of Roman executors.
But another reason was one that Jesus gave, so there was no misinterpretation. Read this carefully, so that you can experience the full impact: “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said 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!'” He told the crowds parables specifically so that they would not understand what he was saying!
Why would he do this? Because he was looking for quality, not quantity, of followers. The casual listener, the curious attendee, the fence-sitter, the miracle-and-wonders seeker, he had absolutely no interest in gaining, at least in the long term. Of course he cared about them--he didn't want any of them to perish, but all of them to come to repentance--but ultimately he was seeking people who were committed. If they actually made it past the idle-curiosity stage, then he'd take them to a whole new level.
So what about the church today? Are we concerned about what Jesus is concerned about? What’s more important, getting rear ends in seats on Sunday mornings, or seeing real lives being changed by the Good News?
Father God, I want to realign my priorities with yours. Please, renew my mind and change my agenda.