Why parables: “result” or “purpose”?

Jesus gives the reason for His speaking in parables in Matthew 13:10-15; Mark 4:11-12; and Luke 8:10. An interesting thing happens in Matthew and Mark’s passages. Each one quotes from Isaiah 6:9-10 which highlights the consequences of divine judgment. However each one uses a different conjunction when quoting the same thing. Matthew uses hoti which carries the idea of result and is translated as “because” while Mark uses hina which carries the idea of purpose and is translated “so that”. The differences can be seen in the following:

Therefore I speak to them in parables; because [hoti] while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear. (Matthew 13:13)

To you has been given the mystery of the kindgom of God; but those who are outside get everything in parables, in order that [hina] while seeing they may see and not perceive. (Mark 4:11-12)

So why parables? There seem to be two very different answers here which yield differing theological conclusions. Matthew attributes Jesus’ use of parables because of Israel’s hardness of heart. However Mark attributes the parables to the Lord’s judgment. I think finding answers to this problem, as some have done, in the Aramaic Targums and Hebrew idioms is wrongheaded. What we have here is an example of the gospel writers referring to the same thing yet both with a different emphasis. Matthew emphasizes that Jesus used parables as a result of Israel’s hardness and Mark shows us that they were also for the purpose of withholding certain truths from those hardened. Matthew shows us “heads” and Mark shows us “tails” but they are the same coin.

What does this mean for our preaching? Without getting into a lengthy discussion on the proper use of cross references, I would say that this illustrates why it is important to let each Gospel writer speak to his own context. For example, if we import Mark’s design and purpose onto Matthew then we lose the nuances that Matthew wanted to bring to his audience. Lastly, this also shows us that it is not necessary to embrace critical views of Scripture which see such passages as contradictions rather than compliments to one another.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. How did you deal with the the unpardonable sin in Matthew 12? I am just curious, not wanting to start a whole debate about it taking the discussion away for the purpose of parables. I am struggling through this passage in Mark.

  2. Paul,

    Thanks for pointing that out. I Preaching through Mark with our Youth Group and I have not gotten to this passage yet. However, as I am reading ahead I have been pondering and praying over some of these very same things. I appreciate the clarity and simplicity of your thoughts.

    Paul S.

  3. Posted by Dave H on April 28, 2008 at 9:29 am

    Hi Paul, I’m thinking you are on the right path with the 2 side of one coin explanation. I have pondered similar situations, for example, Pharaoh hardening his heart and God hardening Pharaoh’s heart.

  4. Posted by Kim Myers on May 8, 2008 at 12:06 am

    Paul,
    I dont know if you are familiar with the writer named Kenneth Bailey. I strongly recommend you to read the books, “Poet and Peasant Through Peasant Eyes”, “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels”, “The Cross & the Prodigal; Luke 15 Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants”, and “Jacob and the Prodigal: How Jesus RE-Told Israel’s Story”. They help me understand the verses in context, and abolish modern Western interpretations

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