"Why did Jesus teach in parables?"
The average answer would probably go something like this: "Jesus was a master storyteller, and he used parables to illustrate difficult or profound spiritual truths in the form of everyday stories. A parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. So Jesus spoke in parables so that people could better understand his message about the Kingdom of God."
Sound right so far?
In the circles of public speaking and discourse, Jesus is often held up as the prime example of someone who took complicated ideas and "put the cookies on the bottom shelf" through his story telling. So did Jesus tell parables to help people better understand his teachings?
Yes. And no. But mostly no.
So why did Jesus teach in parables if not to make things clearer? Luckily for us, Jesus' own disciples asked him so we don't have to wonder:
Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. (Matthew 13:10-13, ESV)
And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’ (Luke 8:9-10, ESV)
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything. (Mark 4:33-34, ESV)You see, if even Jesus' closest followers constantly needed explanations for his parables (Matt. 13:36, 15:15, Mark 7:17, Luke 8:9), then either Jesus isn't the master storyteller we thought he was or clarity and simplicity wasn't Jesus' objective in the first place.
The parables pushed people. Either they pushed people in closer to Jesus with questions, with whetted appetites, with a desire to hear more or they pushed people away. The parables acted as a sort of litmus test on the hearts of those listening to Jesus. To some the words of Jesus were the very words of God (John 3:34), but to others they were ravings of a madman (John 10:20)! To say it another way, the parables didn't make Jesus' teachings clear, they made his followers clear.
Don't be like Jesus (in this one way)
So, Christian, don't be a storyteller like Jesus. By this I don't at all mean don't tell stories. In fact, I'm very intrigued and excited by a growing trend in the church towards "storying" the gospel (ex. Story of God training, Engaging in Story). Instead, I mean that our aim in proclaiming should be different than Jesus'.
The parables that once were veiled are now revealed in the gospel. And I mean that in no way pejoratively! Isn't this the very thing Jesus said to his disciples as he sent them out?
What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. (Matthew 10:27, ESV)Looking back through the lens of the gospel and the instruction of the Holy Spirit, we can now take Jesus' parables and all else he taught and "proclaim from the housetops" what Jesus had only "whispered". If that doesn't get you excited about sharing, I just don't know what will.
For further reading:
Why did Jesus tell people not to tell others who he was?
The Balancing Act of Jesus