In Matthew 13 Jesus explains to his disciples that he is using parables to teach truths about the kingdom of heaven. However, because parables are allegorical or metaphorical in nature, they are often difficult to interpret without further explanation. Jesus is only willing to explain the parables to his followers, but not to the crowds that were assembling to hear him speak. Why would Jesus do this? Wasn’t he putting up unnecessary barriers? Shouldn’t he have explained the parables to the crowds?
Michael Wilkins, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), explains what Jesus was accomplishing by speaking in parables:
First, he tested the hearts of listeners. Parables act as a spiritual examination, prompting a response that indicates whether the listener’s heart is open to Jesus’ message, or whether it is hardened. If the listener is hardened to Jesus’ message, the parable stimulates confusion or outright rejection and prompts him to turn from Jesus and the truth (13: 11– 15). If the person’s heart is instead open, he will come to Jesus for further clarification about the parable’s meaning— as the disciples do (13: 10)— and eventually understand the truth embedded in the parables (13: 51).
Second, the parables give instruction to those who are responsive. The parables reveal and instruct Jesus’ disciples on the nature of the kingdom of heaven, showing how it operates in this world in a way very different from what the religious leaders and the crowds expected. By use of parables Jesus gives indications of the development of the kingdom (sower: 13: 18– 23, 36– 43; tares: 13: 24– 30; mustard seed: 13: 31– 32; leaven: 13: 33), the incomparable value of the kingdom (treasure: 13: 44; pearl: 13: 45– 46), membership in the kingdom (net: 13: 47– 50; cf. vineyard: 21: 43; two sons: 21: 28– 32), and service in the kingdom (teacher of the law: 13: 51– 52).
The positive response of the disciples is seen in their asking for further explanation (13: 10, 36), the reward of which is Jesus’ explanation of the parables (13: 18– 23, 37– 43) and parabolic teaching directed to them that reveals additional truth about the mysteries of the kingdom (13: 44– 52). While the disciples are not perfect in understanding, they possess the potential and desire to progress. Ultimately they will understand because they have been obedient to listen and hear (13: 51).
Jesus wasn’t excluding anyone who wanted to understand his teachings and follow him. He was, however, excluding those who were listening to him in order to confirm their own rejection of him. There is a volitional side to understanding. If you tell me something that I don’t like or that I don’t want to be true, then I will not attempt to understand nor embrace what you have to say.