This week’s course of study in Come Follow Me includes Matthew 13 and the topic of Jesus’ parables. The typical way we deal with this is to emphasize the notion of allegory and open interpretations. That is a parable need not have only a single meaning. What I think sometimes get lost in this discussion is the shift from the beginning of the chapter to discussion where only his disciples are the audience (Matt 13:10). Jesus explaining his use of parables says, “it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven but to them it has not been given.” (11) What are these “mysteries”? (“secrets” in NRSV & NIV) Are they significant?
Typically Mormons have connected the word “mystery” with the mystery religions popular across the Roman Empire Jesus lived within. Hugh Nibley in no small part helped push this interpretation. He followed the interpretation of scholars like Morton Smith against traditional Protestant views that the mysteries were “nothing else than a series of initiatory ordinances for achieving the highest salvation which today are lost and unknown to the Christian world.” (“The Meaning of the Temple”) While I think one can go too far in this direction, it certainly seems clear that Jesus in Matthew 13 is referring to parables having an inner meaning that the disciples knew but the masses did not. Now some of these inner teachings may have been tied to initiatory rituals, but I suspect most were not. However they most likely were tied to inner teachings. Indeed Matthew 13 seems to be clearly making just that connection.
It’s not clear why he would teach with parables if the issue was just secret inner teachings. If his inner circle already knew these teachings, then why bother having sermons with double meanings? A possible interpretation would be that the teachings were heretical but it was a way to have plausible deniability to the Pharisee mainstream lest he be accused of blasphemy. That is those who had been initiated into these inner teachings could have elements refreshed or new elements taught in such a way that the Pharisees would not pick up upon.
The other interpretation for parables was given my Bruce R. McConkie. “Parables are a call to investigate the truth; to learn more; to inquire into the spiritual realities, which, through them, are but dimly viewed. Parables start truth seekers out in the direction of further light and knowledge and understanding; they invite men to ponder such truths as they are able to bear in the hope of learning more.” (Mortal Messiah 2:245) The idea is the very nature of a parable suggests multiple meanings which leads to people wanting to discover the deeper meaning. That is part of their literary structure is a demand for further inquiry. The fact they are so open doesn’t merely lead to thinking on them by the listener, but a desire to find the correct meaning. Curiosity in piqued leading to return attendance at sermons and potentially joining the movement.
These interpretations aren’t opposed to each other. Rather the very nature of a parable demands one to muse over its meaning, especially as it relates to deeper meanings. It’s worth noting that many of these meanings seem to have an apocalyptic aspect. Quite a few of the parables are focused on the last days or the destruction of the wicked. Jesus’ connection to the apocalyptic tradition of the era is well known. Many of his teachings have this aspect of inner secrets tied to the future of the planet and the economy of God.
One obvious example of this inner teaching, at least from at contemporary Latter-day Saint perspective, is the parable of the sower which ends with “brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold.” Typically we interpret this in terms of D&C 76 and the degrees of glory. Irenaeus, a Christian writer of the early 2cd century, interpreted this as implying degrees of reward. (Against Heresies 1:567) So this reading isn’t really out of keeping with early Christian interpretations.
What is interesting is that Matthew presents Christ as only teaching in parables. “All these things Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them.” Presumably this only refers to this section of teaching, since arguably the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t make use of a lot of parables but it pretty clear in its ethical demands. Perhaps it is just Jesus’ more apocalyptic teachings that are taught in this veiled way.
An other aspect of the parables is how it structures a separation from Judaism in general. Jesus is creating an organization that in important ways such as the authority of the disciples marks it from just being a part of Judaism. This isn’t that unique. There are indications that John the Baptist’s movement had moved in a similar direction. Jesus had largely picked up most of John’s followers. We know there were various such movements at the time. The Essenes being one well known example. The effect of inner teachings is to lead people to first have to join the movement as a movement to learn the inner teachings. Again this was not unique to Christianity but could be seen in various mystery religions (often adopting Egyptian myths in various ways) around the Roman Empire. It is important to note this feature though as it strongly indicates that Jesus was forming a Church and a Church with an inner group who had specialized knowledge.