In our last chapter in Matthew, the scribes and Pharisees wanted to see some proof that Jesus was who He said He was. Ostensibly, if Jesus couldn't prove that He was the Messiah, they would reject Him for His lack of power. Matthew 12:28-30 says:
38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them,“An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
Now, in chapter 13, the people reject Jesus, not because of his seeming inability, but because of His ability.
53 And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, 54 and coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? 55 Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56 And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” 57 And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” 58 And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.
So it seems that Jesus couldn't win. If He displayed His wisdom, they rejected Him. If He refused to show His power, they wouldn't accept Him. This is the reason Jesus spoke in parables--because He knew that people who were going to believe, would believe because they were seeking Him, and people who weren't seeking Him wouldn't believe, no matter what He did. Verses 10-12 say:
10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 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. 12 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.
Take a look at the picture, "Sermon on the Mount," by Karl Bloch. Notice the man on the left who is listening intently, his two hands clasped in devotion. The man in the center with the turban on his head has a pleasant expression on his face, but his arms are crossed--a defensive gesture. Is that black-hooded figure behind him the devil, whispering into his ear that he shouldn't listen to what the Master has to say? Between that man and Jesus' knee are two faces--one that is gazing at the Lord, eager to hear, while the other seems not to be paying attention at all. The man over Jesus' shoulder is stroking his beard, weighing what Jesus says and trying to decide what to do with him. The men behind him seem to be talking with one another, instead of listening. One listener even has his back turned against Jesus. This is a pretty good sampling of the kinds of people who were present every time the Lord spoke. He knew what was in their hearts--that some were seeking to understand and others were seeking to criticize or control Him. Others were simply there to see a miracle or hear a good story.
Keeping this mixture of people in mind, Jesus told parables, so that the ones who were a threat wouldn't truly understand, and wouldn't have as much ammunition to use against Him (after all, stories can be interpreted many ways, can't they?). Also, those who just wanted a good story would get just that, and no more. But those who sought Him would find Him. They would encounter real truth in His stories.
If you were one of the characters in Karl Boch's picture, which one would you be? Are you listening? Distracted? Critical? Defensive? Maybe you just don't get it. Click here to read a great article at Unlocking the Bible, entitled "10 Tips for Understanding and Interpreting Jesus' Parables." I hope that you'll seek His truth, because Jesus says that those who do are "like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it (Matthew 13:45b-46)." When you find the pearl of God's truth, you'll trade everything you have for it. Because His truth is worth more than all the treasure in all the world.
*All scripture is taken from the ESV.