Is a plausible reading of Mark 4:10-12 that Jesus teaches in parables to confuse those "on the outside" whereas in Matthew 13:10-16 Jesus claims to teach in parables in order to better instruct outsiders.

I read Frank Kermode's "Hoti's Business" a number of years ago. This was essentially his position. His argument hinged on the fact that Mark uses hina (so that) and Matthew uses hoti (because) before quoting Isaiah 6:9-10. In other words, Matthew says that Jesus teaches in parables because people are slow to understand and hard-hearted and Mark says that Jesus teaches in parables so that they become slow and hard-hearted.

That reading of Matthew is complicated by the fact that Matt 13:11-12 makes the same distinction between insiders and outsiders/you and them as Mark. Both use passive voice, which suggests God's action.

I see a couple options:

  • Kermode's reading is plausible because Matt likely borrows from Mark. He changed hina to hoti, which explains why Matt otherwise reads similarly to Mark. This reading of Matt might require modest tension between Jesus's immediate action (to teach in parables to reach the hard-hearted) and God's ultimate purpose, which is to confuse the hard-hearted.
  • Kermode's reading is implausible because Jesus means for his parables to fulfill the Matt 13:11-12, namely magnifying the knowledge of the kingdom of God among some and diminishing it among the hard-hearted. This reading is more harmonious with Mark but doesn't explain the presence of hoti as well

Can anyone help me adjudicate between these? Or is another reading more plausible, potentially for reasons I haven't spotted?

2 Answers 2


παραβολή is almost always translated as "parable" and, with 2 exceptions, is used only in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (never in John). The OP's question shows there is a potential for ambiguity: is the purpose to teach those slow to learn to to confuse someone who is listening?

A common Biblical definition of parable is "an earthly story with a heavenly meaning." The original meaning is "a placing of one thing by the side of another, juxtaposition, as of ships in battle, Polybius 15, 2, 13; Diodorus 14, 60."1 Just like the two ships, the two meanings of the parable may be considered "side-by-side," and the use of a parable will divide listeners:

          One ship | Second ship
     Earthly story | Heavenly meaning
Slow to understand | To be confused

To accurately juxtapose two ships an external marker is needed. Similarly, the two components of a parable may be used to divide the two types of listeners:

       North                             Heavenly Meaning
         |                                       |
One ship | Second ship        Slow to understand | To be confused
         |                                       |   
       South                               Earthly Story

The same story which is used to teach one who is slow to understand (Matthew) can be used to confuse (Mark). One slow to understand will benefit from an earthly example which illustrates the meaning. Confusion, on the other hand, is not as obvious. It could be on the story or meaning; it could be the decision to teach using a parable. For example, a scribe or Pharisee could be confused over Jesus' use of an "inappropriate" method. So if a parable was used purposefully to confuse, the confusion could be over either the methodology or the message.

Despite the aspect of confusion, there are two primary factors on the necessity of parables:

  • Are those "slow to understand" in attendance?
  • Does a teacher want to reach these?

The negative impact (to confuse or be confusing) could be intentional (as Mark seems to say), or simply an unavoidable consequence of trying to reach the "slow to understand."

Matthew and Mark
Jesus' teaching as presented in Matthew can be divided into three main methods:

To everyone without parables | Using parables | To the disciples without parables
            Up to Chapter 12 | Chapters 13-23 | From Chapter 24

The decision to use parables begins after Chapter 12 which describes how the Pharisees conspired to kill Him (Matthew 12:14); how the scribes and Pharisees accused Him of casting out demons by Beelzebub (Matthew 12:22-32), and how the scribes and Pharisees asked for a sign (Matthew 38-42). If the decision to use parables was intentional to confuse, it was done in response to the actions of the scribes and Pharisees.

Mark also places the first use of parables as a response to scribes making an accusation:

22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” 23 And he called them to him and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. 27 But no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house. (Mark 3)

Both Matthew and Mark place the first use of parables after the same (or similar) incident: accusing Jesus of being possessed by Beelzebub. It is this accusation which initiates Jesus' use of parables when teaching in public.

We can say the parables which are necessary to reach those who are slow to learn, were also purposeful to confuse those who believe Jesus is possessed by Beelzebub. The "outsiders" are those who believe Jesus is from Beelzebub whom Jesus purposely tries to confuse (ironically) by teaching a heavenly message. In this case, the earthly example illustrates both a heavenly message and a heavenly messenger.

1. Thayer's Greek Lexicon

  • Thanks. I especially liked the distinction between confusion over message and confusion over methodology. If confusion over methodology is intended it would seem that knowledge of the kingdom of God itself has to do with a methodology (rather than just a message) because that is what is being inculcated or held back by Jesus's use of parables.
    – andy
    Sep 7, 2019 at 1:20

Mark 4:12 That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them. I believe the answer is simple, when dealing with Israel there is a constant theme of a remnant. There is always a remnant that are good and that truly love God, the rest fit the bill for the man Jacob, a lying, cheating scoundrel. Israel is a sacraficial lamb, God chose her because she was the least of all people. Certainly not because she was the best. CHOSEN doesn't mean good! Jesus spoke to Jews in parables so they wouldn't be saved. I know that sounds crazy but it is true none the less. If you don't believe this look at what God says to israel. Ezekiel 20:25 Wherefore I gave them also statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live; 20:26 And I polluted them in their own gifts, in that they caused to pass through the fire all that openeth the womb, that I might make them desolate, to the end that they might know that I am the LORD. Isaiah 54:1 Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the LORD. understanding that Jesus is the firstborn of every creature The nation of Israel would have to kill the firstborn. This is no coincidence. Neither is this a small thing Malachi 3:9 Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation. The whole nation was cursed Definitely a connection to this Galatians 3:10 For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. So God chose Israel because they were the least, and he made sure they would do like they were supposed to. Israel was to be a priest to all nations and the priests killed the sacrafice and that is expressly what Israel was CHOSEN for and Jesus knew if they believed in him they wouldn't kill him and someone had to kill the sacrafice so that the world (even the jews) could be saved. God loves Israel just like Abraham loved Ismael but he was commanded of God to cast him out. God cast out Israel in the exact same way for the exact same purpose, remember it was the Jews persecuting the church when Paul wrote this Galatians 4:29 But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. 4:30 Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. 4:31 So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free.

  • I think these connections with other parts of the Bible can be made, but I don't think it's clear that Mark or Matthew is making these connections. Remember that when Jesus and Paul were preaching, there was no strong distinction between Jews and Christians or (or rather Jews and Jesus followers--the word "Christian" wasn't in use yet). Obviously, Jesus and Paul took issue with certain aspects of Jewish practice and belief (or that of certain Jewish groups), but on the whole, they lived as Jews. Paul nowhere identifies his opponents in Gal. as Jews in general.
    – andy
    Sep 7, 2019 at 9:26
  • I agree neither Mathew or mark figured it out, Jesus is the one who said he spoke to them in parables lest their sins should be forgiven and they should be converted, Paul was definitely the one who figured out that the whole Abraham scenario was an intentional act of God to show us the nature of the two competing philosophis for salvation.
    – Bill
    Sep 8, 2019 at 13:06

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