Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “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 those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
‘You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.’
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.
Matthew 13:10-17 (NRSV)
In this passage, Jesus’ disciples ask him why he speaks in parables as opposed to just plain teaching, and the answer is not what we’d expect.
What we’d expect is something along the lines of what teachers or public speakers might tell us – stories are effective tools for getting your point across. They create analogies the listeners can relate to, concrete circumstances around abstract concepts, and dramatic or funny moments that help the point really stick in the mind. I have been to thoroughly secular workshops on teaching that often mention Jesus and his parables in this regard. Good teachers use stories.
Jesus’ purpose, however, appears to be exactly the opposite. He tells parables because his audience won’t understand their meaning. He is seemingly trying to be obtuse on purpose – a behavior I personally find very frustrating when I run across it.
This seems a little disruptive to our ideas about Jesus and his work. Doesn’t Jesus want people to embrace the coming kingdom? Doesn’t he want Israel to repent and be saved through the coming disasters? This seems inconsistent with the general vibe we’ve been getting from Jesus up to this point, where Jesus seems fairly direct and urgent with his message.
One possible option is that Jesus didn’t say this. Perhaps Matthew in his zeal to indict Israel at the time put this in the story. Or perhaps a later scribe added it. This passage drops right in the middle of Jesus telling and explaining a parable, so it’s not a stretch initially to think it might be an artificial insertion.
This seems unlikely, however, because this passage shows up in similar, if shorter, forms in all three synoptic Gospels. What’s more is that we don’t have manuscripts where this passage is absent. So, it seems unlikely this is Matthew or a later scribe giving us a helping hand. Even if Mark made this up, it seems unlikely that both Matthew and Luke would go, “Yep, that sounds about right to me,” and just drop it in without giving it a second thought. It’s a jarring thing to say, and the additional detail Matthew provides seems to indicate he at least thought about what he was doing and not just copying Mark by rote.
Another possible option is that Jesus wants the spiritual and faithful remnant of Israel to hear what he is saying and respond, but he wants to obscure this from those he plans to fall in the judgement. This would give the passage a very strong Calvinistic slant – even stronger than Calvin’s own commentary on the passage. The idea here is that Jesus wants the elect to hear and repent but the rest will not be able to understand him.
This may not be an attractive tack to everyone, but it’s not without precedent. For example, we think of Jesus’ mentor John the Baptist yelling at the Pharisees, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” There’s this sense that John, having already decided the Pharisees and scribes are worthy of condemnation, doesn’t want them to wriggle out of it with repentance and baptism. Perhaps Jesus has a similar view? Perhaps he has already cordoned off in his mind some of Israel who is destined for judgement, and he does not want them to repent and escape? Maybe the reason he chooses so many agricultural/farming metaphors for his parables is that they are far more likely to be understood by the oppressed of Israel and far less relatable to the wealthy and powerful.
This is possible, and there are some general themes there that are sort of pointed in the right direction, but there are some troubles with this view as well.
One is that Jesus’ own hand-picked disciples also never understand him. If Jesus’ plan is that “outsiders” won’t understand him, but the faithful will, this plan blows up in his face in a big way. Nobody understands Jesus with any sort of regularity. The disciples routinely misunderstand Jesus and need to have things explained to them. In fact, this very passage arises because the disciples don’t understand Jesus and want him to speak more plainly. So, if the idea is that we have a spiritual group of “understanders” and an unspiritual group destined for judgement, we’d be forced to conclude that Jesus really called that wrongly, because nobody seems to spiritually understand Jesus with the exception of the occasional “outsider” who shows more insight than the people you’d expect.
Another is that, theologically, Christians generally believe that Jesus is the clearest example of the image of God in a human being. While we might debate about how active a role God plays in biblical episodes of judgement, we can all generally agree that He doesn’t like it. The God of both Old and New Testaments expresses that destruction of even the wicked is distasteful to Him. He demonstrates that He is receptive to a contrite heart, and in at least one example (that Jesus cited back in Matthew 12) forgave Israel’s oppressors when they repented.
I think our best option is to pay very careful attention to Jesus’ answer. He does not speak in parables to intentionally cause people to misunderstand; he speaks in parables to fulfill the situation described in Isaiah 6.
The situation outlined in the early chapters of Isaiah is that Judah is threatened by what remains of the rest of Israel allied with Syria. This is a situation that God says has been brought about by the widespread injustice practiced by all of Israel, and although Judah is portrayed more kindly, she, too, is subject to the same critique, especially her aristocracy. Therefore, the Lord will call for Assyria who will sweep through the land, putting an end to Israel and Syria. However, Assyria will also come against Judah as punishment for her sins as well.
Later, we read that God will not abandon Jerusalem to Assyria and will put down that empire as well, also granting a great king to Judah who will rule with truth and righteousness and restore peace to the land. But first must come the trials and judgement.
It is into this situation that the Lord commissions Isaiah to bring His word to Judah, and this is how that goes:
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” And he said, “Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.”
Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Even if a tenth part remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump.
Isaiah 6:8-13 (NRSV)
This passage is actually tricky all by itself, but notice that the lack of understanding isn’t due to Isaiah speaking in parables. Instead, the people are already in a state of not understanding, and Isaiah declares this to them. He tells them directly, “Keep on being blind! Keep on seeing what God is doing and not getting it!” The lack of understanding among the people is something for Isaiah to proclaim and keep on going. Isaiah will continue to warn the people and point out what is happening to them and their allies, and Judah will keep on ignoring him. This state of affairs is both a sign of and a justification for the judgement of God.
In other words, Isaiah does not use tricky language to confound his audience. He/God is quite literally declaring that, no matter what he says or does, the people will continue not to get it. They will continue not to respond, and Isaiah’s preaching will just make the problem that much sharper. Here’s a guy screaming that Assyria is coming in response to Israel’s idolatry and injustice, and the people around him go, “Hm. That’s interesting. Say, do YOU think Assyria is coming in judgement against our idolatry and injustice? I don’t think so. Seems a little outlandish to me. Anyway, I’m off to keep adding to my house until I consume the land of my impoverished neighbors!”
See, the people’s lack of understanding aren’t a result of what Isaiah is saying; Isaiah couldn’t be clearer. It is the fact that Isaiah’s proclamations produce such a widespread lackluster and unbelieving response that let us know that God’s judgement will surely come.
If you’ve been tracking with me through Matthew 12, you can probably see where this is going.
Jesus is also experiencing this as a prophet. He is proclaiming an imminent judgement and need to repent, and return, he’s getting, “Say, do YOU think the Temple will ever be destroyed because of our unbelief and our unholy alliance with the oppressors of our people? I don’t think so. Anyway, I’m off to charge people a money exchange fee for sacrifices so I can kick some back to the Empire. There’s an addition I want to make to my house to make it look more like Herod’s.”
Matthew has been on about this for at least a chapter and a half, if not more, and you can see how this fits in. Jesus quotes Isaiah, not because he is actively trying to create the situation of Isaiah 6, but because his situation is exactly what’s being described in Isaiah 6 and portends the same future outcome. So, Jesus leaves behind the clear preaching and replaces it with a sort of riddle – the parables – which are much harder to understand. They are a tool for Jesus to proclaim the grim reality of Israel’s situation. “Doesn’t matter what I say. You won’t believe. So, now I’m going to tell these cryptic stories, and your failure to understand them is a sure sign that the judgement will come.”
Now, that alone might not be the best tactical choice. I mean, why? Very few people are believing your preaching. Ok, I get that. I get that you’re frustrated. But how does it accomplish anything to start preaching in parables, instead? Haven’t you virtually guaranteed nobody will understand you?
Yes, he has. Except for one thing – the people who are listening to Jesus and responding in faith have the opportunity for Jesus to make the parables clear to them.
I don’t want to steal my own thunder, but Jesus will quote from Isaiah a bit later in the chapter to say this: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” (v. 35b)
The seeing and hearing the disciples are blessed with are not their own spiritual insights into the parables. Like the rest of Israel, they do not understand what they hear. But what “the rest of Israel” doesn’t have is Jesus to open their eyes and ears.
Here’s how Jesus introduces his explanation of the parable of the sower: “Hear then the parable of the sower.” He then proceeds, not to tell the parable of the sower (he already did that), but what the parable means. The people who desire to understand Jesus are rewarded with Jesus giving them understanding.
And so we see that Jesus’ followers are not smarter than unbelieving Israel. They are not more spiritually sensitive. They aren’t wiser. The Holy Spirit is not doing something in their elect brains that isn’t happening for the non-elect brains. They are, left to their own devices, just as in the dark as everyone else. Jesus’ parables are just as cryptic to them as to anyone else.
But what they do have is the conviction, the trust – the faith, if you will – that Jesus has the truth and is who he says he is and is their only hope.
Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
John 6:66-69 (NRSV)
And in this way, the differentiator between faithful and unfaithful Israel comes into sharper focus. The differentiator between those who will make it safely through the judgement and those who will fall in it becomes clearer. It has nothing to do with who knows the Bible better or who can decipher wise but puzzling sayings. It has nothing to do with a certain group who has more of the Spirit at work on them than another group. In fact, even though these lines practically tend to fall between the rich and poor because of their respective attachment to the world system as it is, it actually has nothing specifically to do with being rich or poor.
It is simply this: do you believe that Jesus is who he says he is and that the message he brings is true?
- Jesus says that his followers are blessed because they have access to the truths Jesus is opening up to them. For most of her history, those who would be Christians were not able to read or have their own copies of these explanations. It may seem a bit silly, but have you considered the blessing it is that we have such ready access to Jesus’ explanations of the kingdom that was coming? What are we doing with that blessing besides writing awesome blog articles?
- Do you believe the differentiator that emerged between those who would make it through the judgement and those who would fall in it is still, more or less, a valid differentiator today? What are some things we tend to consider differentiators that might not be? How might this affect the message we bring to the world?