Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet:
“I will open my mouth to speak in parables;
I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”
Matthew 13:34-35 (NRSV)
This is an interesting thing for Matthew to include in the story at this point. Yes, Jesus has been talking in parables, but just a few verses ago, Matthew told us that Jesus spoke in parables so that the people who rejected him would not understand his message. Here, on the surface, it would seem like Matthew is contradicting this. Jesus is speaking in parables in order to reveal things that have been hidden.
As usual, helpful hints are available if we look at the Old Testament passages Jesus is alluding to. In this case, it’s Psalm 78.
As far as Psalms go, it’s kind of long, but I encourage you to read the whole thing as background for what Matthew is saying about Jesus, here. The quotation part comes from the opening verses:
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their children;
we will tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done.
Psalm 78:1-4 (NRSV)
This is neither here nor there, but it’s interesting to me that Matthew refers to these as the words of “the prophet.” Psalm 78 is a psalm of Asaph. Asaph was a priest whom David put in charge of the singing in the Temple, and the temple singers are sometimes referred to as Asaphites. There are other Asaphs mentioned, or the same Asaph mentioned in different ways, but this Asaph (or another temple singer) is a likely suspect. In either case, this is a psalm, not a prophecy, and it was not written by a prophet. Either Matthew is saying this psalm turned out to be prophetic (and there are great reasons to say that), or “the prophet” is just a general reference Matthew is using for the Old Testament. It calls to mind the author of Hebrews citing the Old Testament by saying, “It is written, somewhere, that….”
In any case, if we just look at the teaser Matthew gives us to the Psalm, it seems to contradict what Jesus said, earlier. These passages are about the psalmist proclaiming the words and deeds of YHWH – things that have been passed down from generation to generation, and the psalmist will speak in a parable to reveal these things to a new generation.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge that this is not fundamentally incompatible with Jesus’ earlier words. Jesus’ parables are meant to conceal his message from those who oppose him, but they are also meant to contain his message for his followers – revealing these truths from the past to a new generation. The contradiction is at least somewhat resolved when we take into account that Jesus calls his followers “blessed” because they get to hear Jesus revealing the truths hidden in the parables. There is a difference in the purpose of the parables for those on the “inside” and those on the “outside.”
That being said, we know that when we see a quote from the Old Testament in the New Testament, it is generally intended to serve as a pointer to the larger passage and context of the quote and not just the specific verse(s) quoted. In fact, it’s not uncommon for the “quote” to summarize lengthier passages rather than being a word for word citation. With this in mind, we look at Psalm 78 and find a scenario that Matthew is certainly importing to describe Jesus’ message to his generation.
In the next passage, the psalmist talks about the necessity of teaching God’s law to children so that the next generation will not be unfaithful like the generation before them. This is something the psalmist intends to do with parables, and you can see how Jesus is trying to do this in his own day – calling Israel to repentance and back to faithfulness, recreating with his teachings the Israel That Was Supposed to Be as opposed to the Israel That Actually Happened. He is creating a generation that has the chance to be a new Israel, who will have life in the ages to come.
The next sections talk about the miracles done in front of Israel, yet they still fled from battle and tested God, demanding that He satisfy them. This is Jesus’ complaint in Matthew 11. They have seen wonders of healing and deliverance, and yet they do not respond.
The next portion of the psalm talks about the judgement and calamity brought onto Israel by God because of their disobedience, and still they did not repent. On the one hand, the Israel of Jesus’ day was under Roman oppression because of her breaking of the covenant. On the other hand, there was a tidal wave of judgement yet to come. Jesus is desperately trying to save as many as he can from this coming judgement by his message of urging repentance and being faithful even unto death, which is his own path. And yet, the majority of Israel is not repenting. If anything, they oppose Jesus.
So, the psalm presents us with a scenario where God was full of blessing and provision for Israel, and they spurned Him. This is followed by a scenario where God was punishing Israel, and they still spurned Him. No matter what He did, His people would not keep covenant with Him.
Right before the end of the psalm, we are presented with this frightful picture:
He abandoned his dwelling at Shiloh,
the tent where he dwelt among mortals,
and delivered his power to captivity,
his glory to the hand of the foe.
He gave his people to the sword,
and vented his wrath on his heritage.
Fire devoured their young men,
and their girls had no marriage song.
Their priests fell by the sword,
and their widows made no lamentation.
Psalm 78:60-64 (NRSV)
It’s hard to know exactly which events this Psalm is describing. On the one hand, if these words are coming directly from one of David’s appointees’ he probably has in mind one of the times in Israel’s history where their sins caused them grievous losses at the hands of their neighbors. Also, since the last passage of the Psalm seems to indicate Israel as a divided kingdom (God does not choose Ephraim or Joseph, but Judah), it could refer to Israel’s woes at the hands of much larger national powers that were beginning to be threats to the whole region.
Or, given that this psalm comes to us through a post-exilic redaction process, it could be that this passage does have in mind the great defeat and exile under Babylon.
In either case, it is clear that the Psalm makes this the next point in the trajectory. God gives His people blessing and prosperity, and they turn against Him. He punishes them, or at least allows calamity to befall them, and they still do not turn back. So, finally, He leaves them completely and gives them over to the swords of another nation. This is not only what happens to Israel after David and Solomon (hence the prophetic nature of the Psalm, itself), it is the same point on the eschatological map that Jesus is drawing up for his own generation.
So, we see that Jesus is speaking in parables to bring Psalm 78 into his own generation. Like the psalmist, Jesus proclaims and demonstrates the word and works and Law of God so that a later generation of Israelites will be faithful, unlike their ancestors. God has done works of provision and mercy for them, but they have not repented. God has punished them with calamity, and they have not repented. And just like the psalmist was (potentially) prophetic in predicting the nation being given up to the sword, Jesus, also, is prophetically indicating the same thing. In both cases – the Psalmist and Jesus – the motivation for this message is not to condemn Israel, but to call her to repentance and greater faithfulness.
Because Psalm 78 does not end with the destruction of Israel. It does not even end with the division of Israel. In the Psalm, Israel’s invasion wakes YHWH up, and He returns to them and delivers them from their oppressors. This is how the Psalm ends, with a loving, attentive God back to shepherding Israel. The damage done by God’s abandonment sort of snaps Him out of it and changes His relationship with Israel for the better.
Jesus, I believe, also sees this coming down the line as well. While he can, he is shepherding faithful Israel in God’s name as God’s chosen representative, but at the same time, he knows that a disaster must happen that will turn God’s heart back to His people.
Jesus will place himself in the path of that disaster to win the end of Psalm 78 for his people.
- The Old Testament sometimes portrays disasters that befall Israel as God punishing them for the purposes of getting them to repent. Although this was not an issue for ancient readers, it may not sit well with us as modern readers. Do you think this is or was an accurate way to interpret these events? How would you describe what God was doing in those events?
- Now that we are long past the events that caused Jesus to speak in this way, is there anything about what Jesus was doing that could be analogous to our present situation? Although Jesus is not speaking about the situation of a Christian church twenty centuries later, what elements of his message or ministry seem especially fitting of our present situation in the world?