Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Why did Jesus teach in parables?

A familiar tale

In Matthew 13 Jesus tells one of His better-known parables, the parable of the sower:
[1] That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. [2] And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. [3] And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow.[4] And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. [5] Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, [6] but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. [7] Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. [8] Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. [9] He who has ears, let him hear.” 
[18] “Hear then the parable of the sower: [19] When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. [20] As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, [21] yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. [22] As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. [23] As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
This parable is applicable both to evangelists and to all believers, and after Jesus' explanation it needs little other interpretation. The obvious takeaway is that we should hope and pray to be (parabolical) "good soil", hearing and understanding the "word of the kingdom" (remember that Jesus started off preaching "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand", Mat 4:17). Even reading this recently, I still felt conviction, and concern that I might be choking this word out, or not understanding it fully. It's certainly worth meditating on in your own reading.

"To them it has not been given"

But what I focused on this morning was what comes in between Jesus telling the parable and explaining it (to His disciples).
[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. [13] This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. [14] Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

“You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
[15] For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’

[16] But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. [17] For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
I wrestled with this section on the bus this morning. It really seems like Jesus is teaching in parables to prevent people from understanding "the secrets of the kingdom of heaven". So it has been given to the disciples, but not the crowds, to understand; this is an example of the "theological passive" where the implied giver (or withholder) is God. Jesus then quotes (in a somewhat modified form) Isaiah 6:9-10, explaining that the people's dullness has been prophesied (and, in the original context, decreed by God).

How can this be? The Calvinist in me says there is no problem here—God, of course, does not owe anyone grace, and He is perfectly just to withhold it from those who have closed their hearts to Him. The sinfulness of these people is shown to be deplorable, enough to blind them to the Son of God standing before them, and their condemnation is deserved. The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven (read: salvation) is God's to give according to His will, and He gives it to whoever He sees fit, and so He teaches in parables so that only the chosen will understand. Who are you, O man, to talk back to His justice?

But this answer throws orthopathy (right feeling) under the bus of orthodoxy (right belief). If our head leads us to a conclusion about God that our heart can't swallow, we are right to stop and rethink; this is not what "submitting to God's word" means. Of course God is not so callous towards the lost. (The ESV's translation of mepote as "lest" in verse 15 is especially unfortunate because it implies that God does not desire the outcome of people turning to Him; the NIV better translates it as "otherwise".) The community of the redeemed is not a special club whose invitation God only gives to some. As much as I earnestly want everyone to be saved, I know that God wants it much, much more (1 Tim 2:4), even while hating their sin and rejection of Him much more. So why does Jesus speak in parables?

Reverse prophecy

As I prayed about this on the bus, my eyes were opened (theological passive again). The next few paragraphs are an abbreviated version of my thoughts on God's providence.

The heartless understanding of this passage I was struggling with assumes a more simplistic view of how God's will interacts with ours, saying that it can be overridden by God in His sovereignty, so that He can make some peoples' hearts dull and prevent them from seeking Him as easily as reaching in and turning a few dials (or, in this case, telling a parable). This is a parody of the theology known as monergism. Isn't it a "bigger" view of God that makes Him Lord over even our hearts (Pro 21:1)? Perhaps, but it leads to a plethora of question that it is not equipped to answer: If God really has this kind of control over the wills of other begins, why is there evil? How can there be a conflict between good and evil? Why does anyone reject God? Does God make people sinful, and is there any real difference between this and leaving them in sin when you have the power to change them?

To explain the world we actually live in, we must admit that the reality of how God meets us in our hearts is more complex than this. Though clearly our hearts are not independent of God, neither is His will independently (unilaterally) in control of them. What seem to be our own thoughts and actions, freely chosen, from an everyday "below", human perspective can also be seen as parts of a plan from a divine "above" perspective (see Phl 2:12-13). Where we may see hopeless chaos and randomness, God sees order and direction. This is meant as a source of great comfort.

The problem with my heartless understanding of the Matthews passage is that it is ignores the familiar, human way of looking at things, and so dehumanizes the people in the story, reducing them to hopeless, blind sinners, passive vessels into which God either does or does not put knowledge of the kingdom of heaven, or whose eyes God either does or does not open. It keeps us from feeling pity for them, because if God felt any pity for them He would have opened their eyes as simply as flipping a switch. But God did not become fully human to see us as any less than fully human. The function of prophecy is to move the recipients from seeing things in a purely human way to also glimpsing the "God's-eye view" of a situation, but here we must do the opposite. So I ask: is there a more balanced way to read this passage that acknowledges the humanity of the crowds while still recognizing God's sovereignty over them?

Before going into what I thought about today, I should at least recognize a healthier interpretation I've heard. Jesus' parables, it explains, are meant to convey truth to those who seek to know it, while avoiding hardening the hearts of those who don't. "The same sun that melts the ice hardens the clay", the saying goes, and so preaching using plain speech could serve to strengthen the resistance of some in the crowd. So Jesus preaches in parables, so that those who seek the truth might find it while the others will merely be left puzzled. This is indeed a better interpretation, and my thoughts will mostly only add to it.

Waking the dull

But my heart still goes out to the people Jesus describes in the prophecy from Isaiah: their hearts have grown dull, their ears can barely hear and they have closed their eyes. Is there no hope for these people? If they have closed their hearts to the incarnated God, who can open them? How can Jesus' parables help these people? (If He really loves them and hates their sin, He doesn't want to let them stay in it, whatever you may say about it being "just")

First let's analyze what Jesus said a bit more. He says "seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand", but of course He doesn't mean that the people were literally blind and deaf (for when He met blind or deaf people, He did just heal them). The Greek word for "dull" used here more commonly means "fat" or "thick", which would rule out an active, willful rebellion that excludes them from our pity (as the heartless interpretation would say). What I think Jesus is getting at is not raw sensory data, but perception, or lack of understanding. The Son of God was before them, speaking words of great spiritual import and power, yet they don't seem to understand or care. They were just words.

Does this remind anyone else of countless churchgoers today? We may be sitting in church on Sunday morning, but our minds and hearts have not accompanied us to meet Jesus there. We are spiritually AWOL, if you will. Though we see the preacher and hear the words spoken, do we really see? Do we really hear? I don't, a good deal of the time. Maybe the pastor should start teaching in parables.

In light of this, I glimpsed an answer to the question this passage has always raised for me: "Why didn't Jesus use plain speech so that they would understand Him?" I realized that the parables were not being used to prevent people from understanding (and thus perversely fulfill the Isaiah prophecy), but to help them understand their lack of understanding. If He taught them in plain speech, they might just smile and nod, think they understood what He was saying, and file it away into their neat little theological cabinet, never to be seen again. But when He taught in parables, they were genuinely puzzled. They realized that they didn't understand what was being said. And maybe, just maybe, they would look into Jesus and His words until they did, joining His followers in the process.

As if to confirm this, Jesus in verses 16-17 celebrates that the disciples do have eyes that see and ears that hear, and then proceeds to explain the parable to them in plain speech. To those who do listen, God speaks plainly, but to those who don't, He speaks in riddles, not to enhance their spiritual disorientation but to bring it to their attention.

I'm not sure whether this is exactly what Jesus originally meant or if I'm reading my own situation and experiences too much into the text. The dullness I just described is how I approached Christianity for much of my teenage years. But I am positive that His words here apply even to Christians in our spiritual dullness. And how much more to unbelievers today! It's just as important that people understand the gospel as that they hear it. Maybe we can learn a thing or two from Jesus' use of parables—but that is for another time.

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