05 July 2021

Parables: For those with ears to hear.

Mark 4.10-13; Matthew 13.10-17; Luke 8.9-10, 10.23-24; John 12.37-40.

The verb παραβάλλω/paravállo literally means “to throw to,” like the arc—the parabola—a ball makes when you throw it to a teammate. Often over the heads of your opponents. And in much the same way, a παραβολή/paravolí, “parable,” is meant to go to your teammate… and usually, deliberately, over the heads of your opponents.

When Jesus told stories, he used analogies. He wasn’t the only ancient teacher to use ’em; every ancient culture uses analogies. Aesop of Samos is an obvious one. His collection of stories is called the Μύθοι/Mýthi, “Stories,” which in English has been customarily translated “Fables,” ’cause fable is Middle English for “story.” But by our day, fable means “story about animals which has a moral”—in other words exactly like Aesop told.

As a dog crossed a river with a piece of good meat in his mouth, he believed he saw another dog under the water, with the very same meat. He never imagined the one was only the reflection of the other, and out of greediness to get both, he snapped at the reflection—and lost what he had. All who covet, lose.

Jesus’s stories weren’t told to teach morals. They’re meant to teach his followers, both ancient and current, about God’s kingdom. Thing is, Jesus seldom gave a key to his analogies: Who’s that person meant to represent? What’s that animal a symbol of? What does that action compare to? Is that character meant to be God, Messiah, the Christian, a pagan, what? But Jesus’s response to such queries was typically, “Listen, if you have ears!” Mt 13.9

See, when people pursue God’s kingdom, and realize Jesus’s stories are all about this kingdom, Jesus presumes we’ll easily figure out what he means. Really anybody can figure out what he means. I’ve heard pagans listen to Jesus’s parables and then be asked, “What do you think it means?” When they understand the context of God’s kingdom, their interpretations are usually dead on. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a biblical scholar to figure out what Jesus means; it’s hiding in plain sight.

But when people aren’t pursuing God’s kingdom at all—as, sad to say, a lot of Christians really aren’t—the analogies go right over their heads. As we see every time preachers claim Jesus’s stories aren’t really about his kingdom, but some other thing. Usually the preacher’s pet cause.

But the parables are always about the kingdom. Always. Period. Jesus said so.

Mark 4.10-11 KWL
10 When Jesus was with his students alone,
those around him with the 12 apostles asked him about the parables.
11 Jesus told them, “God’s kingdom’s mysteries were given to you.
To those outside, everything comes in parables.”
Matthew 13.10-12 KWL
10 Coming to Jesus, the students told him, “Why do you tell them parables?
11 In reply Jesus told them, “Because you were given knowledge of the heavenly kingdom’s mysteries.
They weren’t given that.
12 Whoever has, it’ll be given them; it’ll overflow.
Whoever doesn’t have, what they do have will also be taken from them.”
Luke 8.9-10 KWL
9 Jesus’s students were asking him why this ought to be a parable.
10 Jesus said, You were given knowledge of God’s kingdom’s mysteries.
The rest is in parables, so ‘seers might not see’
and ‘hearers not comprehend.’ ” Is 6.9

I’ve frequently heard this claim: Jesus supposedly told parables instead of blunt facts because he wanted plausible deniability. He was speaking in a politically charged environment, y’know. Though he’s Messiah, the king of Israel, two other guys held that title at the time: Tiberius Caesar personally held lordship over the province of Judea, so he was technically its king; and Caesar had appointed Antipas Herod as ruler of the Gailee, who was only tetrarch but still considered its king. So if Jesus spoke in any way about being king, it’d be sedition, and gave his critics and opponents the ammo they needed to have him arrested. Much like science fiction TV shows in the 1950s and ’60s, Jesus couched his radical ideas in parables so he could always claim he wasn’t literally speaking of a kingdom, and conquering the world.

This theory gets disproven pretty quickly by Jesus’s Vineyard Story. The head priests knew exactly what Jesus meant when he spoke of a “master” destroying his tenant farmers.

Luke 20.15-19 KWL
15 “Throwing him out of the vineyard, they killed him.
So what will the vineyard’s master do to them?
16 He’ll come, and he’ll destroy these farmers, and he’ll give the vineyard to others.”
Hearing this, the priests said, “It ought never!”
17 Staring straight at them, Jesus said, “So why is this written?—
‘A stone which the builders reject: This becomes the chief keystone.’ Ps 118.22
18 Everyone falling over that stone will break their legs,
and whoever it might fall on, it’ll crush them.”
19 The scribes and head priests sought to lay hands on Jesus at that very hour
(and were afraid of the people and didn’t)
for they knew Jesus spoke this parable about them.

I mean, the priests would have to be profoundly stupid to not recognize this. But not only did they get it, they’d’ve totally arrested Jesus had not the crowds been around. (Which is why they later arrested him once the crowds were gone.)

Nope, Jesus’s parables have nothing to do with dodging the authorities. They’d come for him regardless. It was about dodging the crowds. The parables are for people who are seeking Jesus. They’re not for lookie-loos. He wasn’t trying to dodge consequences. He was trying to dodge those who don’t seek him.

Isaiah and his dense audience; Jesus and his.

Just to remind you, Jesus is the LORD. So back when the LORD, the pre-incarnate Jesus, commissioned Isaiah ben Amoch to become a prophet and give his message to the LORD’s people, Isaiah was warned the people weren’t gonna be as receptive as he might imagine.

Isaiah 6.9-10 KWL
9 The LORD said, “Go. Tell these people, ‘Hear, hearers’—yet they’ll understand nothing.
‘See, seers,’—yet they’ll know nothing.
10 Grow fat, hearts of this people. Be heavy, ears. Be blind, eyes.
Lest there’s seeing in their eyes, hearing in their ears, understanding in their hearts,
and they repent and get cured.”

How Christians frequently interpret this passage is graceless and bothersome. We too often make it sound like the LORD wanted the people to be dense, and Isaiah impossible to understand. Some of us claim Jesus is also impossible to understand, because limited atonement: God doesn’t want everybody to be saved. He goes over people’s heads because he doesn’t want ’em to repent. He wants them destroyed, for some reason.

The scriptures teach otherwise:

2 Peter 3.9 KWL
The Master isn’t slowing down his promise, like some folks slow things down.
But he acts patiently towards you, not wanting anyone to be destroyed,
but for everyone to come forward in repentance.

Simon Peter understood Jesus better than determinists do. The goal of Jesus’s parables is not to deny salvation to people who are trying to find Jesus, but they’re not getting saved because it’s not in God’s plan to save them; they’re getting passed over for election. Read the Isaiah verse again: The LORD isn’t wishing fatness, heaviness, and blindness upon his people. It’s a description of their existing condition. Isaiah was gonna preach good news to a people who figured they were already good. “Hear, hearers!” was gonna fall on deaf ears.

In Isaiah’s day the religious people believed they were saved by God’s grace—which they are!—but because of it, they also believed he’d never, ever let their enemies destroy them. Not while they performed all the sacrifices and temple rituals precisely as God wanted. Is 1 No; God forgives all. So they could ignore the Law… and sometimes for fun, just on the side, worship other gods. God’d let it slide; he forgives all!

Nothing Isaiah told them would ever change their rotten attitudes. And things hadn’t changed much in Jesus’s day, 700 years later. (Or ours, 2700 years later.) In Jesus’s culture, people’s minds were again just as made up: They were saved by grace! They were Israelites, descendants of Abraham, Mt 3.9 and all they needed to do was perform their sacrifices and rituals the way God wanted. Go through the motions, and God would keep the Romans at bay. So they didn’t care to hear what Jesus was teaching about his kingdom.

Hence Jesus didn’t have to try all that hard to keep ’em in the dark. Just describe Kingdom Come in analogies, metaphors, and parables, and people could continue on their merry way, missing the point, missing out, and losing what little they did have. Hence Jesus’s “Whoever doesn’t have, what they do have will also be taken from them.” Mt 13.12

This is why Jesus did parables. These people didn’t come to him to be convicted, challenged, provoked, stretched, informed, educated, or grow in any way. They figured they knew God already. What more could Jesus tell them? They were already God's chosen people, already saved by grace, already knew the Law—and if you break the Law, go bring a calf to the temple, barbecue it, and you’re good.

People didn’t come to Jesus to grow closer to God. They believed they were close to God. They wanted to stay the very same status-quo-enjoying religious folks they’d always been. Same practices, same prejudices, same distractions. They came to Jesus because they wanted to do something spiritual. That meant listening to a nice sermon from a good speaker.

So when Jesus shares a parable, and people don’t feel like thinking all that hard, and don’t seek God’s kingdom, they can allow the stories to go right over their heads. Not just that: They can feel self-righteous about it going over their heads. “Y’know, why couldn’t Jesus ever just say things clearly? He was being deliberately vague. Why, he could mean anything by that. I could interpret it this way or that; he’s so obscure. That’s not teaching. That’s just saying a lot of smart-sounding Zen koans which really mean nothing. He’s a fraud.” And so on.

Christians still do it. The parables permit us to be as faithless and brain-dead as we please.

Mark 4.12 KWL
“Thus seers might not see—and realize.
Hearers might not hear—and be forgiven things.” Is 6.10
Matthew 13.13-15 KWL
13 “This is why I tell them parables: Seers don’t see,
and hearers don’t hear, nor comprehend.
14 Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled by them which says, ‘Hearers will hear and not comprehend,
seers will see and not realize.
15 These people’s minds grew fat.
They heard with their ears with difficulty. Their eyes closed up.
Perhaps they could see with their eyes, could hear with their ears,
could understand with their minds, could repent, and I will cure them.’ Is 6.9-10
Luke 8.10 KWL
Jesus said, You were given knowledge of God’s kingdom’s mysteries.
The rest is in parables, so ‘seers might not see
and hearers not comprehend.’” Is 6.9-10
John 12.37-40 KWL
37 Though Jesus performed so many miracles in front of them, they wouldn’t trust in him.
38 Thus, the word of the prophet Isaiah could be fulfilled, which said,
“Lord, who trusts our news? To whom was shown the Lord’s arm?” Is 53.1
39 This is why weren’t able to trust: Isaiah again said,
40God blinded their eyes and hardened their minds,
so they couldn’t see with their eyes and think it out with their minds,
and repent, and he would cure them.” Is 6.10

If we don’t care for Jesus’s points, we can deliberately reinterpret them till they don’t bother us anymore. We can argue, same as our fellow Christians have for generations, that he really meant something which gets us off the hook; something we don’t have to actually go and do, like repent.

With minor effort, we can spin every analogy till Jesus requires absolutely nothing of us. Because by “the kingdom” he meant the End Times, the kingdom of New Jerusalem, and not how he expects his followers to behave in the present. Or he meant an ideal universe; not the one we live in just now. Or he meant pagans, not Christians.

I’ve read what skeptics think of Jesus’s teachings. Most of them have a lot less trouble than you’d think of figuring out what Jesus means. But at one point or another (usually ’cause they hate the implications of the real meaning), they find some story which they choose to be willfully dense about. Their prejudices turn into a stumbling block. Same as with Christians.

But it’s like Jesus said: Perhaps they could see with their eyes… if they so chose. Mt 13.15 They just don’t wanna.

Yeah, I’ll bring up John’s spin on that Isaiah quote. The way he phrased it indicates he figured God had done all the blinding and deafening and hardening, and didn’t care to cure them. Jn 12.40 Works perfectly for those who embrace the idea of limited atonement—even though plenty of other verses in John’s writings indicate John didn’t believe in limited atonement whatsoever. Jn 1.12, 16, 29, 3.16-17, 4.42, 8.12, 1Jn 2.2 But which came first: Their refusal to believe in Jesus, or God closing their minds? Their resistance to God’s clear revelation of himself through Jesus, or God making them this sort of resistant?

In context with the rest of John, the onus is entirely on the unbelievers.

John 3.18-21 KWL
18 “Those who trust the Son aren’t judged.
Non-believers are judged already: They don’t trust the only-begotten Son of God’s name.
19 “This is the judgment: The light’s come into the world.
Yet people love the dark more than the light, for their actions are evil.
20 Every evildoer hates the light, and won’t come to the light lest their actions come into question.
21 Truth-doers come to the light, so he might reveal their actions had been done in God.”

Free will, folks. If God’s decided our minds will be dense, ears heavy, eyes blind, it’s because we started it by staying in the dark. Let’s come to the light, and let God open us back up.

Don’t miss the chance to hear Jesus!

The context of every teaching, every analogy, every parable of Jesus, is now. Even the End Times teachings: They’re meant to influence our behavior now, by reminding us to keep our eyes open and be ready for the Son of Man’s return. Not one of them is meant to be put off till later. Not dodged as being for another dispensation. Otherwise there was no point in Jesus teaching ’em.

Some of us grew up with those false interpretations, and got ’em pounded into our heads so thoroughly, it’s hard to recognize what new readers of the gospels find fairly obvious. Bad tradition has overwhelmed our common sense. Sometimes we gotta pray God gives us that common sense back, and opens our minds again so we can see, hear, and understand.

Because hearing Jesus’s teachings is an awesome opportunity. You realize loads of people missed this opportunity? Died before it was available, or simply never cracked open a bible their whole lives? Let’s not miss our chance.

Matthew 13.16-17 KWL
16 “Your awesome eyes, because they see; your ears, because they hear:
17 Amen, I promise you many prophets and righteous people coveted
to see what you see and never saw it;
to hear what you hear and never heard it.”
Luke 10.23-24 KWL
23 Turning to the students and his own people, Jesus said, “Your awesome eyes, seeing what they see—
24 I tell you many prophets and kings wanted
to see what you see, and never saw it;
to hear what you hear, and never heard it.”

Those parables he threw to his students in the first century: He likewise throws them to us. He wants us to catch ’em. He didn’t make them impossible to understand; he didn’t tell stories about wholly unfamiliar subjects. You’ll notice Jesus tended to tell farming stories, not carpentry stories: He talked about their experiences, not his own. True, fewer and fewer Americans know anything about agriculture, so we might have to do a little homework to understand the cultural context. But, that done, the parables shouldn’t go over our heads unless we want them to.

Like Jesus expressed to his students who wanted to know what the Four Seeds Story meant:

Mark 4.13 KWL
Jesus told them, “You haven’t interpreted this parable?
How will you interpret any of the parables?”

He doesn’t expect us to be clueless about them. He expects us to get them. Let’s use our brains and learn about his kingdom.

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