Parables: Because the kingdom’s secrets are only for us.

Why Jesus was so heavy on the metaphors.

Mark 4.10-13, 25 • Matthew 13.10-17 • Luke 8.9-10, 18, 10.23-24, 19.26 • John 12.37-40

The first of Jesus’s parables is the story of the four seeds. Mk 4.1-9, Mt 13.1-9, Lk 8.4-8 But before I get to that story, I’m gonna discuss Jesus’s frequent habit of teaching things en parabolís/“in parables.” Or at least it’s frequent in the synoptic gospels; John skipped nearly all the parabolic stories, and stuck to Jesus speaking in metaphor, which is also a form of parable.

Parabolí literally means “to throw over,” kinda like the parabola a ball makes when you throw it in the air. Like such a throw, it’s deliberately meant to go over the heads of people whom you don’t want catching it. If you aren’t clever enough to figure out what Jesus means by his analogies, you’re gonna miss his point. You know, like pagans often will. And irritatingly, a lot of Christians also will, because we’re looking for the wrong things, and don’t care Jesus is trying to explain his kingdom by them.

Other ancient teachers taught by analogy. But they’d use these analogies to get attention, and explain their point as part of the moral of the story. Whereas Jesus didn’t always include a moral to his stories. Nor explain what his analogies meant. You figure ’em out—if you have the ears to hear.

Jesus did this so often, his students had to ask what it was all about:

Mark 4.10 KWL
When Jesus was with his students alone,
those around him with the 12 apostles asked him about the parables.
Matthew 13.10 KWL
Coming to Jesus, the students told him, “Why do you tell them parables?
Luke 8.9 KWL
Jesus’s students were asking him why this ought to be a parable.

At this point the commentators will weigh in with why they figure Jesus taught in parables.

The most common idea was Jesus was trying to evade the consequences of speaking about his kingdom in a politically charged environment. Herod was king of the Galilee, and Caesar the king of Judea; if Jesus spoke in any way about being king, it was considered sedition, and gave his critics and opponents the ammo they needed to get him arrested. Much like science fiction TV shows in the 1950s and ’60s, Jesus couched his radical ideas in metaphor so nobody could figure out what he really meant.

That theory gets disproven pretty quickly in Luke 20.19, where the head priests realized exactly whom Jesus meant when he talked about a “master” destroying his tenant farmers, Lk 20.16 and a stone grinding those who trip on it to powder. Lk 20.18 Jesus meant them, and they’d have totally arrested him had not the crowds been around. (Which is why they later arrested him when the crowds were gone.)

Nope, it had nothing to do with evading the opposition. They’d come regardless. It was about throwing his lessons over the heads of the crowds, ’cause he only wanted his real followers to catch them. The parables are for Christians. Not lookie-loos.

Mark 4.11 KWL
Jesus told them, “God’s kingdom’s mysteries were given to you.
To those outside, everything comes in parables.”
Matthew 13.11 KWL
In reply Jesus told them, “Because you were given knowledge of the heavenly kingdom’s mysteries.
They weren’t given that.”
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

Jesus wasn’t trying to dodge consequences. He was trying to dodge fools.

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 often interpret this passage is a little bothersome. They make it sound like the LORD wanted Isaiah to be deliberately obscure. And like Jesus likewise wanted to be deliberately obscure. Because, they claim, limited atonement: God doesn’t want everybody to be saved. He’s going over people’s heads because he don’t want them to repent, but be destroyed.

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 Calvinists do. The goal of the parables wasn’t to deny salvation to people who wanted to understand Jesus, but were passed over for election. Read that Isaiah verse again: God wasn’t wishing fatness, heaviness, and blindness upon the people. He was describing 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, and he’d never, ever let their enemies destroy them. Not while they were performing the sacrifices and customs precisely the way God wanted. Is 1 No; God forgives all, and they could ignore the Law, or casually worship other gods, and God’d let them slide. And nothing Isaiah told them would ever change that.

Things hadn’t changed much in 700 years. (Or 2700.) In Jesus’s day, people’s minds were again just as dense. They were saved by grace: All they need do was perform their sacrifices and customs the way God wanted, and go through the motions, and God would keep the Romans at bay.

So they didn’t care to hear what Jesus was teaching… so Jesus really 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—a mini-lesson which Matthew squeezed into this bit about why Jesus does parables, and for your convenience I’ve included the other gospels’ parallel verses.

Mk 4.25 KWL
“For whoever has, it’ll be given them.
Whoever doesn’t have, what they do have will be taken away from them.”
Mt 13.12 KWL
“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 8.18 KWL
“So watch how you listen. Whoever might have, it’ll be given them.
Whoever might not have, what they think they have will be taken away from them.”
Luke 19.26 KWL
“I tell you to all who have, it’ll be given.
From those who don’t have, what they do have will also be taken away.”

So this was why Jesus did parables. 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 shared a parable, and people didn’t feel like being clever, and weren’t seeking God’s kingdom, they could allow the stories to go right over their head. Not just that: They could feel self-righteous about it going over their heads. “Why can’t Jesus just say things clearly? He’s 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
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
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

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’s parables meant. 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. It’s an obvious crock.

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 would have to be 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 seeding 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.