We are often of the mistaken belief that Jesus Christ spoke often in parables to his audience because the parables were from their own familiar background and because talking about fields and talents and virgins (all things our modern society knows very little about) was a way of making his message more understandable to the people of the time. Not so. In fact, the Bible itself makes it very plain (in three passages, no less), that parables were told for the precisely opposite reason, to make the messages less clear to His audience. Knowing this presents us with an intriguing riddle when it comes to examining the word of God that is worthy of untangling.
After all, why would Jesus Christ deliberately obscure His message to His audience? What would be the reason why God would choose to have His word be a mystery that would require effort and labor to untangle the point? Clearly many people act as if they understand everything that the Bible says, while those of us who have devoted considerable time and effort to wrestling with its mysteries must be content to recognize that while large amounts of what God says is very clear, there are also always mysteries to deal with, always riddles to solve, always more and deeper meanings and connections to be drawn, and that is what keeps scripture fresh despite multiple readings. But why make the truth mysterious in the first place?
Before we attempt to answer this question, let us first examine the texts themselves that demonstrate the deliberately mysterious nature of Jesus’ parables to the audience of His time. Let us start with Luke 8:9-10, which reads: “Then His disciples asked Him, saying, “What does this parable mean?” And He said, “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables, that ‘Seeing they may see, and hearing they may not understand.'” Mark 4:10-12 reads similarly: “But when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable. And He said to them, “To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables, so that ‘Seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand; lest they should turn and their sins be forgiven them.'” And finally, the longest account, Matthew 13:10-17, reads as follows: “And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” He answered and said to them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: ‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive; for the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”
Before we tackle the point of this entry and the reasons for God’s deliberate confusion of others, let us examine some questions that directly relate to the text itself. First, the context of this statement of purpose in God’s dealing with mankind comes in the context of an explanation of the parable of the sower. In all three synoptic Gospels, the parable of the sower, which compares mankind to various seeds planted in varying ground with varying results, is immediately before Jesus Christ’s comment, and immediately afterward Jesus Christ explains exactly what the parable means, so that there is no confusion for believers. Nonetheless, despite this specific context, Jesus Christ’s statement of the purpose of parables also applies to a much larger context, namely the riddles and enigmatic statements that fill the scriptures, areas that I am generally very interested in as a person who loves solving puzzles.
Let us also note the audience of this specific comment. Though if we read Matthew alone we might think that it was the twelve who made this comment, Mark makes it plain that it was the larger body of the disciples outside of the twelve that made the request to Jesus Christ to understand the meaning of the parable of the sower, which Jesus Christ graciously answered. Many people assume, wrongly, that it is only the elite believers that are granted the ability to understand the Bible, leaving the rest of believers only as passive recipients of biblical truth, but Jesus Christ implies by granting the request of believers outside the twelve that this privilege of biblical understanding is far broader, extending to all who are His followers.
Let us also reflect briefly that Jesus Christ stated clearly that the inability of His audience to understand Him was the fulfillment of a prophecy given in Isaiah 6:9-10, that God was deliberately going to act in such a way both in the time of Isaiah and in the time of Jesus Christ (and perhaps many other times and situations as well) where people would see His works and hear His words but not understand what they meant, because that would lead them to repent. This would seem to imply that God is not expecting or calling all people at this time, for whatever reason, because hardening the hearts of people and blinding them and making them deaf to the truth is not the sort of behavior that leads people to turn from their wicked ways and follow God’s laws. There are clear implications that can be followed for those who wish to do so.
The account in Matthew adds a few intriguing comments as well. For one, Jesus Christ states that those who have understanding will be given more and those who do not have understanding will lose what little that they know. This language appears to echo the statements about the servants given talents and minas , tying the development of understanding (and presumably the practice of godliness) to reward and blessing in the world to come. This would seem to imply that understanding deeper aspects of God’s ways requires a basic understanding, and that a failure to accept and apply simple areas of biblical morality would lead to an inability to understand the deeper and more subtle matters as well, which must be built on the basics.
In addition, the account in Matthew tells us that many prophets and godly men desired to see God in the flesh, but were unable to, but that the disciples of that time were so fortunate. Certainly godly men like Moses and David and Isaiah and Daniel and many others had visions of Jesus Christ recorded in the law and the prophets and the writings. But they were unable to walk with God in the flesh, even if they had visions of God, or were blessed in the case of Moses and Abraham to walk and talk with God in some aspects. And this is no less true today, as many of us believers (myself included) long for the day when we can know Jesus Christ face to face and not only through a glass darkly. And that day shall come when God wills it.
At long last, let us seek to wrestle with the questions with which we began this discussion. Why did Jesus Christ deliberately make it difficult to understand His parables and teachings? We have already seen that Jesus revealed the meaning of the parable of the sower to disciples (not only the twelve) after He was asked. But He did not give them the meaning automatically. We can therefore draw the inference that Jesus Christ wanted His audience to reflect on His parables and seek to understand what they meant. Putting for the effort to reflect and to ask God for wisdom and understanding (see also James 1:5) is one of the ways in which we show ourselves as believers of God rather than hearers in whom the word of life goes in one ear and right out the other.
Therefore part of the purpose of parables is to provide a riddle or a puzzle that must be solved as a way of screening those who only want easy and pat answers as opposed to those who are willing to seek out and wrestle with more difficult questions. Those who are not willing to do the work of obeying and understanding God will not be granted deeper understanding, while those who are willing to continue in such efforts will be blessed with increased and deeper understanding of God’s ways to the extent that they practice the ways they already know. And the same sort of work it takes to understand God’s ways is the sort of work it takes to practice them, and this work allows us to become more like God, because no good end comes without hard work and effort in practicing the right ways to live.
There are many implications to this, but in the interests of brevity let us only briefly comment on a few. For one, the difficulty of understanding Jesus Christ’s message, and the Bible in general, springs often from a lack of willingness to follow where God leads and to obey where God commands. Those who are not willing to wrestle with their own natures and really seek God’s will rather than their own will not find out the deeper matters of God’s truth because they will be tripped up by the basics. Asking God for answers rather than assuming that one knows everything already is also important in understanding God, since His ways and thoughts are far above our own. Far too often our pride gets in the way of our ability to learn what God has to teach us. Let us hope that we are able to avoid such pitfalls ourselves so that we may be found as true disciples of our Lord and Savior.