Reflections upon Matthew 13:10-17

Originally posted at Praisegod Barebones

And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says,

‘YOU WILL KEEP ON HEARING, BUT WILL NOT UNDERSTAND;

YOU WILL KEEP ON SEEING, BUT WILL NOT PERCEIVE;

FOR THE HEART OF THIS PEOPLE HAS BECOME DULL.

WITH THEIR EARS THEY SCARCELY HEAR,

AND THEY HAVE CLOSED THEIR EYES,

OTHERWISE THEY WOULD SEE WITH THEIR EYES,

HEAR WITH THEIR EARS,

AND UNDERSTAND WITH THEIR HEART AND RETURN,

AND I WOULD HEAL THEM.’

But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. For truly 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.”

Since I first encountered it in childhood, this exchange between Jesus and His disciples has fascinated me. In recent years it has accomplished more than that: Jesus’ words recorded here have served as a corrective against some of the contemporary Christian writings that I have read and have served as a roadblock on the broad highway that leads away from humility concerning how much we truly comprehend about the Lord. The areas of insight provided by this passage are varied.

Homiletics

“Teach like Jesus,” people say. “People will understand you better when you teach like Jesus. Jesus used stories so that His teaching was accessible to everyone. Use more stories. Be more narrative. Teach like Jesus, and you’ll bring the world to Christ.” I’m indebted to Dr. Adam Dooley for having finally put all of this together for me: Yes, Jesus taught in parables. But He told us why He did so, and His reasons were 180° from the reasons the people give today. Jesus used parables in order to be MISunderstood, not in order to be understood. Parables were a device by which He achieved desired opacity, not transparency.

And, indeed, now that I’m a parent, I see this all the more clearly. There is nothing quite so easy to understand as a simple, direct command. Haven’t we all had the experience of trying to lead our children down the pleasant path of a good didactic anecdote, parenting in the path of Sheriff Andy Taylor, using homespun narrative to make some sagacious point—only to find in the end that our children missed the point entirely? Beating around the bush can provide good diplomacy in our relationships, but if the primary objective is to be understood, nothing trumps succinct frankness.

After all, you memorized a2+b2=c2, right? Not the whole story of how Pythagoras came to understand the ratio among the sides of a right triangle or the detailed proof of why the formula is true, right? Because, even if occasionally it is less satisfying as an experience, there is nothing more successful than the approach that says, “Here’s the formula: Do this and don’t worry about why.”

So, whenever I use an illustration in my preaching (and I’m going to continue to do so), I do well to keep in mind that illustrations can be misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misapplied. Good preaching will involve working hard to prevent those bad outcomes for those who hear my sermon illustrations. Stories and parables are, after all, a blessing to those who have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. But I should never presume that my sermon is clearer or more helpful just because it has stories in it. Illustrations generally provide entertainment and rapport; exegesis provides clarity.

After all, politicians use LOTS or stories, all the more when they want to keep you from understanding fully just what it is that they are saying.

Soteriology

This passage should give pause to people who get too enthusiastic about their Arminianism. Here you have Christ working to ensure that some people do not hear and understand His message. I think there is room in the passage to wonder whether by the past behavior of the Pharisees and Sadducees they earned for themselves this treatment (after all, Jesus didn’t start His ministry this way, and however you understand the “Unpardonable Sin,” Jesus was certainly condemning these detractors for it), but undeniable is the depiction of God Incarnate working to ensure that these enemies of the cross do not see, hear, understand, and return. This reads more like reprobation than mere preterition.

This passage should also give pause to people who get too enthusiastic about their monergism. Jesus’ actions here are something of an antidote to the way that some people extrapolate the wording of Ephesians 2. You know what I’m talking about: “Apart from the regenerating work of Christ, people are dead in their sins—DEAD I tell you! What can a dead man do to bring himself back to life? NOTHING!!!!!!! And so, salvation is entirely the work of God without any response or activity on the part of the corpse that He quickens.”…

…In which case it wouldn’t have been necessary for Jesus to do anything at all to obscure His preaching from the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Don’t get me wrong: This passage is shot through with the doctrine of election. There are those to whom it has been given to understand. There are those to whom God gives more until they have an abundance, and there are those from whom God takes away everything. There is the blessing of God upon those with the eyes to see. The sovereign hand of God is hard at work here.

But what is also part-and-parcel of this passage is a presumption that the external work of preaching the good news of the Kingdom is not without efficacy. There is a presumption that Jesus’ public preaching of the Kingdom, apart from any private, inward, regenerating action of the Spirit, is a dangerous thing to put into the hearing of anyone whom God might have determined not to save. If they will remain lost and condemned, it is expedient for Christ to obscure the good news from their plain hearing.

Living in Post-Ascencion Christianity

Jesus spoke of the blessing that God had given to these disciples by permitting them to live during the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Abraham and Moses and Isaiah looked longingly toward those days in Galilee. Peter and James and John were more blessed than they.

But take careful note of the basis of that blessing: The blessing comes in the knowing of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. Not in being there while Jesus fed multitudes and walked on water and healed the sick and raised the dead. Simply in understanding the truth that He taught.

The truth of the gospel and the presence of Jesus among us was always more important than a front-row seat for the miracle show.

And yet the truth remains equally well for us as for them. We find Jesus talking about the relative advantage of the disciples over those who came before them; but we never read that Jesus called the disciples more blessed than those who would come after them. No, quite to the contrary, we read that WE are even MORE blessed than they were, we who believe without having seen (John 20:29).

We devout Christians live with a temptation toward Era Envy. We tend to think we have missed out because we weren’t born in first-century Judea. But to hear Jesus tell it, our opportunity to know the truth Jesus taught and to experience the presence of Jesus through the gospel—and to do so without the crutch of His bodily presence beside us—makes us most blessed of all.

Comments

  1. Christiane says

    “21 In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said,
    I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
    that Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent,
    and hast revealed them unto babes:
    even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight.”

    (The Gospel of St. Luke, Chapter 10)

  2. Christiane says

    Hi Pastor Barber,

    that ‘era envy’ ?
    fortunately for Christian people, the sacred things of God transcend time and place

    • Christiane says

      I often think about that first century and how, even AFTER Our Lord had ascended to heaven, the message of the Good News spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond and was received by the many who were thirsting for it . . .

      the lords of Rome, the Emperors, the Emperors’ authorities and legions . . . they had the power of death over people and they used it and there were many executions,

      but the Good News spoke of a much greater power . . . Someone had come with the ability to take a dead child by the hand and say ‘arise’ and she ‘awoke’
      or to call a man dead for days by name ‘Lazarus, come forth’, and the man lived again.

      No one had ever come on this earth with the gift to restore life to the dead,
      and that was the Good News . . . the Lord of the Universe, the Kyrios, had come and been received by witnesses as the Lord of life.

      When we think of the great power of the gospel in that first century, we who are so used to knowing about Our Lord, we cannot fathom the IMPACT of the witnesses’ news of Christ’s power to restore life, that He could raise the dead, and that when He died, death could not keep Him and He arose. That was extremely powerful news in the first century A.D.

  3. says

    I agree to a point. But I also believe some of Jesus’ parables “were” to make His teaching more interesting and easy to understand. I still believe it is valid to say that of His teaching. His stories make His teaching more interesting and easy for “me” to understand. And the common people heard His gladly.

    I believe His saying parables make it hard to understand, was not intended to refer to all His stories or parables.

    The Good Samaritan seems easy to understand, and not intended to be difficult. Same for the Houses Built on the Sand and the Rock.

    But I agree that some are so hardened against Jesus they will not get the simplest story or parable. And I don’t think we’ll ever figure out the details of sovereignty and free will in salvation.
    David R. Brumbelow

    • Bart Barber says

      David,

      One of the reasons why Jesus’ parables are not inscrutable or difficult to understand for you and me is that we receive them along with 2,000 years of Christian interpretation of them. To get the point, you have to imagine hearing them for the first time and without any explanation or interpretation. What was that experience like? Well, it drove His closest disciples to beg for explanations, many of which are recorded for us in scripture. And in those cases, we receive them not only coupled with 2,000 years of Christian preaching, but also alongside Jesus’ own clarifying statements about them.

      • cb scott says

        Hey, Bart Barber!

        Have a wonderful Thanksgiving with your family, giving thanks for all He has done by His bountiful love, mercy, and all sufficient grace by which any and all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved to the uttermost.

        In addition, and I realize that it is not popular among some within the family of our Lord today; Thank God for His glorious gift to all who are blessed to have been born in the USA.

        BTW, I enjoyed reading the post.

  4. Andrew Green says

    I do believe the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 was told to explain to explain to a teacher of the law whom Jesus designated as a neighbor. This story told in 1st century Israel would have quickly given away what Jesus thought of the Priests and the Levites as well as what it means to be a neighbor. While I do agree that many of the parables were told to hide the true meaning some were not. I use illustrations with teenagers a lot because that seems to be the way they learn the best but I always confront them with the word of God first then illustrations are only supposed to be supporting material. Otherwise good article

    • Bart Barber says

      But just think, Andrew, how much easier and clearer it would have been for Jesus simply to say, “Everyone ought to be your neighbor.” I really think that this story makes my point pretty well.

      First, you have to understand that I am not denying the emotive power of stories like this one. From the first time that I heard this story, back in my dimmest recollections of early Sunday School, I have found the story of the Good Samaritan to be a powerful story. So much pathos! The person who doesn’t feel anything upon hearing this story the first time is beyond feeling.

      And yet, what happens when I ask myself this question: At what age did I actually understand how this story is an answer to the question “Who then is my neighbor?” I’ve got to say, that came pretty late, and only because I encountered exegetical preachers who labored to make the point. The question was “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ answer was another question along the lines of “Who behaved like a neighbor to this man?” This is not an answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” but is instead an answer to the question “To whom am I a neighbor?”

      And so, this powerful parable does not yield easily to understanding apart from explanation, in my opinion.

  5. Truth Unites... and Divides says

    “Jesus used parables in order to be MISunderstood, not in order to be understood. Parables were a device by which He achieved desired opacity, not transparency.”

    Hi Bart, thanks for not using a parable to convey this point. :-)

  6. Max says

    Pastor visits a first grade Sunday School class.

    Pastor: Children, what is brown and lives in the forest?
    Class: no response
    Pastor: Children, what is brown, lives in the forest, and has a bushy tail?
    Class: no response
    Pastor: Children, what is brown, lives in the forest, has a bushy tail, and eats acorns?
    Joey raises his hand: Pastor, I know I’m supposed to say Jesus … but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!

    The Word + Spirit of Truth = Revealed Truth

      • cb scott says

        No one is given “revealed truth” until it is given to them. How then is revealed truth given?

        By the power and movement of the Holy Spirit upon a person, revealing to that individual that he or she is a sinner before a just and righteous God, whereupon that person then repents and believes the biblical gospel and they become a child of the Living God.

      • Dave Miller says

        I’d bet my spleen you two are saying pretty much the same thing.

        No one understands the things of God unless the Spirit illumines our hearts.

        • cb scott says

          “No one understands the things of God unless the Spirit illumines our hearts.”

          That is the reality, is it not?

          • Max says

            Amen! The veil is removed as we read the Word by the Spirit … Scripture is then illuminated (revealed). Thus, the Spirit leads us into Truth (just as Jesus promised!) … “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

          • Bart Barber says

            I agree, CB! I think the point to be gleaned from this passage is that the illumination of the Spirit acts not only inwardly but also through the outward effects of the preaching of the gospel.

  7. says

    Some hear hardly but do not understand, they see but without perception and their hearts are dull to truth and in addition to those things, they close their eyes and stop their ears.
    It reminds me of this passage from Ephesians 4:
    Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.

    That in both passages there is a CAN’T and a WON’T, that only God can overcome: “But blessed are your eyes for they see”.

  8. says

    and since we are the Samaritans the Jews are our neighbors…however he was not so much condemningthe Levite heading to the temple. Jesus was explaining to them the true meaning of the Torah commands. It was never intended that they would never become unclean.it was understood that there would be times that they needed to become unclean in order to show mercy which Jesus shows us always trumps any commandment . They had become lazy and he was condemning their laziness in not showing mercy.

    When one states a fact people are not moved with emotion. When faced with a parable from Nathan David felt the depth of his sin and disappointment personally. Thou art the man!

    Stating a fact leaves them angry with the messenger…a parable leaves them contemplating internally.

  9. says

    There were many factions our sects listening to Jesus. As with pharoah who at one point seemed repentant, they were set in their hearts a certain mindset antithetical to Jesus’s point. If they were to truly repent it would only be through thorough self reflection laying down preconceptions. Parables serve to go deeper into the heart to either prick or harden further.

    This is the difference between spear fishing and letting out your nets to see who swims into them.

    So does God decide who swims in or does the fish? I’m firmly of the opinion He knows and created us with individual bents to open our hearts or close them bitterly. I’m also sure it is our choice within this parameter.

    I feel like I have a carrot cake under my nose leading me on a path to know Him more intimately in His Word and by the Spirit He placed in me. I don’t know how people run from God’s carrot cake…but they do.

    And others are complacent too just be saved and let someone teach them not checking for error….not caring to grow much.

    I’m not willing to label God when it seems He is so much more than the label.

    I think when God says He chose a certain lineage to speak through it is not their greatness and any lack of faults but their penchant to let God retrain them through their faults. My fault is love of carrot cake, i guess…

  10. Irwin Fletcher says

    Bart,

    Excellent post. Reminds me of 2 Peter 2:19 and the idea that, however you translate the verse, Peter’s confidence was greater after the resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost than it was even during the events recorded in the Gospels.

    Fletch F. Fletch