A “parable” is just a short story teaching a spiritual lesson. These stories were often based on some aspect of the life of the rural communities of 1st Century Palestine. Some aspect of an unfamiliar concept of the Kingdom of God was compared to some bit of everyday life. This made it communicable, easy to hear and remember. The stories often carried a twist or a surprise ending that caught the listeners’ attention and drew them into a new way of thinking.
Now, if you’ve ever been in the painful position of having to explain a joke to someone, you’ll know what a mistake it is to try to pin down the meaning of every detail. (“But why was there an Irishman with the English and the Scottish guy?”). And generally speaking, Jesus just had one or two points to make in each story, and if you get bogged down in the details of a story, it’s easy –as they say- to “miss the forest for the trees”.
In the passage which introduces the idea of Jesus teaching through stories, Mark writes this: “When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that
‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’ ” (Mark 4:10-12)
The explanation seems a little rough, doesn’t it? A little out of character? Were these stories intended to deliberately confuse? Jesus was quoting Isaiah 6:9-10. The prophet Isaiah was expressing a frustration that the pride, arrogance and prejudice of his listeners was preventing their receiving his message.
Barclay explains it this way: “When Isaiah spoke, he spoke half in irony and half in despair and altogether in love. He was thinking, “God sent me to bring his truth to this people; and for all the good I am doing I might as well have been sent to shut their minds to it. I might as well be speaking to a brick wall. You would think that God had shut their minds to it.”
And this is how Jesus explained why he was telling stories. He wanted to provide seed-thoughts, sharp flashes of insight and comprehension. Instead he often witnessed dull incomprehension. He came to his own people, but they couldn’t get it.
He saw people blinded by prejudice, deafened by their self-obsession, or simply too lazy to think out of the box. He turned to his disciples and he said to them: “Do you remember what Isaiah once said? He said that when he came with God’s message to God’s people Israel in his day they were so dully un-understanding that you would have thought that God had shut instead of opening their minds; I feel like that right now.”
When Jesus said this, he did not say it in anger, or irritation, or bitterness, or exasperation. He said it with the wistful longing of frustrated love, the poignant sorrow of a man who had a tremendous gift to give which people were too blind to take.
If we read this, hearing not a tone of bitter exasperation, but a tone of regretful love, it will sound quite different. It will tell us not of a God who deliberately blinded men and hid his truth, but of men who were so dully uncomprehending that it seemed no use even for God to try to penetrate the iron curtain of their lazy incomprehension. God save us from hearing his truth like that!
But the stories! The stories were like undercover agents, subverting the normal mental processes, slipping under the radar and passport control and taking up lodging in people’s minds.
(Did you follow all the mixed metaphors?)
So you hear the stories and they become like a kind of filter, awakening kingdom-hunger, provoking kingdom-awareness. Are you listening? Really listening?
And those who had ears to hear would hear just a very little, and it would develop a moment of hunger for more.
(Check out Barclay’s commentary on Mark 4:1-12)
- Jesus the Song and Dance man (tithebarn.wordpress.com)
- Trinity XX 2013 (acommonharvester.wordpress.com)
- Sermon for Sunday 13th October (bloggingontheway.com)
- Day 283: Matthew 13-14; Parables and Miracles (orcministries.wordpress.com)
- With a Parable: Part One (tiltedkingdom.wordpress.com)
- Is Your Faith Blind? Give it some Sight (Insight)! (fredswolfe.wordpress.com)
- Jesus Was the World’s First Tweeter (expertspages.com)