Friday, November 4, 2011

Why Jesus Spoke in Parables

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Background
Just prior to the topic of this study, according to Matthew and Mark, Jesus disowned His own mother. However, according to Luke, Jesus disowned His mother after the events in this study. For Luke, the topic of this study was preceded by a sinful woman anointing Jesus (Luke 7:36-50), and Jesus wandering from village to village with His Twelve Apostles (Luke 8:1-3).

Why Jesus Spoke in Parables
“When its twigs are dry, they are broken off and women come and make fires with them. For this is a people without understanding; so their Maker has no compassion on them, and their Creator shows them no favor.” Isaiah 27:11 NIV

“Many will be purified, made spotless and refined, but the wicked will continue to be wicked. None of the wicked will understand, but those who are wise will understand.” Daniel 12:10 NIV
There are many divisions in the body of Christianity, but one of the more fundamental divisions is whether or not a Christian believes that the opportunity for Salvation is inclusive or exclusive. The inclusive perspective holds that God makes sure that, by some means, everybody is at least presented the option of Salvation, and their Salvation is usually based on their free will acceptance of it. The exclusive perspective is that Salvation is really only available to a subset of people, the Elect, and God will make sure that only and all of the Elect will attain Salvation. The inclusive perspective is the most fair, but the exclusive perspective is the most accurate to Scripture, as we can see through Jesus' telling of parables.

Matthew 13:1-9, Mark 4:1-9, and Luke 8:4-8 all recount Jesus telling a parable to a crowd regarding a man who sows seeds indiscriminately, ultimately resulting in only the seeds which had fallen on good soil producing fruit.

In each account, Jesus ends the parable with the essentially same line; "He who has ears, let him hear." From the context, it does not appear that Jesus added this remark in its literal sense; this was not a message for everyone who physically had ears. Instead, it appears that Jesus meant that only certain people would be able to understand this parable, and that they should take heed of it. It appears that Jesus was only really talking to select people, and that appearance would be immediately confirmed by the Scripture.

The three accounts vary slightly about what happens next, but they are all a variant on Jesus answering the question posed by Jesus' disciples in Matthew 13:10:
The disciples came to [Jesus] and asked, "Why do you speak to the people in parables?" NIV
Jesus' reply in each of these three Gospels is a demonstration of each author's perspective. Mark, which many scholars believe is the earliest of the four Gospels, is raw and terse. Matthew clearly tries to aggregate additional information to the recorded data. Luke appears to edit out an unsavory verse. Let us take a look at each reply, starting with Mark 4:11-12:

[Jesus] told them, "The secret of the Kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,
" 'they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'" NIV
According to Jesus' own words, His parables were not brilliant metaphors which helped the masses understand the Kingdom of God. No. They were deliberate enigmas meant to keep unwanted people out of the Kingdom of God by keeping them from repentance by keeping them from understanding. Only Jesus' disciples were given the secret, true meaning of the parables, which is subsequently illustrated for this parable in Matthew 13:18-23, Mark 4:13-20, and Luke 8:11-15.

That last bit about “otherwise they might turn and be forgiven” seems especially harsh, making it appear that God did not want to forgive everyone. Plus, it sets up an interesting paradox where it appears that God would be bound to keep His promise, but keeping His promise is against His will. The concept of God doing anything against His own will is troublesome. These issues are probable reasons why Luke, being a bit of an editor, left off that line in Jesus' reply in Luke 8:9-10, which is otherwise essentially the same reply as Mark 4:11-12 above.

Matthew, on the other hand, continues in his trend of aggregating pieces into the story, expanding Jesus' reply by quite a bit before going into explaining the actual parable. In Matthew 13:10-17 we find the same theme main theme, that the parables are meant to occlude knowledge from non-disciples. We also find that those who have understanding will be given more while those who do not have understanding will be even more befuddled, we see a greatly expanded prophesy quote, and we have a reminder that Jesus' disciples are fortunate to have this knowledge that prophets and righteous men had longed to know.

So why did Jesus speak in parables? Biblically speaking, it was to condemn people in their lack of understanding. It was a type of mockery. It was as if Jesus felt obligated to tell everyone about His Kingdom, but He also felt like He had fulfilled that obligation if He were to do so in a foreign language, fully aware that most of His audience would never understand His words.

Regarding the Prophesy
This is yet another case of mangled prophesy in the New Testament. Jesus' reply appears to be centered around Isaiah 6:9-10. However, it does not quite fit.

Isaiah 6:9 says "...Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving," in hearing→seeing order, as opposed to how Mark and Luke reference a seeing→hearing order.

Isaiah 6:10 does have a seeing→hearing order which we find in the latter half of the verse with "...Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed," but you notice that it is not in the same sense of how Mark and Luke quote it (which is a closer match with Isaiah 6:9). As you can see above, Mark also quotes an interpretation of the last phrase of Isaiah 6:10, but has skipped the “understand with their hearts” phrase completely.

Alternatively, some scholars suggest the seeing→hearing order comes from either Jeremiah 5:21 or Ezekiel 12:2, but how Mark would then mash together these verses with only the very last phrase of Isaiah 6:10 is a real puzzle.

Matthew 13:14-15 more-fully quotes Isaiah 6:9-10. However, the supposedly Jewish Matthew quotes this passage from the Septuagint, a Greek interpretation of the Old Testament, as opposed to the original Hebrew source, as you can see here. By doing so, Matthew propagated an error in that particular translation which substantially changed the intent of the original words.

What was the original intent? Well, I encourage you to look at Isaiah 6 for yourself. It is a mere thirteen verses, so it will not take you long. In there, you will not find a prophesy regarding Jesus or any other Messiah. Instead you find a God who is exasperated by the continual cycle of backslide-repent-backslide of His people. Therefore, God wants to afflict them with a harsh punishment “until the Lord has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken.” This is a pre-exile prophesy.

The exile was meant to be a shocking blow to get the Jewish nation back on track, eventually, because they had been ignoring God's more-mild disciplinary actions, like drought and disease. Presumably, God did not want them to repent for the moment only to backslide again a few years later, as had been the case many times before. That is why God gave the command to Isaiah to curse the people so that they would not understand or perceive until their nation had been decimated and displaced.

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