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.
"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.
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.