I want to talk about a hard saying in Mark. It’s good to talk about those things and not just avoid them or cut them out. Just like anything in our lives, if we actually relate to the writers of the Bible we end up learning how to have a functional relationship with them and the book they’ve helped compose, as opposed to dehumanizing them. Don’t we end up often avoiding our conflicts if they get too hard? I want us to wrestle with God here and come out with our faith still intact and still informed by His revelation, not just my experiences.
What’s happening here? This passage is a little confusing. It’s really interesting because it seems like Jesus is trying to confuse us. In fact, when he quotes Isaiah 6, we really do see an unusual explanation for why he gives parables.
I think the typical evangelical interpretation for why Jesus speaks in parables is to clarify his meaning. The story helps the message gain traction in our everyday lives, it might make it memorable, or even comical. It’s relatable. I guess conventional knowledge would lead us to believe that Jesus told parables to clarify his meaning.
But did he? Let’s look back at Jesus’ direct answer to the disciples when they ask him this question.
Jesus is quoting Isaiah 6, which describes an Israel where people’s hearts are calloused and they aren’t listening—this Israel actually ushers the way for Jesus, who continues to get rejected by the calloused Jewish leaders around him. Jesus is bringing a revolution that’s so counter-cultural, it seems like he is speaking in parables so that only those who are really listening to him get the message and get the idea.
N.T. Wright says Jesus’ political climate was so hostile that if his message was loud and clear, he would have been preemptively killed. Wright compares Jesus’ parables to political cartoons. The cartoons themselves only have meaning to people who understand the context in which they are written. Like this one right here. You get the general idea here this octopus slash Englishman is symbolizing the British Empire. In context, it’s actually noting that Egypt and the Suez Canal are about to be acquired by the Empire. This one might not seem subtle, but it has subtleties that are only discernable to an acute observer.
The same applies for the parables Jesus is writing. They are written in a way that only a certain audience can hear and interpret because not all listeners have the same intentions.
Wright says that everything Jesus is doing is creating a division of Israel. And the things Jesus is saying are like bombs ready to be detonated. Jesus was a radical in the way that threatened Herod and the Romans. But moreover, even ordinary people might be threatened by the fact that he’s not bringing the revolution that they expect. It’s a three-pronged threat to Jesus: ordinary people, Roman authority, and Jewish elites. If he uses plain speak, someone might listen and kill him.
But again, even with that explanation, with has left many expositors blindsided and confused, there is an additional line that makes it seem like Jesus is being cryptic so that people don’t get saved. He says “otherwise they might turn and be forgiven.” Actually, that phrase seems to be a summary of what Isaiah implied in the sixth chapter of his book of prophecy. Nevertheless even in Isaiah it isn’t much better.
I want to rest with this for a second. I actually do have an explanation for why Jesus seemingly said something so aggressive. But I want us to consider this—Jesus says he speaks in parables to make the meaning less clear to those who aren’t really following. With that said, it is possible that this passage frustrates those who are already frustrated. Those who don’t have ears to hear. They aren’t listening to the Spirit, they’re listening to their logic—which is up for debate anyway.
So often, people that are interested in finding a problem will a find a problem. I’m not looking for problems because I do trust in God and I have reason to trust in God. This is hard and doesn’t sound very empathetic, right? I mean people do have honest questions that are shaken by the tragedies and traumas they experience in their lives. You know, working out how our parents treated us affects how we read the Bible today. So I want to be sensitive to those people. Sometimes our ideological conflict isn’t even born out of some terrible thing that happened to us—we just think Jesus is confusing. And he is. On purpose it seems. Is that OK?
Mark compresses Matthew’s version of the story. Some people think they were copying from an unnamed source—that source could have been the written material, or it could have been oral tradition, or each other (that’s highly debatable). But the point is that Matthew’s quotation seems to show Jesus as a little more generous. You still get the “otherwise” statement in this version but it’s a little more encouraging because it seems to make the people responsible for their deafness and blindness.
Jesus privately speaks to his disciples and offers his interpretation of the parable. Really, this is a meta-parable in many respects. It’s about listening. It’s about responding to God. In his analysis of the parable, we clearly see that it isn’t Jesus who is making the people not listen, they just haven’t cultivated themselves as listeners. Jesus is trying to help his disciples listen to what he’s saying because they’ve proven themselves as loyal followers. To those who have nothing but antagonism, their conversion process takes a different route. Jesus is trying to start a movement, and he needs the willing to follow him. He’s so his own person that if you don’t follow, he might move on to someone who will.
He’s looking for people that will not let Satan come and snatch up the Word that he’s sown. Following the Word, both Jesus’ stories, the Scripture, and Jesus himself, is bound to get you in trouble. Jesus wants people who are firmly planted to carry his word. And if you read the Gospels, you really get the idea that it takes a willing participate more than anything to do it.
Jesus also says it isn’t necessarily Satan alone that makes us unable to hear his message and understand it. In fact, it might be our own conditions that keep that seed from being planted. He doesn’t mince words here: being overly concerned about this life, about material possessions and wealth, or any number of other things. We often aren’t fertile ground for sown seeds and the Word of God because of our own priorities. Jesus is saying we are responsible for taking what he says seriously and making it work.
The disciples do that. They don’t blow it off. They actually respond to what Jesus is saying with a question. How good is it when we are willing to ask a question about something that we don’t understand? I want you to notice that Jesus is terse with people that are asking rhetorical questions that aren’t helpful, but he is genuinely interested when we have a real question that’s limiting us. His answers may be just as mysterious as he is, but he wants us to learn to listen to him.
We don’t need to exclusively rely on the Bible as if it’s the only source of truth we have. God’s voice is all over the place—tradition, creation, our own history, our experiences, the Holy Spirit. Sometimes I think forcing ourselves to read the Bible as if it needs to be the only source of revelation we have makes us manipulate what Jesus is actually saying. Did Mark merely copy an account of a story and summarize it poorly? If he did is that OK?
But at the same time, if we don’t have a clear way to discern the Spirit and the Word of God, we might be tossed all over the place. I guess that’s another point of parable. We need to have discerning ears, not open to just anyone, but not closed to everyone either. Our ground needs to be sturdy enough to hold the seed in place, but aerated enough so that the truth can grow in us. In other words, we should be listening to God’s truth all over the place, but discerning about what we consume. Listen carefully and lead carefully. Not because you don’t want people to learn the truth, but rather because there are some listeners—truly—who will only hurt your cause.