The knowledge about the secrets of the Kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. For the person who has something will be given more, so that he will have more than enough; but the person who has nothing will have taken away from him even the little he has. The reason I use parables in talking to them is that they look, but do not see, and they listen, but do not hear or understand.
In the first sentence Jesus tells his disciples that he is sharing with them knowledge that he has received from God about the Kingdom of heaven that has not been given to “them.” I’m not sure who “they” are, but it’s probably the Pharisees and religious authorities.
In the second sentence I think he’s saying that those who have learned to listen to God will receive even more of this knowledge, while those who aren’t listening will become even more confused and misguided.
In the third sentence Jesus says he uses parables because people can’t understand what he’s saying. So what is a “parable” anyway? Here are excerpts about what Wikipedia has to say about parables:
A parable is a succinct, didactic story, in prose or verse, which illustrates one or more instructive lessons or principles. It differs from a fable in that fables employ animals, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature as characters, whereas parables have human characters. A parable is a type of analogy.
A parable is a short tale that illustrates a universal truth; it is a simple narrative. It sketches a setting, describes an action, and shows the results. A parable often involves a character who faces a moral dilemma or one who makes a bad decision and then suffers the unintended consequences. Although the meaning of a parable is often not explicitly stated, it is not intended to be hidden or secret but, on the contrary, quite straightforward and obvious.
The defining characteristic of the parable is the presence of a subtext suggesting how a person should behave or what he should believe. Aside from providing guidance and suggestions for proper conduct in one’s life, parables frequently use metaphorical language which allows people to more easily discuss difficult or complex ideas. Parables express an abstract argument by means of using a concrete narrative which is easily understood.
According to Wikipedia the parables were supposed to make things more easily understood. The disciples were always asking for interpretation of the parables so I guess they weren’t all that obvious. So why would Jesus use parables when people are already having trouble understanding what he’s trying to say? I know I don’t find them that easy to understand. I think something like the Sermon on the Mount is much easier to understand. Much more straightforward.
Yet even if I don’t understand the meaning, I still find the parables to be compelling. There is often some kind of crazy plot twist that leaves you thinking and requires you to use your imagination. They trick you into thinking about things in new ways. Maybe that’s what he’s trying to teach people through the parables. Maybe he’s trying to persuade them to think.
During the time of Moses, more than a thousand years before the time of Jesus, the Hebrew people were enlightened compared to their competition. They had abandoned human sacrifice and polytheism. They lived under a comprehensive legal system that encouraged a just society and bound them together as a strong, distinct community.
However, by the time of Jesus, the old Hebrew ways of doing things seemed primitive compared to Roman and Greek civilizations, both of which were exerting an increasing influence on Jewish society. Both Romans and Greeks took a much more intellectual, reasoned approach to life when compared to the Jews of Jesus’ time.
The Greeks enjoyed fables which, like parables, were also short stories that illustrated a moral or principle. The main difference between parables and fables is that fables used animals, plants, and other things while parables always involved human characters. I was introduced to fables through the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon show. One of the segments was Aesop and Son, which used clever animation to expose these tales to a 20th century audience.
Here is an example of a classic Greek fable, the Hare and the Tortoise:
A HARE one day ridiculed the short feet and slow pace of the Tortoise, who replied, laughing: “Though you be swift as the wind, I will beat you in a race.” The Hare, believing her assertion to be simply impossible, assented to the proposal; and they agreed that the Fox should choose the course and fix the goal. On the day appointed for the race the two started together. The Tortoise never for a moment stopped, but went on with a slow but steady pace straight to the end of the course. The Hare, lying down by the wayside, fell fast asleep. At last waking up, and moving as fast as he could, he saw the Tortoise had reached the goal, and was comfortably dozing after her fatigue. The moral: Slow but steady wins the race.
I think this is easier to understand than most of the parables in the Bible. It’s also easier to apply to one’s life. It’s straightforward. Like the parables, it has a little “Kingdom of God twist” at the end – slow is fast and fast is slow. But even though it has a twist it’s easy to understand.
I guess that one of the strengths of the parables is that they are not straightforward. Through the use of the parables Jesus teaches people that God’s Law is not just a list of rules. There are ambiguities and extenuating circumstances. Jesus objects to the religious practice of enforcing the Law with punishments rather than education and encouragement. Jesus wants them to know that the Kingdom of God is founded on love, not legalism. He wants to teach them that true love requires empathy, imagination, action, and the leading of the Holy Spirit.
In the final analysis it may be that the parables are hard to understand only because the Kingdom of God and the principles that govern it are hard to understand. So much of what Jesus says bangs up against our societal training to be selfish, competitive, and successful.
I’m ending this discussion with God’s word delivered through Psalm 78:1-2, written long before Jesus was born – “Listen, my people, to my teaching and pay attention to what I say. I am going to use wise sayings and explain mysteries from the past, things we have heard and known, things that our fathers told us.”
Indeed Jesus wanted to tell us about many secrets and mysteries. I will continue try to pay attention and see how much of it I can absorb, even though some of them seem to be somewhat of a mystery wrapped in an enigma. I would prefer to deal with something simpler like a rabbit and a turtle and the perils of overconfidence. In cartoon format of course. That would help a lot.
What does this scripture say to you?