Day 126: Matthew 13:11-13

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.

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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?

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One thought on “Day 126: Matthew 13:11-13

  1. Why does Jesus speak in parables?
    John- I have to agree that parables are not easy to understand.
    Relative to what Jesus’ says about understanding parables what befuddles me is that of the 40 plus parables there are only two parables in Matthew as far as I can see that have extended explanations. The rest of them just lay out the parable and you have to take it from there. As the Wikipedia says, mostly a parable is supposed to be understood or at least responded to at face value. I remember Rubenstein was asked what a piano piece was supposed to mean. He simply played the piece over again.
    So over the years I have struggled with making sense with the statements about speaking in parables (1 3.10-16) and (13.34-35).
    In the first the disciples ask, “Why do you use parables when you speak to the crowds?” and Jesus goes on to say that, “They haven’t received the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but you have.” In the second, almost in contradiction to the first he says, “This was to fulfill what the prophet spoke: “I will declare what has been hidden since the beginning of the worlds.” This suggests that parable is the appropriate manner to deal with the questions of life. Maybe the only knowledge we have is parabolic and every discipline at its deepest is parabolic. We only share parables whether in science, literature, art, philosophy, or any other discipline.
    So what is going on with the two statements of speaking in parables? I mean the crowds were certainly familiar with the material of working in the fields and also the subject matter of all the other parables. So I am befuddled.
    Maybe I need to read about the Jewish understanding of parables. The Jewish Encyclopedia has this background material:
    That the Hebrew designation for “parable” is “mashal” (comp. David Ḳimḥi’s commentary on II Sam. xii. 1-4 and on Isa. v. 1-6) is confirmed by the fact that in the New Testament the Syriac “matla,” corresponding to the Hebrew “mashal,” is used for παραβολή (Matt. xiii. 18, 31, 33; xxi. 45; Mark iv. 2; Luke v. 36, vi. 39). It must be noted, however, that “mashal” is used also to designate other forms in rhetoric, such as the fable and apothegm.
    Biblical Parables.
    The Old Testament contains only five parables,corresponding to the definition here given, aside from a few symbolic stories, such as Ezek. iii. 24-26, iv. 1-4, and xxiv. 3-5. These parables are as follows: (1) Of the poor man who had raised a single lamb which a wealthy neighbor took to set before a guest (II Sam. xii. 1-4); intended to illustrate the sin which David had committed with Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife. (2) Of the wise woman of Tekoah, who induced David to make peace with his son Absalom (ib. xiv. 6-8). (3) Of the prophet’s disciple, showing Ahab the wrong course which he had adopted toward Ben-hadad (I Kings xx. 39-40). (4) Of the vineyard which does not thrive despite the care bestowed upon it (Isa. v. 1-6), illustrating Israel’s degeneracy. (5) Of the farmer who does not plow continually, but prepares the field and sows his seed, arranging all his work in due order (Isa. xxviii. 24-28); intended to show the methodical activity of God. All these parables were based on conditions familiar at the time; and even the event described in II Sam. xiv. 6-8 was probably no rare occurrence, in view of the custom which then prevailed of avenging bloodshed.
    In the Talmud.
    A large number of parables are found in post-Biblical literature, in Talmud and Midrash. The Talmudic writers believed in the pedagogic importance of the parable, and regarded it as a valuable means of determining the true sense of the Law and of attaining a correct understanding thereof (Cant. R. i. 8). Johanan b. Zakkai is said to have studied parables and fables side by side with the Miḳra, Mishnah, Halakah, Haggadah, etc. (B. B. 134a; Suk. 28a), and R. Meïr used to divide his public discourses into halakah, haggadah, and parables (Sanh. 38b). In the Talmud and Midrash almost every religious idea, moral maxim, or ethical requirement is accompanied by a parable which illustrates it. Among the religious and moral tenets which are thus explained may be mentioned the following: the existence of God (Gen. R. xxxiv. 1); His manner of retribution, and of punishing sins both in this world and in the next (‘Ab. Zarah 4a; Yalḳ., Lev. 464; Shab. 152a); His faithful governance (‘Ab. Zarah 55a; Sanh. 108a); His impatience of injustice (Suk. 30a); His paternal leniency (Ex. R. xlvi. 6), and His relation to Israel (ib. xlvi. 4; Ber. 32a); Israel’s sufferings (Ber. 13a); the folly of idolatry (‘Ab. Zarah 54b-55a); the Law as the guardian and faithful protector in life (Soṭah 21a); the sin of murder (Mek., Yitro, 8 [ed. Weiss, p. 78a]); the resurrection (Sanh. 91a); the value of benevolence (B. B. 10a); the worth of a just man for his contemporaries (Meg. 15a); the failure of popularity as a proof of intrinsic value (Soṭah 40a); the evil tendency of freedom from anxiety (Ber. 32a); the limitations of human knowledge and understanding (Sanh. 39a); the advantage frequently resulting from what appears to be evil (Niddah 31a); conversion (Shab. 153a); purity of soul and its reward (ib. 152b).
    Whew, that helps. So, again, the purpose of parables is to make things clearer. Maybe we have two things going on here. The parables in themselves are not esoteric. Although they contain a profound truth that can stimulate much thinking, they are not using material and situations that are beyond ordinary human experience. But then there is the secret.
    What comes to mind is the development of existential philosophy by Martin Heidegger at the beginning of the 20th century. He offered a magnificent explanation of existentialism and the importance of the power of events in history. The thing was when he came up with the great and powerful event that would lead the world forward he chose the rise of Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany. So here these parables are saying some Good News event is talking place. The actual way that this was happening in front of people’s eyes might not be perceived. Maybe some would say it was the power of Rome that was really bringing in the great harvest or clearing the world of evil. Who knows how people would see it happening. But the disciples, clueless as they are presented over and over again, understood that the event was happening in this crazy adventure with Jesus. Somehow there every person was being affirmed. Somehow love was the winner.
    Well, that is may be a way for me to stop being befuddled by this Scripture, at least for today. Peace.

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