Last week I taught a seminar on the parables, giving some basic thoughts about what they are and how to interpret them. One of the questions that the parables raise (which I included in the talk, but didn’t feel I answered as clearly as I could have done!) is whether they are designed to reveal or conceal.
It’s undeniable that some of the parables are difficult to understand. That was even the case for Jesus’ first hearers, some of whom had to ask for a follow-up interpretation (Matthew 13:36). But at a fundamental level we need to ask, did Jesus intend for these stories to be accessible and easy to comprehend? Or did he deliberately keep them complex and perhaps even use them to conceal his true meaning?
Look at Matthew 13:
Then the disciples came and said to [Jesus], “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to known the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says “You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.” But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it […] All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”’ (Matthew 13:1-17, 34-35)
What do these verses tell us about Jesus’ intention with the parables? Do they imply that Jesus deliberately used cryptic stories in order to confound people? Mark seems to imply that this is the case when he says,
to you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that “they may indeed see but not perceive.”’ (Mark 4:11-12)
Many argue that Mark takes a particularly ‘hard’ view on the parables, implying that Jesus deliberately tried to confuse people (so that), whilst Matthew 13 and Luke 8:9-10 offer a softer view, saying that the result of people hearing the parables is confusion, but that Jesus didn’t necessarily intend for them to confuse. What many advocates of the ‘hard’ view of Mark 4:11-12 often fail to note is that Mark 4:33 says that through the parables Jesus was speaking ‘as they were able to hear it.’ Therefore the tension isn’t between Mark’s account and the other synoptic writers, but is internal to Mark’s chapter as well.
For my money, the answer to this apparent contradiction lies in the Old Testament quotations, which foretell both the use of parables and also the people’s reluctance to truly hear them.
Matthew 13:14-15 quotes Isaiah 6:9-10.
And he said, “Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”’
If we had read through Isaiah to this point, we would know by chapter 6 that the people have been accused of worshipping false gods and rejecting the true God. When Isaiah is sent to deliver this message to the rebellious people, God is not planning to make Israel sin, but rather He is confirming their own regular, freely-chosen decision to reject Him. By quoting this verse, Jesus seems to see his own ministry of teaching in parables as a similar one to that of Isaiah: confirming the already-present hard-heartedness of his hearers. They were already blind and deaf and therefore speaking in parables is an appropriate way of addressing them.
R.T. France expresses it like this:
Jesus sees himself in a similar prophetic role [to Isaiah], meeting a similar unresponsiveness in those of his hearers who are not disciples, and it is this situation which makes parables an appropriate method of teaching […] The spiritual dullness was the situation within which Jesus taught rather than itself the product of his teaching […] The emphasis is not on either the purpose or result of Jesus’ speaking in parables, but rather on the existing situation within which it took place.’ (R.T. France, Matthew, p222-223)
So Jesus’ teaching in cryptic parables is designed to confirm the stubbornness that already exists rather than to cause it, or primarily to change it.
Having said that, Isaiah 6:13 offered a glimmer of hope to its original hearers: following the destruction of Israel, one tiny portion would remain: ‘the holy seed is its stump’ and thus there is at least the possibility of regrowth. No doubt Jesus, though he brought a cryptic and somewhat-damning message, also intended to offer hope through his miracles, his mercy and his offer of forgiveness. The Holy Seed.
Matthew 13:35 quotes Psalm 78:2. This Psalm was written by Asaph, who is described in 2 Chronicles 29:30 as a ‘seer’ or a prophet. Asaph says that the purpose of his parables is to tell old truths, to make sure they’re not hidden from the future generations; to reveal the works of God so that they won’t respond like their fathers in being stubborn towards God (Psalm 78:2-4, 6-8).
In quoting Psalm 78 Matthew appears to be saying two things. Firstly, that Jesus saw his own ministry as being in a similar model to that of Asaph. As a seer, Asaph brought a prophetic warning to his generation not to be stubborn. And Jesus sees himself as coming in the same manner as Asaph, bringing a similar message in the form of parables in order to warn his generation of the same dangers of stubbornness. But secondly Jesus makes it clear that the purpose of the parables was to bring revelation, not just to consign the generation to destruction, but to rescue them.
The combination of Matthew 13:10-17 and 34-35 shows us that the parables have a dual function.
The parables not only conceal but also reveal and that often they reveal that which was previously concealed.’ (Craig Blomberg, Matthew, p50)
It seems that the result of the parables will depend somewhat on the heart-orientation of the hearer (a point which shouldn’t surprise us, given that Matthew 13 begins with the parable of the sower!) For the hearer whose heart is soft and open, the parables will bring revelation, unlock hope and lead to life. For the hearer whose heart is already hard and predisposed against God, the parables will confound and will ultimately confirm the sinful inclinations of their heart.
It is also important to note that the disciples who Jesus says are blessed for seeing and hearing (Matthew 13:16-17) don’t understand the parables in full. In v36 they come to Jesus and ask for an explanation. So it seems that for Jesus seeing, hearing and understanding the message can’t be simply cognitive, because Jesus tells the disciples that they see and hear (v16-17) when clearly they haven’t fully understood (v36). Mark 4:34 tells us that Jesus explained everything to the disciples privately. Matthew 13:16-17 must therefore refer more to a general openness and enlightened understanding of the Kingdom of God, to which the parables were signposts.
What’s more, in Matthew 21, with the Parable of the Tenants, the Pharisees did understand it, which is precisely why they tried to arrest him. So Jesus isn’t saying that a hearer will be blessed simply by being able to understand all the details of the parables, but rather by seeing the truth through them and responding accordingly.
So do Jesus’ parables reveal or conceal?
He who has ears, let him hear!