Smuggling Truth It is well known that much of Jesus teaching was by parables. What is much less commonly understood is why Jesus used parables and what his use of parables tells us about the human condition.
Why did Jesus use Parables
In the fourth chapter of Mark’s gospel, after Christ has told the parable of the sower, “the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, the secret of the kingdom of God have been given to you, but to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’” (Mark 4:10-12)
In these startling words, Christ reveals: first, that His parables are about the Kingdom of God; second, that they smuggle the message of the Kingdom of God past those on the outside; third, that understanding the parables results in a subversive revolution (“turn and be forgiven”).
First, Jesus' parables are about the Kingdom of God. Jesus takes earthly, common things (a farmer, seed, a path, birds, etc.) but unites them in a story that communicates explosive truth about the Kingdom of God; truth that subverts his listeners (and our) way of thinking, of perceiving reality. N.T. Wright puts it this way: Jesus parables “seem designed, within the worldview of the Jewish village population of the time, as tools to break open the prevailing worldview and replace it with one that was closely related but significantly adjusted at every point…Jesus was articulating a new way of understanding the fulfillment of Israel’s hope….They invite listeners into a new world, and encourage them to make that world their own, to see their ordinary world from now on through this lens, within this grid. The struggle to understand a parable is the struggle for a new world to be born.” (Jesus us and the Victory of God, 175-176)
Second, Jesus' parables smuggle the message of the Kingdom of God past those on the outside. If Jesus had just said, “I am Israel’s King. I am the Word of God incarnate. The coming of the Kingdom of God and your eternal destiny rides on how you center your life, identity, and society around me and my words,” he would have been immediately judged and condemned as a heretic and blasphemer. Parables were a way for Jesus to share his dangerous, subversive message. In a sense, Jesus was smuggling the truth of God’s Kingdom pass the unseeing eyes, the unhearing ears of those on the “outside.”
Third, Jesus' parables invite their hearers into this new world, the Kingdom of God. N.T. Wright puts it this way: “The parables are not simply information about the Kingdom, but are part of the means of bringing it to birth…They invite people into the new world that is being created, and warn of dire consequences if the invitation is refused.” (Jesus, 176) This is precisely why Jesus says, repeatedly, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:9)
What does Jesus use of Parables tell us about the human condition?
Let me suggest that Jesus use of parables teaches us that the great human problem is a problem of hearing; not the ability to hear physical sounds through our ears, but the inability to hear the message of God’s Kingship and Kingdom. In other words, the human problem is that, both personally and societally, we are closed-circle thinkers, that we are closed-circle in our world view.
By “closed-circle” I mean that our ways of thinking, our world-view, are limited (are a closed-circle) by both our situation in life (our age, gender, race, point in history, education, etc.) and by our sin. We, both personally and societally, are situated in space and time. In our thoughts about reality, we lack a full historical perspective (what did humans and human society think about this in the past), a full global perspective (what do other people, cultures think about this), a full future perspective (how will people and human society think about this in the future).
No one is culpable for this limited, finite, world-view. After all, we are humans; we are finite. But, this "situational" closed circle inevitable results in a "sinful" closed-circle world of view. This sinful closed circle way of thinking has many faces: self-pride and absorption, self-hatred and negative attitudes (I'm a loser; I'm worth nothing); racial hatred or arrogance, religious persecution (This closed-circle way of thinking had infected the Jewish religious establishment of Christ’s time; their vision for the consummation of the Kingdom of God was very different than Jesus’; it was the clash of these visions of the Kingdom of God that, ultimately, resulted in the crucifixion of Christ), discrimination, unwillingness to be stretched and challenged by new ideas (we've never done it that way), apathy toward the poor (that's not my problem), etc. We are culpable for the way that this “closed-circle” way of thinking negatively infects our life.
According to Jesus Christ, our greatest danger is to not “hear”, that is, to miss, the Kingdom of God. But, according to Jesus, if the seed of the Kingdom of God gets smuggled through the “closed circle” worldview of our mind and the defenses of our hearts, and if this seed avoids being choked out by the cares and trials of life in this world, and from being snatched out of our mind and heart by Satan, we will be inaugurated into the Kingdom of God; we will be brought into the vast, glorious, infinitely exalted reaches of the Being of the Triune God; we will know the grace, forgiveness, and power of the Kingdom of God working its way out in every sphere of our life. But, if the seed of Jesus’ word is not smuggled past our closed-circle worldview and heart defenses, or if it is smothered by the cares and trials of life in this world, or if it is snatched in the grip of Satan, we will be forever lost, eternally condemned into a smaller and smaller and shrinking world of thought, of prejudice, of self-and-other hatred…into the infinitesimally small circle of our own being.
At the end of the day, Jesus Christ is God’s ultimate parable, his smuggling of Himself past our closed-circle way of thinking, past the defenses of our hearts. Will you let him and his Kingdom in?
Join us for further discussion of this topic @ The Breakfast Club; on Sunday Mornings, 10:00am, in "Hank and Dolly" Gallery