bible blog 1183

This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:

ISTANBUL SUBWAY UNITES EUROPE WITH ASIA tunnel

Matthew 13:10-17

New English Translation (NET)

10 Then the disciples came to him and said, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 He replied, “You have been given the opportunity to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but they have not. 12 For whoever has will be given more, and will have an abundance. But whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 13 For this reason I speak to them in parables: Although they see they do not see, and although they hear they do not hear nor do they understand. 14 And concerning them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

You will listen carefully yet will never understand,
you will look closely yet will never comprehend.
15 For the heart of this people has become dull;
they are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes,
so that they would not see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’

16 “But your eyes are blessed because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it

As I noted in a recent blog, the early churches found difficulty in understanding Jesus’ parables. Why had he not spoken plainly? This question is put on the lips of disciples in this story by Matthew. Jesus answers by saying that those who follow him can understand plain speaking but those who have not chosen to follow are given a more testing, teasing, kind of truth expressed in a story which they will only unravel if their “hearing” is restored, that is, if they turn towards God and are “healed”.  The story is a kind of test, both giving and concealing a message.

As it stands, this seems an odd explanation and we should probably think it comes from the Christian churches rather than Jesus himself, whose stories were probably popular with his audiences as they use language and social situations which would have been familiar to them. Doubtless Jesus told stories for the same reason that other wise teachers have used them: because they arouse interest and communicate, through narrative, ideas that would otherwise have been expressed in abstractions. But that’s not to say that Matthew’s notion is wholly wrong. Far from it. There’s a riddling element in the parables which requires spiritual openness in the hearers if they are to grasp its meaning. There is also a n element of decision which is left to the listener. The wounded man is by the roadside. Now! What will you do? It was  a Samaritan that helped him. Now! Would you have refused his help? The elder son is refusing to join the celebration over the prodigal’s return. Now! What would you do in his situation? The seed of God’s kingdom is a very small thing at present. Now! Will you ignore it?  The parables place the hearers at the boundary between the way of God and the way of the world  and ask where they want to stand.  

What would you do? (Rembrandt)

What would you do?
(Rembrandt)

There are implications here for the communication of moral and religious truth. If the message is too easy, too accessible, because it is accommodated to popular thinking, it ceases to be true; and if it is told in the language of spiritual intimacy it may cease to  communicate. The parable preserves the authentic challenge of the truth. Children, who are according to Jesus the true possessors of the kingdom, always prefer the obliqueness and involvement of a story to anything that sounds like a sermon. The use of the koan ( a teaching story) in Zen Buddhist practice is an interesting parallel to Jesus’ use of parable. The Zen master too wants to startle his disciple into an encounter with truth rather than transmit a safe parcel of doctrine.

 

 

 

 

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