The Perplexing Parables, Matthew 13.1-3, 10-17
Holy God, who gives wisdom; and from whose mouth comes knowledge and understanding (Proverbs 2.6); open our ears, clear away the scales from our eyes, remove the calcifications of our hearts, and teach us this day, for the sake of Jesus Christ your Son and our Lord. Amen.
Stories can be pleasantly distracting and imaginatively propelling, “2016 Young Explorer Adventure Guide,” which I’m reading now for fun. It’s a series of short stories – mostly sci-fi – written for young adults to stoke their imaginations and desire to read. Other stories are meant to morally and mentally shock the reader, sometimes in bad ways, and sometimes in good ways; like Flannery O’Connor or Cormac McCarthy. And some stories are meant to do something unexpected, in a way that subverts the reigning mindset and religious sensitivities. I think that’s what is going on with the perplexing parables of Matthew 13.
Perspective of Parables (13.1-3): The context of the parables gushes out of Chapter 12. In 1-14 Jesus, the Son of Man who is Lord of the Sabbath (12.8) corrects the misguided mandates of the religious elite and piously privileged with regard to the Sabbath. Steam builds up as he liberates a man dominated by demonic forces and the religious leaders spin it as black magic, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons” (Matthew 12.24). Because they’re opposed to Jesus they can’t hear him or see him with honesty. They even have the gall to then ask him for a sign, and the only sign he promises is the Sign of the Gospel of the Kingdom and the death and resurrection of the King. Then comes his family, and Jesus defines who is in and who is out of his family (12.49-50). Now comes chapter 13 hard on the heels of the defining clashes of chapter 12, “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down” (13.1-2). The parables, then, must be seen as a continuation of the tension of chapter 12, and as an extension of the concluding episode in chapter 12 – this is why some are in, and why some are out. Now, as we “get” the perspective of the parables, it may help to explain why we may often be puzzled by the parables.
Puzzled by Parables (13.10-11): Of a certainty Jesus is speaking to the crowds, many of whom were very likely part of the audience of chapter 12. And these crowds would have respected the religious elites, and heard the earlier clash. Also, the crowds would have included the piously privileged as well as spies and snitches who are looking for some salient and salacious snippet to report to the authorities, so Jesus speaks in puzzling parables (13.11). In fact, observe how Jesus is pointing out that the disciples know “the secrets of the kingdom” but the crowds have not been given the insider information. The parables are meant to be somewhat puzzling. I think that’s an important piece missing from much of the teaching on the parables... Indeed, Jesus will make this puzzlement more pronounced in the problem of the parables.
Problem with Parables (13.12-15): Keep in mind that Jesus is explaining who is in and who is out, and why, and so in verse 12 Jesus says, “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.” The disciples have because Jesus has given them; “At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11.25-27). And the crowds mixed with the piously privileged have never received, and what little they grasp will be taken from them. Therefore, “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” (13.13)! Again, we often teach our children, congregants, Bible students and seminarians that Jesus taught in parables to bridge the audiences’ gap, to take them from the known (agriculture) to the unknown (the Kingdom). But in Jesus’ own words he taught them in parables to perplex and puzzle the audience, especially those who were hostile to Jesus and Jesus’ Gospel and Goodwill way! He speaks in parables to make the gap bigger and more obvious to subvert and challenge the reigning mindset and religious sensitivities of the sanctimoniously secure and the morally smug! To back up his approach Jesus goes to the Scriptures, specifically to Isaiah’s commission as a prophet where Isaiah was promised that his prophetic work would have little “success” and marginal “achievement” because the 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” (13.15). Sometimes God does this, especially for those who concoct and construct “evidences” and “proofs” against him. As the apostle Paul reminds us in a very scary section of 2 Thessalonians, “The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thessalonians 2.9-12).
Nevertheless, even though the parables are puzzling and problematic by plan, there is a promise in the parables.
Promise in Parables (13.16-17): Being enabled to see the parables (comprehend their connotations) and hear them (grasp their gist) means that you are coming to receive what the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures wished for but hadn’t obtained, and what the righteous folks of the Old Testament longed for but never gained. In other words, the parables portray the fulfillment of what the Old Testament yearned after, spoke about, aimed for! And the seeing and hearing is all about Jesus, the King, and his Kingdom, and why those folks are out and these folks are in!
First, try to keep these things in mind for next week when I boldly go where few have gone before – to tackle all of the parables in chapter 13. Read all of chapter 13 this week, read it once, read it twice, even read it thrice. This will help us next Sunday. And if you think having a copy of the manuscript for this sermon will help you as you read the parables, let me know. I’ll try to get you copies on Monday.
Second, if you have often been puzzled and perplexed by the parables, fear not, you’re in great company. Even the disciples who knew “the secrets of the kingdom” did not always get the why and wherefore (13.10, 36). Keep in mind the perplexity and puzzlement are part of the plan. But also so is the gift of comprehension and grasping. Therefore, go to Jesus, ask him to clear your head and heart of any disbelief, dissatisfaction, or discombobulation. With the Psalmist, ask him: “Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long” (Psalm 25.4-5).
Finally, I must ask once more: where are you? Are you in Jesus’ family, in his band of disciples who have the “secrets of the kingdom,” in with those who have, and even more will be given? Are you part of those who see and hear all that the Law and Prophets and righteous folk of old longed for and looked forward to? Or are you outside with those who hear but never understand, and indeed see but never perceive? Those whose hearts have grown dull, and with ears that can barely hear, and eyes that are closed? Out there with those who really don’t want to see with your eyes or hear with your ears and understand with your heart? Are you on the outside refusing to turn, and allow Jesus to heal you? Where are you?