Speaking Mysteriously of Mysteries

One of the common features of Jesus’ teaching ministry was his use of parables, stories that illustrated spiritual and moral lessons. One of the things that’s particularly worth noting is the “why” of His use of parables.

Today, in some circles, it’s very fashionable to speak and write in very ambiguous terms. To “embrace the mystery” of Christianity and leave things kind of… mysterious.

But is that the point of teaching? Was that what Jesus was doing when He taught in parables?

Take a look at Matthew 13:10-17 for a second:

Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know 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. For 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.

In the beginning of this passage, Jesus’ disciples asked that very question. They said to Jesus, “why do you speak to them [the crowds who came to see Jesus] in parables?”

They wanted to know: Why did He not speak plainly to the crowds? Why was He so mysterious?

And Jesus answered. “To you it has been given to know 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.”

So here’s what He says: Jesus tells them, “I speak in parables because the truth of the kingdom of heaven is not theirs to know. They think they see the truth of My kingdom, but they don’t. They think they understand, but they can’t. If they did, they might turn and repent.”

His parables had a two-fold effect:

  1. They hardened the hearts of some who heard
  2. They caused others to seek out Jesus to ask Him what He meant

The interesting thing is that when people came to Him and asked Him to explain, as the disciples did, He was happy to oblige. Indeed, every time they asked by His disciples what He meant, He patiently explained. Jesus was never mysterious for the sake of being mysterious. He didn’t speak in riddles and vagaries to create a mystique. As I wrote last week, God is not a beat poet.

Jesus’ parables were not meant to be a stumbling block for His disciples; all things were revealed to them by Him. Similarly, the role of the Christian teacher is to patiently explain all that has been revealed with gentleness and humility. If we are going to follow Jesus’ example in teaching, we ought to be careful to not embrace mystery for the sake of being mysterious.