Last Monday night I enjoyed a great discussion on the topic of parables. During the discussion a friend of mine posed a wonderfully down-to-earth question: What about the people who try so hard to understand Jesus' parables but just don't get it? The question frustrated me all week long and I had to do some studying on the subject.
First is an excerpt from Brian McLaren's The Secret Message of Jesus:
"...So if a parable leaves you confused, you will have one of two responses. You can respond with arrogant and impatient anger which makes you walk away. Or you can respond with eager and curious humility, which keeps you coming back. in this way parables have a capacity that goes beyond informing their hearers; parables also have the power to help transform them into interactive, interdependent, humble, inquisitive, and persistent people.
... Maybe then, we have some beginning of an answer to the disciple's question. Why did Jesus speak in parables? Why was he subtle, indirect, and secretive? Because his message wasn't merely aimed at conveying information. It sought to precipitate something more important: the spiritual transformation of the hearers.
... It helps form a heart that is humble enough to admit it doesn't already know and is thirsty enough to ask questions. In other words, a parable renders its hearers not as experts, not as know-it-alls, not as scholars . . . but as children."
I think McLaren is on to something here in the idea that the parables are not meant to convey esoteric knowledge but are meant to produce action, behavior, and fruit! In Mark 4:12 Jesus says that those who hear and understand will act accordingly: turn and be forgiven. Luke's version of the parable (Lk 8:15) says that those with a good heart will bring forth fruit with patience! Surely Jesus emphasized this in the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matt. 7:24 when he said that those who are wise will both hear and do his word.
Most of that we established on Monday night, but I think McLaren's words are helpful in clarifying some things.
Secondly, when people hear Jesus' parables and walk away without understanding, I think there are two questions we could ask of them:
1. WHAT is it you were expecting to learn from the parable?
2. HOW were you trying to learn it?
We could rephrase this question as "What are you looking for?" As McLaren said, if people are expecting information or test-tube knowledge, then, forget it, you won't find it in parables. People who read Jesus' parables this way are like one who reads Moby Dick as a guide to fishing. Seeking this kind of knowing from parables will burn you out! Perhaps this is why so many people leave Christianity wounded, exhausted, and frustrated.
Yes, some people may work rigorously to figure out the meaning of parables, but that does not mean that their effort is the right kind of effort (I discuss how we go about learning below) The Pharisees were no doubt trying their hardest to interpret the laws of God, but Jesus came and said it isn't about your effort, it's about your heart. He rightly pointed out that the Pharisees were self-promoting and pious. If you want to understand the parable, you must be humble and admit your need for the Teacher. Then, you will have already (ironically) understood it. I think that the parable of the soil is all about having a humble, receptive heart.
Also, many people approach Jesus as though he were a teacher in our Western, academic sense. That is, as if he were giving us the answers in the same way as a history teacher. But Jesus was as teacher in the rabbinic sense of the word; and so maybe we would do better to view him as a coach who is not merely giving us answers but actually helping us learn to play the game better. A coach to whom we keep coming back to for guidance and wisdom as we learn how to appropriately live in the Kingdom.
WHAT we are trying to know directly affects HOW we go about knowing it. Therefore, we must also ask "How are you trying to know Jesus' message?"
If we are expecting clear-cut answers and informational knowledge then we will most certainly look and look and look but never see. Concerning cognitive knowing, Thomas Merton writes on this beautifully:
"God remains hidden from the arrogant gaze of our investigative mind which seeks to capture him and secure permanent possession of him in an act of knowledge. We must forget the familiar subject-object relationship which characterizes our ordinary acts of knowing."
This familiar, scientific formula for knowing doesn't work for parables! Instead, we must confess that we do not know; and through that confession we will be initiated into the mysteries of the Kingdom because that confession requires our dependence on Jesus. This idea of humility as a way of knowing reminds me of Socrates who wrote, "I know nothing. But I know that I know nothing, so therefore I know something!" Surely humility is a cornerstone for knowing and understanding in the Kingdom. (and when I say "knowing and understanding" remember I do not mean "getting it," I mean realizing I am insufficient without Jesus, realizing I may never "get it" but that's okay)
Remember those 3-D puzzles that were so popular ten years ago? Remember what the key to seeing the hidden picture was? People would say "Relax your eyes. Unfocus your eyes. Don't try to see the whole picture, just focus on one thing." Perhaps this is what it's like to see and perceive the message of Jesus. Perhaps we must not try so hard to understand everything, but rather just focus on one thing: our need for Jesus.
Also, Jesus was NOT offering a one-time proposition: Either you get it now or you don't. No. The invitation to the mysteries of God is always available. So anyone who is frustrated must also be patient, knowing that what matters in the present is not understanding, but turning and recognizing the need for Jesus. Again, it's kind of like Socrates' conclusion: I know nothing, but at least I know that!
I think Jesus addresses more than one way of HOW we come to know in the Kingdom. We may hear and see which are more cognitive kinds of knowing, but we also know through doing - which is why Jesus' message called us to act.
For example, if I read all the coaching books on basketball and watch the NBA everyday I will know a lot about basketball; so in a sense I could say "I know basketball." But if don't learn to dribble and shoot and pass then much of the knowledge from the coaching book is meaningless. Only when I start practicing and doing basketball will I understand more clearly what basketball is all about.
In the same way, knowing in God's Kingdom is holistic and depends not only on cognitive understanding but on our behavior as well. Jesus' parables don't make sense unless we are doing the actions that work interdependently with the message. Therefore, we cannot say "I will disobey God and still understand the principles of the Kingdom."
Paul underscores this in 1 Corinthians 2, particularly verse 14 which says "The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned." I think Paul was also on to something in the ways that he described Love, Hope, and Faith as ways of knowing; see particularly 1 Corinthians 13.
Although this is just the tip of the iceberg, this has been helpful for me in attempting to answer the frustrating question of why some people understand Jesus and others don't. I think that WHAT we desire to know and understand matters. And I think that HOW we go about knowing and understanding matters. From my recent studying I am under the impression that there is no one-time, once-and-for-all answer or conclusion. And perhaps that is the point: that God would be so Great and so Mysterious and so Awesome and so relational that we should not settle, but rather, like children, continue to question and remain dependent on Him. Perhaps Jesus didn't want us to know something just once; perhaps He wanted us to keep knowing something better and better so that it would become the determining factor of our entire lives.
I wish to leave you with another quote from Thomas Merton:
"By Faith one assents not only to the propositions revealed by GOD, but one assents to GOD Himelf. One says yes not merely to a statement about God, but to the Invisible, Infinite GOD Himself."
May it be that we do not so much wish to acquire seed as much to know the Sower.