“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.”
Matthew 13:10-17 ESV
I must have read this passage hundreds of times before I actually took in what it said. I have even heard multiple sermons over the years who had taught that the exact opposite of what Jesus said here was true. “He spoke in parables to share spiritual truths in a way that was accessible to the common people.” “He talked about the things they understood – fishing, planting, harvesting – so that they could understand what He was saying.” Jesus said, “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.” This is how smart we really think we are; Jesus can very clearly tell us exactly what He is doing and why He is doing it and we will ignore that and go on preaching the opposite. “There’s no way He could mean what He is very clearly saying here. Very sneaky, Jesus.” The fact is that Jesus spoke in parables with the express purpose being that not everyone would understand the message. The parables were like speaking in code, only those with the key could unlock the hidden truths. So, the obvious question that follows is, “Why wouldn’t Jesus want everyone to understand?”
It’s a legitimate question; if Jesus is sharing the truths which lead away from Hell and into eternal life, shouldn’t He want everyone to be able to hear, understand and enter in? Is Jesus intentionally being unclear so that only certain people whom He deems worthy or even just the ones that He likes can get in and everyone else can, quite literally, go to Hell? What kind of a good God is that? If even lowly, depraved sinners like us can clearly see that seemingly arbitrary and meritless picking and choosing like that is inherently wrong, then how can God be loving, just, righteous and good if this is how He treats the people He created?
Well, that escalated quickly.
Do you notice how what started as a fair and legitimate question quickly spiraled into rebellion? Or, to be more precise, do you see how quickly our own harbored rebellion can be brought to the surface when we are in situations we don’t understand? Questioning is not the sin, in and of itself, rather the questions we ask reveal what is in our hearts. From the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. (Matthew 12:34) When we come across situations in life that seem unfair, or even when we read passages in scripture that don’t seem to make sense, our true beliefs will be brought to the surface. It’s like when we read a text message from a friend; they could be sharing a harmless joke that they thought we would enjoy, but if I’m not in the right frame of mind I attribute that message with all kinds of ill-intended malice and choose to be offended by it. My response actually has little to do with the message and much more to do with what I choose to believe as the recipient. If we choose to read evil or wicked intent in how Jesus shared the Gospel message, it has nothing to do with the message, the Messenger or even the delivery but is actually a reflection of the hearer. Our response – what we choose to focus on versus the actual meaning of what was said – reveals to us the sin issues we have buried within.
So, what then is the message at the heart of this passage?
Jesus wasn’t being selective in who heard His parable; He presented it to the whole crowd. This particular parable was the parable of the Sower and the soil and everyone listening was one of the soils Jesus spoke of. He also told the disciples that they were, in fact, the good soil. What made them different? They didn’t understand the meaning of the parable, either. They were just as in the dark as everyone in the crowd. What made them different had nothing to do with their ability to understand. It also had nothing to do with Jesus singling them out; giving them special treatment that wasn’t available to everyone else. Here was the difference – when they didn’t understand the meaning, the disciples took their questions to Jesus. Not in an angry, accusing way assuming that their morality was greater than His, but in a humble way built on trusting that there was indeed an answer and that He was good enough to share it. Now, Jesus doesn’t give us the answers for every difficulty that we face in life, but He does give us more than enough for us to be able to trust His goodness even when we don’t get to see His reasoning this side of eternity. When our trials cause us to doubt, to worry, to respond to Him in anger, perhaps that is exactly why He allowed those tests to come; so that we can realize what we are truly believing underneath and allow Him to perfect our faith. (James 1: 2-4)