Last year I published a book-length study of the Kingdom parables that Jesus told. (And thanks, Roger, for the great review at Amazon!) The book grew out of an assignment to write some devotionals on the parables that will be published this summer in The Journey.
Today, as sometimes happens long after I have finished a project, I had a further insight into the use of parables by Jesus. For a moment, I thought about adding a chapter to the book and creating a second edition. Then I decided to just post my thoughts here on the blog.
What caught my attention was a moment from the Last Supper reported by St. John.
John 13: 21. Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me.”
22. His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant.
23. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him.
24. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one he means.”
25. Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?”
26. Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon.
First, lets look at a verse in the Old Testament. All the Gospel writers took note of a puzzling statement in Isaiah that was referred to by Jesus.
Isaiah 6: 8. Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
9. He said, “Go and tell this people: “`Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.'”
When the disciples asked Jesus why he was teaching parables to the crowds, he pointed to this prophecy, saying he was fulfilling its terms (Matthew 13:14, Mark 4:12, Luke 8:10, John 12:40). Paul based his ultimate decision to turn his ministry entirely to the Gentile world on this word (Acts 28:26).
It seems odd that God would not speak clearly enough to be understood if He wanted to be heard. What I’ve been pondering is the possibility that He was simply honoring the free will He had granted to all of us. He spoke clearly enough to Adam and Eve yet they decided they wanted to trust their own conclusions over His directions. So have we all, ever since. It’s not that God does not speak clearly. It is we who assume we have heard clearly. We base our decisions on that assumption.
Parables are simply a subset of the use of symbols out of which all language and communication is built. We can either assume we are able to figure out and understand the symbols by ourselves, or we can double check and ask for help when God speaks, to make sure we are interpreting the symbols correctly.
At the Last Supper, Jesus said plainly that one of those at the table that night would betray him. The disciples were startled at the idea. John says specifically that they were “at a loss to know which of them he meant.” So, even though Jesus had spoken the truth and spoken plainly, they were left in bewilderment.
Simon Peter, not for the last time, wanted to know more. So he asked John to find out. And when John asked Jesus who he was talking about, Jesus resorted to a parable-like action. To Judas and the others watching, what Jesus did seemed an ordinary gesture of good dinner manners and nothing more.
But Jesus was giving the gesture an additional significance to be understood by those who wanted to know more.
It was what he did day after day in speaking to the crowds. Simple stories, capable of simple interpretations as mere stories. But for those who suspected there was more to learn, the parables carried vastly deeper significance, all hidden in the plain sight of those who were too indifferent to perceive it.