Again Jesus began to teach by the lake…. The Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “To those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’” (Mark 4:1, 10-13)
At first glance, this passage seems to say that Jesus taught in parables specifically for the purpose of preventing people from understanding what he was talking about. A closer look, however, reveals just the opposite.
Jesus was not deliberately trying to prevent his listeners from understanding what he was talking about. He was doing just the opposite—using parables as a means of relating the invisible kingdom of God to everyday, visible, real life examples and situations the common person could easily relate to.
Parables were a teaching method quite familiar to Jewish teachers and audiences. They were tools for making things easier to understand, not more difficult. In the hands of Jesus, the great master teacher, these tools would have been even more effective. He came to bring good news to the poor, not confuse them with stories impossible to comprehend.
The key to understanding this passage lies in the scripture Jesus quoted to make his point to the disciples about the use of parables. He was quoting Isaiah 6:9-10, a passage that chided Israel’s blindness and deafness to God’s love. The translation is easily misunderstood unless the context of Israel’s struggle with God throughout its history is taken into consideration.
The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, noted this problem, and took care to include the sarcastic tone of the wording in its translation. The Septuagint, we should note, was the foremost translation of Jesus’ day. In his commentary on Mark, William Barclay paraphrased Jesus’ intent this way: “Do you remember what Isaiah once said? He said that when he came with God’s message to God’s people Israel in his day they were so dully un-understanding that you would have thought that God had shut instead of opening their minds; I feel like that today” (The Gospel of Mark, Westminster Press, 1975).
Israel, as God’s own people, had already failed to keep their covenant with God and had ended up a conquered people and an occupied nation, first by the Babylonians and eventually by the Romans.
But God promised to be faithful to his covenant regardless of Israel’s unfaithfulness (compare Malachi 4:6). He promised to redeem them in spite of themselves (compare Hosea 11:8-11), and he would do it through the Messiah, the Anointed One, who would be sent to redeem the people and bring them back to God.
But God knew that in the hardness of their hearts, they would also reject their own Messiah. As John wrote in the fourth Gospel, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” But even that would not stop God from redeeming his people, and through them, the whole world.
In their rejection of Messiah, Israel’s sin against God would reach its full measure. They would kill their Savior, but God would raise him from the dead, and his death and resurrection would become the very means by which God would transform the hearts of not only Israel, but also the gentiles.
Jesus was saying that stubborn, hard-hearted people cannot understand the things of the kingdom of God even when they are taught in the plainest possible language. It takes a new heart, a heart only God can give (compare Ezekiel 36:26).
Sin alienates us from God, and since we are all sinners, we are all alienated from God — not because he rejects us (he is eternally faithful), but because we reject him. In our alienated state, we are incapable of reconciling ourselves to God. We neither know God nor want him meddling in our lives. Even our concept of God is askew; we think of him as a great butler in the sky who is not worth his salt unless he does everything we ask, or as an angry super-being who is always ready to dish out punishments.
Unless God himself takes the initiative to reconcile us to him, we remain helpless, with no future beyond death. That is exactly what he has done in Jesus Christ. In Jesus we learn exactly what God is like, because Jesus Christ is the exact representation of the Father (Hebrews 1:3; see also Colossians 1:19-20).
We learn through Jesus that God is merciful, patient and full of grace. God is not against humanity; he is for it. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,” Jesus said, “but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned…” (John 3:17-18). Through Jesus, our minds are released from the bondage of sin, and we are freed to put our trust in our Creator and Redeemer.
No one understands the things of God apart from the grace he has made manifest in Jesus Christ. “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you” (Mark 4:11), Jesus told the disciples. Yet before his ascension, even they did not understand the parables, because their hearts were still hard, too. The Holy Spirit, who leads us into all truth, especially the truth of the gospel, soon melted their stony hearts into hearts of flesh, just as God had promised through Ezekiel.
God never forces us to love him, for love forced is not love at all. Instead, God frees our minds and hearts from all the barriers, rooted in sin, that would otherwise stand in the way. “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life,” Peter would later write, “through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” (2 Peter 1:3).
Freedom, however, is worthless unless it is exercised. That will be the topic of our next lesson, as we look at the parable of the sower.
Author: J. Michael Feazell, 2004