Jesus spoke in stories that we often call parables. In Mathew 13 he begins with a well-known parable, the parable of the sower. I don’t want to talk about that today. What I want to focus on, is what happens after. In verse 10,
10The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”
11He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 13This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand
There’s an interesting thing going on here. The original question was “Why do you speak in parables?” But it’s almost as though Jesus knew that wasn’t the real question that they wanted to ask. Jesus answers the question they ask. But Jesus goes on, as he so often does, to answer the real question: What does the parable mean?”
And Jesus goes on to explain what the parable means:
18“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. 22The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. 23But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
It might be tempting, at this point, to say “This seems to disprove your whole your point. How is it that Jesus isn’t ‘beating the story with a hose to find out what it means?” Let’s take a look at verse 24…
24Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
It’s as if he’s saying, “Look, I can distill out some of what I want you to get out of that story. But there’s some stuff that goes unsaid. There some wisdom left over. I know that principles and isolated facts are easy. I’ll give you a few of those. But there will be something valuable left behind, if you disregard story. This idea is reinforced by what comes next. After the parable of the weeds comes two more parables: the parable the yeast and the parable of the weeds.
After the parable of weeds, we might see that there’s a little progress. Jesus disciples ask him to explain this parable directly. Atleast they are asking what they really want to know now. And then, It happens again: Jesus begins with an explanation, but then he goes into three more parables to explain it all.
Follow the pattern:
Jesus explains one parable. But its as though his explanation requires another three parables to do it. And then, when he explains one of those parables, he again, takes another three stories to explain that.
One could assume that this pattern continues indefinitely: to fully explain each one is just going to require two more. A couple chapters later comes Jesus’ next parable.
13He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14Leave them; they are blind guides.[e] If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”
15Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”
16“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ 19For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.’ ”
It’s interesting that Jesus says that, “Are you still so dull?” I don’t think he’s calling them dull because they didn’t understand that particular parable. I’d suggest that this is parable is atleast as complicated as the others. I think it’s not that they want one specific parable explained. It’s a wider issue than that: it’s that they are still wanting Jesus to chew up his stories and then regurgitate them back like a mama bird with her babies.
In a sick and sad way, I find all this reassuring. There’s lots of things that we can claim are uniquely modern problems. But this doesn’t seem to be one of them. At least as far back as Jesus, people wanted things easy. They wanted things cut and dried. They wanted an orthodox understanding of the stories. Because once you’ve got this list, you’ve got a cheap, easy list of who counted as one of “us” and who counted as one of “them.”
There are dozens of ways that Jesus turns the notion of who is one of “us” and who is one of “them” on it’s ear. The only way I know of to join Jesus in this is to enter into the mystery of what it was that he was talking about.