THE TRUTH AND THE LISTENER
Matt. 13:10-17; Matt. 13:34-35
The disciples came and said to him: “Why do you speak to them in parables?” “To you,” he answered them, “it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom, which only a disciple can understand, but to them it has not been so given. For it will be given to him who already has, and he will have an overflowing knowledge. But what he has will be taken away from him who has not. It is for that reason that I speak to them in parables, for although they can see, they do not see; and although they can hear, they do not hear or understand. There is being fulfilled in them Isaiah’s prophecy which says, `You will certainly hear, but you will not understand; and you will certainly look, but you will not see; for the heart of this people has grown fat, and they hear dully with their ears, and their eyes are smeared, lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I will heal them.
But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears because they hear.`This is the truth I tell you–many prophets and righteous men longed to see things that you are seeing, and did not see them, and to hear the things that you are hearing, and did not hear them.”
Jesus spake all these things to the crowds in parables, and it was not his custom to speak to them without a parable. He did this that that which was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled: “I will open my mouth in parables: I will utter things which have been hidden since the foundation of the world.”
This is a passage full of difficult things; and we must take time to try to seek out its meaning. First of all there are two general things at the beginning which, if we understand them, will go far to light up the whole passage.
The Greek word in Matt. 13:11, which I have translated secrets (as the Revised Standard Version also does), is musteria (GSN3466). This means literally mysteries which is, in fact, how the King James Version renders it. In New Testament times this word mystery was used in a special and a technical way. To us a mystery means simply something dark and difficult and impossible to understand, something mysterious. But in New Testament times it was the technical name for something which was unintelligible to the outsider but crystal clear to the man who had been initiated.
In the time of Jesus in both Greece and Rome the most intense and real religion was found in what were known as the Mystery Religions. These religions had all a common character. They were in essence passion plays in which was told in drama the story of some god or goddess who had lived and suffered and died and who had risen again to blessedness. The initiate was given a long course of instruction in which the inner meaning of the drama was explained to him; that course of instruction extended over months and even years. Before he was allowed finally to see the drama he had to undergo a period of fasting and abstinence. Everything was done to work him up to a state of emotion and of expectation. He was then taken to see the play; the atmosphere was carefully constructed; there was cunning lighting; there were incenses and perfumes; there was sensuous music; there was in many cases a noble liturgy.
The drama was then played out; and it was intended to produce in the worshipper a complete identification with the god whose story was told on the stage. The worshipper was intended literally to share in the divinity’s life and sufferings and death and resurrection, and therefore shared in his immortality. The cry of the worshipper in the end was: “I am Thou, and Thou art I.”
We take an actual example. One of the most famous of all the mysteries was the mystery of Isis. Osiris was a wise and good king. Seth, his wicked brother, hated him, and with seventy-two conspirators persuaded him to come to a banquet. There he persuaded him to enter a cunningly wrought coffin which exactly fitted him. When Osiris was in the coffin, the lid was snapped down and the coffin was flung into the Nile. After long and weary search, Isis, the faithful wife of Osiris, found the coffin and brought it home in mourning. But when she was absent from home, the wicked Seth came again, stole the body of Osiris, cut it into fourteen pieces, and scattered it throughout all Egypt. Once again Isis set out on her weary and sorrowful quest. After long search she found all the pieces; by a wondrous power the pieces were fitted together and Osiris rose from the dead; and he became for ever afterwards the immortal king of the living and the dead.
It is easy to see how moving a story that could be made to one who had undergone a tong instruction, to one who saw it in the most carefully calculated setting. There is the story of the good king; there is the attack of sin; there is the sorrowing search of love; there is the triumphant finding of love; there is the raising to a life which has conquered death. It was with that experience that the worshipper was meant to identify himself, and he was supposed to emerge from it, in the famous phrase of the Mystery Religions, “reborn for eternity”.
That is a mystery; something meaningless to the outsider, but supremely precious to the initiate. In point of fact the Lord’s Supper is like that. To one who has never seen such a thing before, it will look like a company of men eating little pieces of bread and drinking little sips of wine, and it might even appear ridiculous. But to the man who knows what he is doing, to the man initiated into its meaning, it is the most precious and the most moving act of worship in the church.
So Jesus says to his disciples: “Outsiders cannot understand what I say; but you know me; you are my disciples; you can understand.” Christianity can be understood only from the inside. It is only after personal encounter with Jesus Christ that a man can understand. To criticize from outside is to criticize in ignorance. It is only the man who is prepared to become a disciple who can enter into the most precious things of the Christian faith.
LIFE’S STERN LAW
Matt. 13:10-17; Matt. 13:34-35 (continued)
The second general thing is the saying in Matt. 13:12 that still more will be given to the man who has, and even what he has will be taken away from the man who has not. At first sight this seems nothing less than cruel; but so far from being cruel, it simply states a truth which is an inescapable law of life.
In every sphere of life more is given to the man who has, and what he has is taken away from the man who has not. In the world of scholarship the student who labours to amass knowledge is capable of acquiring more knowledge. It is to him that the research, the advanced courses, the deeper things are given; and that is so because by his diligence and fidelity he has made himself fit to receive them. On the other hand, the student who is lazy and refuses to work inevitably loses even the knowledge which he has.
Many a person in childhood and schooldays had a smattering of Latin or of French or of some other language, and in later life lost every word, because he never made any attempt to develop or use them. Many a person had some skill in a craft or game and lost it, because he neglected it. The diligent and hard-working person is in a position to be given more and more; the lazy person may well lose even what he has. Any gift can be developed; and, since nothing in life stands still, if a gift is not developed, it is lost.
It is so with goodness. Every temptation we conquer makes us more able to conquer the next and every temptation to which we fail makes us less able to withstand the next attack. Every good thing we do, every act of self-discipline and of service, makes us better able for the next; and every time we fail to use such an opportunity we make ourselves less able to seize the next when it comes.
Life is always a process of gaining more or losing more. Jesus laid down the truth that the nearer a man lives to him, the nearer to the Christian ideal he will grow. And the more a man drifts away from Christ, the less he is able to reach to goodness; for weakness, like strength, is an increasing thing.
MAN’S BLINDNESS AND GOD’S PURPOSE
Matt. 13:10-17; Matt. 13:34-35 (continued)
Matt. 13:13-17 of this passage are among the most difficult verses in the whole gospel narrative. And the fact that they appear differently in the different gospels shows how much that difficulty was felt in the early Church. Being the earliest gospel, we would expect Mark to be the nearest to the actual words of Jesus. It (Mk.4:11-12) has:
To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for
those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed
see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest
they should turn again, and be forgiven.
If these verses be taken at their superficial value with no attempt to understand their real meaning, they make the extraordinary statement that Jesus spoke to men in parables in order that they might not understand, and in order to prevent them turning to God and finding forgiveness.
Matthew is later than Mark and makes one significant change:
This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do
not see, and hearing they do not here, nor do they understand.
As Matthew has it, Jesus spoke in parables because men were too blind and deaf to glimpse the truth in any other way.
It is to be noted that this saying of Jesus leads into a quotation from Isa.6:9-10. That was another passage which caused a great deal of heart-searching. In the Revised Standard Version, which is a literal translation of the Hebrew, it runs:
Go, and say to this people: “Hear and hear, but do not
understand; see and see, but do not perceive.” Make the heart of this
people fat, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see
with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their
hearts, and turn and be healed.
Again it sounds as if God had deliberately blinded the eyes and deafened the ears and hardened the hearts of the people, so that they would be unable to understand. The nation’s lack of understanding is made to seem a deliberate act of God.
Just as Matthew toned down Mark, so the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, and the version which most Jews used in the time of Jesus, toned down the original Hebrew:
Go, say to this people: “Ye shall hear indeed, but ye shall not
understand; and seeing ye shall see and not perceive.” For the
heart of this people has become gross, and with their ears they
hear heavily, and their eyes they have closed, lest at any time they
should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and
understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal
The Septuagint, so to speak, removes the responsibility from God and lays it fairly and squarely upon the people.
What is the explanation of all this? We may be certain of one thing–whatever else this passage means, it cannot mean that Jesus deliberately delivered his message in such a way that people would fail to understand it. Jesus did not come to hide the truth from men; he came to reveal it. And beyond a doubt there were times when men grasped that truth.
When the orthodox Jewish leaders heard the threat of the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen, they understood all right, and recoiled in horror from its message to say: “God forbid!” (Lk.20:16). And in Matt. 13:34-35 of this present passage Jesus quotes a saying of the Psalmist:
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the
words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter
dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known,
that our fathers have told us.
That is a quotation from Ps.78:1-3, and in it the Psalmist knows that what he is saying will be understood, and that he is recalling men to truth that both they and their fathers have known.
The truth is that the words of Isaiah, and the use that Jesus made of them, must be read with insight and with an attempt to put ourselves in the position both of Isaiah and of Jesus. These words tell of three things.
(i) They tell of a prophet’s bewilderment. The prophet brought a message to people which to him was crystal clear; and he was bewildered that they could not understand it. That is repeatedly the experience of both the preacher and the teacher. Often when we preach or teach or discuss things with people, we try to tell them something which to us is relevant, vivid, of absorbing interest and of paramount importance, and they hear it with a complete lack of interest, understanding, and urgency. And we are amazed and bewildered that what means so much to us apparently means nothing at all to them, that what kindles a fire in our bones leaves them stone cold, that what thrills and moves our hearts leaves them icily indifferent. That is the experience of every teacher and preacher and evangelist.
(ii) They tell of a prophet’s despair. It was Isaiah’s feeling that his preaching was actually doing more harm than good, that he might as wet speak to a brick wall, that there was no way into the mind and the heart of this deaf and blind people, that, as far as any effects went, they seemed to be getting worse instead of better. Again that is the experience of every teacher and preacher. There are times when those whom we seek to win seem, in spite of all our efforts, to be getting further away from, instead of nearer to, the Christian way. Our words go whistling down the wind; our message meets the impenetrable barrier of men’s indifference; the result of all our work seems less than nothing, for at the end of it men seem further away from God than they were at the beginning.
(iii) But these words tell of something more than a prophet’s bewilderment and a prophet’s despair; they also ten of a prophet’s ultimate faith. Here we find ourselves face to face with a Jewish conviction apart from which much of what the prophet, and of what Jesus, and of what the early Church said is not fully intelligible.
To put it simply, it was a primary article of Jewish belief that nothing in this world happens outside the will of God; and when they said nothing they meant literally nothing. It was just as much God’s will when men did not listen as when they did; it was just as much God’s will when men refused to understand the truth as when they welcomed it. The Jew clung fast to the belief that everything had its place in the purpose of God and that somehow God was weaving together success and failure, good and evil in a web of his designing.
The ultimate purpose of everything was good. It is exactly this thought that Paul plays on in Rom.9:11. These are the chapters which tell how the Jews, the chosen people of God, actually refused God’s truth and crucified God’s son when he came to them. That sounds inexplicable. But what was the result of it? The gospel went out to the Gentiles; and the ultimate result is that the Gentiles will some day gather in the Jews. The apparent evil is gathered up in a larger good, for all is within the plan of God.
That is what Isaiah was feeling. At first he was bewildered and in despair; then the light came and in effect he said “I cannot understand the conduct of this people; but I know that all this failure is somehow in the ultimate purpose of God, and he will use it for his own ultimate glory and for the ultimate good of men.” Jesus took these words of Isaiah and used them to encourage his disciples; he said in effect, “I know that this looks disappointing; I know how you are feeling when men’s minds and hearts refuse to receive the truth and when their eyes refuse to recognize it; but in this, too, there is purpose–and some day you will see it.”
Here is our own great encouragement. Sometimes we see our harvest and we are glad; sometimes there seems to be nothing but barren ground, nothing but total lack of response, nothing but failure. That may be so to human eyes and human minds, but at the back of it there is a God who is fitting even that failure into the divine plan of his omniscient mind and his omnipotent power. There are no failures and there are no loose ends in the ultimate plan of God.
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