THE MYSTERY OF THE KINGDOM
When Jesus was alone, his own circle of people, together with the Twelve, asked him about the parables. He said to them, “To you there is given the knowledge of the Kingdom of God which only the initiated can know. To those who are outside, everything is expounded by means of parables, so that they may indeed see and yet not perceive the meaning of things, and may indeed hear and not understand, lest at any time they should turn and be forgiven.”
This has always been one of the most difficult passages in all the gospels. The King James Version speaks of the mystery of the Kingdom of God. This word mystery has in Greek a technical meaning; it does not mean something which is complicated and mysterious in our sense of the term. It means something which is quite unintelligible to the person who has not been initiated into its meaning, but is perfectly plain to the person who has been so initiated.
In New Testament times in the pagan world one of the great features of popular religion was what were called the Mystery Religions. These religions promised communion with and even identity with some god, whereby all the terrors of life and of death would be taken away. Nearly all these Mystery Religions were based on the story of some god who had suffered and died and risen again; they were nearly all in the nature of passion plays.
One of the most famous was called the Mystery of Isis. Osiris was a wise and good king. Seth, his wicked brother, hated him and along with seventy-two conspirators persuaded him to come to a banquet. There he induced him to enter a cunningly made coffin which exactly fitted him. When he was inside, the lid was snapped down and the coffin was cast into the Nile. Isis, his faithful wife, after a long and weary search, found the coffin and brought it home in mourning. When she was absent the wicked Seth came again, stole away the body, cut it into fourteen pieces and scattered them throughout all Egypt. Once again Isis set out on her sad and weary search. In the end she discovered all the pieces and by her magical powers put them together and restored Osiris to life again; and from that time he became the immortal king of the living and the dead.
What happened was this. The candidate underwent a long preparation of purification and of fasting and of asceticism and of instruction as to the inner meaning of the story. Then the dramatic story with its grief and its sorrow and its resurrection and its triumphal ending was played out as a passion play. Music and incense and lighting and a splendid liturgy were all used to enhance the emotional atmosphere. As the play was played out the worshipper felt himself one with the god both in his sufferings and in his triumph. He passed through death to immortality by union with the god. The point is that to an uninitiated person the whole thing would have been meaningless; but to the initiated the thing was full of meaning which he had been taught to see.
That is the technical meaning of this Greek word musterion (GSN3466). When the New Testament talks of the mystery of the Kingdom, it does not mean that the Kingdom is remote and abstruse and hard to understand; but it does mean that it is quite unintelligible to the man who has not given his heart to Jesus, and that only the man who has taken Jesus as Master and Lord can understand what the Kingdom of God means.
The real difficulty of the passage lies in the section that follows. If we take it at its face value it sounds as if Jesus taught in parables deliberately to cloak his meaning, purposely to hide it from ordinary men and women. Whatever else the passage originally meant it cannot have meant that; for, if one thing is crystal clear, it is that Jesus used parables not to cloak his meaning and to hide his truth but to enable men to see it and to compel them to recognize it.
How then did this passage come to be in the form it is? It is a quotation from Isa.6:9-10. From the beginning it worried people. It was worrying them more than two hundred years before Jesus made use of it. The Hebrew literally runs (the following two translations are by W.O.E. Oesterley):
And he said, Go, and say to this people, “Go on hearkening, but understand not; go on looking, but perceive not.” Make fat the heart of this people, and its ears make heavy, and its eyes besmear; lest it see with its eyes, and with its ears hear, and its heart understand, so that it should be healed again.
It seems on the face of it that God is telling Isaiah that he is to pursue a course deliberately designed to make the people fail to understand.
In the third century B.C. the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek, and the Greek version, the Septuagint, as it is called, became one of the most influential books in the world, for it carried the Old Testament everywhere Greek was spoken. The Septuagint translators were worried at this strange passage and they translated it differently:
And he said, Go and 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 them.
The Greek version does not say that God intended that the people should be so dull that they would not understand; it says that they had made themselves so dull that they could not understand–which is a very different thing. The explanation is that no man can translate or set down in print a tone of voice. When Isaiah spoke he spoke half in irony and half in despair and altogether in love. He was thinking, “God sent me to bring his truth to this people; and for all the good I am doing I might as well have been sent to shut their minds to it. I might as well be speaking to a brick wall. You would think that God had shut their minds to it.”
So Jesus spoke his parables; he meant them to flash into men’s minds and to illuminate the truth of God. But in so many eyes he saw a dull incomprehension. He saw so many people blinded by prejudice, deafened by wishful thinking, too lazy to think. He turned to his disciples and he said to them: “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 ununderstanding that you would have thought that God had shut instead of opening their minds; I feel like that to-day.” When Jesus said this, he did not say it in anger, or irritation, or bitterness, or exasperation. He said it with the wistful longing of frustrated love, the poignant sorrow of a man who had a tremendous gift to give which people were too blind to take.
If we read this, hearing not a tone of bitter exasperation, but a tone of regretful love, it will sound quite different. It will tell us not of a God who deliberately blinded men and hid his truth, but of men who were so dully uncomprehending that it seemed no use even for God to try to penetrate the iron curtain of their lazy incomprehension. God save us from hearing his truth like that!
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