“When he was alone, those around him with the Twelve asked him about the parables. He answered them, ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those outside, everything comes in parables so that “they may indeed look, and yet not perceive; they may indeed listen, and yet not understand; otherwise they might turn back and be forgiven.”‘” (CSB – Read the chapter)
One of my favorite speakers likes to joke that he has the spiritual gift of sarcasm. I always appreciate this line because I’m pretty sure that’s one of my spiritual gifts as well. Sarcasm, technically defined, is the use of irony to mock or convey contempt (thank you, Google). Irony is when you say one thing but mean the opposite. Mocking we understand. Contempt is anything that conveys the idea you think something or someone is stupid. In other words, sarcasm is saying something, but meaning the opposite, in order to express your disdain for some idea or person. Why talk about all of this? Because Jesus here is quoting His Dad’s sarcasm. Wait…God is sarcastic? Let’s talk about it.
Jesus did a whole lot of His teaching in parables. As we said yesterday, that was simply His style. The result of this was a whole lot of stories that were memorable, but which weren’t always so easy to understand. Understanding Jesus’ parables often depended on how you thought about Him. People who believed in Him seemed to be able to make more positive sense out of them more often than folks like the Pharisees who refused to believe in Him.
As for the disciples and the group of people who didn’t make the cut of the Twelve, but followed Him faithfully all the same, while they were certainly committed to Him and so understood more than most, they didn’t understand all of them by any stretch. So, one day, after Jesus had finished telling another parable they only sort of understood, and the crowd understood even less, they finally asked Him about it. Why do you teach like that, Jesus? Why not just spell out what you mean so people don’t have to guess?
Jesus’ answer is really interesting. First, He offers them the praise that they have been given the secret of the kingdom of God. In other words, they understand more than most because God Himself through Jesus has let them in on the secret, namely, that His kingdom was being kicked off by Jesus and things were about to change in really profound ways. Of course, just because they had been given the secret didn’t mean they understood all of it. In the next verse Jesus chides them for their lack of understanding before explaining the parable of the sower to them. But the point is that for people on the inside the parables functioned as a kind of extras for experts feature of Jesus’ ministry. When you were already sold, they were a confirmation and encouragement.
For folks on the outside, though, Jesus’ parables functioned in an entirely different way. Rather than serving as pathways to further illumination, they only deepened their confusion and misunderstanding. In making this point, Jesus quotes a verse from the prophet Isaiah. In context, Isaiah was retelling the experience of his call to ministry with the wild scene in the Lord’s throne room. The first thing the Lord said to him after he accepted his calling was this odd thing about leaving the people confused because otherwise they might repent and be healed.
If you try and take the Lord’s words here literally it sounds like He doesn’t want the people to repent and be saved. But that doesn’t make any sense at all. Why wouldn’t the God who sent His Son to save the world not want someone to repent? Why send a prophet just to leave the people confused and ripe for judgment because of it?
The answer is this is one of those places you can’t take literally. God isn’t being literal. He’s being sarcastic. He’s expressing two different things here. The first is His exasperation with the unbelief of the people. In spite of His best efforts to get their attention and convince them to repent, they just won’t do it. They keep responding as if they don’t understand Him; as if He’s speaking a foreign language to them. The second thing is His desire to see them repent. This, though, is where the sarcasm is the thickest. The text says, “Make the minds of these people dull…otherwise they might see with their eyes…turn back, and be healed.” In order to capture the tone, though, you could add something like, “And we wouldn’t want that…would we?” The sarcasm indicates the answer is in fact, yes, we would want that.
In other words, God was sending Isaiah to keep speaking hard truths to a people frustratingly committed to unbelief in hopes that they will finally respond with repentance, but their very commitment to unbelief will keep many of them from understanding and repenting. The dripping sarcasm simply indicates God’s frustration with them. It’s like when, as a parent, your kid leaves his dishes on the table yet again, you call him back to the room, and he asks something like, “Do you want me to get my dishes?” and you respond by saying, “Oh no, I would hate to overburden you like that.” What you mean is that of course you want him to do that. The sarcasm is a vehicle for expressing your frustration that he didn’t do it of his own accord as you have been trying to train him to do for months.
Jesus’ quoting this verse from Isaiah reveals that God’s exasperation with persistent unbelief hasn’t lessened any over the centuries. Even though He made people and thus understands us better than we do ourselves, He’s still frustrated at our unwillingness to believe the truth when it’s presented to us. As a result, He often wraps the truth in a packaging that obscures it just enough for those committed to unbelief to simply be confused by it.
This serves several different purposes. For those on the inside, it gives them the pride of insider knowledge. They have access to something that the average person doesn’t. It’s a membership perk that keeps them coming back for more. Like I said: Extras for experts. For those on the fringe, it’s an invitation to dig in a little deeper and learn more. They can see the basic point, sure, but it’s framed in such a way as to point to something more that lies just beyond their ability to see it. It’s a great marketing trick. Don’t give away the whole farm. Give just enough to get them interested in learning more, then draw them in further as they start coming for it. For those on the outside, but not completely sold on unbelief, it functions in much the same way. It serves as a warning they are in over their heads and need to accept some basic truths before they’ll be able to learn more. For the rest, it just keeps them away.
Quite a lot of function for a simple teaching tool, yes? Jesus was a master teacher. He was much, much more than that, of course, but He was definitely that, and we shouldn’t forget it.
What this does for us is a couple of things. First, it invites us to just keep learning. There is no bottom floor to be found as we plunge the depths of our incredible God. The storehouse of knowledge, truth, and understanding will never be depleted. Second, it reminds us that sometimes folks just aren’t going to understand what we do and why we do it. They’re on the outside and we shouldn’t be troubled by their lack of understanding. When they’re ready to believe, things will click, and they will change. We simply keep telling the truth, living the truth, and trusting that our Savior will always have our backs as He leads us deeper into the richness of the life of the kingdom.