I recently read a biblical passage that has always bothered me. Not bothered me like a slap in the face but bothered me like a painting that is hanging crooked on someone else’s wall. I cannot straighten it, but I sure wish someone would.
Some form of the passage is included in all four Gospels, which suggests it is particularly important. Jesus is asked why he teaches in parables (instead of in propositional truth statements). He answers: “This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”
He goes on to quote the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, through whom God said, “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.”
Why has this bothered me? Because it sounds as if Isaiah – and worse, Jesus – is saying that God doesn’t want people to hear or to see and so to turn to him and be healed. Such a calloused deity seems incompatible with the God I have known in Jesus, who loves even messy people and offers them his blessing. Nor does it fit with other passages in the Bible that unambiguously state that God wants all people to come to repentance and to be saved.
What should a person do who, coming to passages like this in the Bible, experiences a kind of cognitive dissonance, accompanied by questions they cannot answer? I have found it best to acknowledge the discomfort and admit that I don’t have the answers. It is equally important to remember that my lack of answers does not mean there are no answers.
When a biblical text seems to suggest that God is unloving, unmerciful, or heartless, it helps to remember that the rest of the Bible portrays a God who is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.” Clearly, this troubling passage is not the entire story. It may seem to contradict other biblical passages, but this is because I cannot yet see how it all fits together.
Once I’ve acknowledged my discomfort, admitted my ignorance, and remembered the larger picture, I can without worry wait for more light on the subject. It is wise to pray for such light.
I did that this past week with the passage above. When I then read the text in the original language, I discovered some things I had missed in English translations. For example, the NIV (quoted above) leaves untranslated the key conjunction “because.” Jesus explains that he teaches in parables “because hearing, they will hear and not understand.” Apparently, parables are more effective than propositional truth with people who hear but do not understand.
Further, the reason people cannot hear and understand or see and perceive is clearly stated: “For the heart of this people has grown fat” (literal translation). That is, they have grown comfortable and lazy. Listening is a burden. They have closed their eyes because they don’t want to see.
So, God has not withheld truth from people. Rather, they have put themselves in a place where they can barely hear truth. Parables were Jesus’s way of waking them up.
It seems clear to me now that the problem is not a God who does not want to reveal himself and his ways, but a people who would rather not be bothered. Jesus does not speak in parables to hide the truth, but to reveal it to people who would rather not know it.
I can’t agree with Mark Twain, who wrote, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” The parts I can’t understand do bother me. Yet I am confident that their true meaning will not in any way detract from the fact, revealed in Jesus Christ, that God is love.
Meanwhile, what I do understand keeps me plenty busy.
(First published by Gannett.)
This passage is even more difficult if you read the original version.
You are apparently quoting Matthew 13:13. As you point out, the NIV does not explicitly render the Greek conjunction ὅτι, which many other translations very reasonably render as “because.”
However the author of Matthew apparently got this passage, along with much else, from the Gospel of Mark. The original version is in Mark 4:12, which doesn’t use ὅτι . It uses ἵνα, which doesn’t mean “because;” it means “so that” or “in order that.”
According to the plain text of Mark, Jesus deliberately used parables not to reveal the truth but to conceal it. Only his disciples got the straight dope (and at least half the time they misunderstood it anyway).
The author of Matthew probably had the same trouble with this passage that you do. In any case he obviously changed it to something that would go down easier.
Let me propose another interpretation. You won’t like it, but it does have the considerable virtue of making some sense.
This interpretation is based on Jesus mythicism — the hypothesis that Jesus never existed as a historical person, but was entirely mythical, like other religious figures of the ancient world. Hey, I said you wouldn’t like it, but keep reading.
On this scenario, Christianity started out as a Jewish mystery cult. Like other mystery cults, it featured a savior deity that had undergone an epic ordeal, called a passion, in a celestial realm. This deity had thereby achieved a victory over death, in this case (as in some others) by a form of resurrection. Cult members could share in that victory through a ritual participation in the passion.
Like other mystery cults, Christianity taught a public story directed at outsiders and potential converts, consisting largely of stories about the savior deity in an earthly setting. Once you joined the cult, though, you would eventually learn that the passion didn’t happen down here on earth, but in a celestial realm in the sky. The public story wasn’t literally true, but it wasn’t really a lie either, because it embodied spiritual truths essential for your salvation.
In this paradigm, Mark 4:12 is a broad hint that the entire Gospel of Mark is an extended parable, and shouldn’t be taken as historically true. It’s the public allegory of the otherwise secret doctrines of the cult.
The author of Matthew, though, mistook this myth for history. Otherwise he wouldn’t have gone on and on about how Jesus fulfilled this and that prophecy. You don’t fulfill a prophecy by inventing a story in which it is fulfilled; something has to happen in real life.
Besides changing the conjunction, the author of Matthew changed the text in other ways, in particular by changing the subjunctive (“seeing they might not see and not perceive”) to the indicative (“[though] seeing they do not see”). The subjunctive was appropriate in Mark because seeing but not perceiving was the intended effect of the use of parables. The indicative was appropriate in Matthew because the people in question already saw without seeing.
These changes were no mere slip of the quill. The author of Matthew knew exactly what he was doing. He was deliberately changing the meaning to to something more to his taste, because Mark’s version was just too difficult.
The Gospel of Luke also purports to be a historical treatise, but it follows Mark in using ἵνα (“so that”) instead of ὅτι (“because”); see Luke 8:10. In certain other respects it is more like Matthew.
I haven’t tried to check the Gospel of John; in the NIV the word “parable” doesn’t even appear there.
Hi Scott. Thanks for reading and taking the time to respond. The ἵνα in Mark could indicate purpose, although it can also indicate result and, on occasion, lose either sense and strengthen the content of the preceding verb. (This according to Mounce.) It is neither possible to rule out purpose here nor to insist on purpose. Since Matthew opts for ὅτι, it could be argued that he understood Mark’s ἵνα to indicate result.
I am familiar with the mystery cult interpretation (though it usually centers around St. Paul) and do not find it convincing at all. I think the path of New Testament scholarship has led in the other direction for decades. You might check out Ronald Nash’s, The Gospel And The Greeks, on the subject. There is a helpful summary at Bible.org (https://bible.org/article/paul-and-mystery-religions#text5).
Thanks again for reading and commenting. Best to you!