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.)