28 July 2014

Why Does Jesus teach in Parables? Some Notes on Matt's Introduction to Jesus' Parables

[[Dear Sister, [last week] we heard the disciples ask Jesus why he taught in parables and the answer was very difficult for me. He seemed to say that he spoke in parables because to some (disciples!) it had been given to hear but to others (non disciples!) it had not been given to hear. He then says that some have dull hearts lest they turn and Jesus would heal them. He finishes this off by saying to those who have even more will be given and to those who have not even that which they have will be taken away from them. Is this really the Gospel? Did Jesus really tell parables to PREVENT people from hearing the Good News and being saved? I don't think that is a Jesus I either do or can believe in.]]

The Paradoxical and Ironic nature of the Introduction: Neutrality is not Possible

When I read this introduction to Jesus' parables in Matthew I tend to wonder how many really destructive visions of Christianity have been nourished by a mishearing of it. I remember when I was an undergraduate and my major professor read this text to us looking for us to make sense of it. I was astounded by what I was hearing. (How could JESUS say such a terrible thing to the really poor?!) But I also had the sense that if I could hear it rightly I would understand something more about the Gospel as well as Jesus' parables themselves. The first thing we should recognize perhaps is that Jesus parables are really dangerous pieces of narrative. They are capable of overturning everything we see or hear or think we understand while they provide us with a counter-cultural reality which fulfills our every desire. If we really hear them nothing will be left unchanged. If we do not hear them rightly they might seem to justify some of the very worst elitism and other attitudes so prevalent today in both our world and in our Church! In other words, they can either open our hearts or cause a hardening of them. What they do not allow for I think is neutrality.

As you noted in your question, the introduction to the chapter begins with the disciples asking Jesus why he teaches in parables and he responds, [[To you it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has more shall be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even that which he has shall be taken away. That is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. ]] Jesus then concludes with the prophecy from Isaiah and calls the disciples blessed for they have eyes to see, ears to hear, and have understood. How are we supposed to hear this? How do we usually hear it? Does anything change in the process of Jesus ' introduction? After all, remember that what a parable does by definition is throw down beside one another two perspectives on reality. The first will be familiar, the second will conflict with that and therefore it will disorient us; it will throw us off balance. We regain our balance only by choosing to stand with both feet in one perspective or the other. This introduction to the chapter of parables actually works the same way.

The Common Misreading of the Text:

I believe the way we usually hear this text represents the common, familiar perspective Jesus wants us to leave behind. Thus, we are apt to hear the passage cited above as punitive and as one which supports an us versus them or elect vs non-elect perspective. When Jesus says, [[This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.]] we are apt to hear him saying his own teaching in parables is a way of punishing those who simply couldn't get it and applauding those elect ones who did! It is a way of strengthening the line drawn between insiders and outsiders, making the division sharper and more binding. Because it is the disciples being played off against those who have seen but not really seen, heard but not really heard, etc, this reading becomes almost automatic. Often we strengthen this reading by treating "to you it has been given" versus "but to them it has not been given" as referring to a foregone Divine determination or even predestination: God has chosen the disciples but these others have not been chosen. Instead, I think Jesus is pointing out that some have come to a graced acceptance of a gift in contrast to others who have not YET done so.

I say this for a couple of reasons. First, the facile division of reality into the easily identifiable ""haves and have nots" is not really the way Jesus usually works. His message is never about strengthening the wall between the elect and the non-elect, the elite and the hoi-poloi, the chosen people and the non-chosen. Instead it is about breaking it down, subverting it, turning it on its head. Secondly, it is never all that clear when dealing with Jesus' message who has "gotten it" and who has not. No, Jesus is more subtle, more sly and more "cunning" than this. When we remember how it is Jesus' parables work and how powerful and paradoxical they are we may begin to sense that perhaps the joke (though it will turn out to be a wonderful joke!) is on us.

First we need to recall that Jesus' parables create sacred spaces in which individuals can leave a lot of their personal baggage, preconceptions, and biases behind, enter the story, meet God face to face so to speak, and make a choice for faith or unfaith; they can choose the vision of reality appropriate to the status quo ("the world") or they can reject this and choose the vision appropriate to the Kingdom of God. In other words, Jesus tells parables not to keep people locked out of the Kingdom but to welcome them INTO it! He proclaims his message in parables BECAUSE the supposed clarity of plain speech we all prefer (e.g., a kind of theological or doctrinal explanation) simply does not have the power of story. Jesus speaks in parables precisely because folks have not really seen, not really heard or understood, and because it is his vocation, his calling or "job", his mission to heal them of this and empower them to truly see, hear, and understand. In other words, Jesus teaches in parables not to punish or exclude, but as a way of healing and including!

Secondly we need to remember that Jesus' parables disorient and off-foot us when the perspective of the Kingdom is thrown down beside that of our everyday world. We have assumed in hearing Jesus' explanation of his method of teaching that we are the insiders, the disciples, and that only those "others" haven't really "gotten it"; but what if we are wrong in precisely this belief?? What if in some ways Jesus is ironically baiting a trap (a trap designed ultimately to transform, heal, and save us) and we fall right into it as we enter his story??!! There is paradox here and when we begin to see that, then perhaps we have truly begun to see, hear and understand rightly! What we must realize is that in in speaking as he does Jesus has drawn us in in a way which will allow us to be convicted and converted as well! No one listening to a parable can remain a disinterested listener or observer and assume Jesus is merely telling the story to (or about!) "others;" the same is true of Jesus' explanation on why he teaches this way. If we thought we were the insiders we may learn that we have only barely entered the Kingdom --- or that we have not really done so at all! What seems straightforward turns out to disorient, open us to question ourselves, and  empowers us to embrace a new way of seeing, hearing, and understanding.

. . .Lest they See, hear, or understand and I would heal them

Other pieces of this introduction are as easily misunderstood because of our tendency to easily adopt an us versus them perspective (with ourselves as the chosen, the disciples, and others as the outsiders of course!). One of these is reading verse 15 as though it says "I teach them in parables lest they see, hear and understand (so that) I will heal them." But the text does not say this! It says instead, ". . their hearts have grown dull. . . LEST THEY see, hear, and understand and I would heal them." In other words they have made a choice for a closed, dull heart rather than an open and responsive one; their hearts, for whatever reasons, are dulled or hardened LEST they see and hear and understand. They resist healing. They are, by definition, 'worldly.' This situation prevents them from seeing, hearing, or understanding rightly. Even so, Jesus' teaching in parables has the power to soften the hearts of those who would otherwise reject him. Still, this introduction regarding why Jesus teaches in parables focuses on the power of parable and Jesus' compassion in teaching as he does.

To Those Who have, even more shall be given; to those who have not, even what they have shall be taken from them:

This saying of course ordinarily strikes us as completely unfair. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. This is the way of the world and it is certainly disappointing, even disillusioning, to hear Jesus speaking this way! But how is it heard by those who see, hear, and understand rightly? How is it heard by the Blessed (Happy) who have entered the Kingdom of heaven and share its perspective on reality? Well, in a general sense probably something like this: [[ Those who have opened their hearts and minds to a different way of seeing and understanding will come to see and understand even more; those who have closed their hearts and minds to the eternal Kingdom of God will lose even the little they actually have.]]

But remember too that Jesus is speaking now to the disciples who have heard and seen and understood to SOME degree, but not completely. They have come to participate in the Kingdom Jesus inaugurates to SOME extent, but not completely. This introduction to the way he teaches and all of his parables are addressed to THEM as much as to anyone else because he teaches everyone in parables. It asks his disciples to let go of an us vs them attitude they all-too-readily adopt --- which is the reason of course, they fall into Jesus' little trap! Thus Jesus' comment should probably also be heard as, saying, "I teach in parables because they have not seen, heard or understood, but let's be clear --- I teach you in parables too! What do you suppose THAT means?" (Matthew reiterates the conclusion when he has Jesus EXPLAIN the parable of the sower to his disciples in the next pericope: the disciples are as much outsiders as insiders!) Further, we should probably hear Jesus saying,  "If you continue to hearken to my Word, continue to see rightly and understand, if you continue to relinquish the perspectives of the world which is so profoundly part of who you are, then you will come to participate in the Kingdom of heaven even more abundantly. If you do not, then even the little you have will be taken from you."

Jesus Teaches Everyone in Parables!

To reiterate, it is not so much that Jesus teaches some in parables while others he speaks to more plainly (though I agree there is some truth to the idea that Jesus' parables were coded speech which protected both him and his disciples from the powers seeking to destroy him.) The greater (and ironic) truth however is that Jesus characteristically taught EVERYONE in parables and that those whose hearts and minds are open in the ways of the Kingdom are not puzzled by Jesus' parables. Happy indeed those who are NOT confounded by Jesus' parables! Thus, when someone says to one of us who live a form of discipleship, "The Kingdom is like a pearl of great price" we are not baffled at all. We know EXACTLY what this means; we understand what it means to go and sell all, buy the field and claim the pearl as our own. We know what it means to stumble onto something that will change our entire lives and to do so as we walk through the ordinary settings of our lives. But for those who have never experienced the grace of God in this way, or what it means to find the one thing we have yearned for our entire lives and to let go of everything else so we may claim that one thing, this parable makes little sense. For outsiders Jesus' parables are riddles --- an original sense of the term "mashal" from which parable also gets its name; but for those who are already "hearers of the Word" they are plain and incredibly powerful speech!

A Summary of the Questions Raised in Matt's Introduction

I suppose the question then is how do we hear these parables and the fact that Jesus regularly teaches in them? Do they confirm us in an "us versus them" world of elect and non-elect or do they confirm that Jesus speaks to all of us in the same powerful way so that we may ALL be able to see, hear, and understand the ways of the Kingdom of God? Do we see Jesus as attempting to screen out the unworthy, those "predestined" to fulfill some terrible prophecy, or do we see him as the one who seeks to include ALL of the marginalized (that is ALL of us) and to fulfill the will of God by changing the situation the prophet saw commonly occurring in front of him? Do we see others as the marginalized and non-elect, or do we recognize that but for the grace and power of Jesus' stories we too would be among those who grasp at the ultimately worthless and will lose even the little we have? Are we among those for whom Jesus' parables are a kind of confusing trap or are we among those who find that even in catching us unaware they provide us an expansive sacred space where we may be truly free?

The introduction to Matthew's chapter on Jesus' parables allows us to entertain all of these questions before we move on to hear the parables themselves. It readies us for the same kind of decision that the parables themselves allow for; this means we encounter the parables as those who are more and less already part of the Kingdom or as those who stand outside it --- but it also helps us to know that if (and to whatever extent) these language events of Jesus' confound us, if (and to whatever extent) they are riddles to us rather than plain speaking, then we stand outside the Kingdom of heaven. Not least this introduction seems to me to remind us that the dividing line between insiders and outsiders is not so clear as we commonly think it to be; after all if we see others as outsiders it may be because that is where we stand ourselves! In other words, the whole insider/outsider way of thinking may be one we are being asked to reconsider! It is the very perspective Jesus may be trying to get us to relinquish.

Pretty humbling stuff, isn't it? This too reminds us of the ways Jesus' parables themselves serve to disorient and reorient! To walk away from his stories feeling a little confused about who is who and who stands where seems to me to be a salutary thing! It means our hearts have been softened, our minds have been opened, and we are more ready than we were before to accept the Kingdom of Jesus. It is entirely appropriate to find Matt's introduction to this unique and powerful form of literature doing something similar.