by Lois Tverberg
He said, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.” Luke 8:10
Sometimes parables make us scratch our heads, and it can seem that Jesus was using them to deliberately confuse people. But even though they seem strange to us, they were a traditional teaching method that was always used to clarify rather than obscure. Many parables of Jesus’ that sound odd to us have very similar motifs than others of his time, and were probably less strange-sounding to his original listeners.
Still, we wonder why it sounds in the passage above like Jesus was deliberately trying to hide his message. A clue comes from the fact that Jesus seems to be alluding to Isaiah 6:9-10, when God commissioned Isaiah as a prophet to Israel. God did not send Isaiah to confuse the people with obscure teachings, but to clearly proclaim God’s word to them. But God says with great irony to Isaiah at his commission,
Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed. Isaiah 6:10
Really, God is not telling Isaiah to confuse the people, but to proclaim the truth, even though God knows his teaching will be rejected by many. Jesus is saying the same thing – that like the prophets he speaks to clarify God’s word, but from hardness of heart, many will not hear or obey him.
The idea that it is hard-heartedness that keeps people from understanding his teaching is supported by the context of this saying – it is in the middle of the parable of the four soils and its explanation. The parable of the soils seems to actually be the explanation of why Jesus’ words are not having an impact on people. It is not because the words are deliberately confusing, but because they are falling on deaf ears.
The parable shows that the same seed that grows well in good soil does not take root on the path, and produces little in rocky or thorny ground. The seed is always good, but the soil of human hearts may or may not be receptive. The reason people don’t understand Jesus’ teachings is not because he is hiding anything, but is a problem with the hearer. The difficulty is in their ability to receive his teaching in order to obey it.