For the Parable of the Sower much ink has been spilled explaining the problem of Jesus limiting the truth of the mystery of the Kingdom to His disciples((Talmidim is a Hebrew word commonly mistranslated as ‘disciple’. A disciple is someone who adopts or follows a teaching, in this case the teaching of Jesus. A talmidim, by contrast, is an apprentice in the process of learning to be a Master teacher under the tutelege of a Journeyman teacher, like Jesus. Accordingly the 12 ‘disciples’ are better understood as talmadim)). Much later, when Jesus is alone with His followers he explains (Mark 4:11-12)
“The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, ” ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’ ” (NIV)
Huh? Does Jesus really mean to say that the purpose behind parables is to confuse the outsiders? Yes, according to virtually all interpretations of this passage.
Arguably, the older translations misread the biblical text. For example, compare the NIV’s traditional translation above with the translation from the NLT (New Living Translation) which employs newer scholarship when determining its translations:
You are permitted to understand the secret of the Kingdom of God. But I use parables for everything I say to outsiders, so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled: ‘When they see what I do, they will learn nothing. When they hear what I say, they will not understand. Otherwise, they will turn to me and be forgiven.'” [my emphasis]
Taken out-of-context, this still seems disturbing — disturbing, that is, until you realize Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 6:9-10. In fact, the use of the parable((The Hebrew word for parable is mashal (מְשַׁל) and is more correctly understood as a simile. Here is the definition of mashal from the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament: “Proverb, parable, allegory, byword, taunt, discourse. Of great interest is the wide number of translations for this word in most English translations of the Old Testament. The substantive appears thirty-nine times (eight times in Ezk).”)) is widely attested in the Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament) and was used by the biblical authors to simplify complex ideas. So, with this in mind, let’s see how Isaiah 6:9-10 is used by Jesus “so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled“.
In Isaiah 6:9, God instructs Isaiah what to say and, for completeness I show my translation of the text from Hebrew to more conventional English.
וַיֹּאמֶר לֵךְ וְאָמַרְתָּ לָעָם הַזֶּה שִׁמְעוּ שָׁמוֹעַ וְאַל־תָּבִינוּ וּרְאוּ רָאוֹ וְאַל־תֵּדָעוּ
|Literal||And-He-said go and-say to-them, these-people, you-hear to-hear yet-not-do-you-understand and-you-see to-see but-not-do-you-know.|
|Dynamic||And God said to Isaiah, “Go and say to my people, ‘you surely hear((In biblical Hebrew the placing of a verb and its infinitive next to one another is a means by which the biblical author shows emphasis. In such cases the infinitive is often translated as ‘surely’ or ‘certainly’ — as I did in this case.)) yet do not understand. And you surely see, yet you fail to discern.’”|
In this verse, God is evidently frustrated that His people hear His words and see His actions, but just do not conform to His will. Thus, in verse 10, God instructs Isaiah to bypass their eyes and ears — to render them metaphorically deaf and blind — and speak directly to their deeper intellect. In other words, not to speak plainly but in parables (mashalim).
In the next verse, 6:10, God explains to Isaiah that the peoples’ eyes and ears get in the way of true understanding. As God explains it:
הַשְׁמֵן לֵב־הָעָם הַזֶּה וְאָזְנָיו הַכְבֵּד וְעֵינָיו הָשַׁע פֶּן־יִרְאֶה בְעֵינָיו וּבְאָזְנָיו יִשְׁמָע וּלְבָבוֹ יָבִין וָשָׁב וְרָפָא לוֹ
|Literal||Make-fat the-heart-of-these-people, but-their-ear cause-it-to-be-dull and-their-eye cause-it-to-be-blind lest they-will-see in-their-eye and-in-their-ear they-hear. So-that in-their-heart they-will-understand and-return and heal|
|Dynamic||Fill the heart((In biblical Hebrew, the heart is viewed as, among other things, the source of intellect, reason, and wisdom, not emotion or motive. Emotion and motive are more often associated with the groin or abdomen.)) of my people, but cause their ears to be deaf and their eyes to be blind. Otherwise, they will fail to understand. If you do this, they will understand in their mind and return and be saved.|
By using parabolic, figurative speech they’ll be forced to disconnect from the literal words and engage the inherent symbolism of the mashal.
With this in mind, we can understand now why Jesus quotes Isaiah as the reason He uses parables. Straightforward speech was evidently as ineffective in Jesus’s day as it was in Isaiah’s time. Thus, does Jesus use parables to accomplish what Isaiah could not. It is as if Jesus was recapitulating God’s command to Isaiah.
Now, just to emphasize the rationale of Jesus, here is my own parable that gets the idea across:
“To what shall we compare a parable?” said Michael. “A parable is like a newspaper’s use of political cartoons. Sometimes a good cartoon conveys the message better than a straightforward editorial.”
Is this all too farfetched? If so, then how do we explain the text of Mark 4:34
And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable. And He said unto them, “Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the Kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables.
In other words, For the purpose of their calling as future teachers of Torah, they will be taught the underlying meanings of the parables of Jesus. However, because most of their own disciples will not understand the complexities inherent in theological explanations, Jesus commands his apprentices to teach using mashalim.
Now, go and study