Parables

This is why I speak to them in parables:

“Though seeing, they do not see;
    though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

“‘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.’ [Isaiah 6:9-10]

Matthew 13:13-15

Doubt and unbelief are never an intellectual issue. Some of the most intelligent people on the planet, even some of the most well-respected scientists, have been followers of Jesus (for modern examples see John Polkinghorne and Francis Collins). Jesus makes clear, right after he tells the Parable of the Sower, that lack of understanding and lack of belief happen in the heart.

Notice the progression mentioned in Jesus’s quote from Isaiah. First, the heart becomes calloused. While the heart is not yet completely hardened, it is on its way. Usually this happens not because of an intellectual question about God but because of a wound of the heart. Someone hurts us or God doesn’t meet an expectation we had. A person stops trusting God because they had the wrong definition of trust in the first place.

Too often our hearts become calloused because we think trust is built by “someone doing what I expect they will do.” Meaning, to build trust we want a person to be predictable. We want the person to do what we would have done in particular situations. In other words, the more you are like me, the more you respond the way I would have responded, the more I trust you. This faulty understanding of trust means that any time another person does something I can’t anticipate, mistrust starts to grow.

You can see how destructive this understanding of trust would be to our relationship with God. When we expect Him to be just like us, and then He isn’t, we begin to lose trust in Him. When He doesn’t respond in a predictable way, a way that we wanted Him to, we begin to live in mistrust. God is completely perfect and good. He is worthy of absolute trust. But we’ve already started with the wrong understanding of trust.

Healthy trust is built on someone consistently telling us the truth not on someone being and acting predictably like us. God is wholly other than us. He will act in ways that surprise us and maybe even confuse us. But this is no reason not to trust God. Jesus is the Truth. He cannot be other than truthful with us. He is worthy of our trust.

Our wound of the heart, our mistrust, then leads to the next progression. We stop hearing. This is a more passive reality. Hearing God (and people for that matter) depends on listening and trust. When we have a wound in our heart, we stop trusting and we stop listening. Hearing God’s voice gets more and more difficult. Weeds of doubt and confusion start forming in our hearts. We are not actively plugging our ears, but hearing gets difficult until we repent of our distrust and get healing for the wound in our heart.

Eventually, after struggling to hear from God for a while, we shift into rebellion. That’s the next step in this progression of doubt and unbelief. While our struggle to hear was not intentional, the next step is intentional. We close our eyes. Closing our eyes is something we actively do. It’s not just that we struggle to see, it’s that we are now actively closing our eyes to the truth of God. We resist. We reject. We live in cynicism and skepticism. We choose unbelief. We close our eyes and proclaim that the room is dark.

This whole progression started with the heart, not the head. This is why Jesus spoke in parables. Parables aren’t meant to confuse the mind; they are meant to expose the condition of the heart. Those who have soft hearts, open hearts, are willing to trust the Lord. They will receive the seed of Kingdom truth planted in them. They will either understand the parable or it will lead to a curiosity that invites them into exploration. Lack of understanding for a person with a softened heart is an invitation into deeper intimacy as curiosity leads them to seek the Lord even more.

Calloused hearts, hardened hearts, will not understand the parables. Instead, they will likely be offended by them. It will not provoke curiosity but suspicion, mocking, and accusation. Lack of understanding for a person with a hard heart becomes mounting evidence that they were right to doubt. Lack of understanding exacerbates mistrust in the Lord. Cynicism abounds.

Jesus spoke in parables because they expose what is underneath our intellectual prowess and our religious actions. They expose the condition of our heart.

Telling Secrets

Then he told them many things in parables…  …Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”

He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables:

“Though seeing, they do not see;
    though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”

Matthew 13:3, 9-13

In front of a gathering of people, Jesus tells the Parable of the Sower. A farmer scattered seed and it fell in four different places. The seed on the hardened path was eaten by birds. The seed on the rocky soil sprung up quickly yet died for lack of soil. The seed among the thorns grew but was eventually choked out. Finally, the seed that fell on the good soil produced a harvest. Jesus concluded this parable by saying, “Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

The disciples wanted to know what we want to know. Why was Jesus speaking in parables? So Jesus explains why He does this.

Jesus’s teachings contain the secrets of the Kingdom of God. But Jesus has to be careful who obtains these secrets. He’s looking for the seed of the Kingdom to fall into good soil. So, the principle Jesus is applying is the same one we see in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). In the Parable of the Talents, those who were faithful with little were given more. The one who was not faithful with little, even what little he had was given to someone who would be faithful with it. Jesus is looking for good stewards, those who will be faithful with what they’ve been given. Those who will believe the word and apply it. Those who will cultivate the seed in good soil.

Jesus states the principle plainly, “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance.” Whoever has what? Good question. Jesus already told us. Whoever has “ears to hear.” They will be given more.

Then Jesus follows with, “Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” Whoever does not have what? Good question. Whoever does not have “ears to hear.” They will not be trusted with more, and what they did have will be taken from them. He’s not talking finances here. He’s talking about revelation, truth, secrets of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus then describes people who don’t have ears to hear the secrets of the Kingdom. He says that they can see with their eyes, but are blind to truth. He says that they can hear with their ears, but their hearts are deaf to the what God is revealing.

Jesus wanted to reveal the secrets of the Kingdom, but He wanted to do it for people who would be faithful with it. He wanted the secrets of the Kingdom to be revealed to people whose hearts were like good soil, soft hearts, surrendered hearts. He wanted secrets of the Kingdom to be concealed to those who weren’t ready for them, so He spoke in parables. Like Jesus said in Matthew 7:6, “Do not throw pearls to pigs” or they will not only trample them but turn and tear you to pieces.

And this reveals two secrets about hearing God. When we talk about hearing God more clearly, we aren’t talking about literal volume. Imagine a radio tuning in to a radio signal. There is the tune knob and the volume knob. The tune knob in the Kingdom is surrender. The volume knob in the Kingdom is believing God. The more we surrender and obey, believing what God has already said, the more we continue to hear from God. The more our heart is soften to the Lord, the more His parables–the words He speaks directly to our hearts–make sense.

God didn’t want the secrets of His Kingdom in the hands of people who were hard-hearted and didn’t believe. He didn’t want His secrets in the hands of the arrogant and prideful. So Jesus spoke in parables. Jesus hid the secrets of the Kingdom for us, not from us. Those who are willing to go low, willing to surrender, willing to believe with soften hearts, they will be given a truckload of truth, a reservoir of revelation. Those who live in skepticism and unbelief will not.

If you are wanting to hear more from God, if you want Him to reveal things to you, if you want Him to unveil secrets of the Kingdom to you, the first step is repenting of an unbelieving heart. Ask God to forgive you for your unbelief, cynicism, skepticism and doubt. Ask Him to soften your heart. Then ask the Holy Spirit to speak clearly to you and set aside daily time to listen. Listen for pictures and words that the Lord brings to your mind. And whatever He shows you, be a good steward of it. Be obedient. Stewarding what He’s already said is key in receiving more.

Leave Everything Behind

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

Matthew 13:44-46

Just when we wonder what the Kingdom of God is like, Jesus helps us see a clearer picture with parable after parable describing the Kingdom.

In this case, what we learn is that the Kingdom of God is so valuable, such a treasure, that the only proper response to finding the Kingdom is to abandon one’s old life and give up everything in pursuit of it. This extreme devotion and sacrifice is seen as “over the top” in our American, pacified Christianity.

Yet, these men in these parables didn’t think it was extreme at all. The first man was getting more than he gave up by selling all he had and buying that field. That field contained treasure worth many times more than all he had. Instead of seeing it as extreme, we could see it simply as a wise investment.

To give up everything one has in order to get a hundred times what one has is not extreme; it’s wisdom. It would be foolish to do otherwise. It would be foolish and irresponsible to leave that treasure sitting in a field because he was too scared to sell all he had and purchase the field.

The second parable reiterates this same point. This was a merchant who understood business. He understood the pearl industry. He knew a valuable pearl when he saw one. When he saw the price tag on that valuable pearl, he knew it would require him to sell all that he had in order to buy it. But, being the savvy businessman that he was, he also knew the pearl was worth a hundred times what was on the price tag. This was not “extreme” or “radical” or “crazy.” This was a sound investment. This was the only sensible thing to do.

This is what the Kingdom of God is like! The only sensible thing to do once we encounter the Kingdom is to abandon everything in our old life and pay any price in order to be in it. Jesus paid the ultimate price for us to enter the Kingdom. And so when we give up everything to follow Him, there is nothing “radical” or “extreme” about it. It’s the only sensible thing to do.

When people leave behind their pride and reputation to be outspoken about Jesus, it’s not extreme. It’s the only sensible thing to do. When people cry out in worship for what God has saved them from, it’s not “over-the-top.” It’s the only sensible thing to do. When people give up everything for Jesus, (including sexual preferences, job promotions, their good reputation, addictions, the American dream, the ways of the world, physical security, etc ) they aren’t being radical. They are simply treating the Kingdom as the treasure that it really is.

The rest of us, who aren’t willing to give up what’s comfortable for the treasure right in front of us, we are the ones who are acting foolish. We, with our “respectable” Christianity, have made a poor investment, holding on to our childhood allowance because we’re afraid to lay hold of the riches of our true inheritance.

The next time someone seems too “crazy” or “radical” in their Christian faith, it might be good for us to remember how Jesus described the Kingdom in these parables.

Immeasurably More

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

Matthew 13:31-32

Those listening to Jesus would have understood how small a mustard seed is. But they also would have understood that a mustard seed grows into a plant no larger than a small shrub. To say that what is usually a small shrub would not only become the largest of garden plants but then would become a tree that birds can perch in was quite an imaginary leap.

Those listening to Jesus who knew their Old Testament prophets would have heard in this parable an allusion to something God said through His prophet Ezekiel. Yes, Jesus was obviously saying that the Kingdom starts small and becomes much bigger than expected. But He was saying even more than that.

Listen to how God speaks about the kingdom of Assyria through the prophet Ezekiel.

Consider Assyria, once a cedar in Lebanon,
    with beautiful branches overshadowing the forest;
it towered on high, its top above the thick foliage.
The waters nourished it, deep springs made it grow tall;
their streams flowed all around its base
and sent their channels to all the trees of the field.
So it towered higher than all the trees of the field;
its boughs increased and its branches grew long,
    spreading because of abundant waters.
All the birds of the sky nested in its boughs,
all the animals of the wild gave birth under its branches;
all the great nations lived in its shade.
It was majestic in beauty, with its spreading boughs,
for its roots went down to abundant waters.
The cedars in the garden of God could not rival it,
nor could the junipers equal its boughs,
nor could the plane trees compare with its branches—
no tree in the garden of God could match its beauty.
I made it beautiful with abundant branches,
the envy of all the trees of Eden in the garden of God.

Ezekiel 31:3-9

Jesus was saying that the Kingdom of God will start small but will become more powerful, more majestic, more beautiful than even the great kingdoms of the world (like Assyria).

The Kingdom of God will tower higher than all the kingdoms of the world. It will become like a great cedar of Lebanon. All the nations and peoples of the earth will rest under its shade. It will be majestic in its beauty. Nothing will rival it.

Zechariah 4:10 reminds us not to despise the day of small beginnings. Things in the Kingdom of God always start small. Yet, if we are faithful, the Kingdom will grow up around us in ways that are wildly unexpected. The Kingdom grows in ways that are beyond our imagination. This is how the apostle Paul put it when he wrote to the Ephesians:

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Ephesians 3:20-21