There are times where Jesus says something nice and heartwarming like, “For God so loved the world…” etc. etc.*
Then there are times when Jesus says something like this:
This is why I speak to them in parables . . . ‘Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’
This little aside comes near the start of a mini-marathon of parables in Matthew 13. After the first parable (the sower and the seeds), Jesus’ disciples ask about his sudden shift into storyteller mode. “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” they wonder.
Jesus’ answer is unsettling to say the least. Basically, it’s so people won’t understand what he’s talking about. To drive the point home, Jesus quotes Isaiah 6, where the prophet is sent to further harden the already callous hearts of God’s rebellious people:
Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes.
(Jesus’ choice for “verse of the day” is even more alarming when you read what comes next in Isaiah.)
For some, his statement about parables is yet further proof of a limited atonement, the idea that God chose a select group of people and determined that only they would understand the teachings of Jesus.
At the very least, it begs the question: why would Jesus deliberately keep people from understanding his message? Why would God-in-the-flesh not want to be found?
Calvinists find the answer in their theological presuppositions about God and salvation: Jesus conspires to confuse because he only wants to save those who were chosen beforehand.
Fortunately, there’s a better answer to be found by looking at the historical and cultural backdrop of Matthew 13.
For starters, Matthew 13 is part of a much bigger section of scripture. Altogether, Matthew is arranged into five main sections; this one occurs smack in the middle. It starts with chapter 11 and continues through chapter 13.
In this section, Jesus encounters opposition from all sides:
- First, his old friend John the Baptist questions his identity.
- Then the villages where Jesus did most of his miracles turn their backs on him.
- The religious leaders turn against him, too (no surprise here); they even accuse him of channeling power from the devil.
- Finally, Jesus’ family intervenes. (Mark clearly states what Matthew only alludes to: they were trying to take Jesus away because they thought he was insane.)
Jesus’ deliberate obfuscation has to be read in light of all this. It’s a reaction to the opposition he encountered, not the cause of it.
It also helps to remember that everything Jesus said was spoken against the backdrop of Roman occupation. There was an intense debate raging among the Jews over what to do about their unfortunate situation. Some said cooperate with Rome; others advocated violent resistance. Most devout Jews expected the Messiah would sort out the Romans and restore power to Israel when he came. (Even after the resurrection, the disciples still seemed to think this would be the case.)
Jesus came as messiah, but he radically redefined the messiah’s role. He walked the line between Rome’s demand for total acquiescence and the call by some for armed resistance. He knew full well where the people’s thirst for violent revolt would get them. (He didn’t have to google A.D. 70 to figure that one out.)
In Jesus and the Land, Wheaton professor Gary Burge writes:
In the volatile climate of first-century politics — among a people living under the harsh realities of Roman military occupation — we should not expect a public teacher like Jesus to speak explicitly. . . . To exhibit resistance to Rome is to run up against a skilled army which is watching for signs of subversion. To show cooperation with Rome is to run up against fellow Jews for whom such sympathies are intolerable. In every explosive political context (both today and in antiquity), people with opinions must remain opaque to the many listeners standing in the shadows who are choosing sides.
In short, Jesus didn’t obscure his message simply because he was playing favorites. He didn’t hide the truth from certain people because God had predestined them to perish in their ignorance. There were other factors at work.
A little context can be a wonderful thing.
*Fun fact: In reality, Jesus might not have even said “For God so loved the world….” More likely, this was John’s commentary on the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. That’s what happens when Greek manuscripts don’t have any punctuation. Scholars get to play “guess where the quotation marks go.” But still.