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Why speak in parables?

Matthew 13:10-17

Then the disciples came and asked him, 'Why do you speak to them in parables?' He answered, '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 those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that "seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand." With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:"You will indeed listen, but never understand,and you will indeed look, but never perceive.For this people's heart has grown dull,and their ears are hard of hearing,and they have shut their eyes;so that they might not look with their eyes,and listen with their ears,and understand with their heart and turn-and I would heal them."But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.
Why did Jesus speak to the people using these obscure stories? That’s what Jesus’ disciples wanted to know. Jesus answered their question by assuring them that the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven would be given to them. What the prophets and righteous people of the past longed to see, was taking place.

In the side yard of a house we owned many years ago, I planted a tree. It would be nice to go back and see how that tree is getting along. But most people who plant trees don’t get to see the end result.

Jesus was telling his disciples that they were like children standing beside full grown oak trees that had been planted hundreds of years before. Jesus was telling them, in a cryptic way, that it takes time for the kingdom of God to grow. It isn’t easy to grow a lawn or to grow trees or to grow any kind of crop. A lot of seed is wasted and you hope against hope that at least 25% of the seed will produce what it’s supposed to produce.

I’m sure Jesus’ response to his disciples’ question was frustrating for them to hear. They wanted a quick fix. They wanted Jesus to give the people all the answers and get on with building his kingdom right then and there. They were like children planting acorns and expecting full grown oak trees to sprout up over night.

Jesus quotes Isaiah 6 to explain to his disciples what is going on. It is a troubling answer to a perplexed question. Isaiah 6 tells about the prophet’s call. In the year that King Uzziah died Isaiah saw a vision of the Lord in his temple. Isaiah was one of the few prophets in the Old Testament who actually asked the Lord to send him on a mission. But the mission God gave him was not a pleasant one. “Go and tell this people ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding.’”

If you read through the book of Isaiah you will find that his message did contain the promise of salvation, but that promise only came true on the other side of judgment. Forests would have to come down so that a new shoot could start to grow—the stump of Jesse (Isaiah 10:33-11:3).

Jesus is telling his disciples that God is doing a similar thing in their time to what he did in Isaiah’s time. Just as Isaiah prophesied exile followed by restoration, so Jesus is promising salvation, but first God has to do some pruning of his beautiful olive tree, Israel. Yes, God’s kingdom is appearing at last, but it is bringing with it judgment as well as mercy. Some in Israel, like the Pharisees, will listen over and over again to what Jesus has to say, and they just won’t get it. The same thing happened in Isaiah’s time, so it should come as no surprise, Jesus is saying. Judgment must fall on God’s unfaithful people before mercy can spring up. But the good news within this warning is that Jesus himself will take the brunt of the judgment upon himself.

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