Episode 18: It may be surprising to many Christians that the use of parables was not unique to Jesus but was rather a Jewish literary art form that had been developed over centuries. Viewers will learn in episode eighteen that Jesus used parables not as riddles but stories to help clarify his points. Jesus’ parables attempted to make it easier for his listeners to grasp his words. Like the other rabbis of his day, Messiah used parables to serve as simple explanations and illustrations to help us understand his message about the kingdom.
The Lesson: The Mystery of Speaking in Parables
This is another First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) perspective on a common “attribute” of Jesus, in this case, how he taught using parables, that for me, revealed more about how Christians think than about the topic itself. I always assumed that the parables of Jesus were metaphors designed to communicate complex concepts and ideas in a simple manner. This is probably because in my previous career as a psychotherapist, using metaphors was a common method I employed to accomplish the same thing.
But apparently, it’s generally understood in the Church that Jesus used parables to confuse his listeners and to hide the truth from the Jewish people. He spoke in riddles in order to prevent the Jews from repenting and returning to God, which, if repentance had occurred, would have resulted in Israel entering the Messianic Age.
According to FFOZ teacher and author Toby Janicki, it’s easy to understand why modern Christians might get that idea:
His disciples approached him and said, “Why is it that you speak to them in parables?” He answered them and said, “Because to you it is given to know the secrets of the kingdom of Heaven, but to them it is not given. For to one who has, it will surely be given, and he will have extra, but for one who does not have, even what he does have will be taken away from him. That is why I speak to them in parables. For in their seeing they will not see, and in their hearing they will not hear, nor do they even understand.
In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Yeshayah that says,
‘Listen well, but you will not understand. Look closely, but you will not know. Fatten the heart of this nation, and make its ears heavy and seal its eyes, so that it will not see with its eyes or hear with its ears or understand with its heart or repent and be healed’.”
–Matthew 13:10-15 (DHE Gospels)
This seems to be another case of misunderstanding what appears to be a plain message because we are not approaching the words of the Master using a historical, cultural, and Rabbinic Jewish lens. Toby used to introduce himself in earlier episodes by saying he is a Gentile who is practicing Messianic Judaism, but in the past few episodes, he has described himself as a Gentile who studies Messianic Judaism. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that such a framework is truly required by Gentile Christians if we’re ever to get past our own cultural and historic misconceptions of the Gospels and hear and understand what Jesus is actually saying to his original audience and to us. Maybe we could use a few parables to get that message through our own “thick skulls.”
Toby said the way to understand Matthew 13:10-15 is to go to the section of the Book of Isaiah from which Jesus was quoting:
He said, “Go and say to this people, ‘Surely you will hear, but you do not comprehend; and surely you see, but you fail to know. This people is fattening its heart, hardening its ears, and sealing its eyes, lest it see with its eyes, hear with its ears, and understand with its heart, so that it will repent and be healed’.”
–Isaiah 6:9-10 (Stone Edition Tanakh)
Toby told his audience that the conjunction “but” as in “but you do not understand” would better be rendered as “and”. If we substituted the word “and” for “but” in the scripture from Isaiah 6, it would read more like God telling Isaiah that He wants the prophet to relate a message of repentance, but that the people are not going to listen to him.
Otherwise, it looks like God is saying, through Isaiah, that He wants the people to repent, but He also is making it impossible for them to hear the message and obey. Sort of a cosmic “bait and switch,” with God playing the role of the infinite trickster in relation to Israel. This is very reminiscent of how some Christians say God only gave the Torah (Law) to Israel to prove to them that it was impossible to obey, setting them up to understand why they needed grace and Jesus Christ in order to be saved; setting them up to realize that the Torah was never, ever meant to be a permanent lifestyle for the Jewish people, even though the Torah, Prophets, and Writings are replete with messages indicating that both the Torah and the Jewish people would forever exist before God.
Jesus quoted Isaiah 6:9-10 in order to explain that he was like Isaiah, a prophet preaching repentance to an Israel that was already spiritually blind and deaf, unable to see or hear or understand in order to repent and be healed (although in a Jewish context, being healed wasn’t just individual salvation, but the healing and restoration of the entire nation of Israel).
We have arrived at the first clue:
Clue 1: Jesus did not use parables to blind eyes or deafen ears.
In fact, the opposite seems true. Jesus knew his audience was already spiritually blind and deaf, and maybe he thought using simple parables instead of complex theological arguments would make the message of repentance and restoration easier to understand.
But what exactly is a parable and who typically uses it as a teaching method? For the answer to that question, the scene shifts to Israel and FFOZ teacher and translator Aaron Eby.
Aaron said that parables were used long before Jesus as a common teaching tool by prophets and even by other Rabbis who were contemporaries of the Master. Aaron quotes Ezekiel 17:12 and the parable of the eagle that plucks off a treetop (watch the episode to hear Aaron’s explanation of the parable) to make his point.
Aaron related that the word for parable in Hebrew is mashal, and that the Sages often used a mashal to explain something that was highly conceptual and difficult to understand. Aaron, like Toby, told his listeners that a mashal was designed to make something easier to understand, not take a plain idea and turn it into a riddle. In fact, in the day of Jesus, it was completely normal and expected for a Rabbi to teach using parables, so the disciples and followers of Christ expected it.
We return to Toby in the studio and come to the second clue:
Clue 2: Parables were a common teaching device used to simplify complex concepts.
Toby takes us to another Gospel scripture to further explain why Jesus taught in parables:
With many parables like these, he spoke to them the word according to what they were able to hear. Other than with a parable, he did not speak to them. But when his disciples were with him and no one else was with him, he would explain everything to them.
–Mark 4:33-34 (DHE Gospels)
This still seems like Jesus is using parables to obscure the truth but explaining everything to his disciples privately, however Toby said we need to consider another perspective. One that, once I heard it, I realized I’d been taught before.
The Rabbis of that time taught using a dual teaching method. They taught the common people, the simple farmers and shepherds, using parables in order to make difficult theological issues better understood. However to the disciples who continually studied under their Rabbinic Master, the teacher would relate these same concepts in a more formal and legal manner, since they were better equipped, being the Master’s students, to understand in greater depth.
Clue 3: Jesus taught the common people as they were able to hear him.
Remember that Mark describes Christ’s use of parables as, “he spoke to them the word according to what they were able to hear.” He used parables because that’s what the people were able to hear. They wouldn’t have understood a more detailed and technical explanation in the same way the disciples understood.
What Did I Learn?
I had a basic understanding that parables were metaphors in the purpose of their use, but this episode presented parables and their nature in greater detail than I had access to previously. It’s also another example (for me) that God does not desire to hide information, to trick people, to be an agent of confusion, but rather, He wants us to understand, to trust, to believe, and to realize that a Sovereign God is a just and honest God. Sovereignty doesn’t mean God will pull a “bait and switch” just because He’s entitled to as Creator of the Universe.
I also saw again how in lacking a proper Jewish contextual, legal, historical, and cultural framework when we read the Apostolic Scriptures or any other part of the Bible, we will misunderstand, sometimes tremendously misunderstand, who Yeshua is, what he taught, and why he taught it. The Messianic “good news” will be tinted an alien shade of “Gentile,” resulting in a “Goyim-friendly” New Testament that is required to remove continual Jewish Torah covenant obligation so that it can be replaced with something newer and “better.”
As I said before, when Toby introduced himself as a Gentile who studies Messianic Judaism, it revealed something about me and how I approach my faith. I really do believe and accept the FFOZ premise that Messianic Judaism is a method by which non-Jewish believers can and must study in order to comprehend God, the Messiah, the Bible, our Jewish companions in the faith (and outside the faith), and ourselves better. Otherwise, we’re missing out on a great deal of understanding and truth.
I don’t think anyone intended this part of the episode to be adapted in this way, but I wonder if when Jesus (and Isaiah before him) said that “this nation, and make its ears heavy and seal its eyes, so that it will not see with its eyes or hear with its ears or understand with its heart or repent and be healed,” they realized these words could possibly be applied to much of the Christian church today?
Oh, one more thing. The top image on each of these FFOZ TV reviews is just a screenshot, not an embedded link to the video. The link to the video is just under the italicized introduction to the review as the title of episode, such as in today’s case, Episode 18: Speaking in Parables.