Commentary on Matthew 13:10-17
Parables of the Kingdom (cont’d)
Today’s passage forms an interlude between the parable of the sower and its interpretation. Jesus is asked by his disciples why he speaks to the people in parables. The implication is that he does not speak in parables to his own disciples.
It would be possible to interpret Jesus’ reply as meaning that he speaks clearly to his disciples but to the people in riddles because they are outsiders. This would seem to contradict the purpose of speaking in parables which is to use helpful and familiar images in order to lead towards a better understanding of a deeper message. (The parable of the sower is a good example.)
The Jerusalem Bible sees it somewhat differently: “Those who saw so dimly could be further blinded by the light of full revelation. Jesus, therefore, does not reveal with complete clarity the true nature of the messianic kingdom which is unostentatious. Instead he filters the light through symbols, the resulting half-light is nevertheless a grace from God, an invitation to ask for something better and accept something greater.”
It seems that we are dealing here again with the difference between ‘insiders’ and the ‘outsiders’. The ‘insiders’ are those who give Jesus a ready hearing. Naturally, they are more open to hear about the ‘mysteries’ of the kingdom and to assimilate what they hear. The ‘outsiders’, on the other hand, are precisely that because they have closed minds, they are not ready to listen.
In the particular context of Matthew’s gospel, those who refuse to listen are those who have rigidly bound themselves within the confines of the Mosaic Law and who refuse to listen to the message of Jesus which is a “fulfilment” as well as being a radical restatement of the Law and the proclamation of a totally new covenant in the person of Jesus as Messiah. Or, as the Jerusalem Bible puts it: “The ill-disposed will even lose what they have, namely, that Jewish Law which, without the perfection Christ brings to it, is destined to become obsolete.”
This gives meaning to the words which Jesus uses. Speaking of the ‘insiders’ he says, “To the one who has, more will be given until he grows rich; the one who has not, will lose what little he has.” Those who have opened themselves to the Word of God will find themselves evermore enriched, while those who have not even begun to accept the Word will end up in even a worse situation than they are now. Similarly, those to whom the parables are addressed, “look but do not see, listen but do not hear or understand”. This happens, not because the parables are difficult but because the hearers are not prepared to listen. In fact, they are, one might almost say, watered down and easily digestible versions of the full message.
And Jesus quotes words of Isaiah which are not meant to be understood as God deliberately blocking his Word reaching people; this would not make any sense. The prophet is better understand as speaking in a strongly sarcastic tone:
Listen as you will, you shall not understand,
look intently as you will, you shall not see.
Sluggish indeed is this people’s heart
That is the problem.
They have scarcely heard with their ears,
they have firmly closed their eyes.
And why have they acted like this?
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts.
And what would be the result of that? They might
turn back to me
and I should heal them.
That is where the issue lies. If we are prepared to see and to listen, it will mean a radical change in our lives, in our attitudes, in our values and priorities, in our relationships. Many are not ready to have their lives turned upside down. They prefer to remain blind and deaf.
On the contrary, Jesus says to the ‘insiders’: “Blest are your eyes because they see [understand and accept] and blest are your ears because they hear [listen, accept and carry out].” And, to the extent that we have become ‘insiders’ with Christ, we too are deeply blessed. But we do need to be sensitive to our own tendencies not to see or not to listen because of our unreadiness to go all the way in our following Jesus, our reluctance to let go and make the changes in our lives he is asking of us.