The Heuristic Edge of Parables

Why does Jesus use parables? How come they often seem a bit hard to understand at first? In fact, how come his original audience often found them hard to understand? How come he would leave some people hanging and yet explain his parables to another group, like his disciples?

We often think of parables as illustrative stories that Jesus used to make a theological point about Himself and/or the kingdom because humans love stories and learn better when the message is narrativized. Well, that’s not really the point of parables. Using parables to support the need to illustrate Biblical teaching with stories actually contradicts what Jesus is doing. After using a parable that describes the prodigal seed sower, namely God, and the different types of soils, namely the  human heart, the seed being the word of the gospel, Jesus goes on to explain to his disciples that he uses parables not to make things clearer, but rather to be purposefully enigmatic, veiled…heuristic (Matthew 13, Luke 8). OK, what does that 50 cent word mean? It means that certain ways of unfolding an idea are set up to be initially veiled in order to encourage the journey of discover so that more is learned in active discovery than in an easy way of attaining knowledge. Parables do that. They are not fully exposed truths. They are slanted, as Eugene Peterson says. They require the work of interpretation and implication gathering. In fact, Jesus cites Isaiah 6.9-10 as a Biblical basis for this teaching. There, God is commissioning Isaiah to the ministry of preaching and yet tell him that it will be a mission to hard hearted people, a ministry designed, in part, to judge the hard hearted. So, Jesus compares himself to Isaiah. Jesus is the ultimate prophet. Jesus’s preaching ministry is the ultimate manifestation of this Isaiah principle. Those who have eyes to see and ears to hear will be saved. Those who don’t will be fully blinded and fully deafened. Judgment. But, of course, God mercifully heals, doesn’t he? He gives eyes to see and ears to hear.

So, parables do two things. First, they filter out the people who are not really there for truth. They want something to itch their ears or to give them a quick fix that will require little to no cost. These people want cheap grace. Second, it draws in the truly curious and truth seekers. It forces them to wrestle and question and probe and, well, start relationship. These people find that drawing close to Christ is not just affirming a doctrinal statement but coming to worship the Living King. The heuristic edge of the parables is thus judgmental, blinding the hard hearted, and it is gracious, drawing in those willing to start believing. It is all about sovereignty in salvation and yet the call to choose belief over doubt (yep, this sovereignty-loving pastor is not going to let you fall off either side of the table top…I’m all about God’s comprehensive sovereignty and yet the real and radical nature of the human will and the nature of choice, too). The parables show Jesus really inviting people to understand and believe. At the same time parables show that God is quite serious when he says he will further harden the human heart if it comes unwilling to be softened. And yet, it can only be softened by the work of grace. And yet, grace must be met with yielding. Again, the tension of the gospel. And the parables express this.

So, take Jesus up on his slant teachings. Rather than backing off because Jesus is hard to understand at first, dive in, wrestle, probe, ask questions. That is exactly what Jesus is trying to get you to do. Reveal the fact that you do want truth by fighting for it. Don’t reveal the fact that you have a hard heart. Otherwise, you could find yourself so hardened you have no desire whatsoever for truth again. That is no where to be.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Heuristic Edge of Parables

  1. Miguel

    LOVE IT. TEACH ON!!!!!!!

  2. Susan

    To say that Jesus’s parables are enigmatic so we’ll be pushed to discover truth is so much more encouraging than to think He deliberately obfuscated so that only the elect would understand what He was saying. Thanks, Jay, for these ideas. You give a good explanation of why the parables sometimes seem inscrutable.
    I’m glad, too, that you point out “the real and radical nature of the human will.” Focusing exclusively on God’s sovereignty in election can cause us to overlook that “real and radical” thing. I know I don’t really understand all that the human will is, but I’d be interested in reading what else you have to say about it.

  3. Tony Shook

    The parable as a means of teaching, of leading “…whosoever will…” into a opening of the heart to truths that lead to LIFE is as wondrous as the Teacher. This ‘style’ of teaching, of leading us to discover for ourselves and thus enable us to continue in the journey of Faith is something I’ve seen applied in other fields as well. Working for a time in the Navy as a nuclear plant operator, the training we received was similar in that we were given information that was meant to cause us to continue to study and learn more. Guided by instructors and those more experienced, the ‘newbies’ would either develop that curiosity for the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of operating this incredible machine or, as I saw happen several times, quickly become so confused and unwilling to learn that they would be disqualified to continue in their training and be disqualified from further training or the work it would lead to.
    Teachers that I’ve most respected and honored through my life use this manner of creating an appetite for more; Jim Abrahamson and you, Pastor Jay, are two examples of emulating the Messiah in showing others the way Home,
    Tony

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