By Bert Gary © 2008
"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." Jesus Christ - Matthew 13:15
It's not often appreciated how important and central a role Jesus' parables played in his ministry. Did you know that according to the four biblical gospels, Jesus told approximately forty-five parables? (That's a lot.) Did you know that these constitute the bulk of Jesus' public teachings? Did you know that he said that he taught the crowds only in parables that he refused to explain to them? Did you know that these parables are told to explain something he calls "kingdom of heaven," "
," or "eternal/abundant life," and that these kingdom parables are considered by most Bible students and teachers to be Jesus' main teaching, the heart of his message? Did you know that he explained the meaning of his parables privately to his disciples? And did you know that he got exasperated with his disciples for failing to understand what he was saying with his parable? kingdom of God
Don't be surprised if something in this paper is upsetting, because it covers parables that seem by design to be upsetting. Simultaneously, you might be thrilled at the discovery of a "new" Jesus---the bona fide Jesus of scripture.
So without further ado: a parable.
Perhaps the least familiar and most misunderstood parable Jesus told is the parable of the ten bridesmaids:
They said, "We know you are good Christian folk, and you believe in helping those in need. We are in an unfortunate situation here. The five of us are out of oil for our lamps. How are we supposed to help you get the groom to the house? We're all going to be in big trouble. We could lose our jobs. Hurry, the groom is approaching; give us some of your oil. We don't need that much. And remember, we have to put food on our tables too. Think of our families! All we need is a little oil. We'll pay you back on Friday, we promise. Think of our children! We can't afford to lose our jobs. It will be your fault! Do you want the guilt of that on your conscience, knowing you could have helped, you could have shared, you could have been a good Christian neighbor, but you didn't give when you had the opportunity? You have a Christian obligation to give out of your abundance. If you don't share your oil with us, shame on you! How can you be so selfish? And you call yourselves Christians?"
But the five bridesmaids who brought extra oil said, "No. This is not our problem. We didn't mess up, you did. Besides, if we give you some of our oil, we might run out before we can get the groom back to the house, and then we would be in trouble. Go to the store! Awake the dealer if you can, and buy your own oil. You're not getting any of ours, not a drop."
But while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the house, and they bolted the door behind them and began to party. Later the other five came from the store knocking on the door and begging to get in. But the groom looked through the peephole and said, "Who are you? What do you want?" They said, "Lord, lord, it's us! Let us in!" But the groom said, "You're crazy. I don't know any of you," and he returned to the party.
So stay on your toes, because you don't know the day or the hour. (Based on Matthew 25:1-13)
Does something here strike you as strange? Nobody gets bailed out in this parable. Everyone is held accountable for his own preparation or lack thereof. Moochers are refused. And saying No to them was the right thing to do. They were irresponsible. They blew it. They get no consideration. No sympathy. No handouts. No entitlements. No excuses. They will suffer the consequences of their own failure, and why should anyone feel sorry for them? They made their beds. Now they get to lie in them. Do you recognize Jesus and his kingdom of heaven in this anti-moocher parable?
In his wonderful fable called "The Bridge," therapist and author Rabbi Edwin Friedman unwittingly dealt with the same theme. (Edwin H. Friedman, Friedman's Fables (New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 1990), pp. 9-13.) My retelling of it here is a paraphrase of the original for the sake of brevity:
A man is crossing a bridge to a new life and a new start when he sees a strange man walking toward him uncoiling a rope from around his body. One end of the rope is tied around his waist. He takes the other end and hands it to the man going on to a new life. Then the stranger jumps.
Hanging on for dear life, the man above yells, "Are you crazy? I was going on to a new life minding my own business, and you hand me this rope and then jump. Why?"
The strange fellow dangling below yells back, "Hang on. You're responsible for me now."
There's various yelling and blaming going back and forth for a while. The man on the bridge is not strong enough to pull the fool up. There's no place to tie him off, and the man is getting tired. What will he do? If he lets go, the stranger will die, and it will be his fault!
Time passes, he prays desperately, and then . . . Oh, Divine Inspiration . . .
He calls to the man below, "Hey buddy, I'm giving you this one chance. Obviously I can't pull you up no matter how hard I try, but you sure as hell can climb! I'm going to count to 100. If you haven't climbed up by the time I get to 100, I'm letting go of the rope. 1, . . . 2, . . ."
"Wait," the man below cried. "You're forgetting something. If you let go, I'll fall, I'm dead, and it will be your fault!"
"19, . . . 20, . . . 21, . . ."
"You're supposed to have compassion for others. You're supposed to care. You have it in your power to save life, yet you'd let me fall to certain death? How can you be so selfish? How can you call yourself a Christian?"
"61, . . . 62, . . ."
And the man below began to wail, and curse, and gnash his teeth. He screamed every nasty word in the English language that he knew, and a few in various other languages. He spit and gestured obscenely and wailed and writhed at the end of his tether. But he did not climb. He could have, but he didn't.
"98, . . . 99, . . . 100."
It is not fair really to rewrite this zinger-of-a-fable in such an edited down form. But what is needed here is a flavor of the tale to draw the parallel between the fable and Jesus' parable of the ten bridesmaids. The issues are essentially the same:
1. A person or group who could and should take care of himself/themselves tries to get someone else to be responsible for him/them. (Hold this rope. Give us some of your oil.)
There was a student in a pastoral care class who responded emotionally to the telling of The Bridge fable and The Ten Bridesmaids parable. He told the class about a sister and brother‑in‑law who had been kicked out of the homes of several family members, and he took them in out of pity. As a part-time pastor, he felt it was the Christian thing to do. He housed them and put them to work in his small, successful business. Within a matter of weeks he realized he was in trouble, and in a matter of months he lost a valuable employee and the business was failing. What should he do? The student said something like, "I let go of the rope! I fired my sister and her husband, and kicked them out of my house (crying at this point). It was the most difficult thing I had ever done. And I really struggled with that decision. I've been unable to convince myself that did the right thing. Now I know it was. If they wouldn't climb, I shouldn't keep holding them up. The only other alternative would have been to let them pull me and my family and our business down the toilet with them. I see that now. I did the right thing. But it was still the hardest thing I'd ever done."
What is Jesus teaching us about a true Christian response---a kingdom of heaven response---to those who show no sign of taking responsibility for themselves?
1. I see clearly that you messed up and are in trouble.
This works for managers, parents, senators, or any leader. This is the behavior of a mature Christian leader. It is difficult, often painful, but usually best.
For example, consider parenting. If God does us the favor of letting us mess up, then why not do the same for our children? While sometimes painful, letting go of the rope, letting them suffer the consequences of not bringing extra oil, is the loving thing to do for our children. Their failing and getting into trouble are unavoidable anyway, so why make yourself sick and crazy over it? Let it happen; let them feel the full weight of their failure or mistake; do not bail them out (figuratively or literally as the case may be!), and get on with life.
Now consider Christian evangelism. How do people get the good news of God's salvation in Jesus Christ, and what is a Christian's role in fulfilling "the great commission" to go and tell the world? (Matthew 28:19) In the parable, ten bridesmaids go out as partners and coworkers to do the work of the groom together. Bringing extra oil was everyone's responsibility, and babysitting those who failed to do so was not a part of the arrangement. The five wise bridesmaids say, No, you cannot have any of our oil no matter what dire consequence may result due to your own negligence. The wise ones guided the groom to the house and entered with him into the party. But the other five were locked out due to their own negligence, and no amount of blaming or begging would change that fact.
Need we be reminded that it is God who saves, not we ourselves? Christians can save no one. We do not have the power, nor did God ever ask us to save anyone. The only person's salvation for whom we have responsibility is our own, to work out our own with fear and trembling. (Philippians 2:12) That is between the Lord and the believer.
Yes, we Christians care about others. We make friends, witness with our lives; some of us even preach and teach and write and talk on the radio or TV; and always we pray that God will work for good in us and in those with whom we come into contact. We can tell the good news of Jesus, and share his wisdom, encourage people to read the scriptures for themselves, and live boldly and proclaim salvation boldly. But that is the extent of it: We offer the story. The rest is up to God. We must have faith that God will use our meager, broken efforts to open ears and eyes, to change people's hearts, and to repair people's lives. To do more than this is to show a lack of faith in God to save, or even worse, to play God by manipulating and coercing belief. Does the name Jim Jones ring a bell? True and faithful evangelism never closes the door to choice. Without choice, evangelism becomes spiritual terrorism (What an oxymoron!).
So concerning evangelism, to say it one more time, a person has to want to know and experience the salvation of God in Jesus, period. There is nothing Christians can do to make them. And if there are persons who do not want to know or believe, we have to be willing to accept it when they choose hell. Remember, most of us have been down there once or twice, and some Christian somewhere had the good sense not to bail us out. Otherwise we might never have learned that hell is a pretty rotten place!
No, Foolish Five, we're not responsible for your failure to bring extra oil.
No, Rope Boy, I'm not bound to hang on if you won't climb.
My Palestinian friends in
When is it right to let people suffer the consequences of their irresponsibility?
More Parables of the
Having begun with a parable, we move now to a reasonable complaint made by Jesus' disciples: Lord, why do you teach in parables?
The disciples expressed concern about Jesus' parables. (Matthew 13:10) Was he really keeping his audience and their limitations in mind? Peter and the rest were worried that if he talked over their heads, the people would feel stupid, and if they felt stupid, not only would they not understand, but they would not listen---could not listen. Not only could they not listen, but also they would label him "deep" or "intellectual" or "challenging." These labels would be polite ways of saying that Jesus was not much of a speaker. Was Jesus failing to get his message across?
If they had 21st century minds, they probably would have hired a big political consultant, maybe a James Carville, to show Jesus an apostolic pie chart. It would have represented a survey of a sample population of Galileans, about half of whom, as the pie chart would show in red, do not understand his parables about the kingdom of heaven at all. They might have strategized for Jesus a better approach, and alternate course, a Plan B, one that would not insult the liberal elite in
But Jesus did not change his game plan. He insisted that the kingdom is a mystery, not a political platform or a campaign strategy:
Interestingly, the disciples often asked Jesus to explain parables to them privately, because, we presume, they knew that Jesus would not explain them publicly (Matthew 13:36, 15:15, 19:25; Mark 4:13, 7:17, 10:26; Luke 8:9, 12:41, 18:26; John 6:56-71).
With many such parables he spoke the word to [the people], as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. (Mark 4:33-34) (New Revised Standard Version)
He absolutely refused to explain it to anybody else.
"To you (the disciples) it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them (the crowds) 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." (italics mine) (Matthew 13:11-12) (New Revised Standard Version)
When Jesus told parables, those who got it were ready to get it, and it would get clearer and clearer to them until their wisdom was overflowing. But for those who did not get it, it would get more and more unfathomable. That is why he spoke in parables! It was so that they would look but not see. They will listen but not hear. He made sure that some would not understand.
"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 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.'" (Matthew 13:13-15; see also Isaiah 6:9)
Why do Christians assume that Jesus' goal was that everyone understand? The kingdom is among you, yet not everyone sees it.
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the
That is the nature of the Kingdom. It is coming and yet it is here. It is a mysterious reality. It is a secret. Who wants everyone to get it? Certainly not Jesus! To the crowds, he told parables, nothing but parables. Like these:
The kingdom of heaven is like an insane farmer who throws seed in every direction. They land on the road, on the rocks, in the briars, all over the place. Not much makes it to fertile soil, but oh when it does, how glorious is the harvest! (based on Matthew 13:1-9)
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone goes and sows in a field. It is the tiniest of all seeds, but it becomes one of the greatest shrubs, the size of a tree, so big that the soaring eagles can come and build their nests in it! (based on Matthew13:31-32)
The kingdom is like a woman who takes a pinch of yeast and mixes it in with three measures of flour, and the whole thing begins to rise! (based on Matthew 13:33)
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field. Someone finds it, re‑buries it, then goes and buys that field! (based on Matthew 13:44)
The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. Then when he finds the pearl of all pearls, he goes and sells everything he owns to buy it! (based on Matthew 13:35-36)
What can we know about the meaning of these kingdom-of-heaven parables? Here are four significant truths.
First, as explained above, it was not Jesus' goal that everybody understand them. He used his parables like a sieve to sift out those that do not comprehend. Those who did not, their incomprehension grew. And those who did, their comprehension increased.
Second, the disciples had a hard time understanding that the kingdom of heaven is here. "For, in fact, the
Jesus pointed often to the hypocritical Pharisees. Most of them were not celebrating Jesus' ministry of teaching and healing. Yet if they had recognized the in-breaking kingdom, if they had realized who he was, if they had understood his announcement of the in-breaking kingdom of heaven, they would have been dancing and feasting too, rather than complaining about all the dancing and feasting. (Matthew 9:14-15) Luke put it so well:
As [Jesus] came near and saw [
], he wept over it, saying, "If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God." Jerusalem
Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said, "It is written, 'My house shall be a house of prayer'; but you have made it a den of robbers."
"Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind." (Matthew )
"Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit?" (Luke 6:39)
"Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.' You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred?
"And you say, 'Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.' How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?" (Matthew 23:16-19)
Jesus knew exactly what was going on in
I got a greeting card once with a quote from an unknown author. It read, "Those who hear not the music think the dancers mad." So true.
Third, consider the pressure Jesus was under to do things the way his family wanted them done, the way his disciples wanted them done, the way the crowds wanted them done, and how again and again he took stands that either disappointed or enraged. The use of parables is just one example. The disciples could not understand why he used them. (Matthew 13:10) They were concerned that the crowds just were not going to get it. And they asked him to please just come right out and tell us what the kingdom is. (Or, as John 14:8 records it, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.") But Jesus stood his ground. It was not a popular thing to do, but it is what he knew to be the right thing to do. It is called self‑differentiation. (Edwin H. Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 1985) referenced throughout). It has to do with the ability to maintain a strong sense of self, to take stands that are unpopular when necessary, and to remain non‑anxious when everyone else is worried.
Fourth, Jesus never once said that the kingdom of heaven is the place where you "go" when you die. That is of course what most Christians today believe. But that is not what Jesus said. The Lord's Prayer reads, "thy kingdom come." (italic mine) (Matthew 6:10; Luke 11:2) According to Jesus, we do not go to the kingdom of heaven; it is coming to us! Moreover, Jesus only spoke directly about what happens when you die a grand total of two brief times [notwithstanding his debate with the Saducees about marriage in the resurrection (Matthew -33), his parable of greed about a poor man named Lazarus (Luke -31), and his parable about presumption where sheep and goats are separated (Matthew 25:31-46). This teaching and these two parables will be covered in detail in my next book, Heaven for Skeptics)].
First, in John's Gospel, Jesus is recorded as saying, "In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you." (John 14:2) Jesus promised his disciples that he was returning to his Father (via the cross and resurrection) and that they would in their deaths and in the resurrection on the last day join him in "his Father's house." Then second, Luke records that Jesus turned to one of the crucified men hanging with him and said, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in
In neither of these two cases did Jesus call what happens after death "heaven;" he used the words "my Father's house" and "
1 Corinthians 15:42-44 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
1 Corinthians 15:51-57 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed-- 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality,
It was the Greeks and Romans who believed that when your body dies, your immortal soul leaves your body and journeys to the abode of the dead, a place called Hades. This is a thoroughly pagan idea, and is contradictory to scriptural bodily resurrection. Almost inexplicably, Christians today prefer the pagan myth and Plato to scriptural truth and Jesus when it comes to death, as I am sure you are aware.
Other than these two instances---when he spoke of "his Father's house" and "
The kingdom, as Jesus explained it in parables, is the mysterious eternal presence of God at work in the world, past and present and future, a reality recognized and entered by faith, a reality that transcends time and space, yet intersects time and space. He did not give instructions on what death would be like, but on how to enter the kingdom and live! He came so we could have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10:10b) He spoke constantly of this. 77 times in 68 verses in Matthew's Gospel alone the word "heaven" occurs. Yet not one of those instances has anything to do with what happens when you die! On the contrary, the majority of these have everything to do with how you live, here and now.
Why then do we have sermon after sermon threatening humanity with the bad things that will happen when one dies if one does not say "the magic Jesus words?" Where does this preoccupation with death come from? Certainly not from Jesus whom, we should presume, is the one we Christians are to follow and proclaim.
There is something very wrong when Christian leaders, who are supposed to be proclaiming what Jesus proclaimed---faith and life---, are instead making their standard message fear and death.
I do not recall ever reading that Jesus attempted to frighten people to God. But I frequently read and hear Christians do that. I do not recall reading that Jesus said, "Come unto me, or you will die and God will punish you!" But I frequently hear or read this in not so many words in Christian circles. This is so illogical and non‑scriptural, it is difficult to fathom its continuing prevalence.
It seems that many Christians have resorted to using terroristic threats to "win souls" (and consequently increase church attendance and giving). They say things like, God will punish you if you don't believe. You may not have more time. This may be your last chance. What these teachers want you to believe is that God's default setting is hell, and it's up to you to change God's mind about you. To them, salvation doesn't change you. It changes God! You are being saved by your own effort from a God who doesn't like you and has evil plans for you for all eternity. This "gospel" is founded on fear and death, and the author of it is supposedly God? This is depraved!
When was it determined that a message of fear would be more affective than Jesus' message of faith in God's amazing grace? Are we really comfortable with using scare‑tactics as a primary method of Christian evangelism? Do we have so little faith in the Holy Spirit to convict and convert? Why do pastors feel they have to shock people, or browbeat people, or sing the hymn Just As I Am for twenty minutes or more while they pressure people? This is insane. Such methods are actually a vote of "no confidence" in good news! They are, as a result, a vote for bad news.
If God is love (1 John 4:8, 16) and perfect love casts out all fear (1 John ), then how can fear bring people to God?
"There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love." (1 John 4:18) (New Revised Standard Version)
Think about it. Let's say you were frightened into becoming a Christian by a visiting pastor making threats one night, say, at a revival altar call. Please allow me to ask you, Why did you become a Christian? To be honest, would you not have to tell me that you became a Christian because someone preached bad news to you? If you were trapped by fear-tactics, then you were not lured by love. Now, be really honest. Is the biblical gospel about love or fear? If it is about love, then does it not follow that much of Christian evangelism today is just plain messed up? Messed up how? It is fear-based and death-obsessed. It is also invasive. It is impersonal. It is manipulative. It is extorting. It is dishonest. It is unbiblical. It's hell-possessed. It is un-Christian. And it is wrong. Otherwise it is just hunky-dory!
Sarcasm aside, there is of course another way, a less brutal way, and a more biblical way. That way is the way of Jesus, who spoke of life and celebration, of banquets and parties, who condemned religious hypocrisy and self‑righteousness, who unfolded the mysteries of faith in stories and images. Is that not good enough anymore? Is the "real" message too confusing or too frightening or too mysterious to be practical in terms of the all‑important priority of church growth (whatever that is)?
It is worth pondering. Is it not the cross that we are afraid of---that if we were to actually say what Jesus said, and do what Jesus did, that "the church" would be rejected, be crucified if you will, by the culture from whom it would covet respect and acceptance?
Or maybe it is just that Christian leaders like power---the power to hold the club of eternal death over the head of a smirking, disrespectful world. (How cynical is that?)
Is there anything you wish you could say to your pastor right now about his preaching?
You have now read four scriptural truths about the kingdom of heaven. Here is a summary:
1. Jesus sorts out those who understand the kingdom of heaven from those who do not by speaking of the mystery in parables that he refuses to explain.
2. Those who understand the kingdom of heaven know that it is a reality that is here among us, around us, and in us, and that those who see it are dancing, and those who do not are complaining about all the dancing.
3. In spite of pressure to change his method, Jesus risked disappointing and confusing those around him by sticking to his guns and talking about the kingdom of heaven in parables only.
Jesus used parables like a sieve to strain out those who did not "get it." He did not do that to judge anyone or to pick on anyone or to condemn anyone. On the contrary I believe that the parables were his choice weapon because it benefited those who understood them by increasing their wisdom, and it benefited those who didn't understand them by first confounding them, then frustrating them, then irritating them, then enraging them, so that maybe, just maybe it will occur to the hardheaded among us (I'm guilty.) that maybe the problem I have with Jesus' parables is not that they are duds or that Jesus tells them badly or Jesus is a fool or a troublemaker. Maybe the parables drop me on my head so hard that I finally see that the problem I have with Jesus' parables is me---my hardheadedness or hardheartedness. Parables are the perfect box cutter for hard cases like me. They make you so mad! But that may be exactly what he intended, to infuriate and confound the presumptuous self-righteousness of do-gooders and legalists. He didn't do this to judge or condemn, but to try and get through your defenses. He told infuriating parables on purpose in hope to save us from ourselves. He told them to save us from the yoke of a legal self-salvation scheme we cooked up. How so?
Remember that he did not come into the world to judge it, but to save it. (John 12:47b) And he will not accuse you to his Father; but he said that your accuser is Moses. (John 5:45) He said that your accuser is Moses because the laws of Moses have become a curse. They were given in love to baby-sit (Gal ) a people newly liberated from slavery in
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them." (Galatians 3:10) (English Standard Version)
Therefore, since no one can obey all the things in the law, no one can be saved by the law, and Moses the lawgiver becomes our accuser. Jesus said he would not accuse us to God. Our accuser is Moses who gave the law that cannot be kept.
Jesus' parables sifted those who received the kingdom of heaven's grace from those who refused it and were hell bent on earning their way by scorekeeping with the law. Either you want the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, or you want the legal scales so you can count your beans!
For more on Jesus' parables see my blogs The Absurd Parable of the Unforgiving Slave, The God Who Gambles, Parable of the Vine and Branches, The Crooked Manager, The Friend at Midnight, Heaven Is Like a Crazy Farmer, He Speaks Of . . ., Salted With Fire, Talking Sheep and Goats, Is Your Eye Evil?, Two Prodigals and Their Strange Father, The Lazarus Parable Is Not About the Afterlife,and Jesus Used Parables Like a Sieve.