The Hidden Kingdom and the Purpose of Parables (Pt 2)

Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says:

You will listen and listen,
yet never understand;
and you will look and look,
yet never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown callous;
their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
otherwise they might see with their eyes
and hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn back—
and I would cure them.

“But your eyes are blessed because they do see, and your ears because they do hear! For I assure you: Many prophets and righteous people longed to see the things you see yet didn’t see them; to hear the things you hear yet didn’t hear them.” (Matthew 13:14-17)

After explaining to his disciples why he had begun teaching the crowds in parables, Jesus quoted a passage from Isaiah 6, the powerful scene in which God appeared to the prophet and commissioned him to bear his message to Israel. It’s a hard passage, soaked in conflict — the conflict between a stubborn people and a God who consistently invited them to repent and know him again.

It was, of course, the perfect way for Jesus to express his own situation and his feelings about it.

The Cry for Connection

In the lamenting, almost bitter irony of Isaiah, we can hear the desire of God to connect with his people — to be received by those who were determined to close their ears and shut their eyes.

These were words originally given to the prophet Isaiah about his own ministry, warning him that although God would send him to the people with an invitation to return to him before it was too late, few would listen. Although the people possessed the ability to see and hear, they would not — “Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive” (Matthew 13:14, NKJV).

In Isaiah, the quoted passage has a more clearly ironic tone:

Go! Say to these people:
Keep listening, but do not understand;
keep looking, but do not perceive.
Dull the minds of these people;
deafen their ears and blind their eyes;
otherwise they might see with their eyes
and hear with their ears,
understand with their minds,
turn back, and be healed. (Isaiah 6:9-10)

According to Bible scholar Larry Hurtado, “ … the prophet Isaiah is called to proclaim God’s message to ancient Israel, and … he is told by God that, though his message of warning will not be heeded, he is to give it anyway. Isaiah 6:9-10 is an indication of the divine sovereignty and foreknowledge intended to say that the apparent failure of the messenger is not an argument against his divine call. In its form, it is an ironic statement, giving the foreseen net result of the prophet’s ministry as if it were all intended, when this is of course not the case.”

The Isaiah passage ended by saying that this cycle of preaching and hardening — God continually inviting and his people continually rejecting his invitation — would end with judgment and destruction. Yet, a small remnant — “the holy seed” — would remain to grow again (Isaiah 6:13).

In the Disciples’ Here and Now

Jesus’s ministry would face the same kind of response that Isaiah’s did — it would be mostly attacked, ignored, or vilified, with only a few, a small but priceless remnant, responding. But the fact that so many of God’s chosen nation, Israel, would reject Jesus as Messiah did not mean he wasn’t truly from God — a point Paul often made as well.

For the disciples, there was much to hear in all of this. They were to hear that Jesus had truly come from God, just as Isaiah did; and that the hostile and unbelieving response of the vast majority of their people did not mean they were wrong to believe. (Just think, for a moment, of how hard it would be to remain faithful to a leader if your entire community, including your family and faith community — people you had always looked up to and trusted to lead you in spiritual matters — completely rejected him.)

On the contrary, their response to Jesus meant they were the holy seed; they were the small family of faithful Israelites who would receive the kingdom of God and usher it into history. They were to realize that the kingdom had indeed come and was presently among them. They were to hear the warning of coming judgment. And they were to hear the heart of God — his desire to reveal truth, his desire to be known.

If we imagine that God’s ultimate purpose was to hide the truth from his people, deliberately keeping them in the dark when they would rather have come into the light, we misunderstand his character and the whole mission of Christ.

Jesus came into the world in a hidden way, but he did so for the express purpose of revealing God. In the same way, Isaiah was not in the business of hiding God’s words but of proclaiming them in the streets. That people refused to listen or look was not because of Isaiah’s message but in spite of it.

In the same way, anyone who wanted to find God in Christ could. Anyone who wants to still can. He is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Hebrews 1:3, NIV). But no one is forced to see him.

As he did in Isaiah’s time, and during the earthly ministry of Jesus, God still calls and invites. He still asks us only to respond and receive. But he never forces anyone to do either.

Blessed Are Your Eyes

In the fifth century, St. John Chrysostom wrote about the sower’s careless scattering of seed in so many infertile places — a rather unforgivable thing for a responsible farmer to do:

For the husbandman indeed would reasonably be blamed for doing this; it being impossible for the rock to become earth, or the wayside not to be a wayside, or the thorns, thorns; but in the things that have reason [that is, human beings] it is not so.

There is such a thing as the rock changing, and becoming rich land; and the wayside being no longer trampled on, nor lying open to all that pass by, but that it may be a fertile field; and the thorns may be destroyed, and the seed enjoy full security.

For had it been impossible, this Sower would not have sown. And if the change did not take place in all, this is no fault of the Sower, but of them who are unwilling to be changed: He having done His part: and if they betrayed what they received of Him, He is blameless, the exhibitor of such love to man.

With his first parable, Jesus began to do exactly what the story itself depicted — in a spiritual sense, he began to sow seed on all kinds of ground. Most would hear, and hearing, they would not understand. They would look, and looking, they would not see.

But like the good soil, a few would open themselves and receive the seed in a faithful way. To them — dare I say, to you and me — Jesus said, “Blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear.”

The gift of the kingdom, prophesied and longed for by Isaiah and so many others, has come. The holy seed has begun to grow. It has been changing the world from within for over two thousand years now, and it will go on doing so until the day Christ appears again.

Ours is the age of seeds.

As they grow, the kingdom manifests — it can be seen, glimpsed, experienced, even now.

If you derived some benefit from this blog, please consider leaving a tip. I’m grateful!

P.S. Hey, did you know that my award-winning Christian fantasy series The Chronicles of Kepos Gé was inspired by the parable of the sower? You can start reading it with book 1, Seeds, today (get it from Amazon, another online retailer, or my online store).


This is Part 223 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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