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We Don’t Get It, Part II: Why Speakest Thou in Parables?

Last time I wrote I considered how Jesus was, by contemporary standards, a bad teacher. His disciples didn’t always immediately “get it,” and at times his public lecturing seemed to drive away more students than it attracted. His ability to properly “motivate” students could potentially come under scrutiny as well. And Jesus seems quite content to leave behind a student or two in his teachings. Or what else does the phrase, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” mean? But obviously. Such criticisms reveal the folly of modern educational theory rather than any deficiency in Christ’s own magisterial teaching ability: indeed, let God be true and every man a liar.

We have already seen Jesus slightly annoyed with his Phillip’s lack of understanding. But when Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, we observe another awkward moment:

Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? (John 3: 9-12)

Who said the Scriptures lack humor? The whole scene oozes irony. Jesus, the real teacher, is correcting the “master of Israel.” Jesus, who tells Nicodemus “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again,” is actually the one marveling. He is shocked at Nicodemus’ inability to think analogically about the Holy Spirit. “How can a man be born when he is old?” Is this even a question? “Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” Really? Jesus admonishes his pupil and proceeds with the lesson.

But maybe we’re being a bit hard on Nicodemus here. After all, Jesus’ doesn’t exactly speak in normal terms. Rather, his declarations come in that ancient poetry of symbol and story, in that antique aphoristic beauty, in that Solomonic muse of Wisdom. Ego sum…veritas, says Christ. But even the Truth reveals himself “in circuit,” as Dickinson says, mediated through various concrete images, characters, and narratives. Ever careful to tell “all the truth,” Jesus is yet more artful in telling it “slant.” A god must deliberately speak in dark sayings, says Nietzsche, lest he cease to be a god; and this was perhaps the only compliment Nietzsche might have ever paid to Christ, for no one can doubt Jesus’ poetic virtue.

But though few doubted his rhetorical skill, plenty did not understand it. Let us consider not merely the difficulty in Jesus ideas but also the difficult methods in which conveys them. Parables. Why parables?

And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable. And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: that seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them. And he said unto them, Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables? (Mark 4: 13)

Here is yet another passage of irony. Most people use stories to explain things. Not Jesus. Why parables, you ask? Oh, to make it more difficult. At this point in the teacher evaluation, the modern educational administrator would lean forward in his chair, cross his fingers and sigh, “Jesus, I’m afraid we have to let you go. It’s…just not working.”

We find this passage in both Matthew and Luke as well, and it stands as perhaps one of the most important parables because, as Father Pat Reardon notes, it is a parable about parables. If you can’t understand this parable, says Christ, how will you understand any parable? In the greater context, the parable of the sower and the soils initiates a following conversation regarding its interpretation:

When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart. This is he which received seed by the way side. 20 But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; 21 yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended. 22 He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful. 23 But he that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. (Matthew 13: 19-23)

Parables, symbol, and narrative are alive insofar as they possess movement. Christ doesn’t confine his teaching to systematic propositions; he implicates the listener by the dynamic motion of story. Just as Nathan arouses the moral imagination of David, notes Father Reardon, so Christ arouses the moral imagination of his hearers. This is why Homer will always be greater than Kant. Stories and poetry sound the language of the human soul. So speaks Christ in parables. Qui habet aures audiendi audiat. But such things can only be understood by the auris corporis, and this might leave some students behind—at least for the moment.

Furthermore, by choosing to speak to the multitudes in parables, Jesus reveals a deeper truth about teaching and about the teaching process. If content is made too easily accessible, we don’t actually learn it, because we were never forced to remember it. This is why Google and Wikipedia and mere access to information will not make people smarter.[1] If, for instance, we live in a time when we have the quickest and easiest access to the greatest amount of information than in any other age in history, shouldn’t we all be smarter, more educated, more civically minded people? The reality is that we are the dumbest age. People don’t remember things if they can simply look those things up. The parables of Jesus remind us that learning doesn’t always have an immediate result, that acquiring knowledge is sometimes a slow process, building line upon line, precept upon precept. Sometimes the slow, cumbersome, and tedious learning is the best, precisely because it is slow, cumbersome, and tedious. We often learn more through difficulty than we do through pleasure.

Of course, Jesus is wiser than all teachers everywhere, world without end. He knows that it’s okay to leave child behind now and then, because he knows that it’s not the end. Wisdom often involves keeping the long view. Beauty takes its time. Obviously, Jesus’ disciples did finally get the lessons of the Kingdom of God in the end. Enough to “turn the world upside down.” But their knowledge was not always immediately demonstrable. Likewise, how many times have we come back to our former teachers, sometimes years later, and confessed, “I didn’t understand then, but I get it now. Thank you.” To everything there is a season, and some fruit ripens quicker than others. And the parable of the sower might be fitting analogue for this matter of “getting it.” Indeed, it should give us pause. We should see the danger of students “getting it” too early, for so did the earliest sprout on rocky ground.

[1] Professor Mark Bauerlein of Princeton University puts forth this argument in a brilliant lecture for ISI called “American History by Google and Wikipedia.”

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