A parable is a simple story illustrating a moral or religious lesson.
It’s a marriage between something meant to entertain (story) and an instructional exercise (lesson).
“And again He began to teach by the sea. And a great multitude was gathered to Him, so that He got into a boat and sat in it on the sea; and the whole multitude was on the land facing the sea. Then He taught them many things by parables, and said to them in His teaching:”
In Matthew,it also records that the disciples question Jesus as to why parables? His answer sounds maybe mean or harsh – because you all are allowed to know the truth, but that privilege hasn’t been given to them. And Isaiah 6:9-10 is quoted in all three gospels where it shares the parable in context with this question (see Matthew 13:11-17, Mark 4:10-12, and Luke 8:8-10). Here is Isaiah 6 in a larger section where the quote is taken from:
(v8-13) “Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here I am! Send me.’ And He said, ‘Go, and tell this people:
‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; Keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; Lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and return and be healed.’
Then I said, ‘Lord, how long?’ And He answered:
‘Until the cities are laid waste and without inhabitant, the houses are without a man, the land is utterly desolate, the Lord has removed men far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. But yet a tenth will be in it, and will return and be for consuming, as a terebinth tree or as an oak, whose stump remains when it is cut down. So the holy seed shall be its stump.'”
All of this seems a little confusing. God asks for someone to go, Isaiah says ‘send me’, but he is sent to preach to people who God says will not understand, won’t see and hear, and won’t be changed. This verse in Isaiah is actually in all 4 gospels, but in John it comes with a little of his own commentary (John 12:37-43):
“But although He had done so many signs before them, they did not believe in Him, that the word of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spoke:
‘Lord, who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’ (Is. 53:1)
Therefore they could not believe, because Isaiah said again:
‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, lest they should see with their eyes, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them.’ (Is 6:10)
These things Isaiah said when he saw His glory and spoke of Him. Nevertheless, even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.”
So John makes it clear that even back in Isaiah’s time, the prophet is talking about Jesus and those Israelites who would hear Jesus’ words. Even Paul also, at the end of his recorded ministry in Acts refers to the Jews by word of the Holy Spirit with this exact passage from Isaiah as well (see Acts 28:23-31).
But all this does not make the verse in Mark any less difficult. It’s one that I think demands attention to stop and thing about. Notice something with me every time this verse is quoted in the New Testament:
Matthew 13:12 “For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have in abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.”
Mark 4:11 “To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God, but to those who are outside, all things come in parables,”
Luke 8:10 “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables…”
John 12:42 “Nevertheless, even among the rulers many believed in Him, but…”
Acts 28:24 “And some were persuaded by the things which were spoken, and some disbelieved.”
So whenever this verse is mentioned, it’s done so in conjunction with a division of those who believe and those who don’t. And for those who don’t, they condemn themselves as well as God closing the door behind them, so to speak.
One more thought – after God tells Isaiah these things, he asks a question: How long, Lord? Interesting, I would have asked a question too after such a stern statement. But my question would have been ‘why?’ Why will all these people not repent? Why would You send me if nobody is going to listen? But Isaiah doesn’t ask why. Maybe he has an understanding of the people of Israel and the state of their hearts. Maybe he recognizes God’s reasons, or maybe he simply doesn’t question God’s motives (as I sometimes tend to do….like Job). But no matter, he does ask an important question. How long? And God does answer, along with a promise of a small percentage who will believe and be the remaining holy seed (see Isaiah quoted above).
Last, remember 2 things: first, these words were spoken to and about the people of Israel. God was speaking specifically to them (which is reflected in the New Testament quotes as well) and it’s all a picture of Israel’s rejection of Jesus – which is part of the reason Jesus is offered to the whole world (John 1:11-12 “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name.”) So this is part of the Big Picture of the Bible; and prophecies can be looked at that way, where God is saying what will happen, not because He forces them to react that way, but because He knows already what will happen and so is able to make such definite statements.
Secondly, in these verses from Isaiah, God is not condemning anyone to darkness before their choice has been made. Yes, He sometimes solidifies that choice (remember pharoah, remember in Matthew 13 above, and look at the previous 5 chapters of Isaiah). But Jesus does proclaim – he who has ears, let him hear!
So what does this mean for me, Lord? If I don’t understand Your parables, am I one of those hard-hearted people who You leave outside?? No, I can take heart – (Mark 4:10-13 and 34):
“But when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable. And He said to them, ‘To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables, ‘so that Seeing they may see and not perceive, And hearing they may hear and not understand; Lest they should turn, and their sins be forgiven them.’ And He said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?’….(v34) But without a parable He did not speak to them. And when they were alone, He explained all things to His disciples.”
I do wish verse 34 was not just cliff notes and actually contained all those details of Jesus’ explanations 🙂 Seriously, though, when it comes to parables, prophecies, doctrine, anything we have a hard time understanding, we can pray and ask God to open our understanding. Because in this entire contemplation of Isaiah, one thing is very clear to me:
God can open a person’s understanding. And God can close a person’s understanding.
And He promises us that if we ask Him (having open ears) that He will give us understanding – go read Matthew 7:7-11, James 1:5, and 1 John 5:14-15 to remind yourself of that.
(for further reading on Israel and their part and condition, read Romans 10-11. And for further reading of all Jesus parables, you can click here for a nice list of all of them and where you can read them)