The Parable of the Passion

Hello faithful blog followers! Although it may seem like it, the blog is not dead. There’s a lot of stuff I want to write, which I hopefully will write. After the craziness of the quarter, spending winter break as a hermit writing actually sounds quite appealing. So stay tuned.

Anyway, if you’re bored and have nothing to do, take a look at this very lengthy paper I wrote for finals. Somehow, in a literary theory class, I ended up getting assigned to basically exposit the Bible and ended up learning a ton about two passages which were always really difficult for me to understand–Isaiah 6:1-13 and Matthew 13:10-17. Here was the prompt: Taking Isaiah 6:8-13 and Matthew 13:10-17 as your interpretive templates, discuss the trial and execution of Jesus in that gospel: how is the story of Jesus’ passion (“suffering” or “undergoing”) a parable of faith in Jesus’ sense of “speaking in parables”?


Matthew 13:10-17  ESV10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.14 Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

‘“You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’

16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 For truly, I say to you,many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

Isaiah 6:10-17 ESVAnd 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 say to this people:

‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
10 Make the heart of this people dull,
and their ears heavy,
and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”
And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is a desolate waste,
12 and the Lord removes people far away,
and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.
13 And though a tenth remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak,
whose stump remains
when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump

In order to interpret the parabolic significance of Jesus’ passion, we must first understand the meaning of the passages which serve as our interpretive framework—Matthew 13:10-17 and Isaiah 6:8-13. In the Matthew passage, Jesus has just finished teaching a great crowd of listeners a parable about a sower who sows seeds on different kinds of soil. Afterwards, his apostles approach him with an understandable question: “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (Mt. 13:10). Jesus gives them a peculiar answer. He tells the disciples that there are two types of people who have two very different responses when they hear his parables. The first group, that is, genuine disciples, will be blessed when they hear the parables—they will learn “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” and to them “more will be given, and he will have in abundance” (Mt. 13:11,12). In contrast, the parables will have a very different effect on the listening crowds, who “[have] not” (Mt. 13:12). For them, Jesus says that parables reveal their inability to apprehend spiritual truth and their impending judgment. For someone in this second group, “even what he has will be taken away” because “seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Mt. 13:12,13).

If Jesus’ answer here is read literally, it appears to be both difficult to understand and seemingly unfair. Jesus’ response, itself, is unexpected. As a Rabbi, one would expect the purpose of Jesus’ parables to be for teaching; that is, by giving the uneducated crowds everyday earthly analogies, that they might better understand deeper spiritual truth. However, Jesus response confounds this expectation. He says, in fact, that he speaks in parables so that the crowds might not understand their need to be healed. Not only is Jesus’ answer unexpected, it also appears unfair. One’s response to the parables is determined completely by a factor, which is his completely beyond his control—whether he “has” or “has not”. Whatever this object is, which one has or does not have, Jesus makes it clear that man cannot secure it on his own; it must be “given” (13:11). This appears unfair. How is it fair that one group loses everything they have and is relegated to perpetual ignorance, solely because they have not been given this “something”; while another group receives an abundant blessing and understanding, because they have received “it”? The strangeness of Jesus’ answer and its apparent injustice creates a pressing question for Jesus’ disciples, which is crucial for our understanding of Jesus’ use of parables: What is it that the first group has, which the second group does not have?

The key to this question is found in our other passage in Isaiah 6:8-13 which Jesus quotes to answer his disciple’s question. In that passage, God commissions Isaiah to do what Jesus says is his purpose for his parables: to preach despite knowing that his words will have no effect. He tells Isaiah to preach God’s judgment upon Israel already know that his audience is completely unable to see, hear, or understand his message. The clue to understanding Jesus’ words, however, comes in the context immediately preceding this passage. In Isaiah 6:1-7, before his commission, Isaiah receives a vision of the Hidden God. In this vision, Isaiah sees only a partial view of God—God’s full glory is obscured by the “train of his robe” and the “smoke” which “filled the temple” (Is. 6:1, 14); however, even this partial vision of God in his holiness, leaves Isaiah devastated at his filthiness in the light of God’s perfection. He cries out, “Woe to me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts” (Is. 6:5). God does not deny Isaiah’s self-condemnation; however, rather than punishing him, He purifies the Isaiah’s polluted lips by touching them with burning coals. After this, God declares that Isaiah has been healed and redeemed, saying “behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (Is. 6:7).

Isaiah’s vision at the beginning of chapter 6 is crucial to understanding his commission in chapter 6:8-13. The important observation is that God commissions Isaiah only after He purifies him. Isaiah is only able to speak the divine Word as a Prophet, after the sinfulness of his mouth has been atoned for. However, Isaiah’s lament still rings true: he is from a people of unclean lips. These people are polluted not only in their lips, making them unworthy to carry the divine word, but also in their ears and eyes, rendering them unable to understand the message of the divine word. What is the message which they fail to see and understand? Isaiah tells us, and Jesus reiterates it Matthew 13. The effect of the people’s failure to “see with their eyes, and hear with their ears” is that they are unable to “understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed” (Is. 6:10). When Isaiah sees God he immediately understands his unworthiness before Him; as a result of this realization, he turns to God by acknowledging his sin and God heals him by atoning for that sin. The people need this very same divine healing which Isaiah receives. The problem, however, for the people is the hiddenness of God. The reality of one’s sinfulness and need for redemption becomes painfully obvious when he comes face to face with the holiness of God. The people, however, have not seen a vision of God as Isaiah has, and because of that, they do not see their dire need to be reconciled with him. Instead, the people are fixated on the earthly material world. The only thing important to them is what they can physically see. As a result, they are hopelessly consumed with their own lives in which they make themselves, and not the hidden God, the center. Thus, when Isaiah comes bearing the message of judgment by a Holy God against sinful man, the people feel no urgency to turn and receive the same healing which Isaiah has received.

With that, another question arises: how can those who have not seen a vision of the unseen God, look beyond the earthly material realm to realize their sinful condition and turn for healing? The argument of the New Testament writers is that one finds healing through faith. In Hebrews 11:1, faith is defined as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”. It is faith which allows an individual to look beyond the physical realm to be convinced of spiritual realities. Faith, as Augustine, says allows an individual to escape the “spiritual slavery” which comes from always interpreting “signs [as physical things]” and gives him the capability of “raising the mind’s eye above the physical creation as to absorb eternal light” (Norton 160). The faith-filled believer looks at the account given by God in the Scriptures, the cultic system of sacrifices in the temple, and Israel’s history, and is able see the reality of God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness, and thus turns to God for healing. Finally, it is important to notice that faith, just like the purification Isaiah receives is given only by God’s initiative. In the same way, Jesus makes it clear that the faith, which allows the disciples to “know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” has “been given” (Mt. 13:11). Like purification, God provides faith as a gift. One cannot create it himself by human wisdom or will.

Isaiah 6:1-13, then, answers the question of what it is the disciples “have” which the crowds “have not”—namely, faith which allows them to apprehend their hopeless condition before a Holy God, and thus, receive forgiveness. The function of parables, therefore, is not primarily to teach in the Greco-Roman dialectical sense of the word—that is, to present information in such a logical manner that everyone, who exercises their intellect, will be able to understand. Rather, parables serve to reveal what is already inside of a man. Jesus’ parables show either that an individual is preoccupied with the material physical world and thus cannot see the reality of the hidden God, or that a person has faith. Just as in purification, man is completely dependent on God to give this faith which allows for understand. In order for man to even have the capability to look past his sinful delusion to Jesus’ invitation: “he who has ears let him hear”, God must first purify him and give him ears (Mt. 13:9).

There is one final note before use our two passages to interpret Jesus’s sufferings and that is that the structure of Jesus’ parables themselves mirrors the nature of the hidden God. God throughout the Bible functions under this consistent principle—he is always defying expectations of those who pridefully rely on appearances, while giving redemption to those who humbly trust in God for forgiveness and direction. The form of a parable, itself incorporates this aspect of God’s character into its structure. Parables are told using figures from the earthly realm, which the speaker then infuses with a deeper significance. In Matthew 13:1-9, for instance, Jesus uses the everyday image as a sower sowing seeds on different kinds of soil to show that it only the one who receives God’s word who bears fruit. The parabolic form, itself, is meant to push the audience into viewing reality spiritually rather than by appearances. Even if they aren’t sure of the exact meaning, it is clear to the audience when Jesus tells the parable of the Sower that he is not speaking literally, but aiming for some kind of deeper spiritual truth. By employing the form of the parable, then, Jesus is offering an extra means to encourage his audience to view things spiritually. The form of the parable tells the audience that just as one clearly cannot interpret a parable literally and arrive at its true meaning, similarly one cannot live relying by sight and expect to arrive at a true understanding of oneself and God. The failure of the audience to discern the spiritual meaning of Jesus’ message even with the parabolic form serves as a further condemnation of their fixation on appearances.

With that, we have a working interpretive framework with which to answer the question: how is the story of Jesus’ passion (“suffering” or “undergoing”) a parable of faith in Jesus’ sense of “speaking in parables”? The very question, itself, appears odd at first glance. We do not usually think of an historical event as parables. In a parable, the speaker creates the world of the parable: he chooses the characters, the events, and the plot and structures them in a way that creates an analogy to some deeper truth. A mere man, however, cannot do that with history, because he has no control over history and thus, cannot assign deeper significance to historical events. God, however, is not bound by those limitations. He has providential control over history and can order history to reflect his intended message. Under this God, historical events such as Jesus’ passion can function at the same level as a parable. Just like a parable, the historical event itself is the earthly appearance, and only through faith does one understand its larger significance. Jesus’ passion acts as a parable of faith in two main ways. First, it demonstrates the same message which God commissioned Isaiah to bring to the people—that man stands at enmity with a Holy God and must turn to him to receive the healing which he alone can give. Second, Jesus’ crucifixion, like a parable, reveals what is inside man, either unbelief which clings to earthly appearances and leads to damnation, or faith which sees its need for purification and leads to salvation.

Isaiah 6:1-13 reveals that there is a common message shared between Jesus’ crucifixion and the message at the heart of every expression of the divine word, including Jesus’ parables. That message is revealed when Isaiah stands before God—that man is utterly sinful in light of a holy God. All prophetic language is a plea to man that if he will but realize and acknowledge this fact, then there is healing and atonement for his sin. If, on the other hand, he insists on hubristically making himself the center of the universe, he has only the fearful expectation that “even what he has will be taken away”. Jesus’ passion—his suffering and crucifixion—is the ultimate expression of this message. The divine message centers on the need for reconciliation sinfulness of man and the holiness of God. The Christian gospel, or good news, says that Christ’s crucifixion is the fulfillment of the type of Isaiah’s purification in that it is the actual means by which Isaiah receives his “atonement” (Is 6:7). God redeems man from his sinfulness by punishing Jesus, who is sinless, with the physical and spiritual death which man deserves. Everyone who, like Isaiah, acknowledges their offenses against a Holy God receives the same comforting words which Isaiah received: “your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (Is. 6:7). Just as Isaiah 6, purification is given by God’s initiative alone and not man’s effort or righteousness. It is God who sends Jesus to atone for man’s sins because man cannot save himself and Jesus, the son of God, who willingly lays down his life to accomplish what man himself cannot.

Second, Matthew 13:10-17 reveals a common purpose which motivates both Jesus’ passion and the divine word of Isaiah and Jesus’ parables. Jesus’ passion, like the parables, reveal what is inside of man—either enslavement to appearance which reflects his fixation on himself, or a faith-filled heart which is able to accept God’s Word and bear fruit. Depending on whether or not faith, Jesus’ passion serves as either judgment of one’s blindness or a means for one’s salvation. The one who has been given faith is able to see the crucified son of God and apprehend that Jesus is expressing God’s message—that he is holy and that man is in need of healing, and he has provided a way for healing in Jesus, if man will but turn to him and trust him in faith. But to the one who has not faith, he looks upon Jesus and sees only his literal appearance—that because this man is pathetic and dying on the cross, God must hate him. Because he appears weak, everything he said about himself as son of God is untrue, and any claim for radical repentance and chance can be disregarded. Because of earthly appearances, the carnal mind thinks it can continue living his life with himself at the center. Thus, like the parables, Christ’s passion increases the guilt of those who walk in an unbelief, but saves those who believe.


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