Barry Newman's Blog

October 23, 2012

The Parables of Jesus (part X) – The Parable of the Sower (part V)

Filed under: Parables of Jesus,The Parable of the Sower — barrynewman @ 10:04 pm

Not Understanding the Parable

If we had heard the story for the first time, and knew no more than the crowds and were asked, “What was Jesus trying to teach?” I doubt if many or any of us would have been able to give any answer with confidence.  The words, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” may well have challenged us to try and discern the point Jesus was making but would we have been any more successful than the disciples?

The question the disciples asked Jesus about his use of parables in his teaching and the response that Jesus made is found in Matt 13: 10 – 17, Mark 4: 10 – 13 and Luke 8: 9, 10 and 10: 23, 24.

Matthew and Mark record that the disciples asked Jesus about the parables, Matthew has the disciples asking explicitly why Jesus speaks to “them” in parables, with Mark indicating that the question was raised when the disciples were alone.  Luke records that the disciples asked Jesus what the parable meant.  The three Gospels record that Jesus replies that to them the secret (or secrets) of the kingdom of God (or heaven) has been given. Mark and Luke record that for others (or for those outside) there are the parables, with the reason given – “so that seeing they may not see and hearing they may not understand”, with Mark adding “lest they should turn and be forgiven”.  Matthew concludes with a remark by Jesus about how blessed the disciples are because they see, they hear what many prophets and righteous men desired to see and hear but did not. Luke has Jesus making a similar statement but omitting the reference to their hearing and referring to “kings” rather than “righteous men”. Furthermore, in Luke these comments by Jesus are divorced from the parable of the sower and associated with the response of Jesus to the return of the seventy from their mission.  Mark concludes this section with Jesus commenting upon the disciples’ lack of understanding of the parable in effect saying that if they do not understand this parable how will they understand any of the parables.  The expectation of Jesus is high.  I suspect that this says more about Jesus and the insight he has about matters pertaining to the kingdom of God than about Jesus and his understanding of the disciples’ lack of perception.

Bailey detects that in Matthew 13: 13 -18, imbedded in which there is a quote from Isaiah, there is a poem in which the first seven lines are inverted in the last seven lines[1]

Therefore I speak to them in parables,

1 because seeing they see not and hearing they hear not

2 And it is fulfilled to them the prophecy of Isaiah which says

3 “Hearing you shall hear and shall not understand

4 and seeing you shall see and shall not perceive

5 For this people’s heart is become dull

6 and the ears are dull of hearing

7and their eyes they have closed

7’lest they should perceive with their eyes

6’ and hear with the ear

5’ and understand with the heart, and should turn again and I should heal them.”

4’ But blessed are your eyes for they see

3’and your ears for they hear.

2’ For truly I say unto you that many prophets and righteous men

1’ desired to hear what you see, and did not see and to hear what you hear, and did not hear.

In a note[2] Bailey states, “The author seems to have begun with the text from Isaiah.  This text already has the Heart-Ears-Eyes = Eyes-Ears-Heart inversion in it. The new author adds 4’ and 3’ to balance the remaining sections of the OT quote and then extends the stanza to seven by adding 1 and 2 to the beginning and matching it with 2’ and 1’ at the end.”

The quote comes from Isaiah 9, 10 and the text in Matthew is almost identical with the Septuagint version. The main difference between the Hebrew Masoretic text and the Septuagint is that in the former, God directs the prophet to make the heart of this people fat and make his ears heavy and shut his eyes. Whereas in the latter the heart, ears and eyes of the people are simply described as being dull etc.  Given that the concluding sections are however very similar – “Lest he see with his eyes and hear with his ears and understand with his heart, turn and one heals him.” (Masoretic text) and “Lest they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn and I should heal them” (Septuagint), the main point in common is that God’s perspective is that with dull hearts etc the people do not understanding.  And given that Jesus is explaining why he speaks in parables, so that (Mark and Luke – see below) seeing they don’t see etc., his speaking in parables is so that they will be left in that state! Yet at the same time, the text points to the people’s own responsibility.  They have already come to the truth with dull hearts, heavy hearing and closed eyes.


[1] Bailey, K.E., Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes, Combined Edition, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1976, pp., 61, 62 – italics his.

[2] Ibid, p. 62, note 43, where Bailey refers to Lund, N.W., Chiasmus in the New Testament, Chapel University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, 1942, 233f

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