Forming Faith Blog

Listen, but Not Understand (January 19, 2020)

A man holding his hand to his ear, listening. In his parables, Jesus calls us to listen to difficult teachings.

We are now in the season of Epiphany, a time when God appears to us in the person (and stories) of Jesus. In the last few weeks, we have seen God in John’s announcement and Jesus’ baptism, temptation, proclamation, and call. Even an unclean spirit sees who Jesus really was. Jesus’ authority from God shines through in healing and the forgiveness of sins. He demonstrates God’s love for those who are outside of “polite society” by touching a leper and eating with known sinners and Roman collaborators. Jesus reveals God, but not necessarily how people expect.

The Purpose of Parables

Within this passage, and the equivalent passages in Matthew and Luke, what strikes me first is not the parables themselves, but Jesus’ explanation of why he teaches in parables. When you teach (or preach) you might use stories or anecdotes. Why? Because it is easier for our listeners to relate to our subject, to understand it. You take a situation or object that is familiar and use it to paint a picture of something deeper, more profound.

So, when Jesus’ disciples ask him about the parables, his response is perplexing, if not shocking. He is using parables, not to clarify his teachings, but make them more obscure. He quotes Isaiah 6:9-10, explaining that he teaches in parables:

“In order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”

Mark 4:12
Exclusive Understanding?

Jesus’ teaching is not an evangelism technique. While the healings, table fellowship, and casting out of demons previously described are available to “outsiders,” Jesus’ teaching is not only for “insiders,” but purposely obscure to prevent outsiders from being forgiven? That doesn’t sound like the Jesus we normally proclaim. The original setting of the quote in Isaiah is not to separate insiders and outsiders but to proclaim judgment on the people of Israel soon to be punished with exile. Even so, Isaiah’s usage is still difficult to understand.

Difficult Passages

This portion of the reading (Mark 4:11-12) is what I refer to as a difficult passage. I divide “difficult passages” into two categories: those that are difficult to understand and those that are difficult to accept. We can tackle those that are difficult to understand with research. Often, we are missing something in the cultural context or original language. As verses 11-12 explain, parables can be in this category. Those that we have a hard time accepting, like the God-sanctioned, wholesale slaughter of non-combatants in the conquest of Canaan (or just the conquest of Canaan) are, well, harder. Research can help partly, but the rest of the work is theological wrestling.

Addressing the Difficult

So, as teachers and preachers, what do we do when we encounter difficult passages like verses 11-12? There are two main options. In this Narrative Lectionary reading, the easiest is to just pass over it. Within these 34 verses are four parables, and only one of them is explained. The second option is to address this head-on. Often, as listeners, our attention can be caught by what we find difficult to grasp. Passing over this leaves those listeners wrestling alone, often without the training or resources to wrestle fruitfully. I have even found that admitting that something is difficult, and even that I struggle with it can be freeing to some. (People sometimes think that as a seminary graduate, I understand the Bible completely. Little do they know.)

Context Is (Almost) Everything

How do you decide what to do? As usual, my response is to know your context. Are you teaching second graders? Please skip the difficult passage. They do not have the cognitive ability to wrestle in the same way as adults. Are you leading a youth group discussion? You should probably stick to the parables here but addressing the difficulties can be productive. The same goes for preaching or teaching to a cross+generational group. Are you leading a small group discussion with veteran Bible-studiers? Take them to the next level and wrestle on!

Free Resources

We offer a free resource or activity every week of the Narrative Lectionary year. This week, we have an activity from our Living the Word: Cross+Gen Education product called “Parable of the Everyday Item.” This parable encourages intergenerational pairs or trios the opportunity to create their own mini-parable based on the parable of the mustard seed.

As you teach, preach, learn, and wrestle, may you see the face of God this Epiphany season!

In Christ,

-Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

If you would like to know more about our perspectives on faith formation and cross+gen ministry, you can check out the following links:

For more great ideas on how to engage participants of all ages in the story of God’s love, check out our complete Living the Word series for elementary students, youth, adults, and intergenerational settings!

Be sure to download our free Narrative Lectionary 2019-2020 Planning Tool, NL Readings Overview, and Scope & Sequence