Recovering Jesus, Chapter Four: Parables

As we noted earlier, Jesus taught almost entirely in parables. That doesn’t quite come across in the four gospels we possess, but that’s because they include a lot of side conversations. What Jesus purposely taught – what he really wanted to impart to the people of Israel – was delivered in the form of parables.

Jesus did this because he wanted clean communication. He wanted to get his root concepts into the hearts of his listeners, and not have them blocked and ‘spun’ by fallacious concepts, expectations and fears that were already in their minds.

The Problem Passage

The one “problem passage” for this concept – the passage that seems to contradict what I’ve noted above – is when Jesus is asked, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” and he responds with “Because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.”

That passage places Jesus in a very bad light. Consider that he is traveling from village to village, specifically to find people and teach them. Why then would he try to hide his teachings from them? He sought them out in the first place.

And if the people of the villages were not to be “given the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus was either foolish or cruel to tell them parables about the kingdom of heaven.

The solution to this contradiction is fortunately simple. As a Christian named Papias noted in the early 100s AD, “Mark, in his capacity as Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately as many things as he could recall from memory, though not in an ordered form.”

If Papias was right (and he knew many of the first believers), the passage was simply placed badly. The response to “Why do you teach them in parables?” should follow the pharisees listening to Jesus and hoping to find something in his words that could be used against him, as we see in Matthew 21.

Jesus did have a need to hide things from such pharisees, and so it made sense to speak to them “so that hearing they do not hear.”

Notice also that the disciples asked “Why do you speak to them in parables?” They did not ask, “Why do you speak the people in parables?” That appears to be a reference to malicious listeners.

Reaching The Inner Man

Humanity at present is beset by not just external difficulties, but by internal difficulties. And please bear in mind that I am not implying “sin.” Rather I am implying a simple lack of development. To state it simply, we have a lot of growth left ahead of us.

In light of this, we see Jesus, a terribly advanced man… a far more developed man… trying to teach people with all sorts of primitive ideas in their heads. Additionally these people are both intelligent and self referential, which leads to self-protecting errors.

Consider this scenario, please:

  1. An intelligent being nonetheless adopts primitive assumptions because of fear, confusion, the need to fit in and other emotional pressures.

  2. Being self-referential, he or she understands that to change his/her mind on these questions is to condemn his or her self as having erred in the past.

  3. Among these errant assumptions is a belief in binary and legalistic righteousness: Good or bad with no in-between; either in sin or in righteousness; break one commandment and you break them all; and so on.

  4. A belief that one’s eternal happiness or pain depends upon being faultless according to this model.

At the end of this line we find humans who summon all their creativity to avoid being shown wrong. Being right or being wrong become the only two possibilities at the end of any disagreement. Win or lose, glory or shame, heaven or hell.

But if these people are nonetheless in need of different and better ideas – if growth requires them to leave their old and corrosive assumptions behind – how does one get through to them? Their errors defend themselves, and vigorously. They are compelled to prove that they are not wrong, and at almost any cost.

This is the situation Jesus faced.

The Bypass

Words can be terribly precise. That’s a useful characteristic much of the time, but it makes them a liability in other cases. In particular, words are very easy to fight about and with. We’ve all seen this; words are often turned into weapons.

What Jesus needed to do, was to bypass such fights and blockages. He needed to get his concepts into people’s hearts, without triggering mistaken teachings, fears and biases. In other words, he needed his seeds to be planted cleanly.

This why he taught in parables. Stories don’t set off fights over the meanings of words. Nor do they trigger pre-loaded emotional reactions. And so Jesus taught in parables. He delivered his concepts in the form of simple, single-concept seeds.

What he gave people, then, were seeds denominated in images and movements, not as parsable words. One “gets” the meaning of a parable without word analysis.

By doing this Jesus got his seeds planted in the hearts of people who would have opposed his ideas in any sort of formal communication.

And by all appearances it worked quite well.

The Modern Explanation

Whatever excesses have come along with the pursuit of psychology, sincere practitioners have come across some very useful concepts. And as applies to our subject matter here, one of the more important developments came from an early 20th century psychiatrist named Boris Sidis.

Sidis identified the same problem we encounter when we try to reason with people who hold tightly to their pre-set opinions: They fight, amorally, to remain correct. That is, remaining “right” is the one and only things that matters to them until they leave that mode of thought. (You may have noticed yourself doing this at some point.)

Sidis called this “a disaggregation of consciousness.” We might, in more descriptive terms, call it a place where there’s a gash or gap in our minds. Behind such a gap, a doctrine is disconnected from reasoned analysis. And from that position it reflexively and amorally protects itself.

In such a condition arguing doctrine is futile, as most of us have noticed. What is required is a path around the gash. If we can find an alternate path from one side of the gap to the other, it can be traversed. This is done with analogies and metaphors. Parables, then – image-based more than word-based – create parallel paths around the blockage.

And so people who wouldn’t have been able to take a formal discourse from Jesus without reflexive opposition, were quite able to digest his parables.

The Questions

This, of course, leaves two questions behind:

  1. Why didn’t Jesus’ students develop this teaching method?

  2. Why don’t we use this method today?

We’ll cover the first of these over the course of the next chapter. The second is something we might do well to consider over time.

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