His disciples asked him what this parable meant. He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that,”
‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.’
Jesus as Rabbi:
Part 1: What is a Rabbi?
Part 2: Was Jesus a Rabbi?
Part 3: Jesus’ Miracles
Part 4: Jesus and other Rabbis
Part 5: Jesus and the Pharisees
Part 6: Bringing up Disciples
Part 7: Jesus’ Yoke
I took a hiatus from this series for Holy Week along with an uptick in my personal calendar, but I am trying to pick up where I left off.
Rabbinic Teaching Methods
In second-temple rabbinical thought, there existed two primary modes of teaching – hagadah (knowing/devotion/meditation on scripture) and halakah (doing the Word, walking in the Way). We in the Christian tradition would probably classify hagadah as “knowing the Word” (orthodoxy) and halakah as “doing the Word” (orthopraxy). R. Abraham Heschel, considered by many to be the most respected Jewish rabbi of the 20th century, says of these two:
Halakah without hagadah is fanatacism,
Hagadah without halakah is irrelevant
In other words, to do the Word without faith or proper understanding of it is to be a blind follower, and to have faith and understanding in the Word without fully living it out is irrelevant.
Additionally, halakah has subset which stands apart, called parable – a concept with which we are very familiar.
It was also taught in rabbinic literature that the best teaching of talmidim is done in equal parts of hagadah, halakah and parable. Interestingly, if one takes Jesus’ teachings from the gospel and divide them up, you will find that the ratio of hagadah:halakah:parable is almost exactly 1:1:1!
Parables: Heard and Heard?
There are some who like to quote Luke 8:9-10 (above), or its synoptic equivalent, to mean that Jesus taught in parables to confuse people. When examining his quotation of Isaiah, along with the historical usage of parables, quite the opposite is true.
In rabbinic teaching, every parable has at least one “secret” or “key”. With Jesus, most of his parables had at least two:
- A high level “secret”, that of the “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven”, which would be better termed in English “the reign of God”, because it describes how God’s people should live – NOW – to demonstrate His reign in their lives here on earth.
- A second “secret”, which is a demonstration of how we are to act in the kingdom, is the most obvious import in the parable.
In the teaching the “secrets” or “keys”, rabbis were expecting two things from their listeners: to understand their “secret”, and to accept that teaching and apply it to their walk. In Luke 8:10, Jesus chooses to refer to the words of the prophet Isaiah:
He said, “Go and tell this people: ” ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
It is in understanding this quote that the reader can get a hint at the two meanings of the words “see” and “hear”. When you understand the point the teacher is trying to make, you “see” it. Once you understand the message, if you choose to accept it as truth and to act upon it, you have “seen and seen” it. If you choose not to accept it as truth or to act upon it, you have “seen and not seen” it. In either case, the listener has to make a choice.
Heschel referred to parables as the ‘basket handles’ for hagadah and halakah, because without handles, it is very difficult to lift a basket – particularly a heavy one. This is why Jesus used parables to help the people understand his teaching so that they could make a fully informed decision whether or not to follow them.
I would also note that it was in his use of parable that Jesus was a master contextualizer. In Jesus’ society, which was heavily agrarian living under monarchies, parables took on earthy themes, king/subject themes and master/servant themes – because they were in the context of peoples’ everyday lives. Using these types of stories, he was able to contextualize hagadah so that people could follow it with the appropriate halakah.
One of the earliest examples of parable is from the prophet Nathan, when confronting David’s sin with Bathsheba and Uriah.
The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.
“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.” (2 Samuel 12:1-4)
At this point, David did not yet understand the “secret” of the parable. He did not “see” it. And so, he reacted by giving the honest judgement -
David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.” (2 Samuel 12:5-6)
Next, Nathan gave the “secret” to David -
Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7)
At this, David now “saw” (understood), and in seeing, he chose to see -
Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” (2 Samuel 12:13)
What does this mean for us? Using these three aspects of teaching, might I humbly suggest a way to lead in our churches and live out their emphases:
1) Hagadah – knowing the Word, studying the Word (which includes debate and discussion – not necessarily full agreement and certitude on every subject), holding to the truth of the Word – this transcends the culture in which it is taught. In Mark Driscoll’s lexionary, the things in the ‘closed fist’ are all part of Hagadah – they do not need to be ‘adapted’ to the culture and they must not be forgotten or minimized or marginalized. On the flip side, though, to only focus on knowing without doing makes a church irrelevant. Like the fig tree that bore no fruit, to know the Word but not walk it is cursed is not part of the Kingdom.
2) Halakah – living out the Word – this is a mixture of both trancendant and contextual, and it is the heart of being ‘missional’. The Word contains definite prohibitions (idolatry, murder, theft, sexual sin (as defined by Leviticus 18), divination, etc.) and commands (loving God, loving your neighbor, caring for the poor & the oppressed, etc.) which are transcendant of culture, but it also leaves a great deal of ‘white space’ – issues and situations – which are not directly addressed. This ‘white space’ is where Driscoll’s ‘open hand’ lies, and it requires knowing the Word (Hagadah) to differentiate between the ‘open hand’ and the ‘closed fist’. To perform works of Halakah without Hagadah in the extreme is fanatacism (think about abortion clinic bombers, the WBC, the Crusades, Jewish zealots, etc.) and at the least is misguided and sinful, and in any matter does not lead to the kingdom.
3) Parable is the true ‘contextualization’ of the Word – it is teaching and demonstration which takes hagadah (knowing the Word) and translates it into hagadah (living the Word) in a way that makes it plain to the hearer how they should live. If the ‘parable’ is done properly, the hearer can make an informed decision whether or not to follow the Way. Parable is all about contextualization – because ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse’, is it not important for us to know and teach the Word in such a way as it can be properly understood and followed?
And so, in our pulpits, classrooms and small groups, I think we would to well to strive for the same balance of hagadah:halakah:parable that the rabbinic system used, for the betterment of the church. Whether Reformed, Missional, Emerging/Emergent, Purpose Driven or by whatever label we choose, it is the balance that is important – the balance of theology, missionality and contextualization.
FYI, I leaned heavily on two particular works for this article:
Brad Young, The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation
Ray VanderLaan – Parables: the Good Samaritan