In the previous post, I suggested two reasons Jesus used parables instead of plain talk. (a) He was inspiring imagination for how life could be. (b) He was announcing his kingship, without making the usual power claims.
When Jesus was asked why he spoke with cryptic stories, he quoted Isaiah’s frustration with people hearing but never getting the message, seeing but never comprehending (Isaiah 6:9-10 in Matthew 13:11-17).
To understand why Jesus reapplied Isaiah’s situation to his own, we need to identify what they shared in common. As usual, it’s about God’s kingship.
Isaiah’s situation (Isaiah 6)
Isaiah was commissioned as the voice of Israel’s heavenly ruler, the King “seated on his throne” (Isaiah 6:1). He sees the majesty of the King and hears his regal attendants announcing his holy character and splendid authority over all the earth (6:2-3). The proclamation shakes the foundations of his house (6:4), leaving Isaiah trembling in the realization that he and the covenant people have failed in their calling: to speak for and represent “the King, the Lord Almighty” (6:5).
One of the king’s attendants deals with Isaiah’s shortcoming (6:6-7), so Isaiah responds when the sovereign requests a spokesman. In verse 5, Isaiah already raised the problem of the covenant people failing to respond to their ruler, so it comes as no surprise that his commission will be frustrating:
Isaiah 6 9 He said, “Go and tell this people: ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ 10 Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”
What was it that Israel failed to see and failed to hear?
Precisely what Isaiah had just seen and heard, namely the kingship of YHWH over them, the people called to represent his kingship on earth. That was their identity in the Torah: God released them from Pharaoh, and established them as his nation, representatives of his kingship, living under his law. They built a tent for their heavenly sovereign to live among them. In the most sacred chamber they placed the ark — a throne for the one seated between the cherubim.
But they had failed to live under their heavenly sovereign. In the very next chapter, Isaiah confronts Ahaz, a king who refuses to see himself as representing the higher king (7:8-9). Ahaz does not know the Immanuel truth – that God is present, reigning, overseeing them (7:14). It is because of their callous hearts, their closed eyes and ears, that it all begins falling apart (7:17).
Jesus’ situation (Matthew 13)
If the problem in Isaiah’s day was Israel’s failure to see YHWH’s throne and to follow the instructions of their heavenly king, how does this apply to Jesus’ situation?
Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 as an apt description of the crowd’s response to his kingship message. He explicitly contrasts the response of his disciples:
Matthew 13:16-17 (my translation, compare NIV)
16 But your eyes are blessed so they see, and your ears so they hear. 17 Truly I tell you that many prophets and upright people yearned to see what you see and didn’t see it, and to hear what you hear and did not hear it.”
What is it that the disciples were seeing and hearing that the crowds were not? The difference was in how they understood Jesus. The disciples proclaimed him as the king restoring the kingdom, while the crowds had trouble recognizing his “authority” (Matthew 7:29; 8:9; 9:6-8; 10:1 etc.)
What was it that prophets and righteous people in previous generations had longed to see? It was the person the disciples were now seeing and hearing, Jesus the Christ, the long-awaited king.
Throughout the entire Old Testament, Israel had frustrated the prophets with their resistance to their heavenly king, so Jesus knew they would resist him as the anointed representative of the heavenly king. That’s why Jesus refused the confrontational approach. He announced the kingdom, without demanding people recognize him as king.
Jesus believed God’s kingship would be restored through him, but he did not go around demanding people submit to him. That’s why he spoke in parables.
He was planting seeds, the truth of God’s kingship. Despite the hard soils and weeds, Jesus believed his seeds would grow into the harvest the heavenly sovereign intended to reap when he originally established earth as his realm.
Update 2022-05-05: Original translation added.