Tag Archives: Israel

Mark, Episode 5: Why Jesus Told Stories

Sometimes it’s easier to teach truth with a bit of fiction. Think of all the fairytales that manage to teach children about life, lessons like generosity, kindness, and honesty. A child might not listen to, let alone understand, a straightforward harangue on always telling the truth, but they won’t forget the boy who cried wolf.


Jesus was king of the metaphor. He wanted to teach people about the kingdom of God, so he told stories. Like Aesop’s fables, every one of Jesus’ parables had a message.

Read Mark 4:1-34.


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Jesus used parables that the common people could easily understand to introduce complex concepts harder to grasp. He was speaking in their language, which was richly agricultural. The Israelites lived everyday with the realities of livestock, crops, and harvests. So those were the subjects Jesus would use to talk about other, less relatable concepts.

Theologians have analyzed and interpreted each of his parables, sometimes devoting entire books to the study of a single one. You can find those books if you’re curious to really get into the details. I won’t do that today. Instead I will focus on the same theme of my previous posts: what does Mark tell us about Jesus?

First, Jesus is still being careful about his public image. He would teach the general public, but he wouldn’t tell them everything. He saved that confidence for his closest disciples. The last two verses of this passage are a perfect summary: “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.”

I believe this reveals a careful shrewdness in his character. He knew the public would not be able to accept everything he had to say, so they heard abridged versions–fairytales–while the disciples traveling with him heard the full story. Why? It isn’t much different from mass media today. Every story is bound to get distorted or misunderstood at some point between the original source and the audience. Personally teaching a small group of students, though, creates much more accurate and effective communication. Jesus says the disciples are given “the secret of the kingdom of God.” They are the good soil that received the seed and will produce an abundant harvest.

Jesus quotes a vision of Isaiah, when the Lord told Isaiah to prophesy to the Israelites: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive. Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed” (Isaiah 6:9-10).

I’ve never studied ancient Hebrew, but my friends who have told me the verb tenses can be tricky to translate. In the case of these verses, I’ve heard it explained that the prophecy states Israel’s already hardened heart rather than declares a curse to make it so. It’s saying how things are, not how they should be. God didn’t want Israel to hear and not understand. But that was exactly what Israel was doing. It was their own indifference that kept them from repentance and healing.


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In quoting this prophecy, Jesus compares Israel of his day to the Israel of Isaiah’s. The people still had hard hearts. Even if Jesus explained everything to the public like he did for the disciples, they would not understand, would not repent, and would not receive forgiveness. They were the bad soil where the seed could not grow.

But Jesus did not give up on them and ignore the crowds. Here we see his compassion for Israel. Matthew and Luke quote Jesus near the end of his ministry saying, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34). Jesus yearned for Israel to have an open heart and receive the word he described as producing a harvest to the hundredfold. He kept teaching, even if in parables, because good soil can be hidden in the path, rocks, or thorns.

He invested more time, though, where it would be most useful: his disciples. They were the ones who would keep sowing after he was gone and until the whole world heard the word. They were the ones who would watch the seed grow without knowing how (Mark 4:27). They were the ones who would gather the fruit, making more disciples just like Jesus taught them (Matt. 28:19-20).

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Posted by on April 19, 2016 in Other thoughts


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Surrounded by Fiery Chariots

The books of 1 and 2 Kings can be easily summarized as the sequence of royal assassinations for the crowns of Israel and Judah. Sure, there’s some side plots of Elijah and Elisha, but the rest of it is a king wins the throne by killing the king before him and then “did evil in the eyes of the Lord” during his reign. After some years or just a month, he gets killed by some other guy who wants to be king, and so the tradition lives on. If you’ve read the Harry Potter series, it reminds me of the Elder Wand’s heritage. As Xenophilius Lovegood says, “The bloody trail of the Elder Wand is splattered across the pages of Wizarding history.”

I’m making my way through the history books of the Bible and have progressed up to 2 Chronicles so far. It’s strangely addictive, and I’m surprised how many stories I do not recognize despite a childhood spent in Children’s Church class every Sunday morning. I did know, of course, that the Israelites did quite a bit of fighting in their conquest of the Promised Land and then to defend their property from surrounding nations once they finally settled down. I wasn’t expecting the penetrating presence of murders and executions, directed even by David, the man after God’s heart.

As I was reading 2 Kings, a male friend told me it is one of his favorite books in the Bible. My mind quickly reviewed the killing I had read by then and thought, “Well, of course, a guy would enjoy 2 Kings.” If you like war movies or the Lord of the Rings trilogy, you’d probably like 2 Kings, too. There are even child sacrifices–similar to “The Return of the King” when Denethor attempted to burn alive his son, Faramir, and himself on a funeral pyre (2 Kings 3:27).

But’s that enough for my personal distaste for blood. One of my favorite stories so far in the history books comes from 2 Kings 6. In the story, an intimidating army from Aram comes to capture the prophet Elisha. His servant wakes up, sees the army surrounding them, and immediately feels afraid–understandably so. There’s a lot to scare you in this world, and a great army out to kill you is one of them. Figurative warriors scare me in surprise attacks sometimes–perhaps a distracting temptation, a frustrating person, impossible circumstances.

Well, the servant does the only thing he can think to do; he goes to Elisha and asks what they’ll do. Elisha’s response? “Do not be afraid.” I can imagine the servant’s immediate response: “Elijah, do you see those warriors and chariots?” Two people outnumbered by hundreds if not thousands. How could he not be afraid? For some people, that would be asking the impossible.

Still undisturbed, Elisha prays that God would open his servant’s eyes. Elisha wasn’t blind. Actually, he was the only one who saw reality. When his servant’s eyes opened to the spiritual realm, he saw “the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:17). And even these were not necessary for their protection, because all Elisha had to do was pray that God would then blind the army. They were never in danger.

How often do we forget the ones we have on our side, those fiery chariots ready to defend us? How often do we forget that we are not only fighting opposition in this physical world? We have more enemies than mere humans, the “great army,” since the devil has his own forces out to capture us. But even knowing that, we never have to fear. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16). And behind those fierce warriors fighting for us, we have God himself, who can strike a whole army with blindness at a simple prayer of someone trusting in him. How can we be afraid?

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Posted by on October 13, 2012 in Other thoughts


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