Why didn’t Jesus explain his parables to everyone?

Q. I have a question about something I read today in my quiet time in the gospel of Mark. Why didn’t Jesus explain all of his parables to everyone who was listening?  Instead, it says he explained them to his disciples later, but for the public, everything was in parables. Is it because he knew the crowds were just “fans” who thought the things he said were interesting but not important? Jesus even says,”otherwise they might turn and be forgiven.” That sounds strange to me. Doesn’t he want each and every person on earth to believe, even though he knows there are many who won’t believe?

Vincent van Gogh, “The Sower,” 1888

Jesus says the things you’re wondering about when he’s explaining the Parable of the Sower to his close followers.  As I observe in my Mark study guide, it may appear that he doesn’t want “those on the outside” to understand, since he says that when they listen, they will be “ever seeing but never perceiving” and “ever hearing but never understanding.”  However, Jesus is actually quoting these phrases from the book of Isaiah.  That was how God described what the response of the hard-hearted Israelites would be when he sent Isaiah to speak to them.  These words explain what happens to someone whose heart is hardened, as represented by the first kind of soil in the parable.

(I discuss the passage in Isaiah in this post, in response to a question about whether God actually hardens people’s hearts so they won’t believe.  As I say there, “God really wants people to respond positively to his warnings and invitations and so be rescued. But the language here reflects God’s knowledge of the people’s confidence in their own strategies and his realization that they will choose their own way even more stubbornly when they’re challenged. And so God tells Isaiah, ironically, to go and make the people even more insensible and resistant. Whatever their response, the reality of the situation needs to be proclaimed.”)

Back here in Mark, it’s clear from the Parable of the Sower that other kinds of responses are possible, since the parable eventually describes the seed finding good soil and bearing much fruit, representing those who not only believe, but help others to believe.

It’s even clearer from the next parable that Jesus wants everyone to understand.  He uses a lamp to illustrate that he’s not deliberately concealing the truth about himself; he wants this to be “brought out into the open,” and ultimately it will be.

And so he invites everyone in the crowd, right after telling the Parable of the Sower, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”  Jesus wants people to hear and understand–if they want to themselves.  In other words, as has often been observed, parables were the perfect vehicle for Jesus’ purposes because they either reveal or conceal the message, depending on the state of a person’s heart.  They reveal the truth to those who are open to it, but conceal it from those who aren’t ready for it yet.

That’s why, after telling the parable about the lamp, Jesus also warns his listeners–most likely the entire crowd once again–“Consider carefully what you hear.”  If people don’t understand, it’s not because God doesn’t want them to understand, it’s because of how they’re listening.  They might be just “fans,” as you put it, listening carelessly to what Jesus says as some kind of novelty or diversion.

I think you actually model the kind of response Jesus is looking for.  You’re not just reading his words in your daily quiet time as some kind of religious duty.  You’re thinking carefully about them, and if something bothers you, you don’t just gloss over it, you try to find out what it means.

Keep doing this!  That’s what it looks like to be someone who truly has “ears to hear.”

Would Jesus drive the bookstores and cafes out of today’s churches the way He drove the moneychangers out of the temple?

Q. What bearing do you think Jesus clearing the temple of money changers and people selling animals for sacrifice has on modern megachurches that have cafes and/or bookstores in them?

Carl Heinrich Bloch, Jesus Cleansing the Temple

As I understand it, the main problems in the Jerusalem temple in the time of Jesus were that (1) commerce was displacing worship as a central activity and (2) sellers were actually cheating buyers. So today, if commercial activities are supporting the worship and outreach of a church instead of displacing it, and if the prices are honest, I think these activities can be legitimately conducted on the premises.  Bookstores can make useful resources easily available, and cafes can provide a great gathering space.

As I observe in my study guide to the gospel of John, “A certain amount of commerce was necessary to support the operations of the temple in Jerusalem.  Worshipers needed to buy animals to offer in sacrifice.” (Many of these animals would then supply food for shared meals).  “They also needed to exchange their Roman coins for other coins that would not be offensive within the temple (since Roman coins called the emperor a god).  In the time of Jesus, all of this commerce had been moved right into the temple court, which should have been reserved for worship.”

The equivalent today would be a church selling books, videos, and other paraphernalia right in its sanctuary, or running a cafe in the same space where worship took place, while the worship was happening.  Under those circumstances, we could see how commercial activities, even if pursued in support of the church’s overall mission, could be crowding out worship.  So these activities need to be kept in their own appropriate places and times.  And of course the pricing should always be honest and fair.

I think we also need to be very careful of other kinds of supporting activities.  A while back I visited a church and saw something like this in the bulletin.  “Notice to visitors:  Your presence on our property today constitutes your permission for your image to be used in photos and videos promoting our church.”  As important as it is to let the surrounding community know about the church and its activities, I wondered whether someone who was visiting the church because they were sincerely interested in finding out more about what it means to follow Jesus would be getting the right message from a notice like that.

Because it’s so important to conduct supporting commercial and promotional activities in a way that doesn’t impinge on the church’s mission and message, in my study guide to the gospel of Mark, when groups discuss the temple cleansing episode, I invite them to consider this question together:

“Changing money and selling doves were necessary for the ongoing operation of the temple. . . . But these commercial activities had now overtaken the temple area to such an extent that prayer and worship were being crowded out.  If you’re part of a community of Jesus’ followers, share with the group how it handles the necessary commercial side of its existence and what measures it takes to keep this from crowding out spiritual activities.”

I think that’s the question you’d like all of us to consider.