Seeing and Not Perceiving

Quotes From Thaddeus contribution

As a result of a question posed on December 29, 2005

‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that the y may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again and be forgiven' (Mark 4:11-12)


This saying comes in Mark's record between the parable of the sower (or the parable of the four soils, as some prefer to call it) and the explanation of that parable.  The parable, the explanation, and the saying quoted above are all ascribed to Jesus Himself.  But if the saying means what it seems to mean, then Jesus tells His disciples that the purpose of the use of parables is that His hearers in general (those who are not of His followers) may hear him but not understand him, and it is difficult to believe that this was so.


Matthew alters the sense by using the conjunction “because” instead of “so that”: “This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand’ (Matt. 13:13).  That is to say, because the general public was slow to grasp the sense of Jesus’s teaching (as many of the general public today also are), he embodied it in parables to make it more immediately intelligible.  The hardness of the saying is thus mitigated; it is readily accepted that:


Truth embodied in a tale Shall enter in at lowly doors.


Luke 8:10 follows Mark's construction, with some abbreviation.


But what is the point of Mark's construction? One suggestion is that the saying was entirely Mark's creation. The parable, it is said, was told by Jesus; the explanation received its shape in the primitive Church, but the hard saying is Mark's own contribution: it expresses his view (or the view of the school of thought to which he belonged) about the purpose of Jesus' parables. But is it out of the question that the saying represents something spoken by Jesus himself?


It is plain that the saying is an adaptation of an Old Testament text, Isaiah 6 : 9-10. When Isaiah received his call to the prophetic ministry, in the well-known vision that he saw in the temple 'in the year that King Uzziah died', the voice of God said to him, 'Go, and say to this people: "Hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive." Make the heart of this people fat, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.'


Should this commission be pressed to mean that Isaiah was ordered to go and tell the people to pay no heed to what they heard him say? Was it his prescribed duty to prevent them from hearing and understanding his message, and thus make it impossible for them to repent and so escape the destruction that would otherwise overtake them? No indeed; if that impression is given, it is simply due to the Hebrew tendency to express a consequence as though it were a purpose. Isaiah volunteers to be God's messenger to his people, and God takes him at his word, but says to him in effect, 'Go and deliver my message, but don't expect them to pay any attention to it. The effect of your preaching will be their persistent refusal to accept what you say, to the point where they will have rendered themselves incapable of accepting it.' In the event, this is exactly what Isaiah was to experience for the next forty years.


Isaiah's experience was reproduced in Jesus' ministry. For all the enthusiasm which greeted his ministry in its earlier phase, he had later on to lament the unbelief with which he met in the very places where most of his mighty works had been done. He might well have applied the words of Isaiah 6:9-10 to the effect (not, of course, to the purpose) of his own ministry. Certainly this text became one of the commonest Old Testament 'testimonies' in the early Church on the subject of Jewish resistance to the gospel. Apart from the allusion to it in the context of the parable of the sower in all three synoptic Gospels, it is quoted in John 12:40 at the end of Jesus' Jerusalem ministry and in Acts 28:26-27 at Paul's meeting with the Jewish leaders in Rome, while there is an echo of it in Romans 11:8. Its pervasiveness in this sense could well be due to Jesus' application of it to his own experience. 'As in its original setting in the Book of Isaiah, so here, it is most naturally taken as an arresting, hyperbolical, oriental way of saying, "Alas! many will be obdurate."


 At the end of the Isaiah quotation the verb used is 'be healed'. It is so in the Hebrew text and it is so in the Greek version (the Septuagint). But in the corresponding position in Mark 4:12 the verb is 'be forgiven'. This might be set down as a free paraphrase on the evangelist's part, were it not that the Aramaic Targum on the Prophets has 'be forgiven'. The date of the written Targum on the Prophets is considerably later than the date of Mark, but behind the written Targum lies an oral tradition: the Aramaic paraphrase of the Hebrew lesson was originally given in the synagogue by word of mouth. Perhaps, then, 'be forgiven' is due not to Mark but to Jesus: speaking in Aramaic, he alluded to the Aramaic wording of the Isaiah passage.


    Recognizing this, T. W. Manson went on to make a further suggestion. If Jesus had the Aramaic version of the text in mind, then it is relevant to consider that in Aramaic one and the same form does duty for 'so that' and 'who', while the expression for 'lest' may also mean 'perhaps'. The meaning of Jesus' saying would then be: 'For those outside everything is in parables, (for those, namely) who see indeed but do not perceive, who hear indeed but do not understand; perhaps they may turn again and be forgiven'.


This certainly removes most of the hardness from the saying, making it mean that Jesus imparted the 'mystery' of the kingdom of God to the disciples but spoke in parables to those outside their circle in hope that they would grasp sufficient of his teaching to repent and receive forgiveness. But if this is what the saying meant, Mark (or his source of information) has misunderstood it and made it hard.


If we remember that in the idiom of Jesus and his contemporaries a result might be expressed as though it were a purpose, the saying remains hard, but not intolerably hard. It is helpful also to realize that in Hebrew and Aramaic the word for 'parable' might also mean 'riddle'.


Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God and made plain the far-reaching implications of its arrival. This was a 'mystery' in the sense that it had not been disclosed in this form before: Jesus revealed it in his ministry. Among his hearers there were some whose minds were open to his teaching; they grasped its meaning and appreciated the point of his parables. There were others whose minds were closed. Even if at first they thought that he was the teacher and leader for whom they had been waiting, they soon changed their minds. His parables, luminous to those who had eyes to see and ears to hear, were but riddles to them. They could not take his message in, and so they could not profit by it. The more he spoke and acted among them, the less responsive they became. And they were in the majority. Only a few, relatively speaking, embraced the good news of the kingdom, but for their sake it was worthwhile making it known.


If the saying is understood in this sense, its relevance to the context, immediately after the parable of the sower, should be clear. The sower scattered the good seed broadcast, but only a quarter of it yielded a crop, because of the poor soil on which the rest of it fell-the hard-beaten path, the thorn-infested ground, the shallow skin of earth on top of the rock. But the harvest that sprang up from the good and fertile ground meant that the labor of sowing was by no means in vain - quite the contrary. The gain derived from those 'who hear the word and accept it' more than outweighs the loss incurred through those who turn away.


    One can only pray that those clergy through out the world, especially those who have arrived in New Mexico from the eastern part of the United States in recent times, will come to a clearer understanding of the spiritual importance this has in all things said and done, by thought, word and deed!  And, may the questioner on "spiritual fraud" be so enlightened for it would indeed appear that he has faced some very serious road blocks and cross roads on which he is facing a decision which is of great impact in his life.


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