Behold, I Tell You a Mystery: Parables, Paradoxes, and Cardboard Boxes

Jesus was, among other things, the Master Teacher. But his sacred syllabi were primarily designed to expose our natural ignorance of spiritual things and our almost invincible knack for hearing without understanding and seeing without perceiving. We intuitively know so many things that are not so. Thus through his teachings, Christ walked into the temple of the mortal mind in order to turn over the tables of proud presuppositions. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like wheat and weeds. The Kingdom of Heaven is like an arboretum, and a woman baking bread, and gold in a garden, and a sailor searching for pearls, and a pile of dead fish.” Perhaps the only thing that is immediately clear from the words of Jesus is that the Kingdom is clearly not what we have always thought it was.

At their core, the teachings of Jesus are a dose of radical reality injected into those who have the mysteries of God all figured out. We are the sort who have sought to tame the wind. We think that we can fit the Sovereign God into a manageable straitjacket. For his own protection of course. But the words of Jesus come to us as stark reminders that the only thing which our fetters have successfully bound has been our own Scriptural imagination. We have imagined a vain thing; a God who conforms to our own safe and predictable notions of him. The Incarnate Word—the Infinite God with ten fingers and toes—dispels the intoxicating myth that man can fully explain the inexplicable. This is indeed a frightening prospect for us. If God cannot be contained within the bounds of human reason, if he cannot be tamed, then he cannot be controlled. It would mean that he is someone to be feared; dangerous, awful, a consuming fire. It would mean that every attempt to capture the Creator and stuff him into a cardboard box would ultimately prove ineffectual. He would kick the bottom out of the box and make off with it and go God only knows where. This is a troubling prospect for those who have already determined the bounds of his habitation.

This is not to say that God is inconsistent with himself or with revealed will and character. But it is a punch in the throats of those who have read six verses and four commentaries and thus pretend to have plumbed the depths of the Mysterium Tremendum. Jesus comes along and insults our purported wisdom by calling us both ignorant and illiterate: “Have you not read?” He upbraided the leading theological light in Israel for his failure to navigate the prophetic currents of water and Spirit. “How is it that you do not understand these things, Nick?” So it seems that the chief lesson we are called to learn is that of our own failure to learn. Our “facts” are often fake news.

G.K. Chesterton, that master of paradox and illustration, once gave some sage advice about the nature of parabolic discourse. He said that if you give people an analogy that they claim they do not understand, you should graciously offer them another. If they say that they don’t understand that one either, you should oblige them with a third. But from there on out, Chesterton said, if they still insist that they do not understand, then the only thing left to do is to praise them for the one truth they do have a grip on: “Yes,” you tell them, “that is quite right. You really do not understand. You are, in fact, quite ignorant.”

Jesus took up where Chesterton left off. In resorting so often to parables, his main point was than any understanding of the mysteries of the kingdom his hearers could come up with would be a misunderstanding. Mention “messiah” to them, and they would picture a revolutionary on his steed, not a carpenter on a cross; mention “forgiveness” and they would start setting up rules tabulating exactly when it ran out. From Jesus’ point of view, the sooner their misguided minds had the props knocked out from under them, the better. After all their yammer about how God should or shouldn’t run his own operation, getting them to just stand their slack-jawed and wide-eyed would be a giant step forward.

So Jesus almost always spoke in poems, paradoxes, and parables. This method of teaching was aimed at our assumptions. It is as though he was saying, “You don’t know half of what you think you know, and the half you do know isn’t so.” Behold, I tell you a mystery.


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