Thursday 27 July 2023

Do you understand?

Jesus tells a lot of parables. I’ve talked about this before, obviously, because, well, Jesus tells a lot of parables. Each of them is deserving of attention, study, understanding and thought. Which is why it’s so interesting to me that, after concentrating a bunch of parables about the kingdom of heaven into a single block in one chapter (13), the author of the gospel of Matthew has Jesus ask the disciples “do you understand?” Even more interesting is that they answer “yes.”

Really? The authors of all the gospels seem so often to go to great lengths to demonstrate to us that the disciples don’t understand and yet here they simply do. No questions, no clarifications, just a bunch of sayings and they understand the kingdom of God. An excellent example for all of us. I guess.

Except, we do spend rather a lot of time studying, thinking and talking about the parables of Jesus - pretty much everything Jesus, for that matter - so I have to wonder if it was all that simple. To me, it seems reasonable to consider that either the disciples didn’t get it at all but were afraid to say so, or that we just got the “sayings” part of the story and they had a lot of questions, thoughts and commentary of their own.

I think it was the latter. I think there was so much more to this exchange. I don’t mean to impugn the intelligence, sophistication or wisdom of the disciples (or any of the crowds who followed Jesus), they were good ordinary folks. But good ordinary folks ask questions and discuss things. It’s how they become apostles, leaders and wise teachers in their own right. 

I like to think the gospel authors knew that and left us with a similar opportunity, in our own time and place, as the disciples who were with Jesus. In Matthew, for example, I think those parables got many questions and lots of discussion before Jesus even got to the “do you understand” question. I also think that, by asking the question, Jesus didn’t just mean the obvious surface meaning, but that they had taken the time to think and ponder and mine the depths of the parable for meaning. That’s the thing about parables, especially ones about “the kingdom of heaven:” it’s not just one meaning, or even the many layers of meaning, each of which is valuable. It’s the thinking, the ongoing wondering and relating the story to our own lives in the kingdom, making the kingdom and being the kingdom, together.

We won’t learn by pretending to know. We learn by wondering and asking questions, seeking the wisdom that’s at the heart of the story. That’s what Jesus means by understanding.