Mark Shea: the hidden God and scripture’s satire on willful blindness

Can the baby Jesus really harden hearts? A girl holds her baby Jesus figurine as Pope Francis leads the Angelus in Rome on 11 December 2016. Photo: CNS

As we saw last time, Jesus draws from the Old Testament tradition in telling parables. And at the heart of the Old Testament tradition of parabolic storytelling is the fact that parables are stories told to and about corrupt figure in positions of power.  That is why, for instance, the prophet Nathan tells King David – guilty of both adultery and murder – the parable of the wicked rich man who took the poor man’s ewe lamb.

In Matthew, a greater prophet than Nathan has now appeared and is confronted with a “wicked and adulterous generation” (Matthew 12:39) headed by a corrupt and powerful Temple elite whose hatred is hardening into a death wish for him as former corrupt and powerful elites in Israel had likewise despised the prophets sent to them.  That is why Matthew records Jesus citing Isaiah in Matthew 13:14-15.  The original context of this passage was the call of Isaiah, in which the Lord assured the prophet that he would be rejected by his countrymen and that his message would fall on blind eyes and deaf ears.  Isaiah would prophesy “until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without men, and the land is utterly desolate, and the Lord removes men far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.”  In other words, God told Isaiah that his prophecies would only result in the hardening of Israel who did not want to hear what he had to say.  And that hardening would result in judgment via the Assyrian invasion seven centuries before the time of Jesus.  Now Jesus warns of the same thing and, paradoxically, makes that warning clear by beginning to veil his message in parables.  The paradox of biblical judgment is that God gives us what we truly want. Those who will not see shall not see.

There are two collections of sayings in Matthew 13.  One, in the boat to the crowds, and the other in the house to the disciples.  Those locations are noted for a reason, and are invested by Matthew with a theological significance.

In the case of the boat, there is, in the literal sense of the text, a mundane reason for the location: Jesus goes out in the boat to speak to the large crowd on shore because it’s easier for everyone to hear.  Matthew, however, hints at an allegorical significance here as well. To the ancient Jewish mind, “the waters” are always symbolic of death and chaos. Boats (for example, Noah’s ark), in contrast, symbolise salvation.  Jesus himself, in Matthew 24, will link salvation (and judgment) with the image of Noah. Peter also will make a clear connection between Noah and the Church’s sacrament of baptism (1 Peter 3:18-22). So Matthew draws our attention to Jesus in the boat as he speaks to “the crowds”, that is, to those who “do not see”, “do not hear”, and “do not understand”.  As the Church, the new ark of salvation, shall do later, Jesus speaks over the chaos to the world (often portrayed as a chaotic and tossing sea in Scripture) and is not understood because the world does not want to understand him.

The message, then, is “hidden” in a way that is almost a satire on the world’s blindness.  For note what the parables have in common.  Seed is sown.  But where is it?  It’s invisible.  Does the seed vary in quality?  No, it’s the soil that varies in quality.  The harvest is poorer or richer, not because God is competent some days and bumbling on others, but because his revelation falls on rocks, shallow soil, and good soil (Matthew 13:3-9).  In the same way, good wheat is hidden among the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30), mustard seed is hidden by its tininess (Matthew 13:31-32), and leaven (Matthew 13:33) is simply invisible, kneaded into the bread as the Church is kneaded into the world.  After this, there is a treasure that is (again) hidden, a pearl (hidden in an oyster), and a net which scoops up every kind of fish, good and bad, and thereby keeps the good fish obscured among the bad fish who will be thrown away (Matthew 13:44-50).

But the kingdom which is hidden from the world is not hidden from Jesus’ disciples.  As Jesus says to his disciples, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given” (Matthew 13:11).  And so Jesus “left the crowds and went into the house” where he proceeds to explain the parables.  In other words, it is only within the Church (the house of God) that the mystery of Christ can be fully understood.  As G.K. Chesterton says, Jesus is the riddle and the Church is the answer. The Church is the leaven of the world making it holy.  The Church is a net pulling in both good and bad fish, a field growing both wheat and weeds.  But whatever chaotic waves of history the boat must ride, the King of the kingdom remains enthroned forever, yet himself hidden—in the bread of the Eucharist.