John the Baptist’s disciples asked of Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:3) The prophet John, the one man who should have known beyond any shadow of a doubt that Jesus was the Messiah, wonders if he’s been wrong all along. It’s one thing for the Pharisees and other religious leaders to doubt and even reject Jesus, but John the Baptist? Didn’t he see the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus like a dove when he baptized him? And didn’t he hear a voice from heaven declare, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”? How could he doubt? What hope was there for anyone if even John had doubts about Jesus?
In the Gospel of Matthew, John’s question is a turning point. It is the first expression of doubt, the initial hint at trouble. It would not be the last. Matthew 11 and 12 reveal a growing misunderstanding of and opposition to Jesus. Up to this point, Jesus has been teaching and healing openly, seemingly without any major troubles. But as his reputation grows, more and more people begin to take notice. The Pharisees begin to oppose and plot, while the common people flock to Jesus with great hopes and expectations for what Messiah would be and do.
In response, Jesus changes tactics. He begins to teach in a new way. A way that is designed to conceal and reveal at the same time. He now teaches the crowds almost exclusively through parables. The disciples had not yet heard Jesus teach in this way so they ask him, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” (Matthew 13:10).
Expectations can be dangerous. Maybe never more dangerous than when they have to do with people’s hopes and dreams for what the future could look like. The crowds had expectations of victory and a return to greatness. They hoped for Israel 2.0, with no Romans and no Samaritans. They hoped for strength and prosperity. In short, they hoped for glory. Their expectations would reach a crescendo on Palm Sunday as they praised the Son of David with shouts of Hosanna (which means save us), treating Jesus like a triumphant king. But it only took five days for those shouts of praise to turn to shrieks of rage as they shouted, “Crucify him!”
Expectations can be dangerous, when you fail to live up to them.
Jesus knew that he would not live up to them. He would win by losing. He knew that the kingdom they desired was not the kingdom he would deliver. His kingdom was not of this world. He knew that, when he was “lifted up,” it would be in humiliation, in defeat, in death. No glory, at least not yet. For now just a cross.
So Jesus answers his disciples’ question about speaking to the people in parables with an equally mysterious answer. His response is recorded in Matthew 13:11-13.
“Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.’”
What? Isn’t clarity the whole point of teaching? Does Jesus really mean to imply that he’s hiding the truth rather than revealing it? Robert Capon has a wonderful insight regarding Jesus’ answer. He writes that Jesus was simply describing what happens when different people hear the parables. Think of the Parable of the Sower, with the different soils. One hears and believes, another hears and believes for a time, while another hears and couldn’t care less. Capon writes:
“The descriptive interpretation is the one borne out by the Gospel history: those who had a grip, by faith, that the mystery was ultimately Jesus himself were able to find the Crucifixion/Resurrection the source of ever greater understanding; those who didn’t, on the other hand, found it nothing but a colossal unintelligibility.”1
So in response to the growing misunderstanding of his message and what he had come to do, Jesus presents a series of rapid-fire parables about the kingdom of heaven. Each one anticipating and answering misunderstandings about the kingdom:
“Jesus, why do some believe and some not?” “Because all soil isn’t the same.”
“Jesus, why can’t we separate the good from the bad?” “Because the wheat and the weeds are growing together, and you’d do a lousy job of telling the difference.”
“Jesus, why does your kingdom look small and insignificant?” “Because that’s how it starts. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed; it will grow to become great. It’s like yeast, invisible, and yet in time it will work its way throughout the dough.”
Are we all that different from the first people who heard these parables? Have our expectations of glory set us up for spiritual disappointment? What if the Christian life in this world looks more like Good Friday than it does Easter Sunday? What if that’s the way it’s supposed to be? I love the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. It gives me hope. But my life has much more in common with Good Friday than it does with Easter Sunday. Jesus has had his resurrection, but you and I are still waiting for ours. So we are called daily to pick up our cross and follow Jesus.
These parables are meant for us. They call us to repentance and faith. They expose our expectations of glory, call us out from building our own kingdoms, and invite us to believe that Jesus is building his kingdom in and through us.
For now it is a kingdom of faith, for who hopes for what he already has? But the King is coming, and his kingdom is coming with him in all of its fullness and glory.
You who have ears, hear.
Rev. Ed Nugent is the Preaching and Teaching Pastor at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Brethren Church in Minot, North Dakota.