Today’s gospel reading is the parable of the soils in Mark 4. In verses 1-9, Jesus stands in a boat and speaks to a very large crowd on the shore. He tells them a story about seed being cast onto four kinds of soil. In verse 10, his disciples ask him the meaning of the parable, and Jesus replies in verses 11-12:
To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.
It sounds like Jesus is purposefully obscuring his message to keep some people from believing and being forgiven. That would appear to contradict 1 Timothy 2:4 that says that God “desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” What are we to make of that?
Matthew’s version of the story, in chapter 13, may shed some light on the question. Here is a long quote from verses 10-15.
Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 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. With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says:
‘You shall indeed hear but never understand,
and you shall indeed see but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are heavy of hearing,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should perceive with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their heart,
and turn for me to heal them.’
We now see that the words of Jesus we quoted from Mark are actually a quotation from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, and it describes people with dull hearts and closed ears and eyes. These are people who have chosen a path of life that has hardened them against God’s message of salvation. Jesus uses parables to respect the free choice of these people. As God, Jesus could appeared in divine majesty uttering irrefutable truths that would force everyone to believe, even those who don’t want to. Instead, he takes a gentle approach. He gives enough light so that people who are seeking God will find him. Indeed, he promises this in Matthew 7:7-8.
Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.
On the other hand, Jesus is obscure enough that those who want to go their own way can safely write him off. In other words, those who want to believe will find what they are seeking, but those who don’t want to believe will be able to do that.
I decided to write this post because today’s reading made me think about the problem of “divine hiddenness.” It is an argument against the existence of God that basically says that if God existed, he would be more visible and he would make himself easier to find. Jesus’s use of parables lead us to believe that some hiddenness is intentional. In God’s perfect plan for our salvation, there is a purpose for a certain amount of obscurity. That is no reason to worry, though. I always hold on to the promise of Jesus, “seek, and you will find.”