The disciples approached him and said, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He said to them in reply, “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted. To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because ‘they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.’ Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says:
‘You shall indeed hear but not understand,
you shall indeed look but never see.
Gross is the heart of this people,
they will hardly hear with their ears,
they have closed their eyes,
lest they see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart and be converted,
and I heal them.’
“But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear. Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”Matthew 13:10-17
“If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”John 10:24-25
Jesus answered them, “I told you and you do not believe.”
Jesus plainly revealed the “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” to his disciples, but spoke to the crowds in parables. The content of the mysteries, such as his oneness with God the Father, enraged his enemies.1 Speculations that Jesus might be the Messianic “Son of David” instigated slander.2 Direct preaching from the scrolls of Isaiah infuriated his hometown.3 Thus Jesus turned to parables, indirect pointers to the truth. Parables both reveal and conceal the mysteries of the kingdom.
The parables are like mirrors for man: will he be hard soil or good earth for the word? What use has he made of the talents he has received? Jesus and the presence of the kingdom in this world are secretly at the heart of the parables. One must enter the kingdom, that is, become a disciple of Christ, in order to “know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.” For those who stay “outside,” everything remains enigmatic.Catechism of the Catholic Church 546
Containing pearls of wisdom, parables require divine insight to penetrate their shells. Receptivity to Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, pries open their secrets.
Divine and Human Freedom
“Fat” (dull) hearts, “heavy” ears, and “smeared” eyes perceive nothing. Jesus’ quote from Isaiah 6:9-10 literally states:
And he said, “Go, and say to this people:Isaiah 6:9-10 (RSV)
‘Hear and hear, but do not understand;
see and see, but do not perceive.’
Make the heart of this people fat,
and their ears heavy,
and shut their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
Let the people choose—a constant theme in the Hebrew Scriptures4—is upheld by Jesus. Although it sounds as if God causes resistance, divine and human actions merge in mutual freedom. In Exodus, Pharaoh “hardened his heart”5 and the Lord “hardened Pharaoh’s heart”6 concomitantly. Expressed in correlative ways, the condition of Pharaoh’s heart is the same either way. Pharaoh’s freedom is freely bestowed by a free God. Semitic attributions of hardening to God proclaim his sovereignty; humans are not autonomous.
Seed of Grace
But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.Matthew 13:8
When divine and human freedom fuse in grace, fruit blossoms in abundance. In the Parable of the Sower, the four soils illustrate the role of human receptivity to God’s word. The Lord freely scatters his seed of grace everywhere, but will he find fertile soil? “Whoever has ears ought to hear.”7
“But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear.”Matthew 13:16
Friends of Christ know the secrets of the kingdom;
Hearts attuned gain admittance to God’s wisdom.
1 John 5:17-23; 8:58; 10:30.
2 Matthew 12:23-24.
3 Luke 4:16-30.
4 For example, Genesis 2:16-17; Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Samuel 8; Joshua 24:15.
5 Exodus 7:13, 22; 8:15.
6 Exodus 9:12; 10:20, 27; 11:10; 14:8.
7 Matthew 13:9.