Much of McLaren’s “Secret Message” is based upon the idea that Jesus told obscure parables in order to lure people into following Him. From this premise, he goes on to suggest that we ought to do the exact same thing. Meaning, we ought to learn to speak in parable and create intrigue both by our words and in our actions. It sounds like we are to become something like Eastern Guru’s... creating a group of followers who very slowly begin to understand us (and one presumes, Jesus). To illustrate this I offer the following extended quote:
Maybe then, we have some beginning of an answer to the disciples’ question, and ours. Why did Jesus speak in parables? Why was he subtle, indirect, and secretive? Because his message wasn’t merely aimed at conveying information. It sought to precipitate something more important: the spiritual transformation of the hearers. The form of a parable helps to shape a heart that is willing to enter an ongoing, interactive, persistent relationship of trust in the teacher. It beckons the hearer to explore new territory. It helps form a heart that is humble enough to admit it doesn’t already understand and is thirsty enough to ask questions. In other words, a parable renders its hearers not as experts, not as know-it-alls, not as scholars... but as children.
Now do some of the most famous sayings of Jesus begin to make more sense—about the
This, by the way, is what the problematic word repentance is all about. The word means to rethink—to reconsider your direction and consider a new one, to admit that you might be wrong, to give your life a second thought, to think about your thinking. It means, just as Jesus said to Nicodemus that night, that you have to begin again, become like a child again, be born again. So if the problem is that too many of us are too independent, too self-centered, too set on stubbornly sticking to our own self-determined path . . . if the problem is that too many of us are arrogant know-it-alls, closed-minded adults, overconfident non-thinkers, and altogether too grown up—then the parable renders us into exactly what we need to be: teachable children. No wonder Jesus decides to make his message a secret! No wonder he hides it in metaphor and story!
But not all of us are willing to be so rendered. Some of us want fast, painless, effortless information and not slow, energetic, engaging transformation, thank you very much. What happens then to those who say, “I don’t have time for childish stories about seeds and yeast and sheep. I’m an important person. I have advanced degrees! I’m very knowledgeable!”? Simply put, the parable excludes them. In fact, the parable exposes them. In that sense, while parables bring some to childlike, humble rethinking, they bring out the arrogance, anger, impatience, and ugliness of others.
When I first began to understand that this was part of what was going on in Matthew 13, I felt bad. I didn’t want anyone to be left out. I didn’t want anyone to be exposed. Couldn’t Jesus’ parables be 100 percent effective? Couldn’t there be a happy ending for everybody? Couldn’t they get through to everybody? (More on this in chapter 18.)
In Jesus’ story, the answer was either no or not yet, because many, many people didn’t respond as the disciples did to Jesus’ parables. They didn’t ask questions, they didn’t soften their hearts in a childlike way, and they didn’t seek “the secrets of the kingdom.” Others did get the message, but it didn’t win their hearts1 it made them angry! Once, for example, Jesus told a detailed parable about some people who resorted to horrific violence to maintain control over their little turf. The religious leaders who felt their turf being threatened by Jesus got the meaning and hated it because, according to Luke, “they knew he had spoken this parable against them” (20: 19). Their response was to become more dedicated to their own hostile schemes.
We might wish Jesus’ parables could have won over even the Pharisees. (A few, by the way, were won over—including Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and later, a Pharisee named Saul, better known to us as Paul, who became a leading apostle in the early Christian movement) But, if it’s the heart that counts, then hearts can’t be coerced; nobody can be forced. They can be invited, attracted, intrigued, enticed, and challenged—but not forced. And that, perhaps, is the greatest genius of a parable: it doesn’t grab you by the lapels and scream in your face, “Repent, you vile sinner! Turn or burn!” Rather, it works gently, subtly, indirectly. It respects your dignity. It doesn’t batter you into submission but leaves you free to discover and choose for yourself.
There is much that could be said in response to this, but I will limit myself to four things.
1. The parables of Jesus cannot all be lumped into one category. Some parables were told to rebuke Pharisees. Some were told to instruct disciples and hide Kingdom truth from unbelievers. Other parables were told to be perfectly clear to their intended audience – hostile or accepting. To suggest otherwise is simply to not read the text.
Most often the reason for the parable is given in the text of the Gospel. For example: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector...” (Luke 18:9-10).
2. In many cases, Jesus told parables to complement the Father’s active work of blinding eyes; that is, of hiding spiritual truth from all but those for whom it was intended. This type of thing happened to more than just non-believers, thus demonstrating God’s absolute sovereignty over all things.
Luke 8:9-10 “And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he said, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that “seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.”’ Much could be written on this, but it is clear that at least in some instances it was the Lord’s purpose to hide Truth (not just make it illusive, like a riddle) from people and thus He spoke in parables.
A similar type of action was taking place with the Disciples: Luke 18:31-34 “And taking the twelve, he said to them, “See, we are going up to
3. Paul was not saved by hearing the parables of Jesus. He was blinded on a road, heard the voice of Jesus from heaven and was instantly converted. The parables came later when he (we presume) gladly read the Gospels. To intimate, as McLaren does, that Paul was converted through the parabolic ministry of Christ is yet again misleading.
4. Although Jesus spoke in parables, His apostles did not. There are no examples of the 11 or Paul speaking and teaching in this way. McLaren suggests that Paul did not write this way since he was “himself a kind of parable.” This is so stretching that it is pure invention.
The teaching of the followers of Jesus was marked by bold and clear proclamations of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In fact, this preaching is often characterized in the short form as “they preached Jesus.” Consider Paul’s words to King Agrippa as one example: “Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in