Jesus Askedby Conrad Gempf, Conrad Gempf
A look at the questions Jesus asks uswhich enrich our understanding and faith. In the Gospels, when people asked Jesus a question, he often replied with one of his own: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” British author Conrad Gempf invites readers to look at these questions and
A look at the questions Jesus asks uswhich enrich our understanding and faith. In the Gospels, when people asked Jesus a question, he often replied with one of his own: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” British author Conrad Gempf invites readers to look at these questions and discover Jesus’ motivation. What could the second person of the Trinity want to know that he doesn’t already? Gempf concludes that Jesus wants to know where we stand. He doesn’t need to know more facts; he wants to know us.
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Jesus AskedWhat He Wanted to Know
By Conrad Gempf
ZondervanCopyright © 2003 Conrad Gempf
All right reserved.
Chapter OneConstantly Speaking In Riddles
Can the blind lead the blind?
What Is a "Parable"?
As I hope I've demonstrated in the introduction, nothing was more characteristic of Jesus' speaking than the fact that he constantly asked questions. Most people, even people who write about Jesus, don't seem to have picked that up. But almost everyone has noticed a facet of Jesus' teaching style that is closely related to his questions: he often taught in parables. To see the connection between parable and question, we have to look under the surface.
For most folks, it's a parable if it's a story with a message. Once upon a time there was a vineyard owner with three sons who cast out their nets and caught wheat as well as tares. And the landlord returned in the middle of the night and said to the Samaritan who had sold everything he had in order to buy the pearl, "You have forgiven much so much will be forgiven you," but to the one who buried his talents and had no oil in his lamp he said, "Depart from me, I never knew you, and kill the fatted calf on your way out." Or something like that. Now that's a parable!
For Jesus and the people of his time, though, you didn't need the plot, dialogue, or multiple characters in order for something to be shelved in the Parable aisle at Turns-of-Phrase-R-Us. Their conception ofparable included a good deal more than ours. A first-century person would use the term parable any time someone talked about a subject figuratively. Stories like the Prodigal Son or Lost Sheep fit the bill, but so do such sentence-length stories as: "He told them still another parable: 'The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about eighteen pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough'" (Matt. 13:33) or "Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit?" (Luke 6:39).
In fact, on one occasion, Jesus called a mere phrase a parable. In Luke 4:23, he says to the people of the synagogue, "Surely you will quote this parable to me: 'Physician, heal yourself.'" Three words. Yet it's a parable. The translators knew you and I wouldn't think of it as a parable so they translated it "proverb," but the Greek word is parable: parabole.
The word that I've used in the chapter title, riddle, is a similar word. Nowadays when we use that word we almost always mean a joke of the form "question with trick answer": What's orange and sounds like a parrot? A carrot. But we also recognize the term as used for a longer puzzle with a trick answer. An example of this kind of riddle is the old conundrum:
As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives. Each wife had seven sacks, each sack had seven cats, each cat had seven kits. Kits, cats, sacks, and wives- how many were going to St. Ives?
The answer is one. The polygamist and his feline crew were traveling in the opposite direction; only the narrator was going to St. Ives. Another example, a riddle from the ancient world, is the Greek legend that the Sphinx asked Oedipus: What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening? The answer is man, who crawls as a baby, walks tall through most of his life, and then uses a cane in old age.
A riddle is, then, a figure of speech that wants some figuring out, usually by lateral thinking. And this is exactly what's going on in Jesus' parables. But in Jesus' case, they are not mere jokes or puzzles and not only told for their entertainment value. They are told to make a point-to teach-but they might do so in this roundabout sideways-thinking way. They may even do something more than that; we'll see about that later.
Making It Easy?
Mrs. Bayster, my Sunday school teacher, always told us that Jesus spoke in parables for a very simple reason. He wanted to teach some fairly complex theological concepts (these are not Mrs. Bayster's precise words) to people who, unfortunately, did not have the benefit of the weekly Sunday school and were not well enough educated to understand a straight-forward technical discussion. Thus, the theory goes, he wrapped up these theological truths in story form. Plain folks couldn't understand words like eschatology or soteriology, but they could understand stories about farmers and disobedient sons. And he could have said things like "love your neighbor" until he was blue in the face, but telling the Good Samaritan story (Luke 10) does the job so much better. And regarding more spiritual things, the prophets talk about Israel straying and God's willingness to accept them back, but nothing gets the picture across any better than the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). It's all about boiling complicated teaching down so that ordinary folks can understand-The Complete Idiot's Guide to God.
Much about this theory rings true. Jesus certainly did want to reach the ordinary folks rather than just the religious elite. You can hear him throughout the gospels explaining and defending this controversial practice: It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. The damage to his reputation was so serious that the religious elite called him "a friend of tax-collectors and sinners," which is tantamount to calling him a "known associate of politicians and gangsters."
I believe that Jesus was seeking to reach the ordinary people, but what I object to is saying that he used parables to make the teaching easy to understand. It's a nice enough thought, but it doesn't fit with what's presented in the gospel, nor with the roundabout character of the parables. The really difficult bit comes early: Mark 4.
Ten verses into that chapter, Jesus has been telling one of his best-known stories, the Parable of the Sower. You remember the one. Some seeds fell here and got choked by weeds, some there and wilted in the sun, some got picked off by birds, but a few fell on good ground and bore fruit-a hundred kernels harvested for every one planted.
It's actually a story that Jesus might have told to that guy in the leather jacket (who objected that Jesus was not the greatest teacher). It is probably intended to explain why, although he taught crowds, so few followed, and why that didn't trouble him. He was "broad casting" the seeds everywhere and those who had ears would hear.
Now according to the Mrs. Bayster School of Parable Interpretation, the listeners should come backstage and tell Jesus how great it was to finally understand such complicated stuff. Instead we find the disciples coming to Jesus and saying, "That was great. But what in the world was it about? We just don't get it." This is, of course, fairly typical of the disciples, especially in Mark's gospel, where they misunderstand nearly everything. It's as if their idea of following Jesus was scurrying along beside him looking the wrong way-so much so that they would smack into lampposts and slide slowly to the ground with Xs for eyes and cartoon birds tweeting in circles round their heads.
If Jesus' use of parables really was an attempt to simplify things enough for simple people to understand, the attempt failed with the disciples. They still didn't get it and told him so.
We still might think that Jesus intended to dumb down his teaching, but the disciples were just so thick that absolutely nothing could penetrate their lamppost-hardened skulls. But then there's the extraordinarily troublesome verses 10 to 12 of Mark 4. Before explaining the Parable of the Sower in some detail, Jesus begins by telling the disciples why he speaks in parables in the first place. He certainly seems to be saying that he doesn't want everyone to understand.
"To you," he says, "has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but to those on the outside everything is given in parables in order that they might see it without getting it and hear it without understanding it. Otherwise they might turn and be forgiven."
The physicist Niels Bohr once said about quantum mechanics that anyone who isn't deeply shocked by the implications of the theory hasn't understood it. So with this statement of Jesus. Any pupil of Mrs. Bayster's who has read my paraphrase and not been shocked hasn't really read it. Some have probably looked up Mark 4:10-12 by now, hoping I'm wrong. My translation sounds awful: "in order that they might see it without getting it ... otherwise they might turn."
If by chance you have looked it up, you'll find it offensive. Only the paraphrases, like Eugene Peterson's The Message, manage to soften it. Could Jesus be saying that he tells parables precisely to keep any old hearer from understanding what he was saying? So only those to whom the mystery or secret is given are on the "inside"? How can this possibly be right?
Far from being stories that clarify, it looks as though his purpose was to hide the truth, to deliberately make it "misunderstandable." From what Jesus appears to be saying, these are more like codes or riddles to be solved than like plain teaching. Indeed the gospel of Mark sets up a contrast between parables and plain teaching, telling us that Jesus spoke in parables to the crowd, but when he was alone with the disciples he spoke plainly (Mark 4:34).
If you have looked these verses up to check me, you may find that the bulk of verse 12 is set off as poetry, or is at least in quotation marks. This is because Jesus is quoting from the prophet Isaiah. You might think this helps a little bit: the phrase "otherwise they might turn" isn't Jesus himself but Jesus quoting and warning people that they may be acting like those in Isaiah's time. Not that Jesus delights in incomprehensible code language; he may be resigned to it. Like the cup he has to drink, perhaps this is how it has to be.
But no, that doesn't completely solve our problem. Even if Jesus is quoting, he's the one who is teaching in parables. He chose to teach and explain himself this way.
Secret and Mystery
This, at last, brings us to the heart of not only Jesus' style of telling parables but also of our larger concern in this book, his habit of asking questions. When Jesus tells the disciples that the "secret of the Kingdom of God" has been given to them, the Greek word is not about secret knowledge, as the translations might lead you to believe. No, it's musterion or mystery. The distinction between a mystery and a secret is preserved in English usage as well as the Greek, though we hardly ever think about it. With a secret, knowledge is being withheld-there are facts or concepts you're not given. A mystery is very different. The concepts and facts are not hidden; on the contrary, you are immersed in them and they are so thick around you that you can't see the woods for the olive trees.
The classic mystery novels are just like this. After the body is discovered and the detective is roused from his or her rented seaside cottage, fact after fact presents itself: that woman has a preference for that size shoe; that painter was found without any white in his palette; the diamond pendant fashioned in the shape of a London cab once belonged to the butler's great-grandmother. The challenge is not that information is secret-being withheld by the author-but rather the opposite: The revelations whistle by your head too fast for you to sort them out or see them in perspective. As with many riddles, you also often need some lateral thinking.
With a secret, you're on the outside; with a mystery, you're in the thick of it, like those sidekicks trailing around after the master detective. Even when they're told who did it, they still can't see the significance of the green thread found caught on the rough edge of the picture frame in the guest bedroom the night before the murder.
In most translations of Mark 4, therefore, there is a specific connection between verses 11 and 12. Some have gotten the secret, or better, the mystery. For everyone else, it's a parable-still only a riddle (verse 11). And, not surprisingly, given the nature of riddles, those are the people in danger of seeing but perceiving, hearing but not understanding (verse 12).
Now we're in a position to notice something else. Verse 11 does not specifically say "to those outside, all my teaching is in parables" but rather "everything is in parables." It's just possible he's saying that his teaching is no different than the rest of existence and creation. Everything around us, including his teaching, presents humanity with something akin to a riddle.
That's why Jesus' teaching isn't data-rich-if it were information that was being withheld in secret-like fashion, then we'd expect the teaching to be providing the missing bits. But if Jesus the teacher diagnosed a different deficiency, then it would be only natural for his teaching to be correspondingly different. And this, in turn, perhaps exonerates our dim-witted disciples a wee bit. It may not be about understanding after all, and their teacher may not have expected them to fully comprehend. Indeed it may not be understanding and enlightenment that we're supposed to be seeking and finding either.
It is simply amazing how many great people in the history of Christianity have missed the point of the parables by looking for information and, especially, theology. It seems only common sense to us nowadays that the parable of the Good Samaritan, which Jesus answered in response to the question "Who is my neighbor?" should be answering that question in some way. And virtually no one could talk about the parable nowadays without some attention being paid to the fact that Samaritans were generally hated by the Jews. But for centuries, the quest for information, for data about some religious secret, pretty much obliterated any such thrust in the answer. For guys like Origen and Augustine, writing early in the history of the church-before people needed last names-the parable of the Good Samaritan was code. It was, for them, a beautiful allegory of the larger Christian story.
Here then is the secret code those early writers thought they'd broken. Does the story concern a man who was nearly dead and then helped? It must be a story about Christ helping the sinner. And so the man becomes symbolic of Adam. His wounds became his sins. The robbers were Satan and his minions. The priest and Levite who passed by were the Law and the Prophets. The Samaritan was, of course, Jesus himself. He bandages the guy's wounds (restrains our sins), brought him to an inn (the church), and spoke to the innkeeper (the apostle Paul? the angels in charge of the church? the Pope?) giving him two denarii (the two commandments of love God above all and your neighbor as yourself) and-nudge, nudge-told the innkeeper that he'd be coming back soon.
You've got to give them credit; that is one spiffy job of decoding. And I haven't even given you all of the details! But, um, just how would all of this answer the question that the man in the gospel story asked Jesus? Doesn't it leave to one side the most unusual choice in the parable of the hero being a Samaritan rather than a peasant-class Galilean? And why would Jesus have capped such an allegory with the words "Go and do likewise"?
We will look a lot more closely at what this parable really means in chapter 4. For the time being, though, it seems pretty clear that Jesus was not giving a cryptogram to decode as much as a story to be taken to heart-a mystery or riddle to ponder.
More than they are meant to inform, Jesus' riddles or parables, like much of his teaching, seem to be poking at you, forcing you to take one side or another. I think of them as a wedge. The hearers stand poised in an in-between place, and Jesus' teaching comes at them sharp side first, forcing them to lean one way or another, perhaps just the smallest of inclinations, but the widening bit of the wedge forces the issue further and further open. One of the best examples of how a parable can be used in this way comes in the Old Testament (2 Samuel 12), a famous interchange between the prophet Nathan and King David.
Even though God chose him and he wrote lots of pretty psalms and so on, David sometimes made some pretty bad mistakes. The one that concerns us here is the unfortunate business of Uriah and Bathsheba. You may remember the story: His royal highness saw this babe sunbathing on a roof and determined to have her for his own even once he'd found out that she was already happily married to one of David's most loyal colleagues. So he took her and eventually arranged to have her husband killed in such a way that the blame would not fall on him.
Excerpted from Jesus Asked by Conrad Gempf Copyright © 2003 by Conrad Gempf. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Conrad Gempf (Ph D, University of Aberdeen in Scotland) is lecturer in New Testament at London School of Theology in the United Kingdom. He is the author of Jesus Asked, and has edited or contributed to many journals, books, and reference works, including The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters.
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I teach a Sunday School class for adults and enjoy reading things that might make me a better Bible teacher. This book was amazing! I read it in one sitting. I simply could not put it down. Dr. Gempf's writing style was not only informative, it was fun! It was like the 'light went on' when I read his interpretation of Jesus' questions and answers. I can hardly wait to share some of his insights with my class. This week's lesson is on the Good Samaritan. I had never really grasped that the 'expert in the law' would have had the smug satisfaction he discussed when listening to the response of the priest and the Levite. What an interesting insight. I also was moved by his discussion of the story of the 'rich young ruler' and Jesus' question about why he called him 'good.' Awesome. I loved the way he tied all of Jesus' teachings together to make the central point that Jesus wants us to choose for ourselves where we will stand on issues, particularly the issue of who he is. This book was excellent and should be required reading for anyone who wants a fresh insight on what Jesus' teachings were all about.'