I learned very quickly that I had a choice. Either I could constantly invoke my inner attorney to give myself legal defense, or I could invite misunderstanding and let that be okay. Sure, there’s a tension and wisdom that tells us both responses may be done with a confident humility, but maybe one of these options is the better one?
Ministry is challenging. Discipleship is messy. Doing life as a sinner with other sinners can be sinful. When our heart’s desires make tangible appearances through words and actions, bad things can happen. Blowback can and does occur. How should we respond to one another when misunderstanding occurs? How ought we as reconciled-to-God-in-Christ-now-justified-sinners deal with interpersonal conflict and sinful interaction? Thankfully, Jesus, the Second-Person of the Trinity, took on flesh and dwelt among us. He identified with us and exemplified in himself what it means to do ministry and invite misunderstanding.
In Matthew 13, we find Jesus teaching about the kingdom of God in various parables. He tells of the Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Weeds, the Mustard Seed and Leaven, the Hidden Treasure, Pearl of Great Value, the Net, and the Master of the House with Old and New Treasures. Each of these stories are likened to some aspect of the kingdom of God and are used by Jesus to explain himself and his ministry.
But that’s not all we find in this chapter. Matthew gives us a look into what is happening behind the scenes, as it were, and explains a bit more about the parables. In 13:10-17, there’s an excursus that involves only Jesus and his disciples. The crowds are not privileged to this particular conversation. “Then the disciples came and said to him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’” (Mat. 13:10). Conflict is on the horizon. What seems to be the problem?
SECRETS OF THE KINGDOM
Jesus responds to their question, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given” (13:11). Any information that disciples glean from Jesus’ parables is to participate in the secrets of the kingdom of God. In other words, the mysterion that Jesus explains can only be given through the Sovereign hand of God and divine revelation. The Apostle Paul shares the same thing, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (2 Cor. 2:14).
What Paul means (and I believe by implication it is the same thing Jesus believed) is not that you have to be a super Spirit-filled person in order to understanding this stuff, and if you say the right prayer, do the right thing, you’ll eventually figure it out. No—Paul means that any particular revelation of knowledge that pertains especially to the kingdom of God is only granted from above.
Men do not use logic and reason, then conclude God. Men cannot use logic and reason without God. God is the one who imparts wisdom and understanding. This is what Jesus is getting at with the secrets of the kingdom. It is not an issue of natural insight and basic rationale. It’s an issue of divine revelation. It is only for those, “It has been given.”
PUSHING IT FURTHER
Jesus goes on to say, “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” (v. 13). Don’t miss what Jesus is saying: There is a dividing line when it comes to the kingdom of heaven. What I am doing in my teaching is clearly laying out the lines of demarcation. There is no middle ground; in fact, there are only two ways to go about this—either you will understand because the Spirit makes you understand, or you will continue in your sin and constantly go about misunderstanding what I’m telling you.
Jesus pushes it further by creating the dividing line. Why did he do it? To start, Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 6. Isaiah was to go and preach and Israel wasn’t going to listen. (Not the greatest ministry task. . . . Go and preach, and don’t get mad—they won’t listen anyway. Who wants that job?) Matthew makes it clear that Jesus is Isaiah—a prophet to a rebellious Israel.
The other reason Jesus creates the dividing line this way is because Jesus is okay with misunderstanding. Remember he didn’t come into the world to condemn the world, for the world was condemned already; Jesus came to save it (Jn. 3:17). By drawing the line, Jesus gave no ground for having a neutral position. You are either for him, or against him (Matt. 12:30). Either men will turn to Christ in repentance, or they with harden themselves and perpetuate misunderstanding.
VULNERABILITY IN COMMUNITY
We can learn much from this passage. I want to try and bring one aspect into focus, and it has everything to do with you. If you’ve been involved in ministry in any capacity, you know that misunderstanding abounds. The story I hinted at to start had to do with me being a pastor who has had his share of misunderstanding. In fact, in one Sunday I heard two things: 1) “I learn something every single week when you preach!” and 2) “We’re leaving because we don’t feel like we’re learning anything.”
How does that work? How can a pastor sit at someone’s bedside who is dying from cancer and be told the next day that he doesn’t care about people? Consider another paradox in ministry. How can a lay person who is passionately involved prayer about many different issues be told by someone else that she has bitterness in her heart and seems rather uninvolved in ministry? What’s the deal with misunderstandings in community?
Discipleship is an invitation to be vulnerable. It invites misunderstanding and chooses to put that inner attorney out of a job. It’s being so comfortable in your justification that your messy sanctification doesn’t trip you up. The reality is, any amount of investment you make in someone else’s life will invoke misunderstanding. You reap what you sow. The deeper you get into someone’s life the messier it gets. And that’s okay.
Jesus was quite okay with being vulnerable and he built his ministry on misunderstanding. That’s how it was supposed to be. “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Is. 53:2). He wasn’t spectacular and outwardly special. He left his home in glory to take on flesh and serve his people. He taught with wisdom and compassion yet was treated foolishly and hated by many.
What makes this special for us in discipleship is knowing that we don’t have to defend our case, but can live our lives for the glory of God free from the chains of man-pleasing. We can be vulnerable and okay with misunderstanding. Why? Because Jesus was vulnerable and misunderstood—so much so, that he was crucified for you. The misunderstanding of Christ led to the salvation of men. So rest easy, and continue to run.
Rev. Jason M. Garwood (M.Div., Th.D.) serves as Lead Pastor of Colwood Church in Caro, MI and author of Be Holy and The Fight for Joy. Jason and his wife Mary have three children, Elijah, Avery and Nathan. He blogs at www.jasongarwood.com. Connect with him on Twitter: @jasongarwood.