Analytic Theology

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Was Jesus a Nihilist?

September 6th, 2006 by David Kronemyer · 2 Comments

DAVID KRONEMYER: Jesus had an annoying habit of speaking in parables. The New Testament sets forth anywhere from 32 to 48 of them, depending on who’s doing the counting. In fact, parables comprise most of what he had to say during his stay here on the terra firma; Matthew 13:34 and Mark 4:33 go so far as to say that he only spoke in parables. Frequently they’re marked with a linguistic sign-post – the author says, to the effect of, “OK, here’s a parable coming up,” sometimes even identifying it by name. On other occasions, they’re harder to tease out of the text.

The reason why these parables are annoying, is because Jesus could have been a lot clearer, thus avoiding considerable subsequent confusion, had he just said what he meant. Granted, he is not the only one to have used parables; philosophers as disparate as Nietzsche and Wittgenstein also seem to have this predilection.

As if to anticipate this objection, Jesus also gives us some reasons why he speaks in parables. For example, at Matthew 13:10, he purports to answer the question “Why do you speak in parables,” that was posed to him by the “disciples” (plural; it makes you wonder if they all asked at once). His answer is somewhat disconcerting. Except possibly for the disciples, “it is not given” to his addressees “to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.” Therefore, if he were to use ordinary language, they would not understand what it was he was talking about. But it’s even worse than that, because at Matthew 13:12, he seems to say that if he was to explain matters further, it would detract from whatever (presumably, meager) understanding they already had.

This argument does not make sense. If someone does not understand what you are saying, then you should try to be clearer about your subject matter, not more obscure. Furthermore, as part of his evangelical mission, Jesus should have done the best he could to explain things to everybody who wanted to listen, regardless of their status as persons “in the know,” or not.

Evidently he did do some further explaining to the disciples, typically in a smaller-group setting, following the main parable. For example, Mark 4:34 says that “when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples,” presumably, by way of an additional Q&A period. We already know the reason why he did so; as his disciples, they were “given … to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven,” to paraphrase Matthew 13:10.

But, this still doesn’t explain why everybody wasn’t entitled to a similar exposition. If we think of the disciples as kind of like teaching assistants, each responsible for his own study group, then clearly they weren’t supposed to simply regurgitate the parables to their hypothetical students. Rather, they would be expected to explicate more fully, what each parable meant. But this assumes that the professor did a halfway decent job of explaining the material at the primary lecture, which certainly isn’t the case, here. Furthermore, the set of persons “other than” the disciples still comprises an inferior population of persons not entitled to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, and there is no indication that their status changes at any point during the book. It would make sense for the disciples to be the explainers of what Jesus was saying, but only if the people to whom the explanation was being given, at that point, were entitled to receive it.

Another, less credible explanation of why Jesus speaks in parables, appears at Matthew 13:34. The gist of it is that he wants to fulfill an Old Testament prophecy to the effect that this is how he would communicate, which of course is a pretty teleological way of looking at the issue. He goes on to say that he “will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world,” presumably, the parables. I think by this he means that the parables also are secret, or comprise secret words and phrases. If so, why is he now uttering them? Again, if the secret’s somehow supposed to be revealed by him speaking up, or it’s his mission on earth to reveal the secret, then I would think he would want to speak as clearly as possible.

Over the years, various commentators have speculated that one of the reasons why Jesus spoke in parables is because he wanted to confound those who opposed him, such as the Pharisees. Some support for this view is found at Matthew 21:45, where the high priests “feared the multitude” who thought he was a prophet. This would be the same multitude who, earlier, had to content themselves with being confused after hearing the parables, because if they had any clearer explanation of what Jesus meant, their brains would go “boom.”

In addition to the parables, another way that Jesus had of speaking was to speak “reflexively,” that is, he would not answer the question, but rather, pose a related question, in response, back to the interrogator. Conversationally, this dynamic is like when you ask a colleague where they feel like going to have lunch, and, rather than stating a preference, the colleague replies, “I don’t know, what do you think?”

The best example of what I’m talking about is Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus, different versions of which are at Matthew 27:11; Mark 15:1; Luke 23:3; and John 18:33. Pilate asked Jesus if he was the King of the Jews. And, rather than saying “yes” or “no,” he replies, in effect, “Well, I am if you say so.” He then remained mute in the face of additional accusations from the chief priests and elders.

Jesus’ reply to Pilate always has seemed unsatisfactory to me, because it is tautological and enigmatic at a moment that calls out for clarity. It reminds me of Moses’ encounter with God at the incident of the burning bush in the desert, where Moses asks God how God would prefer to be referred to, and God replies (at Exodus 3:14): “I am that I am.” This also has been translated as “I shall be whom I shall be,” or, “I shall be what I am in the process of becoming to be.”

But it also reminds me of Patricia’s passive, flat and existentially depleted affect in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless; the meaningless dialog between Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot; and the internal deliberations and meditations of almost anyone appearing in novels by André Gide, Albert Camus, or Jean-Paul Sartre. For these characters, distinctions – such as that between “guilt” or “innocence” – aren’t relevant. Nothing really has any meaning, including life itself. Isn’t this an exact description of Jesus, as he is being interrogated by Pilate?