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Why is Jesus so Obtuse?

March 31, 2014

The gospel of John is not very much like the other three gospels (called the Synoptics) in a number of ways. For instance, in the Synoptics Jesus frequently speaks in parables where in John he never does. However, John and the Synoptics share one clear thing in common: Jesus is obtuse. Sure, in the Synoptics it’s parables and in John it is strange metaphors and odd sayings like “you must be born again”, “I am the bread of life”, and “I am the gate for the sheep”, but the basic idea is the same. Jesus does not say things in a plain, straightforward manner.

This is a bit of a problem. We tend to like things to be plain and straightforward. We work hard at making things plain and straightforward when we explain our faith. Heck, even the disciples seem to have wanted Jesus to be plain and straightforward. In Matthew 13:10 the disciples ask why Jesus speaks in parables and in John 16:29-30 the disciples seem very relieved that Jesus is speaking “clearly and without figures of speech”. So why is Jesus so obtuse? Why does he use parables and figures of speech? Why doesn’t he just tell people plainly what is happening? Won’t some people miss out on what Jesus says because he is deliberately being hard to understand?

There are several ways of approaching this. One would be to say that yes, Jesus is being deliberately obtuse in a way that will cause some to miss what he is saying to their own detriment. Another option might be to claim that Jesus is not being obtuse. Instead, he is being as clear as he can about very complex matters. (Imagine explaining a three-dimensional world to a two-dimensional being, or just read my article Calculus for Hamsters.) Yet another option would be to claim that Jesus is being more obtuse than absolutely necessary but that no one will miss what he is saying because of that. I favor a position somewhere between the second two options.

The first option has some things to recommend it. For one, it makes a lot of sense that Jesus is being deliberately obtuse when many of us feel that we can break the gospel down much more simply. For another Jesus never seems to be pushing people to make confessions of faith in him in the way that many evangelicals do. Instead, Jesus spends a lot of time talking about what we often think are secondary concerns without first addressing the “primary” issues. However, it is a little odd to have Jesus deliberately tricking people. Some Calvinists might be OK with this (it’s hardly any worse than double predestination) but it does seem a bit odd.

The second option is also fairly simple but requires us to rethink the gospel. If the gospel were actually much more complicated and nuanced than many of our presentations of it then it would be easy enough to say that Jesus was being as straightforward as possible while still being hard to understand. This would also make sense out of Jesus’ general behavior. A lot of that other teaching that seems to be about secondary issues might not be. Maybe we’ve just oversimplified the gospel. (Which seems plausible – if all that the gospel has to offer is on consistent display in our modern churches then the gospel is weak medicine for our ills.)

The third option is also fairly simple: perhaps only those who would see the spark of divine life in Jesus’ sayings and be willing to wade through the hard bits would ever follow him anyway. Perhaps Jesus’ obtuseness lost no one who would ever really follow him.

I favor a middle option. Assume for a minute that Jesus’ main issue is that most of the things he needs to say are easy to misunderstand. We frequently say this about Jesus’ reluctance to use the word Messiah (or Christ) about himself and his reticence about his divine status. We point out that saying, ‘I’m the Messiah,” in the first-century world would probably communicate the wrong sort of thing because people expected the wrong sort of Messiah. Similarly, “son of god” language would have evoked Greco-Roman ideas of anthropomorphic gods having sex with human women and producing demi-god progeny. Given this we’re content enough that Jesus does not say flat-out “I’m the Messiah” or “I’m the Son of God” all the time. So what if most of what Jesus has to say is like this? What if digging through a complicated parable or figure of speech is necessary for proper understanding?

We say this about Messianic language. The disciples eventually get Jesus. He’s clearly the Messiah – his actions testify to his status – but he’s not doing what the expected. After these two thoughts sit together in the same head long enough the disciples realize that they have misunderstood what it means to be a Messiah. However, explaining this “plainly” would have actually made matters worse. “I’m the Messiah but not like you think” sounds like “I’m the Messiah but not”. The disciples need the cognitive dissonance of having “Jesus must be the Messiah because of the miracles he does” and “Jesus does not act like I thought the Messiah would” to push them on to new realizations about what the Messiah will do.

Perhaps this sort of thing is generally necessary for much of what Jesus says. Perhaps Jesus’ message is insidiously different than the simple version we like to pass around and so Jesus uses obscure language to force us to think about what it really means. Perhaps Jesus could be clearer but no one who would ever follow him properly missed out on what he said because only those with the will to plow through parables and figures of speech would be willing to follow Jesus.

This is (I think) where things get really interesting. We tend to believe that plain speech is better than difficult speech and yet I think there is a strong case to be made that what Jesus says is not all that easy to understand and that only those willing to dig through the hard bits will ever really get it (hence my description of this case as a middle position between my original second and third options). So should we really value plain speech so much? It’s hard to see exactly where to go from here but I think there is probably real value in recovering the lost art of the answer that requires deep thought to understand. In our world where answers are supposed to be easy we may have lost the ability to understand anything that can’t be made simple.

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