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The MOST Theological Collection: Catholic Apologetics Today: Answers to Modern Critics

"Chapter 13: The Inner Circle"


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"And it happened in those days, that he went out into a mountain to pray, and passed the entire night in the prayer of God. And when day came, he called to himself his disciples, and those twelve of them, whom he also named Apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, James and John, Philip and Bartholomew, Matthew and Thomas, James the son of Alpheus, and Simon who is Zelotes, and Jude, the brother of James, and Judas Iscariot who became a traitor." (Luke 6:12-16).

Thus St. Luke tells of the choosing of the Twelve. Mark has a very similar account (3:13

19; cf. Matt. 10:1-4). We notice that the Twelve were chosen out of those who were already in a circle of disciples; they were to be more closely united with Him, to form His "inner circle," so to speak.

After this point in the Gospel narrative, we constantly hear about the Apostles' being with Him. The Gospels prove, and we would expect to find, an inner circle of some sort in the crowds that followed after Him. Also, we would expect that He would speak more to that inner circle and tell them things more fully than He would to the general crowd. That too is evident in the Gospels.

Specially significant, however, is the line in Mark 4:1 1 (See also Matt. 13:1 1 and Luke 8:10): "To you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but to those outside all things are in parables." In the arrangement St. Mark has made (we know the Evangelists did not always use chronological order), this passage comes right after the tragic incident in which He had cast out a devil, but the scribes commented (Mark 3:22), "He has Beelzebul, and by the prince of devils he casts out devils." This was, as Jesus Himself said, the unforgivable sin (Mark 3:28-29); not that God would refuse to forgive any repentant sinner any sin, but rather that such hardness is extremely unlikely ever to soften to the point of repentance. And without repentance, not even God, who is Mercy itself, will forgive. In fact, forgiveness is simply impossible without repentance, for the sinner who is unrepentant says, in effect, "I was right to sin and to offend You."

Consequently it was after this that, as St. Mark presents it, Jesus resorted to using parables as a teaching method. But for the Apostles He would still explain things, hence He added, "To you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but to those outside, all things are in parables." And mysteriously He continued, "That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand: lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them." (Mark 4:11).

Luke 8:10 has similar language, seeming to imply that the purpose of the parables is to prevent outsiders from understanding. Matthew 13: 13-15 has a softer version of the same. "Therefore do I speak to them in parables: because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, neither do they understand. And the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled in them, who said: You shall really hear, but not understand, and really look but not see."

All three Gospels report Jesus quoting the same passage of Isaiah. There, God has just appointed Isaiah as a prophet, and He tells him, in the form of a command, "Go and thou shalt say to this people: Really hear, but do not understand, and really see, but do not perceive. Make thick the heart of this people, and make their ears heavy and shut their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn and be healed." (Is. 6:9-10).

Did not Jesus want people in general to hear His message? Obviously He did; otherwise, why would He go to such labors? Why then did He make these statements? Obviously, we need to investigate to find out.

There is a well-known Semitic speech pattern which Westerners cannot understand without help. Often, in fact most of the time, the Hebrews would speak as though God positively did and intended things which He really only permitted. For example in the book of Exodus, Pharaoh's heart was hardened several times, even after he had seen the displays of mighty power by Moses and Aaron, yet Exodus 10:1 says, "And the Lord said to Moses: Go in to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants: that I may work these my signs in him."

Obviously, God does not want men to be hard, men harden themselves. Even more dramatically, in 1 Sam. 4:3, after the Philistines had inflicted a great defeat on the Israelites, they said, "Why has the Lord struck us today before the face of Philistines?" Of course the Israelites knew it was the Philistines who had struck them, yet they said God did it.

Hence, in the way the Gospels depict Jesus quoting Isaiah, and in the original text of 1 Samuel as well, when we find an expression that says God intended to close their eyes and ears so they would not repent, we should recognize the Hebrew pattern we have just explained and understand that the real meaning is that God has permitted, not caused, the hardening.

Therefore, Jesus did not want to blind His hearers. Rather, in Matthew 23:37 Jesus weeps over that hardness: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem ... how often would I have gathered together your children, as the hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and you would not?"

Again, after the parable of the wedding dinner, when most of those invited not only refused to attend, but even killed the servants who called them, He sadly added, "For many are called, but few are chosen."62 (Matt. 22:14).

St. Matthew observes (Matt. 21:45) that the Pharisees understood that the parable just before, the one about the wicked tenants, meant them. So they would understand that the wedding feast parable meant the same. Now the meaning of "many are called" is clear: He called all-Pharisees and all others of His people-to the wedding feast, to the Messianic Kingdom. But most of them were not chosen, because they refused to come.63

Thus, Jesus did want His people to understand, but when He found many of them so ill-disposed, He turned to parables. Later on, the Apostles, especially St. Paul, would find people better disposed and would be able to speak more openly.

There has been much discussion about the purpose of the parables: Were they meant to show mercy, or as blinding in justice? The real answer is that they were both at the same time. They were a device such that those with good dispositions would understand at least something at the start, and would grow in understanding; while the ill-disposed would understand less and less.

Thus, there really is a spiral pattern set up, in two opposite directions by the parable (and in many other things in Scripture as well). To begin to see the spirals, we will think of a man who has never been drunk before, but goes out and really gets drunk. The next morning he has a grand hangover, but also guilt feelings. Since this is a case in which the man has never been drunk before, after that first spree there will be a clash of two voices inside him. The voice of his beliefs says it is very wrong to get drunk; the voice of his actions (which speak more loudly than words) says it is all right.

Our nature dislikes such clashes and works hard to eliminate them. So, in due time, something has to give: either the man makes his actions fit his faith, or his faith will fit his actions. That is, if he continues in his pattern of drunkenness, he will reach a point at which he no longer believes it very wrong to get drunk. His faith has been forced into line with his actions. And he can go further down the spiral, for other beliefs are interlocked with the belief of the evil of drunkenness, so that in time he can be very dull indeed in perceiving any religious truths; he has gone far on a downward spiral, which feeds only on itself, making his mind darker and darker toward the truth.

But there is a spiral in the other direction as well. Faith tells us that this world, compared to the next, is worth very little. St. Paul (Phil. 3:8) even dares to speak of all the things of the world as "dung" in comparison to the things of eternity. So if a man lives vigorously in accord with such faith, he will continue going farther and farther into the spiral in the good direction. His ability to perceive religious truths will become greater and greater.

There is both mercy and justice in both spirals. The evil man deserves his blindness; it is due in justice; yet there is mercy for him in this because the more deeply one knows the truths of faith, the greater his responsibility. The man of faith, on the other hand, deserves the added light, and so receives it in justice; yet the fact that he gets it is most basically mercy: all gifts of God to us are, at bottom, mercy. We cannot by our own power generate any claim on Him.

We return to the parables and Scripture. They are designed to point out a distinction among people: those well-disposed, who will get more and more of the light; those ill-disposed, who will lose even what they seemed to have. Recall the line at the end of the parable of the talents: "For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will abound; but from him who has not, even that which he has will be taken away." (Matt. 25:14-29). And, as we saw, there is both mercy and justice in both cases.

So we can easily see that teaching in parables was splendidly designed to address best the hardness in His audience, to set up the division based on good or bad dispositions. At the same time, He explained all to His inner circle, for use later on with those who would be better disposed.

We can see, too, why Jesus did not overwhelm people with miracles. Why did He not arrange to rise from the tomb before several hundred people, including unbelievers, so that people could not help believing? The answer is that faith should not be forced. If forced, it is not really faith at all.

When we accept things as true we use compulsive and noncompulsive evidence. Compulsive evidence leaves us no freedom of choice. For instance, two plus two equals four. Noncompulsive evidence covers a larger spectrum. At the upper end are facts so strongly based that no one can doubt their validity. For example, we know that Washington crossed the Delaware. Again, there is virtually no freedom to decide. But on the other end of the noncompulsive range of evidence, we meet things for which there is ample proof, but yet, not such proof as to leave us no freedom of choice. Our minds are not forced into believing. Precisely in that range there is freedom, and therefore room for faith. And it will be with faith in general, as it was with the parables: those well-disposed will see more and more, as they grow in holiness; those ill-disposed will see less and less, and they grow in iniquity.

We have seen that Jesus did have an inner circle to whom He explained things more clearly, not so much for immediate use, since the crowds were mostly hardened, but for later use. The Gentiles, as St. Paul witnessed repeatedly, would accept Christ in great numbers. Jesus wanted people to understand, but He did not want to coerce their belief. It is important that people freely choose the truth. Once they believe, grace is abundantly given so they can grow in holiness.


62 This passage refers to the Jews of the day who were all called to the Messianic kingdom (Church), yet few were entering.
63 Many probably reflects Hebrew rabbim, the all who are many. Aramaic sgy'yn at least at times had the same sense: cf. E. C. Maloney, Semitic Interference in Marcan Syntax, Scholars Press, Chico, CA, 1981 p. 140. St. Paul commonly uses polloi (which means many in secular Greek, and is used in Matt. 22:14) to mean all, like rabbim, e.g., Rom. 5:19. St. Matthew obviously could do the same.