I almost drowned at Devil’s Waterhole.
My youth group leader had decided it would be fun to go camping at Inks Lake State Park in central Texas. I was a prepubescent freshman; most of the boys were well-developed junior and senior athletes. I am still not sure why I went on the trip.
As soon as we set up camp, someone decided we should go cliff diving at Devil’s Waterhole. I was a decent swimmer but lacked the assurance needed to throw myself off the side of a perfectly solid, 40 foot tall rock. In addition, any activity that strung together “cliff diving” and “devil” in the same sentence had no appeal for me. Nonetheless I followed two seniors (named John and Wayne) to the dive target.
After an interminably long period of deep diving which I avoided, John had the idea that instead of walking back through the brush to camp, we should swim instead. It was only about three-quarters of a mile, he said, and there were sand bars to stand on along the way. I made the mistake of agreeing. By the third and last sand bar, my muscles were noodles. The river was simply too deep, and the water too fast. Exhausted and convinced I couldn’t swim another ten feet, I stood there, not knowing what to do. Next thing I knew John was pulling me from the water onto his back and taking me back to the camp. They were nice enough about it – help the freshman kid – but it was obvious that I had overestimated my swimming ability.
I wanted deep but I obviously wasn’t ready.
I’ve been talking about Jesus’ marketing strategy, and how often we mess it up. Here’s the first of two ways:
We Teach Deep When We Should Teach Wide.
Jesus didn’t offer deep teaching to everyone. Throughout the gospels, we read, “Jesus said to the disciples…” Sometimes this is followed by wide teaching, and sometime by deep teaching.
What we never see, though, is Deep teaching to crowds.
Crowds only heard parables. That’s super important and often completely misunderstood. He reserved his deep, discursive teaching for religious authorities and for his small group of disciples.
Perhaps Jesus’ refusal to offer deep teaching to crowds wore on the disciples. They might have begun to question his methods. Eventually, they asked him about it: why do you speak in such indecipherable stories? Thankfully, Jesus answered plainly:
“Because they haven’t received the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, and you have … This is why I speak to the crowds in parables: although they see, they don’t really see; and although they hear, they don’t really hear or understand.” (Matthew 13:11, 13)
He then quotes the prophet Isaiah and concludes by telling them to be happy about it, because there have been many righteous people who have wanted clear teaching but had never received it.
Jesus’ communication method, can be difficult to understand.
It seems to imply that Jesus purposefully kept some people from the Gospel. Many people, in fact, teach this. Yet to do so is to fall prey to the Gnostic heresy. Jesus clearly extends the invitation to the kingdom of heaven to everyone, notably in the parable of the great banquet (Matthew 22:1-14) and in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20).
Another way to understand the reason Jesus made this distinction comes from John’s gospel. In the middle of John, several chapters are devoted to the final training session Jesus conducted with his disciples. After they broke bread and he washed their feet, he taught them many more things, but also told them that he could only give them so much wisdom: “I have much more to say to you, but you can’t handle it now. However, when the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you in all truth.”
We can’t handle the truth.
You can’t handle the truth.
– Colonel Jessup
The shorthand explanation of Jesus’ use of story is that we can’t handle the full and complete truth.
Wide teaching is critical because it allows both pre-Christians and believers at various levels of discipleship needed side doorways to truth; it connects the big truth of God to little truths we already know in our lives, such as how a seed grows or how light behaves. We mess up when we try to offer crowds deep teaching. Crowds can’t handle the truth, plainly spoken. For that matter, most disciples can’t either. We distort it; we try to claim it is something it isn’t. We drown in it.
This is why Jesus was selective about his Deep teaching.
Never tell the truth to people who are not worthy of it.
- Mark Twain
In Digital Storytellers I wrote of an “emotional truth.”
Story is powerful for giving people affirmation, or a yes, to a truth held deeply but not connected to words and a means to articulate. We can know something to be deeply true, such as the love of a parent or courage in the face of fear, and not have the words to describe it. Tapping into these truths can create powerful emotional responses in people.
We need to respect the fact that it is possible to know without knowing why we know and accept that – sometimes – we’re better off that way. - Malcolm Gladwell, Blink (p. 52)
Wide teaching associates a new idea with a known idea.
While a person might misunderstand or reject their first exposure to a deep truth spoken plainly, they’re more likely to consider it when tied to something they already know.
There’s a sequence of stories in Matthew’s gospel that illustrate the side doors to which Jesus continually invited his disciples to understand deep truth.
First, the disciples asked Jesus to explain the parable of the weeds in the field. He freely did so. (Mt 13:36-43).
Later, the disciples tried to warn Jesus about the Pharisees’ offense to his teaching. Jesus replied to the warning with a cryptic word about plants. Peter is understandably confused, and says, “explain the parable to us.” Jesus responds, “Are you still so dull?” He offers yet another parable, using the body, then, finally, offers them a set of clear directives. (Matthew 15:12-20)
Comically, the same exchange happens a third time. The disciples forget to bring bread on a trip, so Jesus uses the occasion to warns them: “Be careful. Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadduces.” Predictably, the disciples say to one another: “Yeast? What is he talking about? Maybe it’s because we forgot to bring bread.” (My paraphrase there). The wise teacher was aware of their ignorance.
Jesus knew what they were discussing and said, “You people of weak faith! Why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you don’t have any bread? Don’t you understand yet? Don’t you remember the five loaves that fed the five thousand and how many baskets of leftovers you gathered? And the seven loaves that fed the four thousand and how many large baskets of leftovers you gathered? Don’t you know that I wasn’t talking about bread? But be on your guard for the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he wasn’t telling them to be on their guard for yeast used in making bread. No, he was telling them to watch out for the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Matthew 16:8-12)
It’s easy to shake our heads at the disciples’ lack of understanding. We’re reading what’s ironically called “third person omniscient” point of view. We know the end of the story. In the course of the drama, though, the disciples were frustrated. They just wanted the plain truth, and couldn’t get it. Jesus wouldn’t speak to them directly.
How dull are we, and how many different ways do we need to hear something before we “get it”?
When we really get into people’s lives, Jesus’ distinction between crowds and disciples becomes difficult to discern. Is your average churchgoer a crowd member, or a disciple? Some are true crowd members, and some are deep swimming disciples. Most of us, though, are somewhere in between.
Deciding when to teach Wide and when to teach Deep may be the most important question a Christian communicator can ask.
The Holy Spirit is the source of all truth and helps disciples of Jesus to discern truth in story and metaphor. Through the work of the Holy Spirit we move past the mystery of the story and into a full understanding of truth. This is the answer to concerns about polyvalence, or the variety of meanings art may evoke.
It is also the purpose of the story—and for that matter all art—and it is why Jesus taught exclusively with story to a larger crowd that included a mix of souls and spiritual conditions. It is the means to enter into truth, yet not be overwhelmed by truth. Story offers the hint of something greater and invites the hearer to explore the meaning within the mystery.
This is part 8 of a 12 part series, Jesus Marketer.
Next, Part 9: The Second of Two Ways We Foul Up Jesus’ Marketing Strategy.