Dr. Philbrick stood out amongst the throng of college students in the hallways of Building 5 not because of his stature, or because of a boisterous personality. Dr. Philbrick stood out because he was always donning a white lab coat. Now, if he was my biology, physiology, or chemistry professor that may not seem out of place, but he was one of my Psychology professors. To be fair, it was called Behavioral Science back then, but he truly was the only professor in our department to wear a lab coat. And, even more ironic, there was no lab in the department at the time.
There was something else, however, that endeared this professor to me – his uniquely dry sense of humor. For example, it wasn’t uncommon for him in the middle of one of his lectures, to toss a piece of chalk over his shoulder attempting to have it land in the tray. He’d toss it in mid-sentence, never turning around, and then ask someone in the front row if he made it. Very often he did! Then he’d go back to whatever point he was trying to make in his lecture.
Another one of his favorite jokes was in reference to those who found themselves at one of the two institutions that were near our campus. One was a state mental institution, and the other was a community college. He would say in his lecture, “It’s like those folks in the place right up the street. What’s that place called?” Most often a student would respond with the name of the community college. Dr. Philbrick would then say, “No, I was thinking about the state mental institution.” If the student happen to mention the mental institution, Dr. Philbrick would say, “No, I was thinking about the community college.”
Taking an exam from him was also an experience. In the stilted quiet of the classroom, he would walk through the rows of students, look over a student’s shoulder, wait for them to select an answer to the question they were working on and then say, “You sure about that?” He hadn’t read the student’s answer at all. He was just trying to shake their confidence. Then, at least once a quarter, he would look at the advertisements posted on the bulletin board, announce to all of us how many months they were outdated, and then tear them down making as much noise as possible to disrupt our focused concentration. He made me laugh, but he drove some of my fellow students absolutely nuts.
He knew I appreciated his humor. Perhaps it was because I was constantly snickering, waiting to catch every line he threw out to us. I was attentive to his lectures mostly because I was always waiting for the one-liner that he’d tuck between points. His humor is what connected the two of us. Over the years he got to know me too. He knew me by name. Well, sort of… he would call me Christopher. He knew full well that I was a female and that Christopher wasn’t my given name, but he insisted. Perhaps it was his Winnie the Pooh-like voice that just gravitated towards the name Christopher (as in Christopher Robin). Whatever the reason, I didn’t mind. I found even that endearing. When he would stop me in the hallway the conversation would almost always go like this.
Dr. Philbrick: “Christopher.”
Me: “Yes, Dr. Philbrick” (already laughing)
Dr. Philbrick (perfectly serious and after a slight pause): “Where’s your lab coat?”
Me (laughing): “I don’t have a lab coat, Dr. Philbrick.”
Dr. Philbrick (still serious): “You need to have a lab coat.”
Although hardly hilarious in print, it made me laugh EVERY time. No matter how often we had that conversation, I came to expect it and I couldn’t wait to hear those familiar words come out of his mouth. He was the only one in a lab coat in our entire department, but he thought I needed one too. I imagine he told other students the same thing, those students that he connected with, those of us who got his quirky sense of humor.
By my senior year, I had gotten to know his quirks so well that I found myself interpreting “Philbrick-ese” for my fellow students. He would make an announcement at the end of class regarding an assignment or expectation. Half of it would be his dry sense of humor coming through, the other half would be an actual expectation. Because I couldn’t help but laugh, my fellow students would come to me after class and ask for clarification. I would decipher for them the parts that were just his humor, and the parts that actually effected their grades. Because I knew him well, because we were connected, I knew which was which.
I loved Dr. Philbrick and it was hard for me to understand how others didn’t see what I saw in him, or hear his humor, or understand him. They were missing out. He was a charming, endearing, funny man and I cherished not only what he taught me in terms of Psychology, but in our connection.
I was reading in the book of Mark a few weeks ago and came across a verse that initially troubled me. Jesus had just told his disciples and those who were following Him the Parable of the Sower. Afterwards, when He was alone with the disciples, they asked Him why He spoke in parables. This was his response in Mark 4:11-12, “He replied, ‘The mystery of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those on the outside everything is expressed in parables, so that, “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven.”‘”
Perhaps after reading that you had a similar reaction to mine. At first glance it appears as though Jesus is saying, “I speak in parables to keep outsiders out!” That He somehow didn’t want others, besides His disciples, to turn to Him to be forgiven. If that were the case, it would indeed be troubling. That’s not the Jesus we have come to know and love. So what IS Jesus saying?
Jesus is quoting a passage in Isaiah (Isaiah 6:9-10). The context of those verses is Isaiah’s commissioning from God. God is telling him to preach and continue to preach to those who see but don’t perceive, hear but don’t understand. It was a tough assignment for Isaiah. The people he spoke to, God’s chosen people, were going to see him and hear him but they were not going change their disobedient ways. The result of their hardened hearts hearing God’s truth, was going to lead to even harder hearts. It was a consequence for their disobedience and rejection of the covenant God had made with them.
Fast forward 700 years or so, Jesus, the Messiah that Isaiah had prophesied about, was now on the scene. He was delivering the good news of salvation, forgiveness, and The Way to restore relationship with God the Father. But the condition of the heart of the people He was speaking to had not changed. Jesus knew that most of His audience was going to reject His message just as they did in the time of Isaiah. The religious leaders themselves were going to reject it to the point of having Him killed because of it. But Jesus wanted to create a way for the hard-heartedness to be broken. As one commentator said, Jesus spoke in parables not TO blind them but BECAUSE they were blind (Morgan). Using parables in His teaching was designed to be a tool for the spiritually blind to want to see more, to break that habit of rejecting God’s message, and to seek to understand what was really being said.
Understanding the context of Isaiah’s words we can now look more closely at the context of Jesus’ words. It’s no coincidence that this conversation between Jesus and his disciples comes right after his telling of the Parable of the Sower. Matthew, Mark and Luke, all place Jesus’ quote of the Isaiah passage in the same context. Although John does not include any parables, he does include Jesus quoting this part of Isaiah when speaking about spiritual blindness. Because Jesus was fully aware of the condition of the hearts of His listeners, He wanted to them to want more. But the choice was theirs. They could take His words at face value and walk away, or they could allow their curiosity to pique and seek Him for an explanation. They could allow the seeds He was sowing to remain inconsequentially on the surface, or to sink deeply into their hearts. The parables were an invitation, doors they could choose to walk through.
But why go to all that trouble? Why not just offer salvation or forgiveness to whomever was in earshot? Why all the mystery? For that matter, why didn’t Jesus just tell His disciples and anyone who would listen that He was the Messiah they had been waiting for, and the Son of God, their Savior from sin? Why didn’t He just give the Pharisees a sign like they had demanded of Him?
The answer to all of these questions is: Relationship. Jesus’ earthly mission was to be the substitute sacrifice for our sin, to die a horrific death on the cross and be resurrected three days later, to save us and bring us into right relationship with God the Father, giving us eternal life. That cannot be a careless seed simply tossed onto the surface of our heart. Those truths are meant to be discovered in the context of a personal relationship with Him. His own disciples had to discover those truths for themselves if they were to carry on His ministry. Had they just been told HIs true identity and taken His word for it, their followers would have taken their word for it. What kind of harvest would that have produced? How deep would those seeds been sown without a personal, intimate discovery through relationship? The Good News of the gospel would have never survived the centuries it has if someone had just taken Peter’s word for it that Jesus was the Messiah.
When Jesus said, “otherwise they might turn and be forgiven,” I believe what He was saying is that His forgiveness is not something that can come outside of person’s desire to know Him, believe in who He truly is, and to enter into a personal relationship with Him. He won’t allow that gift to be received outside of a relationship with Him. He demands that we give up our own way of living, deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and follow Him. We don’t get to cherry pick the attractive rewards from being a Christ-follower without actually following Christ! In fact, doing so would be dangerous. At the end of that person’s life they would have gained the world and lost their very soul. (Luke 9:23-25) So although the words may sound harsh, they are full of compassion and understanding for the hard-hearted person they are intended for. But there is a way for them to receive that forgiveness. They can seek to know Him more.
Jesus’ desire has always been, and will continue to be until He returns, for all to come to know Him (1 Timothy 2:4). But coming to know Him means truly coming into a personal relationship with Him, one that has infinite depth, one that is designed to change us forever. Through that relationship we understand His Word more clearly and we know His voice when it comes to discerning direction in our lives. And most importantly, through that relationship we can be a part of a fruitful harvest. We can plant the seeds of His Word in the lives of others and tell them not to take our word for it, but to receive His invitation to have their own relationship with Him. We continue the ministry He began just as His disciples did, by being witnesses of our own personal relationship and by inviting others to not take our word for it but have that relationship themselves.
When I think back on my college days and remember the delightfully dry sense of humor of Dr. Philbrick and the relationship I had with him, I do have one regret. When my fellow students came to me to interpret his instructions I wish I would have encouraged them to seek him out. I wish I would have said, “Don’t take my word for it.” He was a great guy and a good professor who truly cared about his students. His humor, though unique, was his way of connecting with us and yet so many missed it. So many found him frustrating, or silly, or just didn’t understand him. But he loved his students and he wanted to connect with them.
What a good reminder it is for us believers to remember that those who are just starting out in their faith journey, or perhaps just exploring who God is for the first time in their life, may not understand some of the mysteries we’ve come to know and believe. Our job is not only to tell them our story or what we’ve come to learn about Him through His Word, but to point them back to Him. His Word is still an invitation, a door for them to walk through to get to know Him better. He promises believers the gift of His Holy Spirit to come alongside us and help us understand His Word more clearly, allowing it to sink deeply into our hearts in order that it might produce a great harvest. God expects us and has commissioned us to go and make disciples of all nations, but we must never forget to point those disciples to Jesus, to say to others, “Don’t take my word for it,” that they might develop the relationship with Him that He desires to have with them.
Lord, I thank you that you desire personal, intimate relationship with each one of us. Thank you for the parables you taught, for the doors you continue to keep open, in order that we may know you more deeply. Oh Jesus, that your depth is infinitely greater than ours – what joy and comfort there is in that! Thank you that we can continue to grow and learn more of who you are. Help us to fulfill the commission you have given us. May we be witnesses just as your disciples were witnesses and may we always encourage people to have their own intimate relationship with you. Thank you for the gift of your Holy Spirit. May we rely on Him and be obedient to His leading as we encounter others who need you. We love you and thank you for wanting a personal relationship with each of us. In your precious name I pray, amen.