THOUGHT EXPERIMENTS

Jesus always used stories and illustrations like these when speaking to the crowds. In fact, he never spoke to them without using such parables. This fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet: “I will speak to you in parables. I will explain things hidden since the creation of the world.” [Matthew 13:34-35 (NLT)]

irisYesterday I wrote about Albert Einstein. The physicist was famous for his ability to replace complex scientific ideas with real-life scenarios called gedankenexperiments (thought experiments). For example, imagine that you have an identical twin. Immediately following birth, he is launched into space and travels through the universe nearly at the speed of light. When he returns, he’d be in his teens while you’d be planning your retirement. Time moved slower for your twin because the closer to the speed of light something travels the slower time moves for it. Never having studied physics (and not caring to start now), I think his scenario demonstrates the theory of relativity!

Gedankenexperiments is just a fancy German word for what Jesus did when he told parables; He took complex theological concepts and simplified them into everyday scenarios. When the Pharisees couldn’t understand why the ostracized, outcast and sinful were welcomed by Jesus as His followers, He could have given them a long-winded theological explanation. Instead, Jesus told them three parables. The first was about a shepherd who left his ninety-nine sheep safely in the sheepfold to search for one sheep that strayed. When the shepherd found it, he joyfully returned home with it and celebrated its rescue with friends. Jesus then told of a woman who lost one of her ten coins, searched carefully until she found it, and rejoiced when she did. Just in case the Pharisees didn’t get the point, He then told the parable of the lost son in which the rebellious son repents and returns home to his forgiving and loving father who also throws a party at the recovery of what had been lost. The second part of that parable, in which the elder brother begrudges the celebration welcoming his prodigal brother, was directed at the Pharisees. Did they see their resentment of the sinners at Jesus’s feet in the attitude of the self-righteous and unforgiving brother?

Like Einstein, Jesus used fictitious stories to illustrate a point or teach a lesson. That God doesn’t want to lose one of us, that He loves each of us so much that He seeks us, and that heaven rejoices at the repentance of one sinner were not new concepts to the Pharisees. Jesus presented these simple scenarios so they would understand that sinners are as valuable to God as lost sheep, money, and children are to shepherds, housewives, and fathers. Like Einstein’s thought experiments, however, His parables often weren’t understood. Their understanding, however, had nothing to do with either IQ or righteousness. Both Gedankenexperiments and Jesus’s parables were told in a way that only those who cared would ever understand them. The people who understood the parables, like those who understood Einstein, were the ones who cared enough to ask what they meant (which explains why the Pharisees never did get the point and I still don’t understand relativity!)

Christ taught in parables. Thereby the things of God were made more plain and easy to those willing to be taught, and at the same time more difficult and obscure to those who were willingly ignorant. [Matthew Henry]

Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.” Then he added, “Pay close attention to what you hear. The closer you listen, the more understanding you will be given—and you will receive even more. To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them.” [Mark 4:23-25 (NLT)]

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