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“Ask a Priest: Doesn’t God Want Us All to Be Converted?”
Q: Could you please shed some light on the following Gospel passage? “When [Jesus] was alone, the Twelve, together with the others who formed his company, asked what the parables meant. He told them, ‘The secret of the kingdom of God is given to you, but to those who are outside everything comes in parables, so that they may see and see again, but not perceive; may hear and hear again, but not understand; otherwise they might be converted and be forgiven.’” It appears as if some people are deliberately not meant to understand certain teachings, lest they convert and be saved! Yet this does not make sense — God wants to save us all. Another thing: why are some people more open/receptive to the truth or spiritual things, while others are not? If God wants all his children saved, shouldn’t he plant a seed of openness in us all? Life’s a mystery. – T.S.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: It’s great that you thinking deeply about the Scriptures and making an effort to understand their true meaning.
That passage from Mark 4, like all biblical texts, needs to be read within the whole context of Scripture. Jesus goes on to explain things to his disciples. So why the difference between what he reveals to the masses and what he reveals to his close disciples?
One explanation (and there could be others) is that Jesus’ plan for our salvation involves the Church. And this includes its teaching authority, or magisterium, which rests with the pope and the bishops in communion with him.
In other words, Jesus doesn’t just explain everything clearly and fully to each person as an isolated individual. Rather, he also speaks to them through the mediation of the Church. He has worked like this from the start of the Church, for he sends out his disciples to preach the Gospel and to baptize and to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
We learn about the Gospel through other humans, and we need the help of the Church to interpret Scripture correctly. This is one reason why we need to stay united to the Church.
Some people think that each person on his own can read and understand Scripture accurately. But experience doesn’t bear that out. Left to their own devices, people can come up with all kinds of strange and varied interpretations of Scripture. The magisterium helps us to avoid faulty interpretations.
Now, that part in the Gospel about Jesus not wanting people to convert is a bit of hyperbole. His quote, an allusion to Isaiah 6:9, is like that of an exasperated parent who tells a rebellious 16-year-old son, “Sure, go ahead, drop out of school and join a rock band! See how happy you are in five years!”
Obviously, the parent isn’t encouraging the son to give up on education. Rather, the parent is challenging him to think through the consequences of not finishing high school.
Likewise, Jesus is warning that people who don’t make an effort to understand his message risk losing salvation, and that the disciples have a serious duty to explain the fullness of what Our Lord wants to reveal. (A helpful resource to help you understand the more difficult passages in the Gospels is The Better Part.)
Why does God give people different levels of receptivity? The Almighty dispenses graces as he wills, and he seems to have favorites. This is apparent even in the Old Testament, which revolves around the history of God’s chosen [read: favored] people.
Hierarchy is a part of God’s creation. Hierarchy is there among the angels (some are archangels), among creatures in the visible world (some are microbes, some are animals, some are human beings), and among humans in the amount of grace they seem to get.
The most graced among human persons is the Blessed Virgin Mary. The rest of us are much lower down the ladder.
But this doesn’t mean that some of us have little value in God’s view. Suffice it to say that God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). So we all get the necessary “seed of openness.”
Yet, Jesus cautions us, “To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Matthew 13:12). It’s a reminder that whether we are given a little or a lot of grace, we can attain heaven if we say yes to God.
We see a similar dynamic in other areas. Let’s take the field of medicine.
Let’s imagine Joe. Joe never had the skill or interest to study medicine. Yet other people have had the right talents, and used them to produce wonder drugs and treatments.
Joe can benefit from those wonder drugs and treatments, but only if he goes to his doctor and follows the doctor’s advice. Joe’s limited knowledge of medicine doesn’t bar him from taking advantage of the fruits of medical research. But if Joe is lazy or indifferent about his health, he will suffer the consequences. What little he has been given will be taken from him.
We can see the same dynamic in the spiritual realm.
There are simple people who have a deep faith, in part because they make time for prayer and Mass and the sacraments. Others, however, might have little or no faith, in part because they have chosen to squander their time and energy on frivolous things and paid little heed to the things of God.
At the last judgment we will find out how everyone used the graces that God bestowed on each one. Then, we will witness God’s great mercy as well as his justice and how they all fit in the hierarchy of his plans.
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