Hidden in plain sight: Esoteric meanings in Jesus’s parables

by Eric Heubeck


Allow me to point out to you what appears to be an esoteric meaning contained in one of Jesus’s parables—a meaning which, if I am correct in believing that it was probably intended by the authors of the Gospels (whether consciously or unconsciously), would be quite remarkable.

The particular parable I have in mind can be found in Matthew 5:29-30, in which Jesus says,

And if your right eye causes you to be offended, pluck it out and cast (it) away from you.  For it is profitable for you that one of your members should perish, and (the) whole (of) your body not be cast into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to be offended, cut it off and cast (it) away from you.  For it is profitable for you that one of your members should perish, and (the) whole (of) your body not go away into hell.

Compare the quoted passage to John 11:47-53, which says,

So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together the Council and said, “What do we do (now)?  For this man does many signs.  If we let him go on in this way, everyone will believe unto him, and the Romans will come and will take away from us both the (holy) place and the nation [or people: ethnos].”  But one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year, said to them, “You understand nothing at all.  Nor are you considering that it is profitable for us that one man should perish for the sake of the people [laos, not ethnos], and (the) whole (of) the nation [ethnos, not laos] not be destroyed.”  And he said this not of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the sake of the nation [ethnos]—and not for the sake of the nation [ethnos] alone, but also so that he might gather together into one the children of God who had been scattered.  So from that day (on) they made plans to put him to death.

In other words:  One “member” of the “body” of the people would be made to “perish” in order to save the “whole.”

The episode in John 11:47-53 is referred to in John 18:14, which says,

And Caiaphas was he who gave advice to the Jews that it is profitable for one man to perish for the sake of the people [laos].

It would be reasonable to deduce from a careful comparison of Matthew 5:29-30 with John 11:47-53 that Jesus himself was understood to be the symbolic “right hand” and “right eye” that were to be “cut off” or “plucked out” and (at least temporarily) “cast away” from the rest of the “body.”  Note that this sacrifice would be made for the sake of the “people” (Greek laos) of “Israel” generally, including the “scattered children of God”; and this would incidentally benefit the Jewish or Judean “nation” (Greek ethnos) more specifically.  In other words, the sacrifice would be made in order to reunite “Israel,” at the same time as doing that would prevent “Judah” from “being destroyed” (or “perishing,” or “being lost”).  Moreover, the “body” mentioned in Jesus’s parable would appear to correspond specifically to the Jewish nation or people.

I can’t say with absolute certainty that the correspondence in linguistic structure between the two seemingly different contexts was the product of deliberate design on the part of the authors; but the similarities between the two passages are so striking that I find it virtually impossible to believe that they are nothing more than coincidental, and that no analogy between the two contexts existed in the minds of the authors of the Gospels, even if only at an unconscious level of thought.

The interpretation of Matthew 5:29-30 that I am offering would not necessarily be all that interesting—if not for the fact that it is not an interpretation ordinarily given to the passage by Christians.  (In fact, I’ve personally never encountered it before.)  The reason why the correspondence between the two passages is so significant is that it makes it possible to offer a plausible interpretation of the parable in Matthew 5:29-30 that radically deviates from traditional Christian interpretations of the passage—and, moreover, one that has completely escaped the notice of the vast majority of Christians for two thousand years or so.  And if a plausible “esoteric meaning” such as the one I’ve proposed for Matthew 5:29-30 could remain hidden from people’s sight for so long, then there is no good reason to think that, in theory at least, plausible “esoteric meanings” could not be found for a great many other passages in the Bible, even if we’re not currently in a position to know what they are.

But when it’s possible to offer an “esoteric” interpretation such as the one I’ve offered, with the result that there are multiple, radically different, but equally plausible interpretations available for a single passage of scripture, there is no way for a reader to know what that passage should be understood to mean with any reasonable degree of certainty.  If a writing can plausibly mean very different things to different persons, or even to the same person at different moments, then—at least with respect to any possible role as an authoritative religious writing (as opposed to mere non-authoritative literature)—it can’t be regarded as meaning anything whatsoever.

That is a serious problem no matter what the explanation for it may be.  But when multiple, widely varying, but equally plausible interpretations can be offered for a single passage of writing, it is necessary to give special consideration to one possible explanation in particular:  that the writing is the product of a schizophrenic mind.  Consider what psychiatrist Silvano Arieti writes about schizophrenic thought and language disorder:

[One] phenomenon that [Norman] Cameron has studied in advanced schizophrenia is what he calls “asyndetic thinking.”  At the level of language behavior this disorder manifests itself as a juxtaposition of elements, without adequate linkage between them.  It should be mentioned here that such juxtapositions are identical with those that Freud has described in his study of dreams.  In my opinion there is not only a juxtaposition of elements but also a juxtaposition of meanings.  Certain sentences are as confusing as photographic films that have been exposed several times.  The superimposed images and meanings, however, have some connection in the mind of the patient.  Often the word that, as we have mentioned, is representative of an enlarged context is taken to represent another context of which it is also a part, and the two contexts become superimposedSchizophrenic thought often bristles with different planes of meaning and is, as I call it, multifocal, because it has to focus at the same time on different meanings with their different objective situations.  [Interpretation of Schizophrenia (Basic Books, 1974), p. 263; the underlining and emboldening is mine.]

This notion of schizophrenic thought being “multifocal” might bear some relation to the figurative idea we find in the Bible of “having more than one eye.”  In other words, the person with “two eyes” would be focusing on two or more meanings simultaneously.  And the authors of the Gospels may have realized—even if that realization only existed at an unconscious level of thought—that there was something wrong with this situation of “having more than one eye.”  Any such realization might help to explain why, in the passage quoted above, Jesus would speak about the idea of “plucking out one’s right eye.”  It might also help to account for the parable found in Matthew 6:22, in which Jesus says,

The lamp of the body is the eye.  So if your eye be single [or “one-ply”: ha-plous, which in this instance is the antonym of di-plous, meaning “double,” or “two-ply”—both of which Greek words bring to mind Dr. Arieti’s reference to “different planes of meaning”], (the) whole (of) your body will be full of light.


(A lengthier and more in-depth discussion of this subject can be found in my post, “The figure of Jesus seen as the ‘cut-off member’ of the Jewish ‘body.’)