Have you ever felt that it doesn’t matter what you say, there are some people who will never be persuaded to believe as you do?  Ever met a person who probably wouldn’t believe even if God did a miracle right in front of him?

Muhammad had:

Nothing prevents Us from sending miraculous signs, except the fact that previous peoples denied them. . . . We send signs only to give warning.  [Prophet], We have told you that your Lord knows all about human beings.  The vision We showed you [the Night Journey] was only a test for the people. . . . We warn them, but this only increases their insolence. (17:59-60)

And so had Jesus.  He told a story in Luke 16 of a Rich Man and a beggar named Lazarus who die and come before Abraham.  The rich man is sentenced to a horrible fate and then begs Abraham to send someone to warn his brothers who are still alive.  What follows is the end of their interchange:

Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”   

“No, father Abraham,” he said, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.”

He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”  (Luke 16:29-31)

Interestingly, they both said essentially the same thing about people like this:

[Prophet], when you recite the Qur’an, We put an invisible barrier between you and those who do not believe in the life to come.  We have put covers on their hearts that prevent them from understanding it, and heaviness in their ears.  When you mention your Lord in the Qur’an, and Him alone, they turn their backs and run away. (17:45-46)

The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”

He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.  Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance.  Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.  This is why I speak to them in parables:

     “Though seeing, they do not see;
      though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

    “You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
     you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. 
     For this people’s heart has become calloused;
     they hardly hear with their ears,
     and they have closed their eyes.
     Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
     hear with their ears,
     understand with their hearts
     and turn, and I would heal them.”

But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. (Matthew 13:10-16)

We should be on guard against thinking both are speaking of some sort of fatalistic damnation of people before they have had a made their own choice about the message.  Notice that in the Qur’anic passage the people talked about have already chosen not to believe.  A similar implication is made in the biblical passage.  Jesus’ ministry is well underway at this point, Matthew places the passage in the middle of his book, and the Isaianic passage that is quoted implies that the people have already hardened their heart.  God is simply sealing the decision these people have made of their own accord.

Because we have been heavily influenced by the Enlightenment’s emphasis on logic, facts and argumentation, it is easy to think that if we just say the right things, display evidential power, or convince people of the error of their ways they will change their minds on a topic (even one as big and foundational as religion) and believe as we believe.  When we think like this we reveal our belief that humans are fundamentally “thinking animals,” as some have called us.  If it were that simple would we not have much more change in people?  Wouldn’t every thinking human being have stopped smoking by now, seeing that the packaging (in America and Canada at least) basically says “These are going to kill you”?  Wouldn’t girls stop falling for the “bad boys” if it were that straight-forward?  Why would we be stuck in patterns of behavior we want to stop?

Maybe it is more accurate to say we are “desiring, wanting animals,” as James K. A. Smith says in his book Desiring the Kingdom.  Smith does not deny that we have incredible cognitive skills and can talk ourselves into change.  But more often than not, we operate from a more primal, instinctual place of desire.  We do what we do because we want to do it.  We even think what we think because of desires within ourselves.

Smith’s book really deserves much more treatment than I can give right here and right now (his explanation of how malls are the new temples or churches of our culture complete with rituals, architecture, acts of worship, and sacred space is worth the price of the book itself), but he has caused me to reassess a lot of my thinking in the past six months or so since reading his book (a little ironic, I know, given the premise of his book).  I have certainly been in the “thinking animal” camp, and I still am to a great degree.  But then I run up against people who it just seems no amount of thinking or intellectual dialogue would change.  Or I see people (sometimes in the mirror) who seem to be on auto-pilot making significant decisions about life not because of their thoughts, rather because of what they want in life.  I have had many faith conversations lately with people who I feel have already decided they want to live a certain way and now are constructing a belief system that supports that choice of lifestyle.

The tricky part is made clear by Jesus in the wider context of Matthew 13.  The “seeing, not seeing/hearing, not hearing” passage quoted above is sandwiched between the telling of the Parable of the Sower and Jesus’ explanation of the parable.  Sure, some will never get it–for whatever reason–but we don’t know who they are.  Some will be as receptive as the good soil and others will have no room in their hearts because of the “rocks” that are there.  Still others have been so “walked on” and harassed by the demonic “birds” that the message has no time to take root.  But we don’t know who is whom.  Our job as “farmers” is simply to scatter the seed.

"Sower with Setting Sun," Vincent Van Gogh, 1888