Parables: Inside and Out
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) | Fr Euan Marley calls on us to understand that we are to live in Christ’s parables.
What makes human beings different from other animals is our capacity to self-reflect. We can talk about speech, think about thought, know what knowledge is. In short we contain ourselves, though not perfectly. We are part of reality and yet reality is in our minds. This is how we know we exist. Yet it is also why our lives are lived in mystery. It is also why human beings understand themselves through parables. All stories are parables made up by human beings so that we can understand ourselves by shaping our lives into some manageable form. Or we could put it another way. The parables in the bible are very short stories, but stories designed to make us understand that unless we see ourselves as inside the stories, we will not understand them.
The set of parables which we will hear for the next three weeks, Matthew 13:1-52 are parables about understanding and the growth of understanding. They are often called the Parables of the Kingdom, but the kingdom grows in us as our understanding grows. Yet how do we understand parables about understanding? The answer is in the parables themselves. The good wheat, the good fish which are worth catching, the man who sells everything he has for the treasure he has found, the woman who puts yeast into the bread, so that good bread may grow, these are all the people who understand the parables. If we don’t see that we are in these parables and not merely reading them, we will not come close to understanding them, or indeed understanding anything worthwhile.
But why should we have parables rather than just plain teaching? There is a story in Herodotus which might help to show why parables are necessary for some forms of teaching. The ruler of Corinth, Periander sends a messenger to the ruler of Milesus, asking for advice. The messenger comes back very puzzled. The ruler had not answered him but had taken him out to the fields and begun to hack away at the tallest corn in the field. Periander understands right away. The ruler is telling him he must destroy the most powerful members of Corinth in order to survive. Why not just say so? It is because only someone who is attuned to the brutality of the ruler of Milesus, someone who is willing to be like him, would understand the parable. The messenger, being a decent human being does not get it at all. Then again, the messenger says the ruler was wantonly destroying his own property and in a deeper sense he was right. Herodotus is in not doubt that the tyrannical ways of the old rulers was ultimately self destructive. That is another point about parables, they have different meanings for different people.
So even the explanations of Christ are not enough. The disciples must learn more for themselves, by the lives they will lead, as must we. The meaning of parables changes with time. These parables are about growth because understanding changes. So does misunderstanding. A middle ground where we are neither growing in understanding or falling away from the truth is very hard to sustain. Either we are coming towards God and his kingdom or we are turning away, dropping back from what we have been promised. Sometimes we are falling away and going forwards at the same time, though never in the same respect. We pray every day, examine our conscience, try to take on more responsibilities for the good of our neighbour, and yet all the time, there are other things growing within us. We distort the message, the seed does not grow, and it fails to achieve any growth. It is fear more than anything else which is the reason for the bad soil. We are afraid of persecution, which in these times, means we have an urge to conform. We worry about things which are out of our control, we seek riches because we think that money will protect us. The remedy for fear is hope. These parables, if we allow ourselves to live in them, as well as by them, will teach us what it means to live a hopeful life.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a window in the National Cathedral in Washington DC.