21 Jun Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Deacon Blaine Barclay-June 17, 2018
Parables. Did you know that Jesus told about forty-six parables in the gospels? That over a third, 35% of Jesus’ teaching takes the form of parables. Did you know that the literary form of parable is unique to Jesus? That no one before him ever used this method of teaching in parables, and that no one since him has been as good at it as he was. When it comes to teaching in parables, Jesus has his imitators, but not his equals. So, if we want to understand the teaching of Jesus, it is important for us to understand something about parables.
Most of the parables start off with the phrase, ’the Kingdom of God is like…; except in Matthew’s gospel where it says, ’the Kingdom of Heaven is like….’ Strictly speaking there are no parables found in the Gospel of John, only in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Our gospel today, which is taken from Mark, tells us, ’’He did not speak to them (the crowds) except in parables’’; to which it adds, ’’But he explained everything in private to his disciples’’. There is a clear distinction here between public and private instruction, and as a teaching tool, parables are at the heart of this distinction.
Pope St. John Paul II in his 1979 Apostolic Exhortation, Catechesi Tradendae, On Catechesis in Our Time, says, ’’The definitive aim of Catechesis (that is the systematic teaching of the faith) is to put people not only in touch, but in communion, in intimacy with Jesus Christ’’.(#5). The purpose of the use of parables as a teaching method by Jesus has to do with the personal, face to face, nature of this encounter, this intimacy with Jesus to which each one of us as disciples are called. Jesus invites each one of us into his inner circle of friends.
Parables are actually designed to provoke questioning. To call ourselves into question and our assumptions into question. The structure of a parable is that the illustration at the heart of the story is taken from everyday life, it is familiar to the listeners. For example; a sheep gets lost, your teenager runs away from home and squanders your money, a woman of loses some money, somebody helps someone at the side of the road, a grain of wheat or mustard seeds grows when you plant it. Average, everyday stuff, but then comes the part of the story that turns the world on its head, the unexpected twist, the ‘reversal’ that turns the everyday story into a parable of Jesus. The impossible thing that happens in the story. The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep undefended and goes in search of the one sheep that was lost. The wayward teenager comes home and the forgiving Father welcomes them back with an excess of generosity. The woman spends a whole day of looking for a lost coin and has a party which she finds if. The villain turns out to be a hero of the story. The wheat farmer plants a single seed and doesn’t have a clue how things grow and come to fruition. The mustard seed, the tiniest of all seeds, grows so big that the birds of the air nests in its branches.
We often miss this impossible thing because we have heard the stories so often that even the surprise twist, the reversal, has become familiar to us. But to the crowds of Jesus’ time most of these stories on some level did not make sense. There was something about the story that just didn’t fit with their everyday understanding of life. This coming up against the limits of our capacity to understand. This confrontation with our own fragmentation, the dead ends of our ability to grasp both what God and the meaning of the Kingdom of God are about, is the purpose of a parable.
Jesus tells the story, its familiarity hooks us in, he has our attention. Then, ‘wham’, we’re confused, we no longer know what we are about, dislocated by the teaching of Jesus. How can we know what the Kingdom of God expects of us? Privately, in the secret intimacy of prayerful encounter, each of us needs to go to Jesus. This is what the first disciples did. Lord, help me to understand, to stand under your teaching, help me to open myself up to the way of life that you make possible and invite us into as your disciples. Your kingdom come, your will be done.
Plant the seed of your word in the ground of my heart, help my life to bear the fruit of the harvest grain; let the little mustard seed that is my life grow into a great tree, providing shade and shelter for the others who travel this way with me. Teach me your ways so that I may walk in them.