“by Fr. Travis O’Brian”
Pentecost 6 (A) July 20, 2014
PARABLES AND SILENCE
This morning we heard a short series of parables from the mouth of Jesus. Matthew tells us that “Jesus said nothing to the crowds without a parable.” If parables were so important to Jesus and how he taught about the kingdom of God, I think we ought to ask why. What are parables? What are they for? What do parables do?
The parables that Jesus tells are little stories and similies which he draws from everyday life. On the one hand, even the simplest person would have understood what he was talking about because Jesus talked only of everyday things: sowing and harvesting, shepherds and sheep, family relations and money and food. So, on the surface parables would seem to be straightforward. But on the other hand, it is obvious that Jesus himself is certain his words will not be understood by everyone: “he who has ears, let him hear.”
In a minute I’ll address the question of what it might mean to ‘understand’ a parable. But first I want to draw our attention once again to Matthew’s explanation of Jesus’ use of parables. Matthew informs us that:
Jesus said nothing to the crowds without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.’
So not only does Jesus fulfill the prophesized role of the Messiah by speaking in parables, he uses parables in order to “utter what has been hidden.” Matthew is quoting from Psalm 78. My RSV Bible translates that psalm in this way: “I will open my mouth in parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old.” Bob MacDonald translates it: “I will open my mouth in a parable, I will ferment riddles from of old, which we have heard and known and our ancestors recounted to us.”1
So a parable utters dark sayings, truths that are hidden; it ferments the ancient mysteries, the Spirit making them bubble to life. But even if the parable brings hidden things into utterance, the psalm makes clear that the parable does not reveal what is hidden in such a way that it is made clear and distinct and graspable for all who hear it. For this reason, the parable is never finished its work. Generation after generation, the knowledge of God gets passed down by way of the parable; parables are utterances that reveal God in ways that do not reduce God to an idol, to something we think we can grasp and comprehend. In that way the parable also keeps hidden that of which it speaks.
Jesus, it is true, offers explanations for a few of his parables, but even his explanations do not guarantee understanding. In fact, his explanations push us even further down into the question, ‘what does it mean to understand a parable?’ St Paul is helpful to us here. Today we heard St. Paul say, “hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?” That saying has everything to do with why Jesus taught in parables and what parables are meant to do.
“Hope that is seen is not hope.” By these words, Paul is not simply saying that if my grandmother is sitting beside me I do not hope that I will see her because I am looking right at her. That may be true, of course, but it is not Paul’s point. Paul’s point is rather that hope points us precisely away from what our eyes, our ears, our common sense would tell us is likely, or even possible. To say, “I hope that it will be sunny tomorrow” is a misuse of words, according to Paul. We wish for sunshine, we do not hope for it. In contrast, we hope for the redemption of our bodies. We must hope that what comes from the dust and returns to the dust will be made, by the mysterious delight of grace, eternally meaningful. We must hope that our mortal bodies, through the resurrection of Christ Jesus (an event impossible to wish for because impossible to expect) will be and have been granted eternal life in God.
The question of the redemption of our bodies is of an entirely different order than the question of tomorrow’s weather. We expect and wait for it by no evidence of our natural senses, but only by the ‘eyes and ears’ of the Spirit. Similarly, none of the disciples who knew Jesus in the flesh could see with their physical eyes that he was God. Even if Jesus had said to them directly, “I am God,” that would not have helped! They had almost to be coaxed into that insight. Only by the inner eyes and ears of the Spirit could they come to confess: “You are the son of God.”
The point I am coming to is this; Jesus taught in parables because Jesus himself was and is the parable of parables: the mystery at the centre of every mystery, a dark saying, the unutterable Word, hidden since the foundation of the world. We cannot simply point to him or describe him, cannot simply say, “behold the man who is also God.” We cannot even say, “I can prove to you that this is the most likely conclusion because of x,y, and z, which are plainly visible to all.” If we could do this, hope would be redundant and faith unnecessary.
The difficulty then, is how to talk about our hope, if it is beyond comprehension and thus beyond the reach of words? We are human, and we must speak. Moreover, we have a promised to pass on to our children all that God has given us to know. With the Psalmist, we “will utter dark sayings from of old, things . . . that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them . . . but tell to the coming generation.” But how can we speak of what we cannot speak? How, when no word we say could ever embrace the Word that embraces us? That is what the parable is for: to speak of things that cannot be spoken of, to point to invisible things which cannot be pointed at.
To ‘understand’ a parable is not to be able to say ‘this means this and that means that.’ To understand a parable is to know its call upon your life. The parable calls us to dedicate our lives to an unforeseeable future, a future opened to us by grace, a future which makes what it means to be alive and to be human more than we could ever ask or imagine. To understand a parable is to allow it to move you to see what you cannot see. Parables are words which break us toward a silence which, far from being empty, is full to the brim with God.
1 Bob MacDonald, Seeing the Psalter (Gonzalez, Fl: Energion Publications, 2013), 247.