This has opened up for me the desire to look further into the use of other parables by Jesus. We can group the gospel parables into five sets to help us in our understanding of them. In this article I will deal with the first three types.
1. Parables signalling the end of an unjust and exploitative world order.
These parables tell us we need not take the world as we find it or for what it pretends to be. It is a world out of tune with common sense. Jesus invites us to judge for ourselves. A good tree brings forth good fruit. Right of course. But a corrupt tree brings forth evil fruit. (Matthew 7:17)
No problem with that. Well then, look at oppression, violence, exploitation in the time of Jesus as used by rulers such as Herod and the Romans.
Do you think that the tree that bears such fruit is basically sound? Is a society built on these principles actually healthy? What good do you expect from it? What does one gather from brambles? Or from thistles? Certainly not grapes or figs. (Matthew 7: 16.) Unlikely as it is, many people expect that the thorns and thistles of a political regime built on force will yield good fruit, if only we wait long enough.
The assessment of Jesus of his own time through these parables makes me wonder how he would assess our situation today. His answers to the people of his time didn’t mince words when they pretended not to be aware of the evil they were causing.
“You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12: 54 -56) The answer to the question is implied by the phrase “You play-actors!” or “you hypocrites.” We must choose: either act the part that a sick society assigns us, or stand up for common sense.
2. Parables speaking of new life stirring, as in buds bursting, dough rising, and seeds sprouting.
When we grow alert to the signs of the time, we see positive signs too, a new season is stirring. “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they bud forth, you see for yourself and know that summer is near.” (Luke 21: 19 - 30.)
“Can’t you see for yourselves? Jesus asks. The bad news is inseparable from the good news. “A woman in labour has pain, for her hour has come, but when she has born the child, she no longer remembers her distress for joy.” (John 16: 21) Can’t you see this happening all around you?
Common sense knows: What is truly new, does not make its entrance with pomp and fanfare; it is small, quiet and hidden. Still it has the power to transform, “like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till it was leavened. (Luke 13:21) Three measures of flour make a huge quantity of dough, (40 litres of flour is the Good News Bible translation) yet the leaven is completely hidden in it.
Seed too, is hidden in the ground – “like a grain of mustard seed, which when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds of the earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs.” (Mark 4:31 – 32.)
New growth is vulnerable: much seed goes to waste in the sowing. “A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell along the path, and was trodden under foot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on rock; and as it grew up, it withered away because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns grew with it and choked it.” (Luke 8: 5 -8) And yet some fell into good soil and grew, and yielded a hundredfold” – amply making up for all the losses. Nor should we pull up the weeds that seem to choke the wheat, “lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let them both grow together until the harvest. (Matthew 13: 29 – 30) Why do we so quickly grow inpatient? The seed is growing. The bread is rising. All we need is patience.
Our common sense, if we’d but use it, is in tune with the patience of nature, as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how.
The earth produces itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest time has come. (Mark 4: 26 – 29.) The patient, know when to act. Wide awake to the right moment for the harvest, the reaper in Jesus’ parable puts in the sickle “at once.” Common sense, gives us the patience to wait and the alertness to strike while the iron is hot.
3. Parables alerting us to expect the unexpected.
Another set of parables gives us flash images to sharpen our sense for the decisive moment. Someone’s sudden death, a lightning flash, a burglary; challenge us to expect the unexpected.
“The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this, I will pull down my barns and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink enjoy yourself.’ The general flow of this narrative makes the ending sound all the more sudden: “Fool! This very night your life will be demanded back from you.” (Luke 12: 16 – 20) “A burglar does not make an appointment re when he will strike. If the householder had known at what hour the thief was coming (Luke 12: 39), he would have watched.” Watch out! Can you foretell the moment when lightning will strike?
In time of momentous change, we must be awake and alert. We must watch out for the sudden opportunity and, when it pops up go after it. We must be ready at a moment’s notice to let go of the old and invest everything in the new order.
Expecting nothing, a ploughman plods along. With a clank, his plough-blade strikes hidden treasure. What would you do? He doesn’t think twice. “In his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44) Another, a merchant in search of fine pearls is already on the alert. He knows a priceless pearl at first sight and goes all out to get it no matter what it costs. (Matthew 13: 45 – 46) Common sense is as daring as it is patient. Nothing invested, nothing won.
Conclusion: A common device in story-telling such as parables is a “turning point.” In the action, when the direction changes. In a parable such as the sowing of seed, (Mark 4: 1 – 20) three times the farmer sows seed that bears no fruit, but then he succeeds by finding good soil, and three times the increase is measured as thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold.
The turning point is quite dramatic, because for Jesus’ audience the fate of the farmer and the seed was the difference between famine and abundance of food. So the turning point represents a crucial change or decision on their part. Receptivity to God’s word, the deeper meaning of the parable, is the difference between life and death. Another one of Jesus’ parables has such a turning point, when the prodigal son realizes he is destitute and dying in a foreign land, and he decides to return home to his father.,
Both parables invite us to apply the scene to ourselves in our receptivity to God. Are we at a turning point? Is the direction of our lives and our investment of ourselves producing vitality and love, or are we coming up empty after repeated attempts to grow and find abundant life?
Jesus is described as a teacher in the Gospels, and his primary method is telling stories that present questions or decisions his hearers must engage for themselves.
The Word of God is coming to us today to invite us to turn towards God, to come home to ourselves, to deepen our attentiveness to the voice of God in our daily experiences. We may be at a turning point, and now is the time to respond with our heart.
Sourced from Words of Common Sense... Brother David Steindl-Rast.
(Bishop Paul Donoghue
– Catholic Church.)