There are various forms of the parable that appear in the Scriptures. While most of the parables that immediately come to mind are on the lips of Jesus in the New Testament, there are also parables found in the Old Testament. The use of a story – parable, myth, fable, fairy-tale – to explain reality, or to teach a lesson, was a common technique in the ancient world and remains so today.
St. Mark tells us that at some specific point in his ministry Jesus taught the crowds exclusively in parables, and that he seldom offered an explanation of the parable, except to his disciples.
We have to wonder why Jesus chose to teach exclusively in that manner for that period of time. There is a fundamental difference in the way in which we both hear and interpret a parable than, say, an aphorism or a didactic discourse. Because a parable presents the subtlety of symbolic language, it requires some level of silence and reflection. An aphorism is repeated, often without reflection, and maintains essentially a surface teaching. It is easy to remember, but seldom presents anything significant in teaching. We have an obsession, say, with quoting famous people, most of the time by taking such quotes out of context and twisting the quote to mean what we want.
A didactic discourse, such a classroom lecture, provides a great deal of information, but it comes at us so quickly that we can seldom ever really process it all. Each of us walks out of the room having heard different things, depending on the prejudices and contexts of our listening.
A parable demands some interpretation. It calls our attention, provides essential details, and then leaves us to wonder.
Jesus taught in parables precisely because he wanted his disciples and would-be followers to actually have to listen to him and reflect on his teaching.
The parables that Jesus uses in the readings this weekend draw our focus to the Kingdom of God. Any teaching on the Kingdom of God demands reflection. It is not a simple matter. Jesus needs to move his fellow Jews from seeing the Kingdom of God in exclusively temporal terms. Nostalgia – both theological and historical – for the restoration of the ancient Kingdom with a descendant of David on the throne was still active within apocalyptic sectors of Jewish society. The Roman occupation stirred ardent feelings of nationalism among the people and this raised unrealistic and false expectations around Jesus and his teaching on the Kingdom of God.
He responded by shifting his focus to teaching in parables. This technique, common among the rabbis of the time, demands more than just passive listening. Here we must focus on the details of a story to interpret and discern the intended meaning.
Jesus himself interpreted the parables for his disciples, assisting them in understanding what he intended and what they needed to hear as he taught them.
In large measure the parables afford us hope in the coming of God’s Kingdom and of the promises to be fulfilled by placing our faith in Jesus. Looking at the small crowd gathered around him and the few – if not somewhat insignificant disciples he had – Jesus speaks of the Kingdom not in grandiose and lofty terms, but in small, simple, and locally agrarian terms.
We need to take the time to reflect on the word of God every day in our own lives. As we reflect on that word, and allow it to resonate within us, we too can experience growth and change, opportunities to experience the Kingdom of God alive and present in our world.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.