Issue 22 - 8 June

This Sunday we hear it said of Jesus: “Without a parable he told them nothing.” This text, of course, is not meant to be taken literarily. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus uses 13 parables, and we regularly hear Jesus tell the people many things without telling them a parable. What this famous phrase does do, however, is underline how important stories were in the teaching ministry of Jesus. Parables were the media of first century Palestine, and Jesus was one of the most skilled users of them.

Jesus did not invent the parable. The Rabbis had long used them to explain the Hebrew Scriptures, or to drive home a point of Jewish law. Jesus inherited a tradition of parables that were memorable, visual and contained a moral lesson. And because most of the people in Israel were involved in farming, many of the Rabbis’ and Jesus’ parables drew on analogies from that world. Jesus’ parables have a majesty about them. They are immediate, simple and profound. Where he broke away from the Rabbis in regard to the parables he used was in their content. Jesus almost exclusively uses them to describe what the Kingdom of God is like.

This coming Sunday, 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, we hear about two elements of the Kingdom - how it spreads, and who finds a home within it.

There are two ways to look at the parable of the sower. The farmer is God scattering the seed. It might start out as an insignificant presence, but will later blossom into a glorious tree. A more accurate reading is that we are farmer and Jesus sends us out to scatter the seeds of the Kingdom. If people are disposed to receive it, then the Kingdom grows up into a generous stalk, ready for the harvest at the end of time.

In the second parable the Kingdom is compared to a tree which grows up to give shelter to all the birds of the air. We know from the fourth chapter of the Book of Daniel that it was common to describe foreign nations as “birds of the air”. This parable not only draws on a rich metaphor from nature, but also tells us that the Gentiles, or foreigners, are finding a home in the Kingdom which is referred to as a tree.

In the first parable, faith can’t be forced; it can only be attended to while God gives it growth. Our Christian history is littered with the tragic consequences of those did not understand this, of those who bought faith with the sword. In some parts of the world we have much for which we need to repent. But for the most part now we know that the best seed we can plant anywhere, from our own back yard to foreign soil, is the witness of our faith, hope and love of neighbour.

In the second parable God surprises us with who finds a home amongst us. We should never underestimate how radical the idea was in Jesus’ days that Gentiles could be among the chosen people. I think we still struggle with this, being altogether too confident when it comes to sharing our perch, and of who is an unacceptable foreigner. God continues to confound us by his generosity, and to challenge our hospitality.

In a sense, and through no fault of our own, I think we have become too sophisticated for our own good. The immediate, simple and profound message of Jesus’ Kingdom can be somewhat lost in the grandeur of our liturgy, the arguments of canon law, or the disputations of theology. This is the risk the Church runs when it moves too far away from the ordinary things of life, and ordinary people’s lives. 

It might be that it is time not only to tell the stories of Jesus, and the truths of our faith in him, more simply and directly, but also to let others tell their stories of how they have been nurtured in the most surprising of ways, and how God has given them room to grow and flourish. After all, the seeds of the earth have to respond to the sun and soil, and the birds have lots of choices about in which tree they make a nest.

We need to be sufficiently faithful to Christ that we will be seen as offering rich soil, and strong, welcoming branches.

0Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ is the author of The Law of Love: Modern Words for Ancient Wisdom.