In our Gospel passage we heard Jesus recount the well-known Parable of the Sower. In a certain sense we could call this an “autobiographical” passage, for it reflects the very experience of Jesus with respect to his preaching. He essentially identifies himself with the sower who scatters the good seed of the Word of God, and he notes the different effects that it has, depending on the disposition with which people hear the proclamation.
Some listen superficially to the Word but do not take it in; others accept it at the time but are unable to persevere and lose it all; there are those who are engrossed by worldly concerns and enticements; and lastly there are those who listen receptively—like the good soil—and who subsequently bear an abundance of fruit.
However, rather than delve into this parable at length, I’d like instead to explore Jesus’ comments in-between the telling of the parable and his explanation of it to his disciples at the end. We’re told at the start that Jesus told the crowds “many things in parables”, and in the middle of this passage Jesus says some fascinating things about why he used parables so much when speaking with the crowds.
So this middle section begins with the disciples asking Jesus why he speaks to the crowd in parables, and if we’re honest we probably ask the same question ourselves from time to time. After all, making sense of Jesus’ parables can be frustrating at times, and so we probably find ourselves wondering why he didn’t just speak plainly?
Pope-emeritus Benedict—himself a teacher of some renown—has noted how the use of examples and parables are a common tool of any educator wishing to impart new knowledge to their audience. By using an example that corresponds to their own lived experience, a skilled teacher can draw someone’s attention to a reality that has, until now, lain outside their field of vision. The use of an image they understand—if it shares things in common with the topic in question—can help shed light on something that was previously unknown. In this way, a good parable serves as a kind of bridge, bringing something distant within our reach.
However, the parables of Jesus are more than just good teaching techniques. While they do open up the possibility of new knowledge, they also make demands upon the listener, who is beckoned to “enter into the movement of the parable and journey along with it.”
And it is here that a parable can serve to sift the willing from the unwilling. Particularly when a parable seeks to affect and transform someone’s life, many listeners can draw back, unwilling to let themselves be drawn into the required movement and be guided by it. They can see that opening themselves up to the logic of the parable could make demands on them and require them to change their life, and they have no interest in doing so.
Notice how, when the disciples asked Jesus why he spoke to the crowd in parables, Jesus answered by first distinguishing between the disciples and the crowd. To his disciples he could speak openly about the Kingdom of God, because they had already decided for him. Though their level of faith no doubt varied, they nonetheless had a degree of established trust in him. They were in large part willing to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt, which is important, because—as we know—Jesus said many things which went way over their heads. And so with his committed followers, Jesus could say some of the more radical things he did, because he knew that they wouldn’t run away at the first sign of confusion or controversy.
In contrast, the phrase “the crowds” generally signifies those who listened to Jesus out of curiosity, but who had yet to invest anything or commit themselves in any significant way. Maybe they had heard about his miracles and wanted to see one for themselves. Or maybe they just wanted to see this famous guy that everyone had been talking about, and possibly get a selfie with him to post on Facebook. (Okay, I made up that last bit, but you get the idea!) The crowd’s interest in Jesus is at an early stage of development – it is largely superficial, and potentially fleeting.
Given this, Jesus speaks to the crowd in parables precisely to encourage their decision – to inspire in them a conversion of the heart. By their very nature, parables demand the effort of interpretation – they not only challenge the mind, they also make us question our freedom. Saint John Chrysostom once said that Jesus used parables “to draw (the crowd) unto him, and to provoke them, and to signify that if they would covert he would heal them.”
And indeed, if one considers how vivid the parables are in their ordinariness, the point is clear. Who has not lost something valuable and searched the whole house for it? Who has not come across someone in need and been tempted to pass by on the other side? Who has not felt resentment when others who have done less work are given the same reward?
So we can all relate to the images Jesus employs in his parables, even after the distance of two thousand years. As such, we are all challenged by them, and forced by them to examine ourselves and our motives in ways we might otherwise have avoided.
For at the end of the day, Jesus is not trying to convey to us some sort of abstract knowledge that does not of immediate concern to us. On the contrary, he came to lead us into the very mystery of God – not an abstract God, but the God who intervenes in our lives and wants to take us by the hand.
Our world-weary eyes cannot bear much light, and so we are often tempted to flee when the Lord draws near. And so Jesus uses parables to make these mysteries more accessible to us, by showing us how the divine light shines through in the things of this world and in the realities of our everyday life.
In a sense, the parables of Jesus are an echo of what has taken place in the Incarnation itself. Just as the hidden God has made himself manifest in the flesh, so too the parables disclose in ordinary things God’s own revelation and the gift of salvation.
So you could say that God’s ultimate “parable” is Jesus himself – for in his humanity he both hides and at the same time reveals his divinity. In this manner, God does not force us to believe in him – because love cannot be forced. Rather, like a good parable that draws us into the truth it reveals, God attracts us to himself with the truth and goodness of his incarnate Son.
The more we trust God, and give him the benefit of the doubt, the more he reveals to us both himself and his plan for us. And while God is indeed exceedingly patient with us, he is also persistent. As we heard in the first reading from the prophet Isaiah:
“As the rain and the snow come down from the heavens and do not return without watering the earth, making it yield and giving growth to provide seed for the sower and bread for the eating, so the word that goes from my mouth does not return to me empty, without carrying out my will and succeeding in what it was sent to do.”
So let us open our hearts to the Lord, who never fails to reveal himself to us on whatever level we are capable of. And let us pray that the seed of his word may bear fruit in our lives, so that we—and those we are called to serve—may find our home in the Kingdom of God.