Hey Jesus, What’s up with the Parables?
Today’s Gospel passage, the questioning of Jesus by his disciples about his use of parables in his teaching and preaching, seems a little confusing at first glance. There is a temptation to read what Jesus is saying in response superficially, positing that Jesus offers the disciples a different “kind of knowledge” that is more special or complete, whereas the general populous gets the mysterious and partial parables. This would be an error of gnosticism, the belief that there is some sort of particular information reserved for those “on the inside,” while outsiders are left with the confusing remnants of Jesus’s public teaching. This is most certainly not what is happening in this Gospel nor is it what Jesus could be implying.
But we still have this business about the parables, what’s up with that strategy?
As you know so well, parables — like the mathematical curves that share their name — take the expected and turn it upside down. The parabola is a line that curves in on itself and, in the context of the preaching of Jesus, takes the usual trajectory or narrative path and turn is back in a direction and outcome that surprises his hearers and us.
There is, albeit not “gnostic” in the traditional sense of this phrase, a “different kind of knowledge” that the disciples have access to and that the others (including us millennia later) do not. This is the knowledge of the everyday relationship, the ordinary experiences of living with, traveling with, speaking with, learning from, arguing with, and loving Jesus.
This is a very different way to come to the knowledge of who Jesus is and what God is about than it is for the more-likely chance encounters of someone in a crowd that has gathered around him during one of his travels through a particular town or place. It is certainly a different way to one to the knowledge of who Jesus is and what God is about than what we experience in 2012.
Jesus’s point, we might say, is that he understands the difference between how the disciples will understand the mysteries of faith and God’s revelation and that of others. The disciples literally see and hear Jesus everyday, but most others do not. The disciples come to know through the ordinary. But what about the crowds and later generations?
For us and for the crowds Jesus uses parables. He takes the ordinary — salt, light, seeds, plants, sheep, coins, etc. — and changes our expectations, changes the meaning into something extraordinary, a clue about who God is and what life is supposed to be about.
God is found, in other words, in the everyday and in the ordinary, but just not in the “every way” we might want or expect!
God is found, we come to know through Jesus’s parables, when we love those we think we should hate, when we forgive those who don’t deserve our forgiveness, when we offer ourselves for the sake of another, when our selfishness becomes selflessness.
The disciples saw that lived out in front of their eyes and ears in the person of Jesus, but we and those who might have only encountered him once or twice have the parables to bring that shock to our realities. Do we let the parables do this in our lives? or do we become like people in today’s first reading from Jeremiah — forgetting God in our midst, in the everyday? Do we just rely on ourselves and think that we can take care of it all as long as we put ourselves first?
These were their questions and theses are our questions today.