7/20/2017 9:00:00 AM BISHOP'S COLUMN Spreading the Gospel through stories and parables
'Jesus is an excellent teacher! Instead of bombarding His listeners with a series of facts, commands and declarative sentences, He uses creative images -- often, with great suspense and drama -- to attract their attention and stimulate their interest. In this way, faith is revealed as an insatiable hunger, for the soul longs for what only can be fulfilled in heaven.'
BY BISHOP EDWARD B. SCHARFENBERGER
In recent and upcoming Sundays and in the weekday readings, we are hearing many parables about the two kingdoms: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Man. Jesus is contrasting how God is with how the world operates.
God wants to deliver us from the frustration and folly of living without Jesus Himself as the center of our lives.
Jesus is using all kinds of signs and symbols, many of them agricultural -- in part because the imagery would have been familiar to His listeners, but also because things that grow are very good examples of how the power of God's grace works in our lives.
Parables tell stories, using metaphors, simple and familiar images that stand for things much deeper:
1. Jesus keeps repeating that whoever has ears ought to hear. For those who think that being a Christian is hard, it might be comforting to consider that the most strenuous activity that Jesus ever asks from His disciples is the simple effort to listen!
It is apparent that many hear His words but do not understand them. The disciples specifically ask Jesus why He uses parables. He quotes from Isaiah, saying that, paradoxically, He uses them so that people will listen and not understand. Doesn't this seem contradictory -- or, at least, like Jesus is playing "hard to get?"
Maybe He wants people to keep probing and asking questions, lest we conclude that we have our faith "all figured out." People who are convinced they are on God's side all the time are rarely persuasive to anyone but themselves. Recall how often Jesus Himself was criticized by professional religionists of His time who seemed convinced that God took all their orders! Maybe it is this false "certainty of faith" that Jesus is challenging.
2. Irony is a very common Jewish teaching device. Jesus often uses language which has more than one meaning and can even seem ambiguous.
He is an excellent teacher! Instead of bombarding His listeners with a series of facts, commands and declarative sentences, He uses creative images -- often, with great suspense and drama -- to attract their attention and stimulate their interest.
In this way, faith is revealed as an insatiable hunger, for the soul longs for what only can be fulfilled in heaven. Jesus Himself is that heavenly food.
3. Jesus is never boring! He knows very well that the mysteries of the kingdom of God are profound in their depth and consequences. Our minds cannot possibly grasp their depth. So many of the Old Testament authors were humbly aware of that. So, Jesus tosses out hints and suggestions -- first, to get our attention; second, to invite us to ask more questions. Some of the obscurity is intentional, to whet our appetite for more; but part of it is also because of the depth and breadth of God's wonders themselves. They are mysterious.
4. We know from experience how annoying it can be when someone, however well-intentioned, tries to lecture us on how we ought to think or behave. This is not a very effective way of evangelizing, or of spreading the Gospel. Often, a patient, less confrontational approach can keep a conversation going longer so that it can be more constructive.
We often reject very good advice because we do not see (or don't want to see) the consequences of our actions or how some of the choices we are making will ultimately play out. No one gets into addictions to nicotine, alcohol, gambling, sex or other idols in order to be destroyed by them, though that is the eventual result (just give it time!) if the vicious cycle is not broken. Often, it takes divine intervention or bold action from good friends, as on the day that Jesus broke into the life of the woman at the well who was suffering from a thirst for love as she engaged in unhappy serial relationships.
5. When Jesus speaks in parables, He uses stories with which many would be familiar. He applies them, as metaphors, to things with which few would be familiar.
For example, He talks about a wheat farmer who finds his field has been adulterated by bad seed: a kind of degenerate wheat called "zizania," in the original Greek text. It looks exactly like good wheat while growing, but when the wheat matures and produces grain, the zizania does not.
What is Jesus saying? In a very intriguing way, He's telling His listeners (and us) that it is very important to know which "kingdom" we belong to -- God's or the world's -- and that it is very difficult to tell the difference.
We can think we are following Jesus, or doing what Jesus would do, only because we're trying to justify our own behavior and self-satisfaction. We may resent anyone judging a lifestyle we cling to that the kingdom of the world approves of ("everyone does it"), but that is far from the kingdom of God. We will only be sure on the day of judgment.
Jesus is revealing, then, a mystery of the kingdom. He is warning us that we need to seek the kingdom of God and make sure we are heeding His message as to how we enter it.
6. He also cautions us that not everyone who fashions himself a follower of Jesus really is one. The devil does not typically appear as ugly -- and he can quote Scripture and present himself very attractively.
Not everyone who says, "Lord, Lord," is going to enter the kingdom of heaven. Taking this for granted is the sin of presumption. But Jesus never leaves us without hope (which would be to fall into the sin of despair), so long as we are willing to listen, change and grow.
In parables, then, Jesus is both revealing mysteries to us and, at the same time, remaining mysterious. He invites us to ask and seek for more, to probe into Him and His message, not to become complacent and self-satisfied.
Like He did with the woman at the well, He keeps raising questions in our lives, bringing up subjects we might want to avoid or tune out. That is why we need to keep listening, even if we cannot fully understand. We may even need to "unlearn" some attitudes and habits that are not in harmony with the "be-attitudes" of Jesus.
Part of the fun in our journey of faith is getting there. Since Jesus, ultimately, is our goal -- as He says, He is "the Way, the Truth and the Life" -- it is a journey worth taking, despite our constant wonder and curiosity about exactly what Jesus is saying and doing in our lives.
One thing we can count on is that He is always there. All we have to do is listen!