Gospel reflection for July 16, 2023, 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Religious faith is a curious thing. Two people can have the same experiences of faith formation, attending Mass, praying together, and receiving the Sacraments, and one of them will grow more deeply in that faith and the other doesn’t get it at all. The same was true for those who listened to Jesus; not everyone became his disciple and some who ceased when his teaching became more challenging.
Jesus often spoke in parables and, for a period of his ministry, it seems to be his primary way of speaking. These parables might seem easy for us to grasp, but at their core, they demand attentiveness and an openness to the message.
Jesus even makes the emphatic point that the depth of the meaning of the parables will be lost, even on many who think that they understand them.
The question remains as to why.
The people of the time of Jesus were accustomed to parables, as they, along with other literary genres such as fables, myths, and aphorisms, were common teaching tools. They are easy to remember and offer succinct, yet often multi-layered messages.
The parables of Jesus can be peeled back to reveal many different meanings. So, when one merely sees the first and most obvious message, the depth of the parable’s meaning can remain obscure.
Theodore of Mopsuestia (c.400) taught: “It was frequently [Jesus’s] habit to make use of parables for at least two reasons: either because he was speaking about things unseen, so as, by the parable, to make invisible things seen, so far as this was possible. Or it was because of the unworthiness of the hearers, when nothing beneficial would come to them from the things that were being said. But there was another, third cause for parables. Frequently, when he was saying something by way of refutation, he would by means of a parable temper the harshness of the refutations for the sake of the hearers…”
There are times, when it is the intention of Jesus that his hearers do not really understand what he is telling them. He heeds his own advice not to “throw pearls before swine” as it were.
The approach that we need to take to listening to these initial parables of the Kingdom is the parable itself.
First, we must be open to mystery and the movement of the mysterious in our lives. Yet today, so many people are more literalist and absolutist than they are open to the paradox of the universe and the great mysteries of God and the promise of the Kingdom.
Unless we are open to seeming contradiction, to the incomprehensible, the almost unimaginable and certainly the deepest mysteries, we cannot understand the parables, we do not understand the Kingdom, and we are left stewing more in doubt, and perhaps even unbelief, instead of reveling in the joy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The fertile ground is one that is open enough to walk into the depth of mystery and can understand with the heart what might cause confusion to the brain and one’s logical sensibilities. Indeed, faith is not as much about knowing credal formulae -- though they are important -- as it is about knowing with the heart those truths which draw us beyond formularies and theological definitions.
For much of his ministry Jesus pushed against literalists, legalists and formalists, as he taught the riches of the kingdom. All too often we can get caught up into the trap of literalism, legalism and formality, and in doing so we run the risk of becoming those very people that Jesus criticizes as he delivers his parables of the kingdom.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel