Jesus is a rhetorician, and he teaches the modes. Today he teaches comparison and contrast.
“Teach us to pray,” a student asks.1 So Jesus compares God to an unloving friend. He loans bread, but he doesn’t give it. He loans bread to his friend not because he’s a friend but because he’s pestered.2
Later, teaching on prayer again, Jesus compares God to an unjust judge. The judge gives justice not because he’s a judge – he owns that he neither fears God nor respects men – but because he’s pestered.3
We get these comparisons, but we don’t get the contrasts. So we learn the wrong lesson: we base our prayer not on friendship or justice but on magic and importunity.
Then Jesus teaches on our life’s calling. He compares God to a hard man, a man who makes others do the work, but who gets all the profit.4
Knowing this, the man’s servant buries his talent. I buried mine, too.
° ° °
“You’ve got me confused with another master!” he responded. “I am loving and gracious; I’m not a hard man, as you call me. I don’t reap where I haven’t sown; I don’t gather where I haven’t scattered. I represent God in this parable. He’s a loving father and only wants the best for you. Therefore, you should have used your talent and not have buried it.”
It doesn’t end that way.
° ° °
Jesus speaks in parables because they’re all we can hear.5 They are, in part, our echoes. Or our mirrors. If they reflect our false selves, they’ll point to a false god. When they ask him why he speaks in parables, Jesus quotes Isaiah:
“By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive.”6
God doesn’t necessarily speak plainly to Christians,7 I think, but to his creation – to the trees and rocks and sun. But I have created myself.8 Somewhere God was absent, and there I parented myself. There my understanding of the parables may say more about me than the parables say about God.
The experience of helping an emotionally wounded friend seems apt. How can you help him see beyond his difficult upbringing? Even though you dare not speak too plainly, your friend still may misunderstand your words, even your intentions. One way to think about Jesus’ parables is to reflect on such sessions.
Most of us were orphaned on some landing of the heart, and from there we’ve seen the Father as an uncaring friend, an unjust judge, or a hard man. From there we’ve taken ourselves in and raised our false selves.
“Born again” without growing up again is just a different orphaning, albeit a religious one. But growing up again, this time as God’s creation, is hard work. After baptism “our life becomes a series of choices between the fiction of our false self . . . and our loving consent to the purely gratuitous mercy of God,” Thomas Merton writes.9 When I choose the latter over and over, I begin to share the integrity of the rocks and the trees. And I begin to hear better.
Jesus compares God to an evil father.10 Isaiah compares God to an unmindful mother.11 Those are tributes to many people’s experiences. But Jesus and Isaiah ultimately find the comparisons inadequate. “How much more . . .” Jesus says. “She may forget, but . . .” Isaiah says. We comprehend the comparisons because we’ve lived harder lives than we know. But we don’t comprehend the contrasts because they’re untold, unexplained, or unillustrated. They’re beyond. When they touch on God’s character, they’re apophatic. They sometimes point to something we haven’t experienced, or haven’t experienced enough.
Jesus’ parables suggest the Word’s mission in the depths of my being.
Painting: The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix by van Gogh.
- Luke 11:1 ↩
- Luke 11:5 – 10. ↩
- Luke 18.1 – 8. ↩
- Matthew 25:14 – 30. ↩
- Matthew 13:10 – 17. ↩
- Id. ↩
- Jesus’ disciples said with relief at the Last Supper: “Now you are speaking plainly and not using a figure of speech” (John 16:20). One such figure of speech – we must eat his body and drink his blood – thinned the ranks of the disciples considerably (John 6:53 – 67). John’s Jesus prefers metaphorical language, while Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels prefers parables. Both forms of speech seem encompassed by the phrase “dark sayings” that Jesus adapts from Psalm 78 (Matthew 13:35). ↩
- Ephesians 4:22 – 24. ↩
- Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation at 41 – 42. ↩
- Luke 11:13. ↩
- Isaiah 49:15. ↩