Wisdom of the Parables; Thursday in the Sixteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Image: Passing on traditions, Pine Channel Spiritual Gathering
Jeremiah 2.1-3, 7-8, 12-13 | Psalm 36 | Matthew 13.10-17

For countless generations, before the arrival of European missionaries and the written language, the indigenous people of the north passed on the wisdom of their culture through the oral tradition of storytelling. Long, cold winter nights, huddled around the hearth of communal dwellings, provided the perfect venue for the sharing of time-honored tales. These provided not only knowledge of the past and wisdom for the present, but also a little entertainment as well, to distract from the wind and cold blowing outside.

What must it be like to store the wisdom of a whole culture in memory, not to be able to rely on Google or even books to remind us of all the information and experience that has been accumulated by those who have gone before us? It is unfortunate that with the proliferation of technology this way of communicating is quickly fading away. In the words of philosopher Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message” our way of communicating is, “not something neutral—it does something to people. It takes hold of them. It rubs them, it massages them and bumps them around”. How we learn becomes as important as what we learn.

In the gospel today, the disciples are grappling with this very issue. They wanted to know why Jesus spoke in parables. The teachers of their day were much more interested in clearly defined terms of right and wrong, good and evil, rules and laws. The stories that Jesus told always seemed to be cloaked in mystery and the moral was not always immediately clear. A Rabbi could clearly articulate all the rules and obligations that needed to be adhered to. The parables of Jesus often turned those same rules on their head and left people with more questions than answers. We know that Jesus did not come to abolish the law but he certainly talked and taught about it in a very different way.

Jesus responds by reminding the disciples that just knowing clear definitions of right and wrong does not make one righteous or good. He says that, “people see without perceiving and hear without listening and therefore do not understand”. Learning to judge right and wrong without proper understanding is dangerous as it becomes a weapon, a way to cast judgment on others without the insight that comes from knowing that our first responsibility is to clean our own house and to discern what God is asking of us.

Parables are tools for self-reflection. They help us to enter into moral situations and take the place of the characters in the stories, trying to see things from different perspectives. In doing so we incorporate not just knowledge but experience. We allow ourselves to be the lost sheep in need of saving or the Good Shepherd who is called to protect and serve. We can put our feet in the shoes of the prodigal son or see through the eyes of the father who longs for his return. We can reflect on the hidden potential in a tiny mustard seed or the futility of hoarding earthly wealth. The parables are the virtual reality of the scriptures that allow us to reflect and practice what the Law of God is all about so that we can exercise it in the real world with wisdom and compassion.

In the first reading the prophet Jeremiah speaks the word of the Lord against those who handle the Law without knowing God. Through the parables Jesus teaches us the Law and about the love of his Father and how the two must not be separated. It might not be the easiest way to learn but, “blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears, for they hear”, says Jesus. The gift of the parables helps to form us as true disciples in the way of God’s love for His people.

I found this modern parable on the internet this morning, thought it would fit well here:

A young couple moved into a new neighborhood. The next morning, while they were eating breakfast, the young woman saw her neighbor hanging the washing outside. “That laundry is not very clean; she doesn’t know how to wash correctly. Perhaps she needs better laundry soap.” Her husband looked on, remaining silent.

Every time her neighbor hung her washing out to dry, the young woman made the same comments. A month later, the woman was surprised to see a nice clean wash on the line and said to her husband, “Look, she’s finally learned how to wash correctly. I wonder who taught her this?” The husband replied, “I got up early this morning and cleaned our windows.”

And so it is with life… What we see when watching others depends on the clarity of the window through which we look. So don’t be too quick to judge others, especially if your perspective of life is clouded by anger, jealousy, negativity or unfulfilled desires.”Judging a person does not define who they are. It defines who you are.”

— Jonathan Kestenbaum