Prophetic Parables

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Why does Jesus speak in parables? Why does he use symbolic stories to teach about our salvation and the Kingdom of God? One reason Jesus employs parables is revealed by the story arc of Matthew’s Gospel.

After being baptized by St. John the Baptist and spending forty days in the desert, Jesus begins preaching and calling his first disciples. Then he proclaims his famous Sermon on the Mount through chapters 5, 6, and 7. As with parables, Jesus’ teachings in that sermon employ images – such as putting a lamp under a bushel basket, or serving two masters at once – but Jesus tends to explain his symbolisms there pretty clearly: your good deeds must shine before others, and you cannot serve both God and wealth. After his great sermon, Jesus works amazing miracles, healings, and exorcisms for two chapters, increasing his renown. Next Jesus commissions and sends forth his twelve apostles but warns them of coming persecutions. His disciples must be courageous; division and sacrifice will be inevitable, but they are promised great rewards. And then, Jesus faces doubters, answering John the Baptist’s disciples, chastising the disbelief in the familiar towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, and finally (in chapter 12) the Pharisees appear in force.

The Pharisees were those whom St. John the Baptist had called a “brood of vipers,” that is, a family of poisonous snakes; cunning predators, quick and deadly. They see Jesus’ hungry disciples picking and eating grains and complain, “Your disciples are doing what is unlawful to do on the sabbath.” They see a man with a withered hand in the synagogue and question Jesus, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath,” so that they might accuse him. And after Jesus performs an exorcism, the Pharisees denounce him, “This man drives out demons only by the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons.” It is in Matthew chapter 12 that the Pharisees first take counsel against Jesus to put him to death. When Jesus realizes this he withdraws from that place and begins to teach in parables without explaining them to the crowds.

Today’s gospel says, “He spoke to them only in parables.” When his disciples asked him last Sunday, “Why do you speak to (the crowds) in parables,” Jesus’ response might have confused us: “This is why I speak to them in parables, because they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.” Doesn’t Jesus want to be understood? Yes, by any of good will. Those who approach him with love, or at least an open mind, can ponder his parables and gain from them, while those who hate him will ignore his stories as being (in their eyes) irrelevant nonsense. As Jesus says, “To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” If Jesus had come out and announced “I am the Christ, and I am not only the Messiah but also God incarnate in your midst,” his earthly ministry would not have lasted three Passovers. His parables allow the humble to become enlightened while providing his haters no ammunition against him. In Jesus Christ (and St. Paul after him in the Acts of the Apostles) we see that we should be shrewd against opponents in the midst of doing good, while recognizing that conflict with the mob may ultimately prove impossible for us to avoid.

Another reason Jesus preaches with parables is because we human beings love stories. Stories stick with us better than bare teaching alone. And the images Jesus uses are relatable for all generations – sowing and harvesting, wheat and weeds, bushes and birds, and making bread. All these things are very likely to exist until Jesus comes again, even if that proves to be thousands of years from now.

Yet today, some sixty-six generations after Jesus preached, one might wonder during moments of discouragement whether the promises Jesus makes in his parables will ever come to be. We see good and evil growing side by side. Will the Son of Man ever come with his angels to gather the good and confront the wicked? Will those who cause others to sin and all evildoers ever be compelled to stop and the righteous be blessed to shine like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father forever? If that feels improbable now, consider how impossible Jesus’ prophetic parables must have seemed in the era when he first preached them.

The Kingdom of Heaven,” Jesus said, “is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds (that any passing bird might gobble up), yet when fully-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.” Jesus is a mustard seed buried in the earth – who would have imagined anything more to come of him after he died? His Church is also a mustard seed, threatened to be consumed by the nations from the beginning. Yet today the Church of him who rose from the dead has members that dwell in her from every nation.

The Kingdom of Heaven,” Jesus said, “is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.” Three measures of wheat flour weighs about fifty pounds, yet the admixture of a little yeast can change and raise up the entire batch of dough. So it has been with Christianity mixed into this world by the Bride of Christ, the Church. To take one example, slavery was ubiquitous in Jesus’ time, but today it is condemned around the world today because of the influence of Christianity. Wicked human traffickers still exists in our day, the Chinese government is operating concentration camps with slave laborers right now, and that is unacceptable. But these perpetrators must hide their deeds from the world only because Jesus Christ and his Church have changed and raised up the world’s understanding of human dignity.

Jesus’ prophetic parables have been proven true. His words have been fulfilled in history despite every earthly expectation. Whoever has ears ought to hear. Whoever has eyes ought to see. And whoever has an open mind can accept that Jesus Christ will come again with judgment on this world and salvation for his people.

One Response to “Prophetic Parables”

  1. pussywillowpress Says:

    The Word is so Incarnational in His teaching :)–I love it!

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