I am aware that no man can match the Man who spoke the parables, and so to reflect on them requires a more profound consideration and a deeper decibel than commentary on ordinary literature.
Introduction: Seeing, but Not Seeing
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. . . . There was a householder who planted a vineyard. . . . The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully. . . . There was a rich man who had a steward, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his goods. . . . A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. . . .
These familiar lines open the most exquisitely austere and natural of all stories, the parables told by the Word who uttered the world into existence. The only proof I have of their literary superiority is that no one has ever been able to match them. Those who try are like a man standing before a masterpiece of painting who says, "I can do that," takes up a palette, and produces a greeting card.
A parable, to be pedantic, is a similitude employing a brief narrative in order to teach a spiritual lesson. In the case of Jesus, however, this definition is as unhelpful as it is accurate. John's Gospel has no parables, although it abounds in metaphors, but the three Synoptic writers, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, weave them in and out of the historical record, sometimes duplicating and even triplicating them. Depending on how one identifies a distinct parable, the number varies, but traditional listings name twenty-four in the Gospels.
I am aware that no man can match the Man who spoke the parables, and so to reflect on them requires a more profound consideration and a deeper decibel than commentary on ordinary literature. There are, however, two very serious, if not original, points to remember before embarking on even the briefest glimpses of these texts:
First, the parables of Christ are unlike other Eastern parables and the lesser stuff to be found in current "spiritual best sellers" in that they are not exotic. They do not distort or exaggerate nature in the way fables do. Kings are kings but not wizards, and rich men are rich but not omnipotent. The Good Samaritan carries the poor man to an inn; he does not fly him there on a carpet. The pearl of great price is valuable, but it is nothing more than a pearl. Jewish realism permits no such exoticism in the Old Testament, which contains five parables at most, depending on how one applies mishna, the Hebrew word for story telling.
Second, the parables really are what Jesus said they are: hints of heaven. Because the glory of heaven is too great for us to bear just now, Christ uses parables as delicate and veiled indications of our true homeland. Every culture has to some extent sensed that the glory of heaven is too bright for our eyes. The ancient Egyptians kept a veiled image of Ma'at, the goddess of Truth, in their temple at Saïs, believing that the actual sight of it would blind or even kill the viewer. The entire audience on the mount would have fled if Christ had plainly stated in His sermon that His kingdom was of another world. He saved that declaration for Pontius Pilate, who only shook his cynical head.
The only proof I have of their literary superiority is that no one has ever been able to match them. Those who try are like a man standing before a masterpiece of painting who says, "I can do that," takes up a palette, and produces a greeting card.
Anything I say about the parables of Christ has this advantage over the perceptions of His original audience: the Resurrection is now a known reality, and the Temple veil has been torn open. And yet we are still unprepared for the weight of glory: "This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand."
Understanding Christ's parables belongs to the childlike. The humble of heart recognize the lessons of the parables as they play out in the course of history. They surface in both the mistakes and the courage of the Crusaders, in both the glorious architecture and the inhuman tortures of the High Middle Ages, in the zealous missionaries and the haughty degenerates of the Counter- Reformation, and in the witness of the martyrs at the hands of the maniacs of the twentieth century.
The parabolic treasure is hidden in the concrete of Wall Street as truly as in a Galilean pasture. Every culture, advanced or backward, can understand a parable, because it offers a universally sought pearl. Mr. Caveman would have nodded some form of assent, as would the French heirs to Louis IX and Louis Pasteur and the English scions of St. Thomas More and Samuel Johnson.
Parables are often dismissed as too simple: Because a child can understand them, adults must yawn through them. And yet Christ spoke in parables. That fact is infinitely interesting and eternally salvific. In the face of worldly-wise criticism, one recalls the story of the tourist in Florence who sniffed that he was not all that impressed with the Uffizi's collection. A guard, heir to an ancient mandate to care for these treasures, replied in halting but intelligible English, "Here we do not judge the pictures; the pictures judge us."
This point was lost on many of those who first heard Christ's parables, and Divine Providence permits us to view their example as a cautionary icon of confused pride: "When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. But when they tried to arrest him, they feared the multitudes, because they held him to be a prophet."
In their perverse pride, they would arrest a man for being arresting and would crucify Him for being a king. But in another world that is not so, and of this world the parables speak.
Chapter 1: The Sower and the Seed
"A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell along the path, and was trodden under foot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns grew with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew, and yielded a hundredfold." As he said this, he called out, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."
And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he said, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand. Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy; but these have no root, they believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. And as for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience."i>
The voice of Christ narrating the parable of the sower resounds in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8. Mark and Luke depict Him escaping the crush of the crowd. Given my estimation of the mass media, I relish the King James Bible's word for that throng of people: our Lord avoids "the press."
Matthew joins Mark in painting a vivid picture — more typical of Luke's chromatic eye — of Christ using a boat as His pulpit in order to be better seen and heard. Christ could whisper galaxies into being, but when He became flesh in time and space, He had to shout to be understood. St. Matthew does not begin to record the parables until his thirteenth chapter — as though the Master had lately shifted into that mode of discourse as a form of coded speech when his opposition was moving in to entrap Him in His words.
His voice speaks now on the printed pages of the Bible, and the letters pulsate; the words have preserved His message for the edification of mankind. We examine them with the same delight that prompted a precocious eleven-year-old Princess Elizabeth in 1545 to write to her stepmother, Katherine Parr, of the "most clever, excellent, and ingenious" invention of letters, for by them, "the mind, wiles, and understanding, together with the speech and intention of the man, can be perfectly known," and the original words "still have the same vigor they had before."
Elizabeth spoke of mankind in general, but the parables of Christ are the voice of the Man, the second Adam, speaking in decibels we can never fully comprehend outside of the revelation vouchsafed to the Church.
The seed that grows up among thorns grows in an illusionist religiosity: the smiley-face lapel button, the wall-to-wall carpeted church, the fey liturgy, the worship of youth.
One way the Church interprets the parable of the sower is as a reference to her own mission: to prefigure on earth the golden ways of heaven. More practically, the parable addresses problems that have faced Christ's listeners through the ages. It is a concise synopsis of pastoral theology, in that Christ describes four types of listeners as four types of soil on which falls the seed of His words (although in the instance of one type, the "stony ground," they are not listeners but merely hearers).
The parable is about receptivity to His grace, more about the soils than about the Sower. The metaphor of the soils is a scriptural affirmation of our Catholic confidence in the existence of degrees of beatitude: there are different degrees of the earth's fertility, just as there is progression toward eternal bliss for souls in purgatory, and there are ranks of heavenly glory.
Christianity is not a limited corporation: its word is spread broadly. The Sower flings His grain widely, inevitably dropping seeds along the wayside, for He is willing to risk some to gain much. It is the principle of fertilization: the conception of a child is the articulation of the magnificent generosity inherent in marital love.
The "way side" onto which some seeds fall in the parable is the path of the proud, who consider the seed, the word of God, out of place or irrelevant. The sun will wither them up. The secular movements, philosophies, and fashions that have come and gone over the ages have failed to heed this curt warning of Christ's.
The stony ground in the parable is a thin layer of soil that masks rocks below. This soil is superficiality, the seductive cosmetic of obtuseness. Rocky soil is the senselessness of those who channel-surf through life, addicted to shallow entertainment and insubstantial celebrities who, as songwriter Noel Coward wrote in one of his lyrics, have a "talent to amuse" but not to save.
The stony ground is the tourist in Rome whom Louis Bouyer once observed to be more inspired by a Swiss Guard's plume than by the Blessed Sacrament. The birds get the seed that falls here. To identify those birds, I would suggest you simply read the front page of the daily newspaper. We laud those superficial personalities, and we choose them to lead a culture that is less their doing than ours.
The thorny ground in the parable offers no visible danger to Christ's word, but it hides deadly barbs. The seed that grows up among thorns grows in an illusionist religiosity: the smiley-face lapel button, the wall-to-wall carpeted church, the fey liturgy, the worship of youth. "The cares of the world and the delight in riches," as Christ explains in Mark's version of the parable, are the thorny soil of the New Age Gnosticism that is as old as Eden on the day the serpent slithered in. The seed that falls here is choked by illusions.
Finally, the seed that falls into the "good soil" in the parable makes a hybrid of heaven and earth; it is the indescribable conversation between God and man, the piercing beauty of the silent canon of the liturgy of life, the Christian drama that climaxed when the Temple curtain tore open. The seed takes root in the earth and flourishes, growing upward toward paradise.
The seed itself is simply the seed. It is the blast of objective grace, arriving ex opere operato onto the soil of human subjectivity. In our present theological crepuscule, the Sower does not desire that we deform the good soil of the Church and her sacraments, but rather that we reform our own hearts to better receive the seed of grace.
A curate presiding at a funeral might toss soil onto the coffin and say, "Dust to dust, ash to ash." This gesture is an amen to the parable of the Sower. Christ told the parable so that each of us might let Him make of our graves what He made of His own borrowed tomb: a gateway to heaven.
Father George W. Rutler. "Introduction and chapter one." from Hints of Heaven The Parables of Christ and What They Mean for You (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2014): 3-12.
Reprinted with permission of Sophia Institute Press.
Father George W. Rutler is the pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. He has written many books, including: The Stories of Hymns, Hints of Heaven: The Parables of Christ and What They Mean for You, Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943, Cloud of Witnesses — Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive, Coincidentally: Unserious Reflections on Trivial Connections, A Crisis of Saints: Essays on People and Principles, Brightest and Best, Saint John Vianney: The Cure D'Ars Today, Crisis in Culture, and Adam Danced: The Cross and the Seven Deadly Sins.Copyright © 2014 Sophia Institute Press
back to top