30 January 2013

Dangerous and inefficient

3rd Week OT (W)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Sitting in a boat at sea, Jesus teaches a crowd gathered on the shore. Instead of giving them a five-point lecture with a PowerPoint presentation, he “teaches them at length in parables.” Now, as we all know, parables are a terrible way to teach. They're vague. Easily misinterpreted. Often padded with useless information. And b/c they are basically just stories, the story itself sometimes obscures the lesson. Jesus would have done just as well (or even better!) if he had written out his lessons in a verse form like terza rima or a sonnet. Of course, storytelling was The Mode of instruction for teaching a largely uneducated audience at the time. Parables are memorable and the details are easily adapted to your listeners. But still. Highly inefficient and dangerous. This begs us to ask: why parables? Why use such an uneconomical and dodgy literary form to teach universal truths? Jesus understands that moving the human soul is all about moving the whole person not just the mind. Convicting the person—the whole person—of a truth requires providing food for both feeling and thought. So, Jesus says, “Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear.” Do you have ears to hear?

When he finishes telling the parable of the Sower, Jesus says that those with ears to hear ought to hear. He makes it sound as though there will be some in the crowd who understand the parable and some who won't. Those who understand will be saved and those who don't understand will be lost. Well, that hardly seems fair! If understanding the lesson he's teaching is so vital to salvation, then he ought to teach in a way that everyone can understand. You can't let souls be lost just b/c you prefer one method of teaching over another. You'd think that an educational expert in the crowd would point this out. To make things even worse, he pulls his brown-nosing teacher's pets aside and whispers the meaning of the Sower's parable to them. Why are they so special? Why not just tell the whole crowd your secret, Jesus? He answers, “Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear.” Whoever listens with faithful ears will hear the truth; whoever has ears obedient to God will hear the Word, nurture it, and harvest abundant fruit. 

The Sower's parable is a parable about listening to parables; that is, the Sower sows parables among the various kinds of souls. Some souls will hear but not listen. Others will hear and listen but not understand. Some will hear and listen, but they will also allow the thorns of sin to choke their understanding. And still others will hear, listen, and understand only to starve the sprouts of truth through prideful neglect. Jesus leaves the truth of his gospel hidden in parables in part to confuse his enemies. Those with ears to hear are those who understand that his arrival among us marks the coming of his Father's kingdom. We hear his parables and know their meaning b/c we listen with faithful ears. Good for us. Now what? If we hear, listen, and understand, do we then go on to cultivate, nurture, and harvest the fruits of his Word? Or do we allow the thorns of rebellion and disobedience choke his truth? If the seeds of sacrificial love, abundant mercy, and reckless hope fall on our souls, what do we do with them? Feed them to the birds? Starve them through neglect? Or do we expend ourselves making sure that love, mercy, and hope flourish, making sure that they always produce new seeds, new fruit, and new harvests? Parables are dangerous and inefficient. So is the Gospel. But wild and fierce is God's love for us, and His forgiveness will destroy generations of willful neglect and water the driest soul. 

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->


  1. I struggled with this homily. The take home message was good, but the style/technique of the first two paragraphs didn't work for me. I understood where you were going and what you were doing, but i had a difficult time getting through to the "meat" of the homily.

    The final four sentences of the first paragraph, final sentence of the second paragraph and nearly all of the final paragraph were wonderful. And though I didn't think the final sentence was the best ending, it was a pretty awesome sentence!

    Mary Oliver is The Poet here...sure I like her writing ok, but find it predictable and it gets annoying after awhile. If I'm going to sit and read a more contemporary poet, I'll choose Billy Collins over MO becauses he surprises me. As with this homily, I think it is mostly a matter of taste and this just wasn't for me, even though you had good things to say.

    1. In the NT class yesterday we discussed parables in Mark and how to interpret parables in general. Frankly, I've preached this particular parable so many times that I just had to find something different to say about it. So, I used our class discussion from yesterday as my jumping off point. Not the most exciting, granted. But I do frequently get asked why Jesus doesn't "say what he means."

    2. It's not what you said, but how you said it ;-). I used part of your homily today since parables were on the lesson plan for my older son. Your ideas tied in nicely with our discussion. Thanks.