28 July 2009

Parables do not save

17th Week OT (Tues): Ex 33.7-11, 34.5-9, 28; Matt 13.36-43
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Sisters of St Mary of Namur

Jesus fell for it! His disciples ask for the meaning of the sower's parable and Jesus caves. Just yesterday, I was praising our Lord for having the proper teacherly attitude toward the use of parables. Up until today, he has resisted the temptation to dissect his stories, to take them apart for close inspection and risk killing them for the sake of ever-elusive clarity. But today his students want to know what the sower's parable “means.” They ask Jesus, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” Jesus explains his story by matching each image or action in the parable with a parallel image or action from scripture: “He who sows good seed is the Son of Man, the field is the world, the good seed the children of the Kingdom,” and so on. For the disciples and probably most of those reading this passage centuries later, Jesus has the last word on the meaning of this parable. And why not? It's his story, so he gets to interpret it. Even if we accept as definitive the meaning he gives to this parable, we can still ask why he gave it an explanation in the first place. Well, the Psalmist sings this morning, “The Lord is kind and merciful,” so maybe Jesus is taking pity on the metaphor-challenged. But doesn't Jesus say in earlier readings that only those who are graced with insight can understand the parables? If the disciples need to be taught the correct interpretation, does that mean that they don't have graced insight? Or is Jesus doing something here other than what it at first appears he is doing? The Lord can be very sneaky when he wants to be. . .

The disciples ask Jesus to explain the parable to them. Does Jesus do this; does he explain the parable? More or less. What he does is give them the interpretative keys to the story; he lays out for them how to give the parable meaning by giving it one meaning—the sower is the Son of Man; the field is the world, etc. So, one way of explaining the parables is to replace story elements (images, characters) with complementary elements from scripture and then work out how these elements tell a new story. The explanation that Jesus gives is not The Explanation for All Ages; it is what we could call a hermeneutical pattern, or an interpretative model. For example, the sower of seed could be the Church; the field could be missionary territories; the seeds could be fired-up catechists and their families, etc. Are their limits to this sort of interpretative model? Oh yes. I used to warn my students away from hermeneutical relativism by telling them, “There may be no one right interpretation of this poem, but there are millions of wrong ones!”

In the case of the sower's parable, Jesus enlightens his disciples with an explanation that cracks open a cosmic story, an end-time tale of how All This ends in a harvest of souls for heaven and a midden-heap of sinners for the fiery furnaces of hell. Though we might tinker with the details and shift around the storyline, what we cannot avoid in the sower's parable is the rather straightforward teaching that our choices as loved-creatures have eternal consequences. We are animals gifted with reason; set above the angels because we are free to love or not. To love as we ought is to measure our share in the divine life; to fail to love as we ought is to measure our grave for an eternal abode. With a face set in stone and a heart to match, the anti-lover will burn—maybe it will be the furnace fires of hell, or maybe it will be the scalding freeze of a deathless void. Whatever else hell may be, it is to be eternally abandoned. And the most appalling part is that it is freely chosen abandonment.

Jesus explains the parable to the disciples, but he doesn't refine his explanation into a full-blown interpretation. He gives them and us a way to understand what our glorious or inglorious end looks like. There is a choice to make. As always-loved creatures, we receive Christ's wisdom to the limits of our capacity. Augustine liked to (unknowingly) misquote Isaiah, “Unless you will have believed, you will not understand” (Isa 7.9). First comes our assent to the Good News of God's mercy, then comes our understanding of what that mercy means for us eternally. If, as Aquinas teaches us, we receive according to our natures, then make sure your nature is properly graced in belief to receive the truth of a parable—even if the details escape your less-than-poetical imagination. Remember: parables do the teaching; Jesus does the saving.

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