26 July 2010

On being a lover of parables (Podcast)

Saint Joachim and Saint Anne
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, Univ of Dallas


Parables—like poetry—drive most people crazy. The symbols, the allusions, images with multiple interpretations—all of these breed frustration and impatience even in the heartiest soul. However, there are some who enjoy the challenge of figuring out these literary mysteries. Think of them as miniature detective stories planted with bits of elusive wisdom designed to stretch the imagination and exercise the mind. And despite the cussing and spitting that parables and poetry often evoke in some, these art forms can push us to broader and deeper understanding, both guide us and force us to consider angles of approach that we might otherwise fail to use. So, let's wipe our chin, confess our cussing, and consider the possibilities. Jesus teaches with parables because he knows something we oftentimes forget: as we progress along the Way we need more and better food for the journey. We can't continue to live and grow in the Christian life consuming nothing but cut and dried propositions, raw statements of belief, and easily digestible greeting card pablum. At some point, we have to tuck into the meat and potatoes of the Good News, risking a bout or two of indigestion along the way. Case in point, those tiny mustard seeds can cause diverticulitis and yeast an itchy rash. Mustard seeds can also grow into a hearty, edible plant and yeast is necessary in leavening bread and making beer. Even the smallest seed, the tiniest bacterium—given time and patience—can produce a desirable (and delicious!) result.

Let's say that Jesus is using the mustard seed and the yeast bacterium to refer to the faith infused into an individual soul. Given the right conditions—a set of listening ears and seeing eyes, an opened heart and mind, a strong desire for holiness—an individual infused with faith can nurture this virtue of trust into a hearty way of life that produces an admirable fruit. But what if Jesus is using the seed and the yeast to refer to the faithful individual planted in the fertile soil the Church? The seed and yeast of one soul's faith can fertilize and leaven the whole Body of Christ, prompting the Body to produce a higher, stronger yield of holiness. But what if Jesus is using the image of the seed and yeast to refer to the Church herself, all of us together constituting just one mustard seed, one bacterium, his one Body planted in the fields of the world? Then, like the faith growing in a single soul, and the single soul growing in the Body of the Church, the Church is planted in the world—one seed, one bacterium—to thrive and produce an admirable fruit. Do we settle on just one interpretation of the parable? Or do we take choose to hold all three simultaneously? Even better: do we take these three and grow them into another and another, always remembering that the mustard seed can only produce mustard and that yeast will always be yeast?

If we hope to avoid being favorable compared to the Jeremiah's loincloth—rotted and good for nothing—then we must safeguard the Word we've been given and at the same time broadcast it as seed into the fields of the world, as yeast into the unleavened dough of our culture. The Lord charges Judah with a faithless pride. He says that they are a “wicked people who refuse to obey my words, who walk in the stubbornness of their hearts,” who serve and adore strange gods. If we hope to avoid this righteous charge—as individuals, as a Church—then we must listen to Christ's parable with more than an analytic mind. Our task as those baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord goes far, far beyond the recitation of liturgical formulas, far beyond the soothing litanies of good intentions. We are not only charged with spreading the seed of the Good News, we are also charged with nurturing what we have planted, tending the fields, pulling the weeds, and reaping an admirable harvest. But even as we work, we do so as servants of a more merciful Lord, one who cared for us as we grew from a seed to a sprout to a fruit-bearing plant. 

Parables—like poetry—can be infuriating in their vagueness. But let's not mistake Jesus' purpose in using the parable of the seed and yeast: he's teaching us that not everyone, at any given time, is ready to produce the same admirable fruit. An excellent farmer is a patient farmer. He is also a lover of parable and infuriatingly persistent.

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  1. Anonymous1:16 PM

    I was very eager to hear what you would say about the rotting loincloth!

  2. It's the agrarian references that turn me off. I just can't relate.

  3. Faith, fair enough. Not surprisingly, the agrarian homilies tend to the most popular. . .in this part of the country! :-)

  4. Faith...duh...you mean the agrarian imagery in these parables. The coffee hasn't kicked in yet. . .