He Taught in Parables
by Rev. Jerome A. Magat
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
Mark wrote to explain Christ
to the new Gentile converts.
Jesus said to the crowds: "This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a men were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and through it all the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come."
He said, "To what shall we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use for it? It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade." With many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it. Without parables he did not speak to them, but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.
In this week’s Gospel account from the fourth chapter of Mark, we read in Verse 33, “With many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it. Without parables he did not speak to them, but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.” In addition to offering his hearers and readers a straightforward account of the actual parables of Jesus, Mark deliberately includes an insight into Christ’s pedagogy and reasons why Jesus chose to teach in parables.
It should be noted that the aforementioned verse describing St. mark’s insight into the manner in which Jesus taught was not an isolated mention of this concept. In Mark 4:10-14, we find an additional description of Jesus’ deliberate use of parables. It reads, “And when he was alone, those who were about him with the twelve asked him concerning the parables. And He said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven. And he said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?’”
The parables of Jesus employed elements of common life and daily living from which hearers could cull spiritual truths. Parables bridged the gap between earthly realities and heavenly ones. However, the parables were not meant to exhaust the insights into the kingdom of God that Jesus wanted His hearers to know. Thus, the parables were not merely allegories. In an allegory, every element of the image presented contains an inner meaning. Since parables were intended to be heard and not read, they were designed to produce an immediate reaction in the hearers’ minds. Parables could be understood at once without a detailed study. In order to give the deeper levers of understanding, Mark tells us that Jesus taught His disciples the meaning of the parables in more detail. In turn, these first disciples – the first leaders of the Church – have handed on this deposit of faith down through the ages in what constitutes the tradition of the Church.
Similarly, Jesus used parables to help His new followers better understand the kingdom of God, as they were able. By this, St. Mark reminds us that not everyone perceived the meaning of the parables with the same acumen. The hearer of the parable could only respond to the parable according to his disposition toward Jesus Christ and his capacity to understand the parable’s meaning. In order to avoid any semblance that the parables contained secret knowledge that was only accessible to some but not others, Mark infers that Jesus desired each person to understand that which he could understand about his kingdom and react accordingly. Not everyone would have the theological insights of a St. Paul or a St. Thomas Aquinas – some understood Jesus and others did not.
For ourselves, we are expected to bear fruit for the kingdom according to our capacity. We will be judged according to how much fruit we have produced vis the talents we were given for production. As for parables, we may hear a parable many times and each time, it may mean something different to us, according to our life circumstances. The parables remain evergreen sources of insight into the kingdom and should inspire us to advance it.