Miracles do not compel belief, but they beckon and intrigue those who are seeking, and strengthen those of us who already have a small measure of faith. Surprisingly, the power of parables is even more mysterious, something we would not expect from a form of teaching. Why is this so? Jesus, with a few exceptions, performed his miracles before the crowds, but He explained the full meaning of his parables only to the disciples. Indeed, the Gospel of Mark records that Jesus understood his mysterious delivery of the parables as a fulfillment of the uncomfortable words of Isaiah:
But when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable. And He said to them, “To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God but to those who are outside, all things come in parables,
so that Seeing they may see and not perceive,
And hearing they may hear and not understand;
Lest they should turn,
And their sins be forgiven them. (Mark 4:10–12).
These prophetic words, confirmed by Jesus himself, are difficult both to hear and to comprehend. What we can say is that Jesus indicates it is necessary to be inside to really perceive the truth: we must allow God to change our perspective in order for the parables to truly make their mark. For the one who is intent upon keeping Jesus at arm’s length, no true perception can take place. But when we allow the Holy Spirit to draw us inside, then understanding, repentance (turning again) and forgiveness follow.
The parables, then, conceal while they also reveal. Each of them has the power to send the “hook” of the Holy Spirit into us, allowing God to turn our world inside out, so that we see things as they really are. In this way, each parable acts as a microcosm of the Gospel, reminding us of our state, and why God’s visitation is indeed “good news.” An excellent example is Jesus’ famous story of the “Good Samaritan”: Jesus told this parable to one who seemed to be insincere when he asked, “who is my neighbor?” After telling the story, with all its challenges, Jesus turned the tables on the questioner, asking, “Who proved to be a neighbor to the man in need?” The answer was shocking: the Samaritan, the one considered to be a heretic and ethnic half-breed, played the role of the neighbor, and showed the model for pleasing God. And so it is that Jesus himself, considered impure and religiously questionable among the leaders, displayed in his own life what it is like to be “neighbor” to us, to those who are in spiritual and physical need. It is He who, at personal cost, never passes by on the other side; it is He who pours on medicine so that our wounds are treated; it is He who puts us in the environment where we can be brought to full healing. The parable issues both its personal challenge for us to “be neighbors” to those with whom we are uncomfortable, and its teaching regarding the costly grace of our compassionate God, who has entered so deeply into our fallen world, and trampled down death by death. The wisdom of the fathers reminds us how these stories operate in our hearts and minds on various levels, both theological and moral.
As we hear these stories from Jesus’ very own lips, we pray that the Holy Spirit will find a welcome place in each of our hearts, and in our community. Cued by the traditional interpretations of the Church, let us be alert to the various messages that these living words continue to speak, in continuity with how they were heard by the apostles, to whom Jesus originally explained them. This will include being prepared for the “cutting” operation of the word of God, as it pierces our hearts and lays bare our disease so that we can be healed.