Teaching through Parables

IN THE TRADITIONAL CULTURES of the Middle East language is the prime conveyor of beauty and truth. The elegance with which a thought is phrased – often too florid for our contemporary tastes – strikes even those who disagree with the idea expressed. Truth in such cultures is not bolstered by footnotes but by images that captivate the mind and make the hearer think more deeply about what was said. In the story of the rich young man we saw the Lord Jesus use hyperbole to underline his point. He also used parables, as in that of the landlord and the vinedressers (Matthew 21:33-42), placed in Matthew’s Gospel a few days before the Passion.

A parable is a story with a moral rather than a straightforward statement. It is often an extended metaphor, based, as is this parable, on comparison. The story has merit on its own level and may stand out in the hearer’s mind more than the reason why the story is being told. But the parable also has a deeper level, one which may not be evident to the casual hearer but provide much food for thought for those who are seeking God. It is in this sense that parables have been described as veiled statements of truth.

The Landowner and His Tenants

The story in this parable is straightforward enough. The landowner fixed one of his properties for commercial purposes and rented it to vinedressers. The tenants not only did not pay the rent, they attacked the landlord’s agents and, finally, even his son. The Lord left it to the hearers to complete the story, asking “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vinedressers?” (Matthew 13:40). Their response was right on cue and correct – cheat the landlord and you will be punished. But that wasn’t the reason why the Gospel records this story. We read that in the following verses:

First of all Jesus quotes Psalm 117:22,23(LXX): “Have you never read in the Scriptures, ‘The stone, which the builders rejected, has become the chief cornerstone –This was the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”

Then the Lord removes the veil, as it were. He interprets both the parable and the psalm in terms of the Kingdom of God and of His own role in it. He was the chief cornerstone and those who accepted Him as such would replace the leaders of Israel at the head of God’s people. Matthew concludes with this statement, “When the chief priests heard His parables they perceived that He was speaking of them. But when they sought to lay hands on Him, they feared the multitudes, because they took Him for a prophet.” (Matthew 21:45-46).

Why Parables?

Earlier in His ministry, when Jesus told the parable of the sower and his seed, His disciples asked Him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (Matthew 13:10) His response shows that parables in the earlier stages of His ministry were meant to draw those who were truly ready to hear the Gospel. And He quoted a passage from the beginning of Isaiah’s ministry in the mid-8th century BC. The Lord told Isaiah that his call for people to repent would be heard but not understood “for this people’s heart has grown dull (or fat)” (Isaiah 6:9,10). Not everyone would be open to him or interested in what he had to say.

Jesus said that this text of Isaiah was fulfilled in His preaching to these people. Some people rejected the Messenger (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” ) Others simply would not be interested in anything of God. Jesus’ parables were more likely to arouse interest in people who would be better disposed to hear godly teaching and would be open to Christ and His message.

In contrast to the dull hearers of Isaiah’s day, the apostles had shown themselves ready to hear the Gospel as the Lord preached it. “Blessed are your eyes for they see and your ears for they hear” (v.16), He said to them. You see with the eyes of your heart, and hear with the ears of your soul. This openness would not be enough to keep Judas for betraying Him, but it was sufficient to keep others close to Him until they could experience the resurrection.

In the Gospel of Luke we read how the risen Christ opened the understanding of His joyful followers, so that they might comprehend the Scriptures – “the Law of Moses, and the Prophets and the Psalms” concerning His mission on earth – “things that you have witnessed” (see Luke 24:44-47). The disciples’ experience of the death and resurrection of Christ made them able to understand what He had said to them before those events. Now they could appreciate the fullest meaning of His parables because their experience proved to them that He was indeed the chief cornerstone of God’s new temple.

Milk and Solid Food

In a similar way the apostles realized that there were two levels of understanding in the first Christians as well. St Paul tells the Corinthians, “I could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food, for until now you were not able to receive it” (1 Corinthians 3:1,2). They could comprehend the more fundamental teachings but would not be able to grasp the deeper aspects of the Gospel message.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews we are given a clearer understanding of what these “levels” of Christian faith and life may be. In chapter 6 we read, “Leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying-on of hands, of resurrection of the dead and of eternal judgment” (Hebrews 6:1,2). This list roughly parallels our mysteries of Christian initiation: reception of catechumens, profession of faith, baptism and chrismation. The Epistle goes on to describe the sacrifice of Christ in terms of the temple rite of atonement, which would be re-imaged in our Divine Liturgy, the subject of the early Church’s post-baptismal catechesis, which they called the mystagogia. The Eucharist, they insisted, could not be shared, much less understood, without first experiencing the “elementary principles” of Christian life. Unless we are committed to repentance and a living faith, unless we have been united to the death and resurrection of Christ in baptism, we cannot fully appreciate the Eucharist. We might attend the Liturgy, but we would sooner or later get bored with it and stop coming or take part only for social reasons. We would “hear, but not understand.” We would “see, but not perceive.”

The Lord knows better than anyone that all do not have the same spiritual capacity or insight. We would do well to pray for increased understanding of the milk of the Christian life so that we will find the joy in the solid food of the Eucharist that we are meant to enjoy.