Parables hide truth from unbelievers
By Father Paul Turner
Catholic Key Scripture Columni
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The Good News for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sunday July 4, 1999
Zechariah 9: 9-10
Romans 8: 9, 11, 13
Matthew 11: 25-30
The 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sunday July 11, 1999
Isaiah 55: 10-11
Romans 8: 18-23
Matthew 13: 1-23
Religion seems to divide as often as it unites. Religious wars have raged within countries, between ethnic groups, and inside families. Although Jesus left us the Eucharist as the great sacrament of Communion, he too has remained a figure who divides opinions as often as he unites them.
Division existed within Jesus' own lifetime, as we'll hear in the Gospels over the next two Sundays (Matthew 11:25-30 and 13:1-23).
Both these texts come from the third "book" of Matthew's Gospel. This work, which appears first in the new testament, contains five clearly-distinguished parts, probably inspired by the five books that begin the Old Testament, called the Torah or the Pentateuch, which formed the backbone of spirituality for ancient Israel. In opening the New Testament with a five-book structure, Matthew's Gospel slyly proclaims that we're looking at a new covenant (the meaning of "new testament"), based on a new kind of spirituality, rooted not just in the ancient law on Sinai, but also in the person of Jesus Christ.
Each book of Matthew's Gospel contains two sections - a narrative and a discourse. Or, if you will, a story and a speech. For the last three weeks we've been drawing from book two. We heard the story of Jesus calling his disciples, and then we heard sections from the speech he gave before they began their missionary activity.
Next Sunday we hear only a few verses of the chapters which make up the story section of book three. But the following Sunday we hear the opening of the third speech, one of the most famous in the Gospel. In it, Jesus shows his educational skill by using a teaching device which distinguished his ministry: the parable. Believers remembered the parables and the wisdom of God, which Jesus cleverly concealed within them.
The much-beloved passage we hear next Sunday is frequently selected for funerals because of the comfort in its message. The passage has two sections. In the first, Jesus prays to the Father. In the second, he addresses the disciples. However, even though this passage brings comfort to the ear, it reveals the division which surrounded Jesus even at this point in his ministry.
Jesus' prayer thanks the Father for hiding wisdom from the wise and revealing it to the unlearned. He's poking a barb at those who have devoted much time to learning the law (the wise) and extolling his own (unlearned) disciples. Their spirituality has been rooted in the person of Jesus. In the same way he invites those who feel burdened to take on his yoke, not the yoke of a pharisaic or obsessively literal interpretation of the law. The words bring comfort, ("My yoke is easy, my burden light"), but at the cost of conversion to Jesus, of recasting an entire spiritual framework.
The same division of believers and unbelievers lies behind the parables. The passage we'll be hearing two weeks from now explains this in its middle section. It opens with a simple recounting of the parable of the sower. It closes with an interpretation of that parable. In the middle Jesus explains why he uses parables at all. It's not pretty. Jesus uses parables to punish the unbelievers.
Unbelievers have stood at the fringe of Jesus' ministry throughout Matthew's Gospel. Some have accepted the call to discipleship. Others, hearing the same message, have not. Jesus waxes philosophically about the problem. When it comes to belief, some have it and some don't. He unaffectedly cuts his losses. He speaks in parables calculating that those with faith will understand them and grow, and those without faith will continue to be ignorant. Ultimately belief pertains to the mystery of the chosen people. Faith comes by God's election, not with obtaining knowledge.
The parable of the sower proclaims the message that the reign of God will grow and grow, multiplying its effectiveness. Some of the scattered seed will never grow strong, but the overall result will yield a plentiful harvest. Jesus can afford a little division. Nothing will stop the word of God.
Although the divisions which consistently accompany religion discourage any believer, the kernel of truth in religious belief enfolds the unyielding hope of unity, redemption, and peace. In the third book of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus steps forth with his disciples into the world of conflict. When disagreements threaten to unleash temptations to despair, his confident message will guide their steps.
Father Paul Turner is pastor of St. John Francis Regis Parish, Kansas City.