21 February 2019

Reading the Parables of Jesus in Mark

I have been loving the work I am doing for my parish on Jesus' parables. Every week I have spent time with the parables in preparation something significant has happened in prayer. At the same time the inner work I have been doing with my director these past 2 and a half years or so have been coming together in ways I could never have expected or even imagined. The ability to spend time in prayer, lectio, and personal formation is simply the greatest gift God could have given me and more and more I appreciate the Church admitting me to profession under canon 603 and consecrating me to live this life in her name!! The transition from isolation to solitude continues to be a significant dynamic of my growth/maturation in this vocation. At the same time the sessions we have had at the parish have led to sharing of profound personal stories linked to lectio with the parables and I would call at least one of these a kind of miracle!

Each session has begun with some teaching on the parables, what they are and are not, cultural and theological background, etc. Last week we discussed that parables are less about what they mean than about what they allow to happen, what they make real for us. The task is not so much to interpret the parables as it is to provide enough specific background to allow the group to read and respond to these unique stories. We talked about the nature of performative language or language events and especially the fact that parables are invitations in search of a response, that they don't really exist unless and until someone hears and responds to that invitation!

Because the Church has not traditionally approached reading or interpreting the parables in this way and because it replaces almost 19 C. of allegorical interpretation we then spent 20-30 minutes reading the parable of the Good Samaritan and followed that by looking at the allegorical readings of that parable offered by Origin, Irenaeus, and Augustine. It was gratifying that people felt the way allegory could keep them at arm's length, curtail their own use of imagination, and limit their abilities to enter into the story in whatever way God was inviting them during this reading. Especially folks did not have a sense of Jesus speaking to them in these allegories, nor a sense of being called to a profoundly personal response of their whole selves.

Yesterday we did the second session and focused on the 4th chapter of the Gospel of Mark. This is the chapter with the various seeds parables, the first of only a handful of fully developed parables in the Gospel along with the very difficult sayings re why Jesus teaches in parables and "To the one who has even more will be given; to the one who has not, even the little s/he has will be taken from him/her." Mark prepares for these parables and what they call disciples to during the first three chapters of his Gospel as he looks at who Jesus is (Word incarnate, embodiment of the Shema, embodiment of Wisdom, authentically human being, Messiah, Hearer/Doer of the Word of God (Son of God means this in Mark) etc), at the nature of the Kingdom he brings, and at the conflicts that invariably spring up in the wake of all this. We looked especially then at the issue of right-handed versus left-handed power (the very debate with the devil found in the temptation in the desert stories and the choice Jesus makes as he journeys toward the cross; in Mark this story has a patient Jesus being waited on by God via angels, an image which is reflected in the parables of the seed parables with their demand for patient waiting upon the God who brings growth).

Jesus simply is not the Messiah expected or esteemed by the religious leadership (or Jesus' family for that matter!). Yes, he does act with a hitherto unknown power (exousia) and authority; he heals and exorcises (exercises of straightforward right-handed power); he reveals himself as the embodiment of Wisdom, but throughout the Gospel (and especially after the Transfiguration) he moves more and more towards revealing a Kingdom whose power is perfected in weakness (cf 2 Cor 12:9) and self-emptying, what some call "left-handed power". Meanwhile those who would entrust themselves to Jesus must come to terms with a Kingdom revealed in suffering, littleness, and weakness. Those who do are the "insiders" while those who do not become part of the group of "outsiders;" the boundaries between these two groups are fluid in Mark and we are constantly surprised as "insiders" (Peter, Jesus' family, et al) prove unable to hear Jesus while those who are thought to be outsiders (the Centurion, Syro-Phoenician Woman, various demons, et al) show themselves to know and accept Jesus.

The parable of the sower/soils is seen by some as the "watershed" of all the parables and I think perhaps it is hard for us to see this given how different it is from the dramatic parables we love so much --- parables like the prodigals (Father and two Sons!), the laborers in the vineyard, the Good Samaritan, and so forth. But the parable of the sower/soils along with the parables of the mustard seed and seed growing secretly shows us a Word that comes to us in disproportionate smallness and quietness; the seeds grow "on their own" --- graced realities that need very little help from us beyond planting and harvesting, and of course, they must die to bear fruit! In telling this parable along with the other seed parables of Mark 4, Jesus takes a fateful step away from a Messianism that reveals itself in "right-handed power" and instead into what Robert Farrar Capon calls "the paradox of power" --- a Messianism that will reveal itself exhaustively only in the apparent failure and weakness of the Cross. Do the disciples "get it"? Are they truly "insiders"? Well, no, not according to the ending of chapter 4 --- at least not firmly or solidly so. Terror can still rock their faith.

After Jesus' teaching in the various parables of the seeds and his warning to the disciples that they need to hear him in this, a storm comes up on the sea. Jesus sleeps peacefully without fear and the disciples wake him interrogating him on whether or not he cares that they are going to perish! Jesus does what he can do in response: he stills the storm, an act of right-handed power. The mystery of the Kingdom will be definitively revealed  in abject  weakness on the cross but the disciples are not ready to accept that yet. They cannot see that God's will and Jesus' mission are larger than right-handed power can ever bring about; sin and death cannot be destroyed nor the world reconciled to God with such power. In any case, some of the disciples will never be ready to accept a Messiah who redeems creation through weakness and suffering and others will waver in their commitment to Jesus --- "insiders" one day and "outsiders" the next. Most will grow "from faith to faith" and hearken to Jesus in his parables "as they are able". I think these portraits of discipleship are portraits we each can recognize in our own lives.

P.S.In case you were wondering, we entertained various ways of resolving what is often a riddle (Gk: parabole or Heb., mashal, "riddle") to hearers, "To those who have  even more will be given; to those who have not even the little they have will be taken from them." We added a blank space after "has" and tried several different terms to fill in the blank. Several "worked" fine but the best answer was simply "ears to hear": that is, "To those who have ears to hear even more will be given, to those who have not (got ears to hear), even the little they have will be taken from them." Most of us had automatically (maybe unconsciously) filled  the sentence with possessions, wealth, knowledge, relationships, or any number of things --- afraid what the sentence could actually mean as well as what it said about God and Divine justice! But read in context the solution was pretty straightforward.