Opening the Word: Parable as a veil

Human language reveals and conceals. To say, “I love you,” to one’s spouse is to make a confession, displaying one’s commitment to another person.

At the same time this profession of love functions as a veil. We cannot see fully into the nature of this love or understand the history that led to this act of self-gift. We encounter in such love a mystery that reveals and conceals.

In today’s Gospel Jesus describes the function of parables as both revealing and concealing. Jesus sits by the sea and begins to speak to a crowd. He tells a parable that is well known to us. Jesus describes a sower, who spreads seed upon the ground.

Seed falls on a path and is consumed by birds. It falls on rocky ground, grows quickly, and then is scorched by the sun. Some seed fell among thorns and was choked. And some of the seed flourished in rich soil, producing an absurd yield of hundredfold.

“The disciples approached him and said, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’” (Mt 13:10).

The disciples have heard Jesus’ preaching but seem to have not entirely understood.

Perhaps they longed that he preach more directly to the crowds.

Perhaps they too do not understand the parable but refuse to admit to our Lord their confusion.

Jesus answers the disciples, saying, “This is why I speak to them in parables, because they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand” (Mt 13:13).

Parables, for Our Lord, serve a pedagogical purpose. Those with closed eyes refuse to see the meaning of the parable because they lack faith. They cannot give themselves over to the hidden meaning of the parable. They hear nothing but empty words spoken by our Lord.

After these words it should be odd for us to see that Jesus then provides an interpretation of the parable. Many scholars see this as a later addition to the Gospel of Matthew, interpreting the text once it was no longer remembered.

But perhaps there is a deeper meaning if we want to hear. For the seed is the Word of God, watering “the earth, making it fertile and fruitful” (Is 55:10). This seed can be destroyed by evil, by those who too quickly embrace the Gospel without consequent life change.

But the seed bears plentiful fruit if it falls on the rich soil of the “one who hears the word and understands it” (Mt 13:19).

Fair enough.

But then the passage ends. It ends without telling the reader how to become the one who hears the Word. Before telling the reader how to understand it.

Jesus’ parable of the sower reveals to us the fruitfulness of the Word of God that finds a way to grow in the harshest of conditions.

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Yet it conceals from us how we become this fruitful ground. We are left desiring more. We want Jesus to finish his thought.

This is the pedagogy of the parable. We long for more, for the completion of the thought that Jesus hasn’t quite finished.

This incompleteness should draw us not toward frustration, but deeper awareness that we remain incomplete.

That Christ alone can transform the entire Church into a fruitful ground that longs to bear fruit.

Parables reveal.

Parables conceal.

And the concealing, at least for our desire of God, may be the most important part.

Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.