Opening the Word: Parable of paradox

How would you describe Jesus’ speaking style? It’s a question worth pondering for a bit, especially as we hear and contemplate some of the four dozen or so parables recorded in the Synoptic Gospels.

German Scripture scholar Father Gerhard Lohfink wrote in “Jesus of Nazareth: What he Wanted, Who He Was” (Liturgical Press, $39.95), “It is impossible to talk about Jesus without mentioning his language.” By this he isn’t referring to Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic, but to Jesus’ “speaking style, his way of putting the reality of the reign of God into words.” He offers this observation: “Jesus’ language was accurate. It was specific and precise. It was concise and pointed. There was not an ounce of extra fat on it.” Father Lohfink then makes a point that is somewhat obvious, yet a bit unexpected. Jesus “must have had an extraordinary command of language; it comes through everywhere.” That command is demonstrated, repeatedly, in the parables, which “betray a deep love for reality.”

Then there is this essential point, one often ignored by those who rather mindlessly chatter about Jesus as if he were a greeting card in sandals and a cloak: “Jesus wants to disturb his listeners.” Jesus used paradox to provoke a reaction and a response. His words are not meant to mindlessly comfort, but to confront the comfortable.

However, Jesus’ parables were not filled with rebuke and fury, but with revelation and fulfillment. Which is why St. Matthew notes that Jesus spoke to the crowds exclusively in parables, and did so to “‘announce what has lain hidden from the foundation of the world.’” Matthew quotes from Psalm 78, which examines the often disappointing history of Israel and God’s long-suffering love for the chosen people: “But God being compassionate forgave their sin; he did not utterly destroy them.”

The parable of the weeds among the wheat focuses on the mystery of evil and how it grows alongside what the Son of Man has planted in the field of the world. In explaining it, Jesus distinguished between the children of the kingdom and the children of the evil one. Those who hear the word of God and reject it are the children of Satan; having been offered light, they choose darkness (cf. Jn 1:9-11; 3:19-20). Rather than assuring listeners of their established place, the parable warns against the temptations that can overcome those who are complacent and distracted. As St. Augustine observed, what is currently wheat can become a weed, and what is a weed can still become wheat “and no one knows what they will be tomorrow.” This is a warning, then, against presumption, which is either a man’s arrogant belief that he can save himself or his belief that God will be merciful no matter how he lives (CCC, Nos. 2091-92).

It is easy to see the sins, flaws and failings of others, including those next to us in the pew! But we must not be blind to our own weaknesses and to the fragility of the human condition in a fallen world.

As the Apostle Paul exhorts the Christians in Rome in today’s epistle, we must trust in the Holy Spirit, who “comes to the aid of our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought.” Unlike greeting cards, Jesus warns of judgment, of the separation between “all evildoers” and “the righteous.” The language is specific and precise: “Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.