Short Stories by Jesus

I just finished reading Amy-Jill Levine’s book, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. I am a big fan of Levine and have benefitted greatly both from lectures she has given on the Old and New Testaments and from her essays in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and thus have been greatly looking forward to reading this book. It did not disappoint.

Levine’s starting point is that parables are intended to challenge us, to make us feel uncomfortable. Commenting on religion’s role “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable,” she observes that “we do well to think of the parables of Jesus as doing the afflicting. Therefore, if we hear a parable and think, ‘I really like that’ or, worse, fail to take any challenge, we are not listening well enough.”  In fact, she suggests, if we hear a parable and are not disturbed, “there is something seriously amiss with our moral compass.”

Levine believes that, unfortunately, we too often ignore that challenge. That we take easy lessons form the parable that “lose the way Jesus’ first followers would have heard the parables,” and thus “lose the genius of Jesus’s teachings.”  (The framing of the parables by the Gospel writers sometimes encourage our taking the easy way out, she suggests.)

Levine discusses nine well known-parables in her book, including the Prodigal Son (which she thinks is better called “The Lost Son”), the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, and the Rich Man and Lazarus. Rather than trying to tell us what the parables mean, she encourages us to treat them as invitations for reflection and to be open to various interpretations – especially those that force us to ask hard questions of ourselves.  She does so, in part, by helping us to understand how Jesus’ audience would have heard the parables.  While she does not think historical context is all that matters, I think she is correct in her observation that “the more we know about the original contexts, the richer our understanding becomes.”

Reading this book caused me to think differently about a number of Jesus’ parables, including some I have prayed with with some frequency.  That in itself is a sign of the success of the book.

The Kingdom of God: Here and Now

I spent a good part of one of the days of my retreat praying with Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom, and felt I came away with a much deeper understanding than I had before of some of what Jesus was trying to convey in those parables.  But I also came away with something more than that.

On a walk I took on the beach after some sessions praying with the parables, I started singing the David Haas Blest Are They song that we’ve sometimes sung at Mass.  As I over and over sang “Blest are they” and “the Kingdom of God is theirs”, and as those words melded with my meditations on the parables, I had a deepened realization that Jesus was not giving a promise about the future when he spoke about the Kingdom.  That when he said the Kingdom of God is at hand he was not making a promise about what would happen to us when we die, but was speaking about the here and now.  (Doubtless the strength of the realization was aided by the fact that the book I was reading on retreat in between my meditations on Savary’s New Spiritual Exercises is Gerhard Lohfink’s Jesus of Nazareth; I’ll write more about that book at a future time.)

This is something St. Ignatius totally got, hence his stress about being contemplatives in action and on God’s plan for the world.  Ignatius is not about doing some good things here so you can enjoy eternity in God’s kingdom in another world, it is about manifesting God’s kingdom in this world.

Once we understand that we can see that there are two fundamental mistakes people can make.  The first is a non-spiritual view that thinks this life is just about enjoying oneself, getting as much as one can, living only for oneself.

The second is a mistake some religious folks make – to think that that the Kingdom is all about the afterlife (although we will have that also).  That view causes some to think it is an acceptable option to simply write off this world as corrupt and worry about the next one.  But what we do in this life is not simply the price for something that comes after death, but is a fundamental part of God’s plan.

When I hear some people these days talk about the “Benedict option,” I fear they may suffer from this mistake.  If the Benedict option means withdraw from the mainstream and become a beacon of light for all to see, a model for Kingdom (in the way I think God intended the Israelites to be) that is one thing.  But the way I hear some people talk, it is more about circling the wagons and protecting themselves from the big bad world.  And that option is a fundamental mistake that abandons God’s plan for the world.

Thoughts From a Parable

Yesterday, I offered the reflection at the law school’s Weekly Manna gathering. I decided to use as a basis for my remarks a parable contained in Peter Rollins’ The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales, a book I’ve mentioned before. Rollins presents a number of short parables in the book (although he uses the term “tales” rather than “parables” to describe the short stories he presents), each with its own commentary that invites further reflection by the reader. Many of those tales are based on actual Gospel accounts and parables.

The one I picked for yesterday’s reflection was a short tale title The Unrepentant Son which, as you might guess, is based on the Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. Most of the story is consistent with the Gospel account of this parable, although there is no mention of the older son. After the description of the father’s welcome and the ensuing party, the parable contains a final paragraph of a single sentence: “Later that night, after the party, while he was alone, the younger son wept with sorrow and repented for the life he had led.”

My reflection offered two points one tied to the story itself, relating to the order in which forgiveness and repentance come. While we so often demand repentance as the price of our forgiveness, God models a forgiveness that is not contingent. (This is a theme that emerged during the Fall Retreat Series we did earlier this year.) The second was an invitation to pray with what happens at the end of the fragments of accounts we hear in the Gospels, which included a brief description of Ignatian contemplation.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 16:50.)

Who Gets Fed?

Today’s Gospel is St. John’s account of the feeding of the multitude, a familiar story to all Christians. In The Orthodox Heretic, Peter Rollins offers a parable that puts a twist on the familiar story. He calls is a “first-world translation.” Here it is:

Jesus withdrew privately by boat to a solitary place, but the crowds continued to follow him. Evening was now approaching and the people, many of whom had traveled a great distance, were growing hungry.

Seeing this, Jesus sent his disciples out to gather food, but all they could find were five loaves of bread and two fishes. Then Jesus asked that they go out again and gather up the provisions that the crowds had brought to sustain them in their travels. Once this was accomplished, a vast mountain of fish and bread stood before Jesus. Upon seeing this he directed the people to sit down on the grass.

Standing before the food and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks to God and broke the bread. Then he passed the food among his twelve disciples. Jesus and his friends ate like kings in full view of the starving people. But what was truly amazing, what was miraculous abou this meal, was that when they had finished the massive banquet, there were not even enough crumbs left to fill a starving person’s hand.

Pretty shocking story! How could someone write something like that about Jesus?

Rollins reminds us in his commentary that we are the presence of Christ in the world today – the way people learn about Christ is through those who claim to live out the way of Christ. If that is the case, Rollins asks us to “ask ourselves whether the above tale reflects how Christ is presented to he world today, at least in the minds of those who witness the lifestyles of Christians in the West.”

Something to think about.

Parables for Our Times

I just finished reading The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales, a book of parables by Peter Rollins. Rollins uses the term “tales” rather than “parables” to describe the short stories he presents, each with its own commentary that invites further reflection by the reader.

The invitation to reflection is one that should not be ignored. This is not a book that should be read in one or two sittings. Rather, the idea is to really sit with each tale, exploring what it has to say to one.

Many of the tales are based on actual Gospel accounts and parables – the feeding of the multitude, the Prodigal Son, Jesus’ instruction to go two miles when one is asked to go one mile – but modified in a way to try to bring home some point of Jesus’ teaching in a different manner than the original story.

Thus, for example in Jesus and the Five Thousand (A First-World Translation), Jesus and his disciples, finding only five loaves of bread and two fishes, gather from the people whatever food the crowds had brought to sustain themselves. Then, “Jesus and his friends ate like kings in full view of the starving people” and “when they had finished the massive banquet there were not even enough crumbs left to fill a staving person’s hand.” Rollins clearly wants us to be shocked when we read this – since we know Jesus would never act in this way. Yet, as Rollins suggests in his commentary, we are Christ in the world today. And “if Christ is proclaimed int he life of his followers…then we must stop, draw breath, and ask ourselves whether [this] tale reflects how Christ is presented to the world today, at least in the minds of those who witness the lifestyle of Christians in the West.”

Whether his tales are drawn from the Bible or fully from his imagination, each offers much to think about. Particularly powerful for me were the tales designed to get us to reflect on the radical portrayed by Jesus, an unconditional forgiveness that comes before any act of the sinner. It is precisely our knowledge that Jesus loves and accepts us as we are that allows real conversion to take place in our hearts.

In a related vein, another tale highlights the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation, the latter of which clearly does carry a precondition of an offering of repentance. Rollins’ commentary on that theme in a story titled The Empty Exchange do a better job than many theological explanations of helping one understand the value of the Catholic sacrament of Reconciliation.

In one way or another, each of the stories offers a road to deepened discipleship. While Rollins is reluctant to use the term parable to describe his tales, humbling declaring it is not for him to judge whether they succeed in doing the job parables are intended to do, they are, indeed, parables for our time.

Definitions vs. Stories

I’ve mentioned that one of the books I am reading is The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, written by James Martin, S.J. This is one of those books that pretty much everyone will get something out of.

One of the things I’ve read in the book thus far that intrigued me comes from his chapter on Friendship with God. In talking about that fact that one comes to know God by learning more about Jesus, who “embodied God, and so anything you can say about Jesus you can say about God”, Martin talks about Jesus’ use of parables. For example, when asked who is my neighbor

Jesus offers not a precise definition but instead spins out the story of the Good Samaritan….Where a strictly worded definition closes down thought and can be shallow, a story opens the heart’s mind and is endlessly deep. Stories carry meaning without having to be converted into a rigid statement.

When I read this, it immediately reminded me of the way a close friend of mine always defined terms. Rather than give a specific definition, his approach was always to say the meaning of the word in question was somewhere in the intersection of three other words. His point was not dissimilar from Martin’s – the attempt to define was too constraining. To say, rather, that a word was somewhere at the intersection of some other words gave more space. I was always intrigued by that way of approaching definition and often continue to define words that way.

Martin’s point (and my friend’s) is an important one. We often look for clear statements, well defined rules, specific definitions. But there is a danger – rigid statements are limiting and have the potential to close us off to valuable truths. They can be comfortable – their very rigidity creates an allure of security. But we lose something when we gain that comfort – we lose the ability of the story to “open up [our minds] to new ways of thinking about God.”

The Parable of the Talents and the Need to Recognize our Giftedness

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the parable of the three servants each entrusted with talents “according to his ability.” Two use the talents in a way that yields more. The third buries the talents and simply returns the same talents to the master when he returns. That servant is scolded on the master’s return for not using the talents even in the most minimal of ways.

We are all given certain gifts from our loving God. Not recognizing our own giftedness is an act of real ingratitude. How many of us, when we receive a beautifully wrapped gift, thoughtfully prepared for us by someone filled with love for us, tosses it in the closet without looking at it, ignoring it and forgetting about it?

Yet, that is exactly what we do if we do not recognize and celebrate our own giftedness. We take the beautiful gift our God has given for us, a gift chosen with such care, a gift uniquely suited to us, and toss it aside without a second glance. We throw it in the closet and forget about the gift and the giver. Ask yourself: What is that like for God?

This parable invites us to recognize our gifts, to own them, and to use them for the greater glory of God.

As I was reflecting on this, what came to mind was a story in the writings of Teresa of Avila. She told of a certain nun – a very talented woman – who resolved to become more humble. She decided that whenever a clever thought occurred to her during the Carmelites’ recreation period, she would remain silent. Teresa immediately disabused the nun of that resolution. Her comment: “it is bad enough to be stupid by nature, without trying to be stupid by grace.” Teresa, too, saw the danger of false humility – of not embracing and using the talents our God has given us.

The Wheat and the Weeds

Jesus tells the parable of the sower of good seed in today’s Gospel. The man sows good seed and then discovers that his enemy has sowed weeds all through the wheat so that when the crop grew and bore fruit, weeds grew along with the wheat. When his servants ask if they should cut down the weeds, he says no…that doing so might uproot the good wheat. Thus they should wait for the harvest and collect it all, burning the weeds and gathering the wheat in his barn.

The simplistic interpretation is: don’t worry, at the end of the day the bad guys will get their due. They will get pulled out and burned as they ought.

But perhaps what Jesus was trying to convey is that while they are growing, we don’t always do a good job identifying the wheat from the weeds. We often draw conclusions about people based on our observations, which are partial at best and which don’t afford us the opportunity to see into another’s mind and soul. What appears as weeds may very well be wheat. So perhaps we ought let God take care of sorting things out at the end of the day…especially since unlike a weed, which will always be a weed, people grow and change and can be pruned by God (directly and through others) to bear beautiful fruit.