Peace and all good!
This Sunday, just like last Sunday and next Sunday, we again hear Jesus speaking in parables. In fact, the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel contains seven parables! The original Greek word used in this chapter is παραβολή (parabolē) which literally means “putting alongside with” as in comparing one thing with another thing (that is why Jesus usually starts by saying, “The kingdom of God is like…”). Parables were commonly used by ancient Greek and Roman rhetoricians. However, similar techniques were utilized by Jewish rabbis in what is called mashal in Hebrew.
Parables or mashal are meant to convey a lesson that cannot be captured by direct explanations. Parables require the hearer to use their imagination, and to take time to understand its meaning. s Whenever I went to a modern art museum, be it the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles or the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, I used to get annoyed by the number of artworks named only “Untitled.” I used to think those artists were lazy. I wanted more description or explanation about what I was looking at. I didn’t want to spend too much time standing in front of an artwork to figure out its meaning. I wanted to move on to the next one so that I would have time to see all the collections in the museum.
In a way, parables are like these “untitled” artworks. We are not told the direct meaning of a parable. Instead, we must use our imagination, our senses, our intellect, our emotion, and our experiences to search its deep meaning. It will take us some time as we peel layer upon layer of meaning of a parable. Even though we see some explanation on a few parables in this chapter, some scholars believe that this is an editorial addition by the writer of Matthew’s Gospel, who attempted to explain Jesus’ original parables to his audience.
It is understandable that Jesus would use parables to explain something like the kingdom of God. How else could we understand something that is so beyond our understanding? Not even St. Thomas Aquinas’ great work Summa Theologica can capture everything about God. Perhaps these Gospel parables serve as a reminder of how we should approach our faith, our understanding of God, and our relationship with God.
Just like my initial feelings toward “untitled” art pieces, people today want everything explained right away in the least amount of words possible. Information is now literally on our fingertip through our smartphones. Twitter has become so popular because it limits how many characters one can use in a single tweet. People would then inform their opinion by reading these tweets instead of trying to understand all the nuances of a situation normally given in a longer news article.
Our understanding of God should be more like an art than a science. Now this is probably ironic coming from someone who has studied theology, literally “the science about God.” Indeed, theology is helpful in developing a system of beliefs or dogmas. But as the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it: “Dogmas are lights that light up the journey of our faith and make it secure.” Each of us has a different journey, a different path toward the same destination: God. May we have the courage and the imagination to follow this uncharted, untitled path so that in the end, we will encounter Him who constantly longs for us.
May the Lord give you peace. Fr. Sam