There are many forms of writing within the New Testament. One can identify hymns and commands, beatitudes and miracle stories, commissions and revelations. But it would be difficult to find a form more important and influential than that of the parable. Parables stick in our minds and grow in our hearts. They resonate with vibrations which are both practical and unsettling. More so than any other form, they provide us with a glimpse of the kingdom of God.
We will examine the parables of Jesus. Scattered throughout the gospels, these succinct images capture the essence of Jesus’ message and convey the particular style of his teaching. One cannot study the parables without appreciating more deeply the power and creativity of Jesus’ ministry. In parables we can understand why people from every state of life were drawn to listen to Jesus and became convinced that he was a teacher sent from God.
What is a parable? How does a parable work? Why is its approach effective? We begin with a definition given by C. H. Dodd in 1935: “A parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind is sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” Most of what we need to know about parables is contained in this one sentence. Let us now draw out its implications.
How Parables Work: Vividness and Doubt
Since a parable is a metaphor, it produces meaning by pulling together two separate realities and asserting a connection between them. One of these realities is God’s kingdom, for parables strive to give us a glimpse of God’s activity in our midst. The realities which parables juxtapose to the kingdom, however, are neither theoretical nor spiritual. They are, as Dodd states, “drawn from nature or common life.” Therefore, the kingdom is not said to be like grace, prayer, or salvation. Instead the kingdom is like “a merchant in search of fine pearls” or “a man with two sons.” Parables function through concrete images and vivid scenes which can easily be imagined: a sower sowing seed, a woman who loses a coin, a king who holds a wedding banquet for his son. The common images and characters draw us in and engage us. As Dodd says, they “arrest the hearer.” They present us with something familiar, something we can understand.
Yet the vividness of the parables does not mean that their significance is clear. Quite the opposite. Although images in the parables are concrete and commonplace, the particular connections between the images and God’s kingdom often remain in doubt. In what way is the kingdom like a mustard seed or like a field of weeds and wheat? Why are all the workers in the vineyard paid the same wage? Why are some of the bridesmaids shut out of the feast? The parables leave these important questions unresolved. Yet this lack of clarity is their strength. The doubt concerning meaning forces us to think. As Dodd says, a parable “teases the hearer into active thought.” The parable poses a question with which we must struggle. It begins a sentence we must finish. Parables are incomplete without our participation.
Parables then function through vividness and doubt. They draw us in by their concrete images of life only to lead us to a question we are pressed to answer. It is the genius of the parable that in the attempt to resolve such questions we will uncover fundamental truths about God, ourselves, and the connection between us.
Why the Parables Are Important: Destruction and Re-creation
The unresolved question which every parable contains often carries a destructive element. Because the parable does not offer us pre-made answers, because it forces us to struggle with its meaning, what we already know is insufficient. Because the parable poses its question in images we had not expected, the categories in which we hold our present answers must often be jettisoned and re-made. Old structures must be torn down and new ones built.
The parable insists that it will not be business as usual. To use parable language, new wine cannot be poured into old wineskins (Mark 2:22). Since the message of the gospel is new and revolutionary, it cannot be held in categories which are tired and outmoded. Parables insist that if their truth is to be captured, former values and established conclusions must be overturned. God is telling us something new. New wineskins are required to hold it. The old is destroyed so that the new might be embraced.
This discovery of a fresh vision is ongoing. Parables by their nature keep generating new meanings and insights. It is impossible to limit any parable to only one truth. The parable we read today carries a message different from the one it offered us five years ago. A parable may signify one thing to readers in the United States and something different to believers in Brazil or Kenya. Because parables pose new questions to new readers and insist that previous convictions be torn down, parables are always re-creating meaning for new times and places. Thus the meaning of any parable is never exhausted.
Parables are important because they destroy so as to re-create. They adapt to the needs of new people in every age. Parables are always tearing down what we think we know so as to present us again with the new wine of the gospel.
Why Jesus Used Parables: Engagement and Mystery
Jesus appreciated the power of parables. Scholars agree that the parables of Jesus convey to us the clearest insight into his message and method of teaching. Jesus knew that if the gospel was to be received, people needed to be engaged in its discovery. The lack of clear meaning within the parables forces such engagement. Throughout the gospels Jesus encourages the involvement of his hearers in drawing out a parable’s significance. He often guides their thinking with questions: “”Which one of you…”; “Which of these three was the neighbor…”; “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?”; “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones…?” Jesus knew that when anyone is personally involved in a process of discovery, the insights which emerge will be deeper and more salvific than any pre-made, generic truths could be. Jesus intended that the truth of his gospel be appropriated in this profound and personal manner. The truth we discover as our truth is a lasting truth. It has the power to change us.
Change is necessary for those who would accept Christ’s message. The new wine of the gospel cannot be poured into old pre-conceptions. If we are to receive the Good News we must open ourselves to new and at times frightening ways of thinking. Jesus knew that parables had the capacity to explode one set of pre-conceptions and thus open the way to another mode of living. Jesus often introduces into his parables characters which we would never expect in our own experience: a good Samaritan, a widow who gains justice from a crooked judge, a shepherd who seeks after one lost sheep. The purpose of such strange inversions is not simply to challenge an idea but to introduce a shift so fundamental that a whole way of thinking is upset and a new way of living is born. Jesus’ parables have the power to subvert the world as we have conceived it. They topple our presuppositions and invite us to build a new understanding with the pieces which remain. The truths which emerge from this process surprise us. They are truths we had no way of anticipating. Jesus knew that the kingdom of God was always new and alive. He understood that parables were the perfect vehicle by which to reflect that life and newness.
Jesus’ parables also allow us to penetrate the heart of mystery. God is pure spirit and totally different from any part of creation. There is no manner in which the human mind can fully grasp the grandeur of God. Yet the parables of Jesus permit us to recognize some aspect of God’s action towards us. They are able to speak through their concrete imagery. Using a multiplicity of characters they present God as a Shepherd, King, Father, Sower, Judge, Vineyard owner, Bridegroom, and Friend asleep at midnight. Each role is only a glimpse of who God is for us, but each glimpse reveals a truth. Such truth is the most fitting way to speak of God, because it communicates without attempting to dispel God’s mystery.
Jesus used parables because he knew that they were well suited to function in the midst of such mystery. With their mixture of vividness and doubt they guide us into a relationship with God which we can never control and only partly understand. Jesus taught in parables because he knew that those who were willing to enter the process of discovery which parables provide would be engaged, confused, dismayed, uplifted, and finally surprised by joy.
Although the parables of Jesus were distinctive, they were not unique. Jesus used parables because he was Jewish. In the Jewish traditions which have come down to us there are numerous examples of the rabbis using parables to illustrate their teachings. In this article we will examine two of these parables which demonstrate a clear similarity to the teaching of Jesus. This comparison reminds us that Jesus gained strength and inspiration from his Jewish heritage. Because he heard and understood the wisdom of other Jewish rabbis, he was able to formulate his own parables and reveal the mystery of God.
Building the Right Foundation
In Matthew Jesus ends his famous Sermon on the Mount with a small parable. The parable is an exhortation to the hearer to apply the sermon to life:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall! (Matt 7:24-27)
Jesus uses this parable to argue that his teaching must not only be heard but also put into practice. Not acting on the words of Jesus will lead to the ruin of the house, which is to say the ruin of one’s life.
This emphasis on the need to act upon what one hears mirrors one of the great Jewish debates at the time of Jesus: was it more important to study the Torah or to practice it? Some rabbis argued that it was more essential to practice the Torah, for what was the benefit of knowing its demands if those demands were not followed? Other rabbis disagreed. They pointed out that it was impossible to practice the Torah unless one first knew what it required. For them the study of the Torah was primary. Jesus sides with the rabbis who stressed the primacy of practice. Even though both knowledge and practice were necessary, he believed that it was most important to act upon what was known.
We possess testimony of another Jewish rabbi who adopted a position similar to that of Jesus and used a parable to assert it. In the Jewish tractate Avot Derabbi Nathan the following parable is attributed to Rabbi Elisha b. Avuyah:
A man who has good deeds to his credit and has also studied much Torah, to what is he like? To one who builds [a structure and lays] stones below [for the foundation] and bricks above, so that however much water may collect at the side it will not wash it away. But the man who has no good deeds to his credit, though he has studied Torah, to what is he like? To one who builds [a structure and lays] bricks first [for the foundation] and then stones above, so that even if only a little water collects, it at once undermines it.
When we realize that Rabbi’s Elisha’s bricks are made of clay and therefore much less durable than the stones, there is a remarkable similarity between his parable and that of Jesus. Both rabbis would argue that hearing and study are essential but not enough. Without good works, without doing what you know, the house will fall.
What Is God’s Forgiveness Like?
Another effective Jewish parable is found in the first chapter of Seder Eliyahu Rabbah. There the rabbis are discussing the attitude of God on the Day of Atonement. This day, of course, is the day on which Israel expresses its sinfulness and asks God for forgiveness. The rabbis are debating how God views this day. Does God approach it with regret and misgivings or with openness and enthusiasm? They could have answered the question directly, but instead they offer the following parable.
As God approaches the Day of Atonement, to what can it be compared? It is like a mortal king whose servants and household members decided to take the garbage of the house and throw it out of the king’s private doorway. Instead of disposing of the refuse in the proper manner, day after day they would take table scraps, waste materials, and dirt from the latrine and throw it outside of the king’s private passage. After many days the exit through that door was totally obstructed. One day the king opened his private passage to go out and saw the garbage. Great was his rejoicing! For he knew this house was clean.
Thus, the rabbis say, are we to understand the Day of Atonement. As God pardons the iniquities of Israel, there are no misgivings. To the mountains and to the hills, to the streams and to the valleys, God says, “Come and join Me in My great rejoicing, for I am about to pardon the sins of my people Israel.”
The rabbis could have simply taught that God rejoices in forgiving us. But they knew that using the parable would enhance their message. The parable draws us into the story, into the stupid action of the servants, into the surprise reaction of the king. On a level which is more pervasive than intellectual truth, we realize that it is not the foolishness of our sins but the forgiveness of God which is important.
We do not have a parable from Jesus about a king finding garbage outside his private doorway. But the joy and graciousness of God’s forgiveness can be found in many of Jesus’ parables. The rabbinic parable demonstrates that Jesus’ proclamation of a gracious and forgiving God was an inheritance from his Jewish faith. It is a false stereotype of Judaism to characterize it as a religion of legalism and fear in which God is seen as a judge rather than a loving father. This parable of the refuse on the king’s doorway carries a message of forgiveness which is very close to one of Jesus’ most famous parables. The wildly forgiving king who rejoices to find garbage at his back door is a mirror image of the wildly forgiving father who runs out to embrace his prodigal son.
Jesus, Jewish Rabbi and Messiah
The two rabbinic parables which we have examined are a limited reminder that the parables of Jesus emerged from the vibrant Jewish life of the first century. Christians proclaim Jesus as Messiah and Savior of the World. For us Jesus holds a unique place in God’s plan for salvation. But the exalted position of Christ within our faith should not be used to separate him from the real historical influences into which he was born and in which he exercised his ministry. Even as we hold Jesus as unique Son of God, we also uphold the true human process through which Jesus embraced his Jewish heritage and shaped his gospel in light of it.
In 1985 the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews issued Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church. That document emphasizes that Jesus was and always remained a Jew. He was fully a man of his time which was the Jewish-Palestinian environment of the first century. He shared in the hope and anxieties of the Jewish people (#12). Jesus was influenced by the teachings of other Jews around him, sharing with them a belief in the resurrection of the body, Jewish forms of piety, addressing God as father, and seeing love of God and neighbor as the first commandment. He used the methods of teaching which were popular among the Jews of his day. Included among these was the frequent use of parables (#17-18).
In the view of the Vatican commission these connections between the teaching of Jesus and that of other Jews of the first century do not detract from his status as our Savior. They enhance its wonder. To see Jesus a man of his time cannot but emphasize both the reality of the incarnation and the very meaning of the history of salvation (#12). Therefore, even as we are moved by the innovation of Jesus’ teaching, we must acknowledge his indebtedness to the Jewish tradition. That tradition nurtured in the historical Jesus a love of God as his savior and a means to reveal that love through the power of parables.
Some parables in the gospels are lengthy and dramatic. Others are brief, consisting of only one or two verses. It is easy to dismiss these smaller parables, imagining that we can quickly grasp their meaning and then move on. However, if we take the time to wrestle with the metaphors which the smaller parables offer us, we will not leave them disappointed.
I have selected four brief parables, each centering on a single image. Together they suggest that every disciple of Jesus is called to live with wisdom, patience, sacrifice, and hope.
The Parable of the Lamp: Don’t Be Foolish
The Parable of the Lamp can be found in Matt 5:15, Mark 4:21, and Luke 8:16. We will examine Matthew’s version: “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.” This little parable quickly describes an action which all of us would consider foolish. Why would someone go through the trouble of finding and lighting a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket? It would be a wasted effort, because the very purpose of the light to illumine would be frustrated.
The parable draws us in with this silly action. It leads us to the question: How does this foolishness apply to us? Matthew helps us with the answer. He states in the previous verse that we are the light of the world. Our light as disciples is thus associated with the light which should not be hidden. Read in this way, the parable informs us that we have been created by God with talents and gifts, and those blessings are meant to be used in God’s service. To deny, refuse, or ignore these gifts is a senseless act. Pretending that we are ungifted is but an excuse to avoid our calling. Concluding that we are unworthy is to reject the dignity with which God has endowed us.
The irrational action of the one who hides a lamp under a bushel basket can be our action. Every time we deny the gifts God has given us we act as a fool. The first step in following Christ is wisdom, the wisdom to know who we are and to act accordingly.
The Parable of the Leaven: Don’t Be Anxious
The Parable of the Leaven is found in Matt 13:33 and Luke 13:20-21. This time we will look at Luke’s version: “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” This parable describes a commonplace action. How does such an action reveal the kingdom of God? When leaven is mixed into flour, it begins a slow but active process. Even though the amount of yeast is small compared to the flour, the yeast changes everything. Given the right conditions and sufficient time, flour becomes bread.
As we work and pray for God’s kingdom we can become anxious when our resources seem too small and the progress seems too slow. We attempt to change a bad habit, deepen a relationship, or confront an injustice. We have limited time and energy. The steps we take seem to be absorbed into the problem without any effect. We are tempted to conclude that our best intentions have been wasted. We begin to worry that nothing will make a difference.
The parable of the leaven calls us to take a deep breath and relax. We have done our part. We have offered our best. Now we must trust that God will use our efforts as leaven in flour. The results will not be immediate, but that need not concern or disturb us. The process of change has begun and with God’s power will continue until our action leavens all that is necessary. Our effort, though hidden and small, becomes part of a divine process which cannot be stopped. A follower of Christ must be patient, patient as God takes our small actions and turns them into leaven for the world.
The Parable of Salt: Don’t Be Selfish
The little parable of salt is found in Matt 5:13, Mark 9:49-50, and Luke 14:34-35. Here is Mark’s version: “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Though brief, the parable raises many questions: How will we be salted with fire; how can salt be in us; how does salt relate to following Christ?
We can suggest an answer by noting that Leviticus 2:13 requires that salt be added to all the grain offerings made to God. Salt, then, is an aspect of sacrifice. When we understand the meaning of salt as one of sacrifice and self-giving, then the parable advises us to give of ourselves, even when it is demanding, even when it is difficult. Life is not easy, and challenges abound. Perhaps this is what “to be salted with fire” means. Yet Christians do not shut down amid such challenges. They open out, giving themselves for a greater good.
Mark’s parable further specifies the direction of the sacrifice. Mark says that if we have salt in ourselves, we can have peace with one another. Thus the self-giving to which the parable calls us is one by which we serve the community. The follower of Jesus is willing to give of self, even when it is difficult, so that there can be unity and peace among us. Salt, then, is the sacrifice required to allow relationships to heal and to grow.
The little parable of salt is a call to sacrifice. As Israel was called to add salt to the offerings in the temple, Christians are called to have salt within them, enhancing the sacrifice of their lives. By letting go of their own advantage and prerogatives, they create peace within the community and build up the Body of Christ.
The Parable of the Net: Don’t Be Discouraged
The parable of the net occurs only in Matt 13:47-48, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.” This parable is about evaluating and separating. From the huge and mixed catch of fish, some are identified and good and others as bad. The two groups are then divided one from the other. How is such an action to be associated with the kingdom of God?
In God’s kingdom evaluation will be accompanied by separation. This is very different from our every-day situation. In our present world there is plenty of evaluation. We judge things as good and bad, as just and unjust. We see the terror of war and oppression. We are confounded by the injustice of the innocent suffering and the abandonment of the poor. Our world is always evaluating. Often its judgments are correct. But little separation occurs. The good and the bad continue on, side by side, with little reward or punishment for either of them. The person who strives to live justly is tempted to discouragement. The good suffer; the evil thrive. Evaluations appear of little use when all goes on as it did before.
In this light, the parable of the net is a parable of hope. It points to a time when there will not only be evaluation but also separation. God, of course, is the One who will both judge and divide. This parable tells us that God can be trusted. The follower of Jesus should not be discouraged by the mixed nature of life and the way in which evil flourishes. There will come a day when the net will be cast and the catch will be separated. The good will be treasured and the bad will be thrown away. Then goodness will extend throughout all of God’s kingdom.
The four parables we have examined each point to an essential truth of the Christian life. As followers of Jesus we are called to live in wisdom, patience, sacrifice, and hope: the wisdom of claiming of our own dignity, the patience to see God using our efforts for a good purpose, the sacrifice which allows peace to happen, and the hope which trusts that one day God’s justice will cover the earth.
The parables which we find in the scriptures were in circulation before the gospels were written. When the gospel writers decided to include some of these parables in their writings, they had to decide where to place them. Often their choice depended upon a particular meaning which they had identified within the parable.
The evangelists were always making choices of what particular point in the parable they wished to emphasize. They often created a frame for the parable by placing particular scenes around it or by inserting their own comments before or after the parable was narrated. These frames can be helpful. They can also be limiting, because every parable carries more than one meaning.
For example, Luke clearly uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to show us “who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) and how we should follow the Samaritan’s example (Luke 10:37). As valid as Luke’s perspective is, the parable still has more to say. In the Daily Reading Guide for June 13th I suggest that the parable does not only show how we should treat others but also how God treats us.
The multiplicity of meanings in a parable is demonstrated by the way different evangelists draw out different truths from the same parable. Matthew positions his version of the parable of the talents in the midst of his eschatological discourse (Matt 25:14-30). He thereby emphasizes the theme of judgment as well as the need to be ready for Christ’s return. Luke places his version of the parable immediately after the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:11-17). He thereby focuses upon the theme of the proper use of material possessions.
Therefore as you read the parables of Jesus this month, be attentive to the meaning which the evangelists emphasize. But remember that there are other meanings within the parable which are also valid. Do not be afraid to explore the parable on your own. Do not be afraid to look beyond the frame.
Luke 5:36-39—[Garments and Wineskins] The Necessity of Moving On
The two parables of the garment and wineskins establish a contrast between the old and the new. We drew upon the parable of the wineskins in the Introduction to emphasize the newness of Jesus’ gospel. But every parable is open to more than one interpretation. Therefore, today, let us interpret the parable on a more personal level.
Luke’s version provides us with a starting point. He ends his parable with the statement, “The old is good” (verse 39). There are many times in life when we are attached to what is old. The old can be comfortable and familiar. Old friends, old surroundings, old habits provide security to our lives. Like a broken-in pair of shoes, they allow us to relax.
Life, however, does not always allow us to savor the old. Relationships shift or end through disagreement or divorce. Our job or financial situation demands a change in our residence. The possibilities and energy of youth give way to the challenges of aging. New wine is given to us, whether we desire it or not. We are tempted to ignore the newness of the wine. We try to pour it back into the old ways we prefer.
The parable of the wineskins warns against such denial. As much as we would like it to be, we cannot force the new into the old. Trying to do so will destroy the new and the old together. New wine must be accepted on its own terms and carried in the container of new attitudes and possibilities. When new wine is given, it is not time to look back. It is time to accept the newness in the gift and move on.
Reflection: When has life forced me to leave the familiar behind and face new challenges?
Prayer: Lord Jesus, I prefer to hold onto what I know and understand. Help me believe that the new things I must face will lead me to a new happiness.
Mark 4:30-32—[The Mustard Seed] Counting on the Insignificant
It is best to understand the parable of the mustard seed from the perspective of the birds. On a hot and dry day in Palestine all living things seek refuge from the sun. Birds find shade under the large branches of the mustard shrub and build their nests there (verse 32). The shade of the mustard plant is no luxury. It is a necessity in the unbearable heat.
How did this essential condition of shade come to be? The parable insists that it originated from the smallest of all the seeds on earth. Something which is of immense value has resulted from that which seemed insignificant. Something which permits survival is present because of a seed almost too small to see.
The parable of the mustard seed tells us that gifts of tremendous value can result from an effort which is rather small. A smile towards an elderly person in the check-out line, a phone call to a friend in the throws of grief, a few minutes with our child in the midst of a busy day can all seem to be slight actions of no particular consequence. Yet their impact depends upon on the need of the recipient, and that need can be overwhelming. To an elderly person struggling with depression, to a friend close to despair, to a child yearning for affirmation, our small actions can give life.
Before we decide that our efforts are too small to matter, we should consider how many people around us are struggling with issues we will never fully understand. They are counting on our insignificant actions to give shade to their lives.
Reflection: When has someone’s simple action towards me given me hope?
Prayer: God of wonder, give me energy to spread small seeds of love and service, aware that the size of my effort does not determine its impact or value.
Mark 4:26-29—[A Seed Grows by Itself] Knowing that God Is in Charge
We all know that God is almighty and that God’s will is supreme. Yet even with this admission, it is easy to live as if we are in charge. We make plans—plans for our career, our home, our investments, our children’s education. We then expect to carry out those plans with our own wisdom and energy. At crucial points in our strategies we may say a prayer to ask for God’s help. But overall we live and act as if the burden of our future is on our shoulders alone.
There is nothing wrong with making plans. God expects us to use our abilities for the challenges of living. Yet today’s parable of the seed growing secretly reminds us that it is God who controls the future. Someone scatters seed on the ground and takes up the sickle when the grain is ripe. But for most of the growing process, the one who scattered the seed goes on with life and the seed grows on its own. The process of maturation takes place independently of the sower’s insight and effort. Yet it is that process which is essential, for without it there is no life.
This parable challenges us to accept the presence of God’s constant activity in our lives. Even as we go about our daily schedules and responsibilities, God’s power is secretly influencing all that we do. Even as we make and carry out our plans, it is God who makes them grow. Realizing that God is always active does not excuse us from working. But it does call us to change our attitude, to recognize that God is in charge of the harvest.
Reflection: In what areas of my life do I fail to recognize that God is in charge?
Prayer: Almighty God, allow me to acknowledge your power, not simply in theory but in the very fabric of my life.
Mark 4:3-9—[The Sower and the Seed] Finding the Courage to Waste
It is significant that in the parable of the sower most of the seed is wasted. Of the four verses which describe the fate of the seed, only one (verse 8) speaks of seed which reaches the harvest. A 75% failure rate is rather shocking, but such loss is part of the parable’s message. The parable asserts that the kingdom of God will not be found by those who are afraid to waste, to waste their time, energy, and love.
The parable does not encourage us to be careless or inefficient. But it does insist that the action which builds the kingdom is an action in which waste cannot be eliminated. Those of us who brood over efforts we have made with no results, time we gave to dreams which never materialized, and love we invested in relationships which never lasted will understand little of sowing and even less of the kingdom of God. God’s reign is fostered not by carefulness but by openhandedness, not by scrupulously measuring but by generously giving, not by the small gesture of micro-management but by the large motion which allows seed to fly from our hands and to land where it will.
This parable promises that if we give freely and love generously, much will indeed be wasted. But the few things which work will more than compensate for our losses. A few plans will surprise us with their success. A few dreams will live to see the light of morning. A few relationships will last a lifetime. Our blessing can be thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold. But we must waste to reach it.
Reflection: When do I find myself too cautious to spread God’s kingdom?
Prayer: Lord, help me to waste, to give so freely that enough seed will grow to accomplish your will.
Luke 14:16-24—[The Great Supper] The Guest List for the Kingdom
It is possible to focus on many aspects of the parable of the great supper: the intention of the owner of the house, the excuses of the guests, the reason for the owner’s anger. But perhaps the deepest meaning of the parable concerns the identity of those who come to the feast.
In its simplest form, the parable tells us that the guests who ended up at the owner’s dinner were not the ones anyone expected. All the intended guests refuse the invitations (verses 18-20). So the owner sends his slaves out to the streets and lanes of the town to find others to fill his house. Luke makes it clear who these latecomers are: the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame (verse 21). In the end, the great dinner is filled with the weakest and most marginalized of society. This is hardly a company which anyone would anticipate.
But so is the kingdom of God. This parable warns us against confidence in determining who is in God’s grace. The company of God’s reign will certainly include those noble and exemplary individuals who are known for their goodness and sacrifice. But it may also include a cadre of people who are less acceptable. It might include the politician whom we feel is a crook, our sister-in-law who seems only concerned about herself, our neighbor whom we avoid at all costs.
So before you write off individuals who you feel are lazy, uninformed, and unworthy, this parable advises caution. Do not burn bridges just yet. You may discover that just such people are the ones assigned to sit next to you at the heavenly banquet.
Reflection: Who are the people I find difficult to accept and love?
Prayer: Lord, give me patience with those who frustrate and challenge me. Help me see that every person is a person beloved by you.
Luke 15:3-7—[The Lost Sheep] What No Other Shepherd Would Do
The parable of the lost sheep begins with humor. However, it is humor we tend to miss, because we are not shepherds. Jesus poses a question: Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one who is lost until he finds it?” (verse 4).
The response of the shepherds who first heard this parable would have been laughter. None of them would have left the ninety-nine. It would have made no business sense. Unattended the ninety-nine could have been torn to shreds by wolves while the shepherd was looking for the solitary stray. If one sheep strayed, it would be on its own. The ninety-nine were too valuable to put at risk.
The humor of the parable is meant to emphasize the difference between God and us. God is no human shepherd. God is not limited by the constraints of practicality and profit margin. God is free to attend to each person and shows particular concern towards those who are most in need. This concern of God’s for the least is consistently present in the Jewish tradition which views God as the One who cares for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the marginalized of our world.
Jesus embraces this Jewish understanding. God is a shepherd like no other, giving the primary attention to those who need it the most and deserve it the least. Such love is good news to all. For, although it is not our intention, the sheep who are most lost and in need may someday be us.
Reflection: When in my life have I felt lost and in need of God, my shepherd?
Prayer: Good Shepherd, when I lose my way, keep me from panic and despair. Let me admit my fault and wait for you to find me.
Luke 15:8-10—[The Lost Coin] Value Which Only God Can See
Only Luke preserves the parable of the lost coin. It follows immediately after his version of the lost sheep. The key to understanding the parable emerges when we ask why the woman turns her house upside down to find a coin. The Greek identifies the coin as a drachma. It was not very valuable. The drachma was made from 7/100 of an ounce of silver and could purchase very little. Yet when the woman realizes that the coin is missing, she stops everything. She lights a lamp, sweeps her house, and searches carefully until it is found (verse 8).
To explain this strange behavior scholars point to a custom in Arab Palestine whereby a woman would bedeck a headdress with coins as a part of her dowry. Much like a wedding ring today, these coins were a sign of the love and commitment of marriage. It is therefore possible that the value which motivated the woman’s search in the parable was not to be found in the coin but in the woman. It was what the coin meant to her that gave it value.
In this light, the parable tells us something about God. God finds and saves us not because of the great value we have in ourselves but because of what we mean to God. We are not always good or successful. We frequently struggle with imperfection and sin. We may even give in to depression and despair. Yet God still sees us as valuable daughters and sons. God searches for us not because we are worth our weight in silver or gold, but simply because God chooses to love us.
Reflection: Do I locate my self-worth in my own achievements or in God’s love?
Prayer: God, my Creator, allow me to value your perspective over my own. When I am tempted to denigrate my dignity and worth, let me surrender to your love.
Luke 11:5-8—[The Friend at Midnight] Shamelessness in Prayer
Luke uses today’s parable as an exhortation to persistent prayer (Luke 11:1, 13). Yet in this light the parable can easily be misunderstood. If God is associated with the friend who is roused from sleep and fervently beseeched to provide bread for his neighbor’s unexpected guest, God appears as an uninformed and reluctant giver. This cannot be true. It is not necessary to inform God of our needs. Jesus tells us, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt 6:8). Nor should we imagine that God requires persuasion to help us. God is willing and eager to respond to our requests.
How then can this parable be understood? It is not meant to describe God’s attitude in prayer but our own. We are to be like the man who wakes his friend at midnight. Our attitude in prayer should not be tentative. We should pray fervently and insistently. The word in verse 8 which is translated as “persistence” is better rendered as “shamelessness.” We are to ask God for what we need without caution or decorum. We are to pray as if our lives depended on it.
Commonplace piety might imply that our prayer should be polite and reserved. This parable asks us to pray with abandon. Our prayer must involve our entire selves, including all our emotions and fears. These dramatics are not necessary to rouse God’s attention. They express the reality of our faith. Since our need is overwhelming, our attitude in prayer should follow suit. In the end our shamelessness in payer indicates the depth of our trust.
Reflection: In times of great need have I been willing to pray with shamelessness?
Prayer: Provident God, I believe that you will answer my prayers, but let me pray to you not with timidity but from the depths of my soul.
Matthew 20:1-16—[The Workers in the Vineyard] God Is Free
I do not know of anyone who likes this parable. It challenges us in such a fundamental way that almost everyone who hears it ends up in confusion and anger.
The parable begins simply enough with a landowner hiring workers at various hours throughout the day. It seems to take a positive turn when those who were hired last receive a full day’s wage (verse 9). Ah, we think, the parable is about generosity. The landowner is going to give all the workers more than they deserve. We are prepared for this generosity as those who were hired first come forward (verse 10). When they receive the same as those who were hired last, we join them in their grumbling (verse 11). It’s not fair. Why should unequal work result in equal pay?
This parable is truly a parable of destruction. It is meant to eradicate any presumption that we can understand the ways of God. The parable does not set forth a pattern for us. (We should pay people according to the time they work.) But it asserts that God’s ways are not bound by our sense of goodness or justice. We should do our best to serve God, but our service can never be used to force God’s hand. God remains free. God will do as God wills. Even though we trust that God’s actions will be for our good, we would all prefer to hold God accountable. We would all like to say, “You owe me!” In fact, God owes us nothing. We must trust, not demand. That is what the parable says. That is probably why it so disturbs us.
Reflection: Have I ever felt that God was acting in a way that was unfair?
Prayer: Faithful God, your ways are not my ways. When I cannot understand your will, increase my trust in your love.
Luke 7:41-43—[The Great Debtor] The Advantage of Sin
It is important to avoid sin. Sin is an offense against God and works against God’s kingdom. To be a disciple of Christ we must follow his teaching and strive to be holy. Therefore, when we sin, we fail. We betray our calling. Such thoughts about our sinfulness are straightforward enough.
But this little parable provides a twist. It uncovers an advantage to our sinfulness. Jesus poses a question to the Pharisee Simon. If a creditor were to forgive the debt of two people and one owed him ten times more than the other, which one would love him more? Simon rightly answers that the one who is forgiven more will love more (verse 43). The parable thus establishes a positive relationship between the amount of sin and the amount of love.
When sin occurs, God is always willing to forgive. And when that forgiveness is accepted, love for God is increased. The parable does not encourage sinfulness, but it asserts that no one has more reason to love God than the sinner. No one can know the depths of God’s love better than the one who sins the most.
The message of the parable is counterintuitive and paradoxical, but that is how parables work. What results is a parable of hope. Not that we should sin. But when we do and when we accept God’s forgiveness, our love for God can increase. Forgiven adulterers, thieves, slanderers, and bigots are the ones who truly know the immensity of God’s goodness. Though we should try our best to avoid every offense against God, a deeper love for God can be the advantage of our sin.
Reflection: When have I experienced the joy of God’s forgiveness?
Prayer: Lord, save me from discouragement. No matter how seriously I have failed, your forgiveness is possible, your love is my hope.
Matthew 13:24-30—[The Weeds and the Wheat] When an Enemy Attacks
When a householder finds weeds among his wheat, his response is peculiar. Even though he asserts that pulling up the weeds might harm the wheat, any farmer would do just that. The risk of the weeds choking out the wheat would be much higher than the loss of some wheat in pulling the weeds out. But this parable is not really about agriculture. It is about violence and human relations.
The householder does not mention his enemy by name (verse 28). But we can presume that the householder knew who the enemy was or could easily find out in the small, village community in which the parable is set. Therefore his decision to do nothing is a conscious choice not to strike back. The inaction of the householder towards the weeds is meant to reflect the non-retaliation towards his enemy. Rather than counter-attacking, the householder absorbs the blow against him and breaks the circle of violence. This parable mirrors the command of the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matt 5:39).
The parable runs contrary to our fundamental impulses. Turning the other cheek has never found a wide audience. This is perhaps why the parable adds an inducement. At the harvest the weeds which the householder has allowed to grow will be burned, probably in a furnace in order to heat his home (verse 30). Therefore, even though non-retaliation is difficult and rare, adopting it is not only for the good of others. It also provides benefits which even we might enjoy in the cold winters of our world.
Reflection: Have I ever been successful in responding to evil with good?
Prayer: God of mercy, when I am hurt, I want to hurt in return. Allow me to believe that resisting revenge will allow you to bless both me and my enemy.
Luke 18:1-8—[The Widow and the Judge] A Taste of the Kingdom
Luke tells us that this parable is about prayer (verse 1). From this we might conclude that the judge’s character is somehow a reflection of God. But this cannot be true, because the judge is unjust. The judge does not stand for God but for the world in which we live.
A just response to the widow’s plea depends upon the goodness of the judge. The judge, however, is corrupt. He has no respect for God or people (verse 2). We recognize such a world in which those with power are often dishonest. We live in a world of cynicism. We do not trust judges, lawyers, politicians, doctors, religious leaders. When the parable pits this powerful and unjust judge against the helpless widow, we breathe a bitter sigh. We wait for the widow to be crushed by injustice.
But then the parable turns on us and the real character of the widow emerges. This is no spineless woman. She has no legal recourse, but she has a lot of wind. She makes no threats, but she will not give an inch. The judge finally gives her justice because he fears that her constant pleas will wear him out (verse 5). He does what is right, even if it is for the wrong reason.
This parable overturns our world of cynicism. It points to a day when God’s kingdom will be established and when every widow will find justice. It surprises us by showing us a single instance of justice being granted to the weak. As we watch a defenseless widow obtain justice from a crooked judge, our hope revives, and we receive a taste of the kingdom today.
Reflection: Have I ever experienced an instance of corruption giving way to the demands of the powerless?
Prayer: God of hope, it is easy to find examples of evil’s power in our world. Help me to treasure those times when what is just and good triumphs.
Luke 10:29-37—[The Good Samaritan] Surrendering to Grace
Since this parable is usually called “The Good Samaritan,” our first inclination is to identify with the action of the Samaritan. From this perspective, the parable provides an example of how we should act towards our neighbor. There is, however, a deeper meaning in the parable which emerges when we identify with the man in the ditch.
From the perspective of the man who was stripped, beaten, and abandoned by the robbers, this parable is about being saved. It offers us a model for God’s action in our lives. Instead of showing us how to help others, the parable prepares us to accept God’s grace by opening ourselves to the unexpected. Salvation happens on God’s terms, in ways we cannot predict and frequently in a manner we do not prefer.
As the man in the ditch waits for salvation, the likely and attractive characters (the priest and the Levite) pass him by (verses 31-32). Then a Samaritan, an enemy to Jews, takes pity on him. The action is improbable and difficult for the man. Who wants to be saved by an enemy? But that is how his salvation comes. The man might have even resisted had he any strength. But beaten and left half-dead he can only endure as his enemy bandages him, hoists him on his animal, and provides him with lodging and additional cash (verses 34-35).
This parable tells us that God will save us but not on our terms. Salvation comes in ways we could never imagine and on terms we would rather avoid. God’s grace is surprising and generous, but it sometimes comes to us only when we are too weak to resist it.
Reflection: >When have I been surprised and even challenged by the way God has answered my prayers?
Prayer: God, you are my Savior. Even when your ways surprise and test me, allow me to surrender to your love.
Matthew 13:44-46—[The Treasure and the Pearl] We Can’t Lose
The two little parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl are similar in several ways. In both a character finds something of great value and is moved by joy and excitement to make that discovery his own. The treasure and pearl stand for the possession of God’s love. A powerful truth about possessing that love is revealed when we note the difference between the two parables.
The pearl of great value is found as a result of constant effort. The merchant is “in search of fine pearls” (verse 45). In the other parable the treasure is found by chance. It was “hidden in the field” (verse 44). The two parables together assert that God’s kingdom will come to us when we are looking for it and when we are not. God’s love will be found by those searching for it and those who stumble upon it.
These two parables relativize our role in salvation. They emphasize that attaining God’s love is not a process we control. Being saved is always a gift. God is the primary agent. God loves us and seeks us out, whether we are seeking God or not. When it comes to finding salvation, our role is secondary. Of course once salvation is given, then our response must be one of joy and thankfulness, as was the response of the pearl merchant and the man who found the treasure. God gives; we respond with our whole being.
Taken together, these two little parables are meant to give us confidence. God is in charge. Whether or not we are looking for God, God is looking for us. In other words, we can’t lose.
Reflection: Do I find myself searching for God or waiting for God to find me?
Prayer: Loving God, I thank you for the gift of faith. Whether I was looking for that gift or not, allow me to embrace it with all my strength.
Luke 12:16-21—[The Rich Fool] The Foolishness of Accumulation
Today’s parable ends dramatically. The death of the rich man brings his plans to a sudden end. Yet the parable does not so much tell us how to die as how to live. God calls the man a fool not because he is stupid but because he misunderstands the purpose of his wealth (verse 20). The abundant harvest from his land was a gift (verse 16). The gift was certainly intended for the rich man’s use, but only to the extent of his need. The excess of his harvest was not to be stored in larger barns but used.
Throughout his gospel Luke emphasizes the responsibility which comes with wealth. Once those who are blessed have addressed their own needs, the rest of their wealth is to be used for others. It is wasteful to store up unneeded resources for ourselves. Such storage renders our gifts useless until some future day when we might require them. Those blessings could be put to use today, if they were directed to others who were in immediate need. As Luke points out, this sharing with others is another kind of storage, for it builds up a treasure for us in God’s eyes (verse 21).
We are tempted, as was the rich man, to accumulate more than we need. Our culture is always calling us to more—more income, more friends, more possessions. We automatically assume that bigger is better, that growth is desirable. Today’s parable warns us that such mindless accumulation is dangerous. When our life is required of us and our barns on earth are bulging full, our coffers in God’s kingdom may stand empty and bare.
Reflection: How much does my own lifestyle exceed my need?
Prayer: Gracious Lord, I thank you for all the gifts you have given me. Do not let me horde my blessings but share them with those who have less.
Luke 18:9-14—[The Pharisee and the Tax Collector] The Sin of Standing Alone
The Pharisee in today’s parable is often misjudged. The parable clearly indicates that his prayer before God was unacceptable (verse 14). Yet we should resist the common assumption that the Pharisee’s entire demeanor was hypocritical and false. In fact the content of his prayer is quite admirable. His claim that he is not a thief, rogue, adulterer, or tax collector need not be seen as prideful boasting (verse 11). There is every reason to assume that he was in fact free from those faults and sincerely thankful. His practices of fasting and generosity to the poor were certainly pleasing to God (verse 12).
If these qualities of the Pharisee were genuine, why did he leave the temple unjustified? The parable locates his sin not in what he said but in where he stood. It tells us that the Pharisee was “standing by himself” (verse 11). The Pharisee prayed apart from the community. He attempted to relate to God as a solitary individual. Although the tax collector was “standing far off” (verse 13), his position resulted from humility rather than a desire to segregate. Though unworthy, he did not separate himself from others. Thus was his prayer heard.
This parable insists that our relationship with God is not only about being good but also about being connected. The good things we do will be empty if we imagine ourselves complete without the joys and sufferings of others. The faults which weigh us down need not crush us as long as we recognize that we are part of a sinful people. Alone we are unjustified. Together we are saved.
Reflection: Who are the people in my life who shape my relationship with God?
Prayer: Father, through your Son you saved not only me but the entire world. As I come to you let me recognize that I cannot leave others behind.
Luke 16:19-31—[Lazarus and the Rich Man] Blindness Is No Excuse
This is one of Jesus’ most unusual parables. It gives us a glimpse of what happens after death. Intriguing as the view of the afterlife is, the point of the parable is clearly located in the world in which we live.
After death the rich man is tormented in Hades (verse 23). This terrible fate results from a moral failure in his earthly life. His fault is not one of action but awareness. The rich man did not rebuff Lazarus nor ignore him. He did not even know him. Even though the blind beggar lay “at his gate,” the rich man continued to feast every day oblivious to Lazarus’ hunger (verse 20).
Normally ignorance is an excuse. We can not be held accountable for what we do not know. But this parable takes the opposite stance. It insists that we have a responsibility to know the needs of the poor and to use the blessings of our wealth to ease their suffering. Followers of Jesus must seek out the facts concerning poverty. They should educate themselves on the political and economic forces which discriminate against those who have less. God has made this obligation clear in the scriptures, so we cannot say we are unaware of its demands (verse 29).
We must be prepared for the day on which God will call us to give an accounting. It will not do to say we were unaware of our responsibility to the poor. Now is the time to rise from our sumptuous banquet and recognize the need for justice. Now is the time to act. Blindness is no excuse.
Reflection: Have I ever taken positive action to inform myself on the issues of poverty?
Prayer: Gracious God, I know that I am blessed. Rather than simply being thankful, allow me to use what you have given me for the good of others.
Luke 19:11-27—[The Parable of the Pounds] The Irrationality of Fear
Although this parable is called the parable of the talents or pounds, it is not really about sums of money. It is a parable about fear. The one servant who meets with his master’s displeasure, does so because he is afraid (verse 21). Such fear is irrational. Giving in to it only makes things worse. The fear of his harsh master should have motivated the servant to act rather than paralyzed him. His decision to do nothing brought upon him the full brunt of the harshness which he dreaded.
This parable warns us that we must not be afraid to take risks. Doing nothing will guarantee failure. It might frighten us to commit ourselves to another, but if that fear overcomes us, we will live alone. It might scare us to change our job or to relocate our family, but if we listen to fear, we will live with regret. It may frighten us to speak our mind or to take on a difficult project, but if we give in to fear, our talents will be wasted.
The parable gives several indications that pleasing a harsh master is not as difficult as it might seem. Even though the second servant made less money with his pound than the first, he still receives a reward from the master (verse 19). Even though the third servant was afraid to invest the money on his own, the master indicates he would have been satisfied had the servant chosen a safer course and invested with the bankers (verse 23).
Fear need not control us. The master can be pleased even with a little effort. The only senseless thing is to do nothing.
Reflection: When has my life been diminished because I acted out of fear?
Prayer: God of freedom, help me to see that fear is not my master. Help me to see that the risks you ask me to take are the way to life.
Luke 16:1-8—[The Clever Manager] Prudent Judgment in Crisis
The key to understanding this parable is to determine in what sense was the manager dishonest (verse 8). He was certainly negligent in the squandering of his master’s property which led to his dismissal (verse 1). Was he also wrong to reduce the bills of his master’s debtors (verses 5-7)? If he was, then the parable appears to condone an immoral action. We can, however, understand the manager’s interaction with the debtors as perfectly justified.
A manager in the ancient world was much more than a bookkeeper. He was a duly empowered agent of the master. He could offer loans in his master’s name and was free to include in those contracts a certain percentage as his own salary. Aware that he was soon to be dismissed, the manager in the parable moved quickly and used his remaining authority to eliminate his own commission from the loans he had negotiated. The reduced bills would place him in the good graces of the debtors (verse 4). The praise of the master, then, does not refer to an unlawful action but to a clever and creative decision of the manager to divest himself of resources for his future benefit.
In this light the parable becomes an admonition to all Christians to decide wisely in times of crisis. Christians should not be so naïve as to think that their only responsibility is to pray and wait for God to intervene. We should pray, but we should also act. To act prudently we must devise a plan. When calamities hit, this parable tells us not only to fall on our knees but also to use our heads.
Reflection: Have I ever experienced how a quick and shrewd decision can resolve a crisis?
Prayer: Spirit of God, you guide me through your holy gifts. Allow me to follow your promptings not only by opening my heart but by using my mind.
Matthew 21:28-31—[The Two Sons] The Value of Imperfect Service
This parable certainly tells us that action is more important than words. But, like every parable, it carries more than one meaning. It also tells us that God is pleased with imperfect service.
The father asks his two sons to work in the vineyard. The ideal response would be for a son to both tell his father he would obey and also do it. Neither son attains this ideal. The second son says he will go but never does (verse 30). Because the parable values action over verbiage, it sides against this son, saying that he did not obey his father’s request. The first son refuses to go, but later does. This is hardly what an ideal son should do. Nevertheless his action is deemed acceptable. He did what his father wanted (verse 31).
All too often we disqualify ourselves from service because we feel our efforts would not be good enough. We point to others who have greater gifts. We pull back because we know there will be loose ends and mixed results. We settle for inaction because we presume that God wants perfect disciples. This parable corrects such high expectations. Imperfect servants are still called. Flawed disciples can still minister. Laborers are needed, and sinners can apply. God is perfect, but God knows we are not. Jesus assures us that there is room for tax collections and prostitutes in God’s kingdom (verse 31).
So before we presume that we cannot please God, before we cede the work of the kingdom to others, listen to this parable. If a brash son can insult his father to his face and still find acceptance, then so can we.
Reflection: What flaws in myself have held me back from doing God’s work?
Prayer: Dear God, I want to serve you perfectly and I will continue to try. Prevent me from using my sins as an excuse to do nothing.
Matthew 22:11-14—[The Wedding Garment] The Consequences of Negligence
Today’s little parable is found only in Matthew. It pulls in the opposite direction from the parable we examined yesterday. If the parable of the two sons told us that our imperfections do not disqualify us from service, today’s parable of the wedding garment warns us that careless attitudes have consequences.
The king finds a guest at his banquet who is not properly dressed. In response the king binds him and throws him into the outer darkness. The parable presumes that a proper wedding garment was accessible to the guest. His inability to offer any excuse for his improper apparel clearly emphasizes his negligence (verse 12). He is not punished because he was flawed but because he disregarded a fault which could have been avoided.
The parable is best interpreted in light of the parable of the wedding banquet which precedes it (Matt 22:1-10). There it is made clear that some are blessed by responding to God’s invitation. Today’s parable, however, insists that responding is not enough. Once we accept the invitation to the feast, we must be willing to change the way we live. Putting on a proper garment is a common sign of such a change. “You have stripped off the self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self” (Col 3:9-10).
Our presence at the wedding banquet can only come from God’s invitation. It is a gift we can never control or earn. But once we accept the invitation, we must do our best to conform our lives to the gospel. Failure to do so is disastrous. It excludes us from the feast.
Reflection: Are there areas of my life where I feel I have been negligent?
Prayer: Lord, I thank you for my faith. Allow me not only to hold on to your gift but also to use it in your service.
Matthew 12:43-45—[The Unclean Spirit] Nature Hates a Vacuum
It is a basic principle of physics that nature hates a vacuum. Pressure seeks to be equalized. Nature exerts tremendous force to fill up an empty space with some gas or liquid. Today’s parable is the spiritual counterpart to this scientific principle.
In the parable the force seeking a home is an “unclean spirit” (verse 43). The parable presumes the demonological worldview of the Ancient Near East. It was supposed that evil spirits must dwell somewhere and that they were dissatisfied with nomadic roaming through desert wastelands. They preferred to occupy some person where their evil powers could be more fully exercised. The demon in the parable is a continual and aggressive force looking for a person in which to reside. Evil is always on the prowl for a home.
The person in whom the demon takes up residence was trying to live with a vacuum. His life was “empty, swept, and put in order” (verse 44). The demon had been expelled but nothing had taken its place. This was dangerous.
The point of the parable is similar to yesterday’s parable of the wedding garment. It is not enough to accept the invitation of Christ. We must clothe ourselves in deeds of righteousness. It is not enough to throw the demon out. We must fill our lives with the presence of God. A life void of God’s word is an invitation to evil, and the stakes are high. A demon can bring back other demons when he returns (verse 45). If you are unwilling to fill your life with God’s presence, this parable advises you that it is better to keep the devil you already have.
Reflection: Do I realize that rejecting evil is not enough, because I must fill my life with acts of love?
Prayer: Lord Jesus, avoiding evil is not the same as being an agent of your kingdom. Fill me with your presence and lead me to serve you.
Matthew 25:1-13—[The Ten Virgins] Enabling Is No Virtue
At first it seems uncharitable that the wise bridesmaids refuse to share their oil with the foolish ones (verse 9). Yet an important truth of this parable emerges when we understand that the response of the wise bridesmaids is fully justified.
The key to interpreting the parable lies in the clear demarcation between the bridesmaids who are foolish and those who are wise. The refusal of the wise to share is not therefore a general principle describing our actions towards one another but rather a specific direction on how the wise should deal with the foolish. The foolish are those who do not assume their proper responsibilities, those who are negligent in doing what is right.
The role of a bridesmaid is to greet the bridegroom, and oil is necessary to do this. The foolish knew as well as the wise that oil was required. Nevertheless, they took no steps to insure they had enough. When their capriciousness caught up with them, they supposed that the wise would bail them out. This parable assures us that the wise had no such responsibility. Those who would serve the kingdom are not required to compensate for the irresponsibility of others.
The parable serves as a refinement of Jesus’ command to love one another. It does not negate the need for sacrifice and generosity. It does, however, remind us that true love is not the same as excusing others from accountability. When others are in danger of failure because of laziness, addiction, or malice, we help neither them nor ourselves by covering for their negligence. Love sometimes requires saying, “No.” This is the tough love of the kingdom.
Reflection: Do I recognize how covering for the negligence of another is not real love?
Prayer: Lord, help me to distinguish loving from enabling. Allow me to see that true love challenges another to grow.
Matthew 18:23-35—[The Unforgiving Servant] An Unacceptable Separation
This parable which is found only in Matthew is clearly about our need to forgive one another. Forgiveness is a central demand of Matthew’s gospel. This parable follows Jesus’ command to Peter that we must forgive without limit (Matt 18:22). Matthew insists that if we wish God to forgive us (as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer) we must forgive our brothers and sisters (Matt 6:14-15).
The power of the parable is that it engages us in a story of an ungrateful servant who will not extend the forgiveness he has received to his brother servant. The details of the story all conspire to emphasize the stubbornness and blindness of the servant who will not forgive. He had owed his master one hundred times more than the debt he refuses to cancel. Moreover, he treats his fellow servant with violence in an attempt to retrieve his money, “seizing him by the throat” (verse 28).
Caught up within the action of the parable we are frustrated by the blindness of the servant who sees no connection between the mercy shown to him and the mercy he should show to others. Once so caught, the parable drives home its message: we are that servant. We have been forgiven a thousand times by God for all our offenses. But we still attempt to stand on our rights in dealing with others. We demand what is ours, “Pay me what you own me.” We separate God’s mercy towards us and our mercy towards others. The parable insists they must be held together. And once they are, the outcome is obvious: we must always forgive our brother or sister from our heart (verse 35).
Reflection: Is there someone I need to forgive but have been unable to do so?
Prayer starter: God of Mercy, help me to see that in forgiving another I must not focus on what is owed to me but on how many times you have forgiven me.
Luke 13:24-30—[The Locked Door] The Day the Door Shuts
Some parables serve as correctives. They attempt to prevent a loose and faulty interpretation. Today’s parable is one of them, and the truth it addresses stands at the center of our faith.
Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the teaching of Jesus proclaim a God whose love and mercy are without limit. God is always ready to welcome home a prodigal son (Luke 15:20). We imagine that whenever we wish to return home, God will be there to embrace us.
This parable warns us that such an expectation has limits. God’s attitude of openness and forgiveness never changes, but our ability to respond to it does. We may have the intention to spend more time with our grade-school children, but so many other things on our schedule intervene. When we find the time, they are in college. It is too late. We may know full well that we have the responsibility to care for our health, to quit smoking, eat better, take off some pounds. Before we act, our heart fails. The damage is done. We may desire to be reconciled to our father, to make peace with someone who has hurt us. Before we can try, the person dies. Reconciliation is no longer possible.
From God’s side, the good is always possible, salvation is always offered. From our side, however, opportunities are limited and good intentions are not enough. There will come a day when the opportunities run out. This parable advises us to act now, to seize the moment. God is always loving us and inviting us to take our place in God’s home. But once the door is shut, we cannot get inside.
Reflection: Which important opportunities should I act on today?
Prayer: My God, your mercy is without end. Do not allow me to presume upon your love but instead act upon the opportunities you offer me.
Luke 11:21-22—[The Strong Man] Living in the Victory of Christ
To interpret this little parable, the identity of the strong man must be determined. The versions of Matthew and Mark present us with a simple proverb, rendering any clear identity of the man impossible. Luke, however, expands the saying, reshaping it into a parable of the resurrection. He adds a second man, one who is “stronger than he” (verse 22). This description mirrors the words of John the Baptist earlier in the gospel. John calls Jesus one who is “more powerful than I” (Luke 3:16). It is likely, then, that Luke intends us to see the stronger man in the parable as Christ. This makes the man who is conquered none other than Satan.
In this light, the parable presents the resurrection of Christ in terms of a battle. Satan, fully armed, holds the world as his possession. But Christ attacks him and overcomes him by the power of his death and resurrection. Satan is defeated—defeated totally. His armor is taken away; his goods are plundered (verse 22). The victory of Christ is secure.
The parable invites us to claim Christ’s victory, even though traces of Satan’s reign continue in our world. Wars, famine, and poverty still characterize our planet. Injustice and hatred still flourish in our world. We know that the results of Christ’s resurrection have not yet fully taken hold. Yet we believe that Satan has been defeated. At the center of our faith stands Easter with its proclamation of victory. This parable tells us that the evil around us is residue from the past not a sign of the future. Those who hear the parable will be people of hope.
Reflection: Do any evils in our world make me doubt the proclamation of Christ’s victory?
Prayer: Lord Jesus, I believe in your victory over evil. Give me strength to work against what is wrong and free your love in our world.
Mark 12:1-11—[The Vineyard] An Escalating Circle of Violence
This may be the most discouraging of Jesus’ parables. It presents an ever increasing cycle of evil. The greed of the tenants leads them to insults, beatings, and eventually murder (verses 3-8). The response of the owner is further violence, killing the tenants in retaliation (verse 9).
When we situate the parable in its historical context, further injustices emerge. Although we imagine that vineyard owners were wealthy, documentation from the first century indicates that most owners were quite poor. They were forced to trust in the honesty of their tenants to honor the agreements they had made, because the judicial system at the time was ineffective and corrupt. Thus when contracts were not honored, the outcome was fruitless pleading (such as the succession of delegations to the tenants in the parable) and eventual violence. This historical perspective adds poverty and corruption to the dismal picture which the parable portrays.
This parable does not present the world as God wants it to be, but the world as it is. We recognize this world all too easily. The poor are desperate; the innocent suffer; violence is compounded. The parable does not offer a solution. It banks on another strategy. It hopes that by presenting the all that is wrong with our world, the hearer will respond from the perspective of the gospel. If this is what is wrong, then someone needs to act—to act on behalf of justice, respect, and peace. The strategy is risky, but the intent is clear. You are the person the parable prods to respond. You are the one who must act.
Reflection: Do the injustices of our world paralyze me or motivate me to do something?
Prayer: Lord Jesus, there is much in the world around me contrary to your will. Show me how I can make a difference and build your kingdom of peace.
Luke 15:11-32—[The Prodigal Son] The Two Blind Sons
The two sons in this parable share one thing in common—neither is able to accept the father’s love.
It is easier to see this in the younger son. He seems to have no appreciation for the father he is so eager to leave behind. Even when he returns and is welcomed warmly by his father, he gives no response other than his pathetic speech that he should be treated as a slave (verses 19 and 21).
It is not much better with the elder son. The father loves him and pleads that he join the celebration (verse 28). All that the father has belongs to his elder son (verse 31). Yet this son sees himself differently, “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you” (verse 29).
Neither son can claim his true identity or respond to his father’s love. The younger son would destroy the family by leaving home, by breaking all the rules. Even when he is welcomed home, he still considers himself a slave, unworthy to be a son because he has failed. The elder son would destroy the family by staying home, by keeping all the rules. Even at home he defines himself as a slave, as one who works but can never to his satisfaction prove his worthiness.
Between these two sons is the crazy old man who just loves. He stands as an image of God. He does not care that much about the failures or successes of his children but simply wants to love and be loved in return. The parable invites us to open our eyes and respond to the love God so freely offers us.
Reflection: What is a greater obstacle to my acceptance God’s love: my failures or my efforts to do good?
Prayer: Father, your love is all that counts. Do not allow my faults or my faithfulness to prevent me from being your daughter or son.
Matthew 25:31-46—[The Last Judgment] Beyond Private Goodness
This parable makes the startling assertion that what we do for the least of our brothers or sisters we do to Christ himself (verse 40). And this message is deeper than it first appears.
Who will the Son of Man judge? We usually answer this question as individuals, examining our personal lives. While such a perspective is valid, it is not what the parable actually says. The parable tells us that “all the nations” will be gathered before the king (verse 32). Thus the judgment is leveled not on an individual basis but on a communal one.
It is one thing to ask what I have done for the least among us; it is another to ask what has our nation done. Has our nation fed the hungry? Does our nation welcome the stranger? What steps has our country taken to care for those who are sick and in need of medical care? What is our national policy towards the imprisoned? Do we treat the poor, the stranger, the sick, the criminal as we would treat Christ?
This perspective profoundly complicates the parable. I can understand how I am accountable for the treatment of my next door neighbor who is hungry or sick. But how am I responsible for the actions of my community? The parable insists that although communal obligations are not as simple as personal ones, they are nevertheless real. The parable attempts to prepare us for the final coming of the king. For when the Son of Man asks an accounting from us, we will have to answer not just for ourselves but for our nation.
Reflection: Do I see my Christian responsibility as extending beyond my private life?
Prayer: Jesus, my King, I believe that your will is not simply to change me but our world. Help me to better the society in which I live.
Matthew 11:16-19—[Children in the Marketplace] Enter the Dance
This parable is a description of those whose hearts are closed to the gospel. They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and refusing to play. Their friends invite them first to play a wedding and then to play a funeral (verse 17). They reject both proposals, sulking in their stubbornness.
The parable provides a perfect perspective on Jesus’ parables, for the kingdom of God is not about theory or knowledge but about enactment. Hearing these stories is not intended simply to inform us but to change us. Where has it led you? Did you hear a parable and feel the Spirit tug on your heart? Was there a moment when you heard God’s voice? What was that voice saying? And what will you do? Will you respond to the voice which calls to you, or will you sit on the curb with your head between your knees?
The parable tells us that the wise person will respond. The wise person will understand that the parables do not simply describe the kingdom but invite us to build it. God’s kingdom is unfolding as music in our midst and the parables invite us to keep time with our feet. There are many steps we can take: praising, forgiving, affirming, trusting, risking, confronting, loving more deeply than before. But it is time to begin. Parables swing us first to one side and then the other. They push us to the point of losing our balance only to catch us and bring us up in a new sweep of grace. Don’t sit on the curb. Go for the grace. Enter the dance.
Reflection: What parable has touched my heart? Will I respond?
Prayer: Jesus, you used parables to touch human hearts. Touch mine and empower me for your service.