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Figuring out the Parables

30 November, 1999

In this article on the parables Seán Goan focuses on stories about Christian living and prayer. As we have come to expect from Jesus the teacher the parables on these topics are not lengthy sermons but short stories that paint vivid pictures. In talking about prayer Jesus puts before us surprising examples for us to […]

In this article on the parables Seán Goan focuses on stories about Christian living and prayer. As we have come to expect from Jesus the teacher the parables on these topics are not lengthy sermons but short stories that paint vivid pictures.

In talking about prayer Jesus puts before us surprising examples for us to copy: an annoying woman, a friend who is a nuisance, and a public sinner! In a portrayal of Christian living the person who does no wrong is described as worthless and thrown into the outer darkness. With these stories our preconceptions are once again challenged and we are forced to take some time to reflect on what really matters.

Parables on Prayer
These three examples are taken from the Gospel of Luke which is sometimes called the gospel of prayer because it devotes more time to the subject than any of the others. Jesus is presented as the man of prayer and faithful people such as Zechariah, Mary and Simeon utter beautiful prayers that reflect the true piety of the Jewish people. There are two themes in the parables on prayer: one is the need for faith and perseverance and the other is the importance of the right disposition.

The Friend at Midnight (Luke 11:5-8) (Please consult your bible for the text)
The context for this strange story is a general teaching on prayer (Lk 11:1-13) and it begins with the disciple who asks Jesus to teach them to pray. He responds to this request by teaching them the Our Father, which is a model of all Christian prayer, containing as it does praise, petition and an acknowledgement of our total dependence on God. The parable that follows does not take up any of the themes of the Our Father nor does it devote itself to explaining how prayer works. Rather it focuses on the attitude of the person who prays. Perhaps the disciple who asked for the lesson on prayer was hoping for an instruction to make it all so easy but Jesus asks him now to focus on a story in which someone is having difficulty being heard. Here is a man who is making a nuisance of himself and disturbing the much needed rest of his neighbour’s whole family. In the one-roomed house presented here it would have meant waking everyone to answer the request for bread. But Jesus wants the focus to be not so much on the annoyance of the friend but on the need of the neighbour. He is saying to him pay attention to your need and don’t worry about how your friend might be feeling. What then is the parable saying about God? Well, very little really. It is telling us that there is no quick fix solution when it comes to prayer and if we want to be heard we need to keep trying. This is not because God can’t hear or doesn’t care. The whole of Jesus’ ministry is a wonderful testimony to just how much God does hear and care. Rather it is because in our human weakness we are tempted to give up, and what suffers then is our relationship with God. It needs time, and plenty of it. Just in case anyone might think that the parable offers a negative image of God it is immediately followed by that cast iron promise from Jesus that the one who seeks always finds and the one who asks always receives. It is in the nature of God to be giving but perhaps it is we who have a problem in asking.

The Widow and the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8) (Please consult your bible for the text)

This parable is found a few chapters later on and returns to the same theme. This time, however, the point of the parable is made explicit right at the start. Jesus wants his followers to pray always and not lose heart but in order to make the point he chooses a surprising example. He does not offer to his hearers the scene of a holy person continually in the temple offering pious exclamations. No, he presents a widow – one of the weakest and most vulnerable members of society at that time. She has been wronged and is now being ignored in her plea for justice. What should she do? Be a realist and just give up because nobody cares anyway? Not at all! Her passion for justice is greater than the judge’s lack of interest and he finally concedes to her request. On this occasion Jesus makes it clear that the story does not liken God to the unjust judge. Quite the opposite. If a corrupt official can be persuaded to do the right thing how much more does God want to do right for those who suffer on earth? The point here is twofold: don’t lose sight of what is right and don’t lose heart when it appears at times to be a hopeless dream.

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14) (Please consult your bible for the text)
This parable, which immediately follows the story of the widow, has a different focus while still being on the topic of prayer. This time the issue is not perseverance but the attitude we bring to prayer and the point is exquisitely made in the two characters that are put before us. The Pharisee’s prayer is a litany of his own goodness. There is no suggestion that he is making it up and we may presume this is an accurate portrayal of his moral and religious life. Bur does it ring true as authentic prayer? No. The man is merely boasting and almost sounds as though he is saying that God is lucky to have him on his side! At this stage it would appear that praying is a waste of time because he quite obviously needs nothing from God. However, not only is he totally self-sufficient, he has also appointed himself judge of the rest of humanity and in particular of the poor wretch who is at prayer in the same sacred space. The portrayal of the tax collector stands in complete contrast. He stays at the back and his prayer is the essence of simplicity and truth. He is a sinner and he knows that he stands completely and utterly in need of the mercy of God. Jesus offers him as the model of prayer, because of the two he is the only one capable of receiving anything. The Pharisee is quite literally so full of himself that there is nothing God can give him. Only the tax collector goes home justified that he is a friend of God.

The Parable of the Talents Matthew 25: 14-30) (Please consult your bible for the text)
The last parable for consideration in our series is an appropriate one in that it deals with the need for vigilance among the followers of Jesus and insight into what is asked of them (it is also found in a slightly different form in Luke 19:11-27). In Matthew 25, the evangelist gives the last teaching of Jesus before the beginning of the passion narrative. This teaching revolves around the theme of judgement and what it will be based upon. In the parable of the talents Jesus tells a story about a wealthy landowner who is going away and who entrusts his three servants with the task of looking after his financial affairs. They are given five, two and one talent respectively. In first century Palestine a talent was a sum of money, the largest single unit of currency in the ancient world. In today’s terms it would probably be worth about half a million Euro! The servants are given no explicit instructions as to what to do with the money but the first two immediately set about trading with it and doubling its value. The third servant went and hid the money in a hole in the ground (a practice not unknown in war-torn Palestine).

After a long time the master returns and wants to know what they have done. The first two come forward with their success stories and are praised and rewarded by their master. The third man then makes his speech in which he explains he was afraid and hid the money so now he is happy to return it. The response of the master is to dismiss him as wicked and lazy. Why didn’t he at least put it in the bank where it could have earned him interest? He is then cast out into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. The reaction is surprising and the punishment disproportionate but it is this sting in the tail that allows Jesus to make his point. The Kingdom of God cannot grow through the inactivity of the disciples. Rather they must respond generously to the gift of God which has been given them. We cannot claim to be good Christians by saying: “I never did anything wrong.” Being paralysed by fear of what might happen is no excuse and as followers of Jesus we must understand that we will be called to account for the use we have made of the talents God has given us.

Since they were first spoken two thousand years ago the parables of Jesus have been a source of puzzlement, prayerful reflection and inspiration for countless generations of Christians. Now in the early days of the third millennium they continue to goad the followers of Jesus into action. May the Spirit who first inspired these stories continue to open our ears and our hearts to hear and understand the presence and power of the Kingdom of God at work in our midst.

This article first appeared in The Word (April 2002), a Divine Word Missionary Publication.



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