One of the more unappreciated (at least in my view) traits of Christian tradition is our ability to tell stories. From the very beginning, Christians have been not just chroniclers of dry history, but men and women of great imagination. From Tolkien to Dante, they’ve created vivid worlds that, in their own way, speak the truth about God. When they do this, they follow in the footsteps of our Lord. In the Gospel for this Sunday’s Mass, we hear about Christ and His use of parables. The point of the parables was to “utter things hidden from the foundation of the world.”
When we hear of “things hidden”, should we understand Christianity as some Gnostic religion? Are we like Masons, who deliberately withhold teachings from the uniniated? What we think about the parables of Christ I think would tell us a lot about what we think of the Church today.
When Christ speaks of “hidden knowledge”, such knowledge is hidden in plain sight. That knowledge is there, but we often aren’t looking for it. When God created the world, He also made it possible for man to know Him. He left a calling in our hearts that reaches out to Him. He planted “seeds of the word” throughout pagan cultures, so that they would be ready for the Gospel when it arrived.
While all these things are available to us, we often don’t want to listen. Whether it is pride, vanity, or just the after effects of original sin, we normally prefer a message other than the one God gives. We’ve even become pretty good at creating things that make it harder for God to speak to us. In that sense, the knowledge is hidden. God seldom bangs you over the head with His truth. It has always been there, but you need to seek it.
This is what Christ is doing when He speaks in parables. Often people will read it and think of the parables as simply pious do-gooder messages. Be nice to people, be a good person, love your neighbor, etc. Yet often, parables are focused on God, not us. Yes, be a good person, but the parable teaches that it is only through Christ’s love and grace that true Christian charity becomes possible. When the parable of the mustard seed is given, the emphasis is on God’s ability to make grand creations out of the smallest of things. We just have to be able to turn our hearts over to him.
The “how” of this is the true point of the parable. Parables reveal to us not only how to seek God, but how to grow in him. Any presentation of the Gospel has to include these things. When we bring Christ to people, in what way are we bringing him? Are we bringing merely a vague concept of forgiveness and mercy? Or are we providing them the power of forgiveness and transformation?
St. Paul gets at this point during the Epistle. The pagans of Thessalonica began listening to God’s voice, which was always calling to him. When they not only listened, but allowed themselves to be transformed by it, they changed their life. They stopped worshipping idols. They changed their moral behavior, being converted to not only believing God’s truth, but living it.
I think, in many ways, we have reduced the power of the parable. It has become a meaningless platitude because in order for it to mean more, there has to be a sincere belief in not only forgiveness but transformation. If recent events in the Church have shown us anything, a large number of Catholics are no longer in the preaching transformation business. Often, our own actions don’t speak of a transforming love either. How can we reveal the hidden things of God, when they are hidden to us?
I’d like to end this column with a Biblical story. The prophet Elijah was exiled from his home, evading the wicked pagan queen who was looking for his blood. In that exile, he was forced to retreat to a faraway mountain, where, giving into despair, Elijah resolved that he would die in a forgotten cave. God refuses to accept this, and tells Elijah that when he exits the cave, he will see God’s presence. When he exits, he sees all these grandiose displays, whether it be a wildfire, an earthquake, or a great storm, and he doesn’t see God’s presence. He only notices God once everything has stopped, and he perceives stillness in front of him watching a flower grow.
The moral of that story is the stillness of God’s presence was always there, Elijah was just never looking for it. Once he finds that stillness, his faith is strengthened, and he heads out with even more resolve to do God’s will. That stillness changed his life. After that encounter with God, he didn’t persist in his despair. Likewise, if we sincerely encounter Christ, and wish to be transformed by Him, we won’t be the same. It might take a few days, it might take a few decades, but God will slowly but surely transform us. We just need to seek him, and listen to the message of the parables.