The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. . . . There was a householder who planted a vineyard. . . . The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully. . . . There was a rich man who had a steward, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his goods. . . . A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. . . .
These familiar lines open the most exquisitely austere and natural of all stories, the parables told by the Word who uttered the world into existence. The only proof I have of their literary superiority is that no one has ever been able to match them. Those who try are like a man standing before a masterpiece of painting who says, “I can do that,” takes up a palette, and produces a greeting card.
A parable, to be pedantic, is a similitude employing a brief narrative in order to teach a spiritual lesson. In the case of Jesus, however, this definition is as unhelpful as it is accurate. John’s Gospel has no parables, although it abounds in metaphors, but the three Synoptic writers, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, weave them in and out of the historical record, sometimes duplicating and even triplicating them. Depending on how one identifies a distinct parable, the number varies, but traditional listings name twenty-four in the Gospels.
I am aware that no man can match the Man who spoke the parables, and so to reflect on them requires a more profound consideration and a deeper decibel than commentary on ordinary literature. There are, however, two very serious, if not original, points to remember before embarking on even the briefest glimpses of these texts:
First, the parables of Christ are unlike other Eastern parables and the lesser stuff to be found in current “spiritual best sellers” in that they are not exotic. They do not distort or exaggerate nature in the way fables do. Kings are kings but not wizards, and rich men are rich but not omnipotent. The Good Samaritan carries the poor man to an inn; he does not fly him there on a carpet. The pearl of great price is valuable, but it is nothing more than a pearl. Jewish realism permits no such exoticism in the Old Testament, which contains five parables at most, depending on how one applies mishna, the Hebrew word for story telling.
Second, the parables really are what Jesus said they are: hints of heaven. Because the glory of heaven is too great for us to bear just now, Christ uses parables as delicate and veiled indications of our true homeland. Every culture has to some extent sensed that the glory of heaven is too bright for our eyes. The ancient Egyptians kept a veiled image of Ma’at, the goddess of Truth, in their temple at Saïs, believing that the actual sight of it would blind or even kill the viewer. The entire audience on the mount would have fled if Christ had plainly stated in His sermon that His kingdom was of another world. He saved that declaration for Pontius Pilate, who only shook his cynical head.
Anything I say about the parables of Christ has this advantage over the perceptions of His original audience: the Resurrection is now a known reality, and the Temple veil has been torn open. And yet we are still unprepared for the weight of glory: “This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.”
Understanding Christ’s parables belongs to the childlike. The humble of heart recognize the lessons of the parables as they play out in the course of history. They surface in both the mistakes and the courage of the Crusaders, in both the glorious architecture and the inhuman tortures of the High Middle Ages, in the zealous missionaries and the haughty degenerates of the Counter-Reformation, and in the witness of the martyrs at the hands of the maniacs of the twentieth century.
The parabolic treasure is hidden in the concrete of Wall Street as truly as in a Galilean pasture. Every culture, advanced or backward, can understand a parable, because it offers a universally sought pearl. Mr. Caveman would have nodded some form of assent, as would the French heirs to Louis IX and Louis Pasteur and the English scions of St. Thomas More and Samuel Johnson.
Parables are often dismissed as too simple: Because a child can understand them, adults must yawn through them. And yet Christ spoke in parables. That fact is infinitely interesting and eternally salvific. In the face of worldly-wise criticism, one recalls the story of the tourist in Florence who sniffed that he was not all that impressed with the Uffizi’s collection. A guard, heir to an ancient mandate to care for these treasures, replied in halting but intelligible English, “Here we do not judge the pictures; the pictures judge us.”
This point was lost on many of those who first heard Christ’s parables, and Divine Providence permits us to view their example as a cautionary icon of confused pride: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. But when they tried to arrest him, they feared the multitudes, because they held him to be a prophet.”
In their perverse pride, they would arrest a man for being arresting and would crucify Him for being a king. But in another world that is not so, and of this world the parables speak.