How do we renew the imagination of readers, that they might encounter the parables in their living vitality?
As a theological educator in a university setting, often charged with presenting the Scriptures to undergraduates, I find the teaching of parables to be a difficult exercise in enriching the theological imagination of students. Formed by years of catechesis that reduces the Scriptures to morality tales, they often find it difficult to encounter the interruptive and salvific genius of Jesus’ parabolic preaching. They want the Parable of the Talents to be about how they can offer their particular gifts to the Notre Dame community. They want the Good Samaritan to be about how we should be kind to one another. For this reason they cannot grasp those parables like the unjust steward who salvages his employment through duplicitous means.
In his letter for the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis encourages the Church to enter more deeply into the parables of Jesus as exercises of imagining divine mercy (DM 9). According to Pope Francis, the parables of Jesus reveal not so much a moral teaching that we should learn but are an encounter with God’s mercy become flesh. God is dogged in pursuit of the redemption of humanity. In this way, the Parables do involve some action on our part but activity that is a response first and foremost to an encounter with the Word made flesh.
Thus, the Parable of the Talents is fundamentally about the gifts that we have received from God. A talent, after all, is not a single coin but serious money. To receive this much in excess as pure gift, and then to be fearful of God’s harshness, is to miss the point of the Gospel to begin with. We have received from the Father the gift of his Son, the gift of God’s indwelling among us. We have received the Church’s sacramental life, as well as her ascetic program of forming us in self-giving love. How can we not give this away as a gift to others, doubling the proceeds first bestowed by the giver of all good things?
The Good Samaritan is also a parable of mercy. The central actor is not the man in need but the one now defined as neighbor, the one supposedly outside the covenant. The Samaritan offers to the man near death far beyond what would be expected in such a situation. And this man, the one who shouldn’t be near us at all, becomes our neighbor. It is the action of the Samaritan that is to become the source of our own deeds of love. It is no wonder that the early Church saw in the Samaritan an icon of Christ himself, who became for us neighbor. Yet even if it’s not Christ presented in this parable, we still encounter the fact that it is the other, the outsider, who may reveal to us the shape of divine love in its fullness.
Lastly, the Parable of the Unjust Steward is, perhaps, a revelation that as we enter into the purifying presence of Jesus, as God comes to take account of what we have done, God desires us to be quite serious about staying in his merciful love. If God pursues us even to the point of foolishness, then we too should pursue God in the same way that we would try to keep a job that is required for our livelihood. At all costs.
But how does one renew the imagination of the reader to encounter the parables in their living vitality once again? With my undergraduates, it requires a reformation in practices of reading. Because of an educational system that prizes the gleaning of information from texts, they (and many of us, no doubt) have forgotten that reading well is often playfully attending to the details. Religious reading, to use a term employed by Paul Griffiths, is not “carrying meaning” to a receiver but immersion into a worldview. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, it is important to notice that the parable is told in response to a question: “Who is my neighbor?” It is essential to imagine we ourselves as those who pass by the wounded man on the side of the road. It is pivotal to perceive the generous hospitality bestowed by the Samaritan himself. These details are not peripheral to the narrative, filler that Jesus uses to give a message: be kind to everyone. No! It is actually attending to the details, slowing down the process of reading that one may begin to develop insights about the radical mercy that the beloved Son has come to bestow.
Theological education, especially in the teaching of the Scriptures, requires us to inculcate in students religious practices of reading, distinct from the kind of academic reading they have learned in years of school. We would do well to retrieve the four senses of the Scriptures in such education, asking our students to read the text at the literal level, pertaining to the way that words sound, the details used, the historical context; at the allegorical level, seeing how the text itself enables us to understand Jesus’ ministry anew; at the moral level, to let the text function as a mirror upon our own chilly hearts, as demanding a specific change of life; at the anagogical level, enabling the text to offer to us a vision of what constitutes the New Jerusalem, to see how the text reshapes our desire.
Such practices of reading are not simply appropriate for believers in the classroom. The contemporary theological classroom is a place of pluralism, both among Christians and other religious communities. It is inappropriate, as well as impossible, to demand belief from one’s students. Rather, these practices of reading invite students to read the Scriptures as the Tradition has read them. Practices of reading employed by Melito of Sardis, by Augustine, by Gertrude of Helfta, by Catherine of Siena and Gustavo Gutiérrez. It is taking seriously the distinctive way of knowing that theology has demanded — a contemplative encounter with the Scriptures, a way of knowing that perceives an excess of meaning, of possibility in the text. Moralistic readings, reading for a “message,” shuts down this contemplative approach, and thus students will never learn how the Scriptures actually function in theology.
Such practices of theological education within the classroom can easily be adapted in the pulpit, in catechetical settings and, of course, in biblical commentary intended to enrich the reading of the Scriptures for the believer. The gift of these practices is that they will open the Scriptures to become once again encounters with God’s mercy made flesh. In this way, within our parishes and beyond, retrieving the parabolic grammar of the kingdom of God during the Year of Mercy will thus be an occasion for the Church to discover the gratuity of divine love, as well the splendor of our human response to God’s response. A gratuity that gives us everything, asking in return that we give that which was a gift to begin with: our very selves.
Timothy P. O’Malley, PhD, is director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy in the Institute for Church Life and associate professional specialist, University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Liturgy and the New Evangelization: Practicing the Art of Self-Giving Love and editor of the Center for Liturgy’s blog, Oblation, where you can read a longer exposition on this topic.