Denis Desert on the wonders of the parable


Sunday school teachers used to teach that a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. This is a view I could not accept for I believe that a parable is very much an earthly story with an earthly meaning, how could it be otherwise? I turn to my limited Greek. Our word ‘parable’ comes directly from the Greek parabalien and is made up of two Greek words para – alongside and balien – to throw. I interpret this as a story thrown alongside not at the hearer. This, I would suggest, means that the hearer must work out the meaning of the parable and how it applies to them self.  

It is this understanding, I believe, that our Lord applied in his use of the parables.  Let me take this a step further following De Caussade in his concept of the sacrament of the present moment, I would suggest that the whole of life in itself is a parable. Our personal experience of life might well speak to us of the meaning of life, that it has purpose and requires each person to come to an understanding of the significance of everything that happens. Yes, well what about a situation when it all goes wrong and the bottom drops out of our lives? What does that tell us?  Does a negative experience impart grace as De Caussade might well suggest? No doubt many of us who take New Directions have experienced a situation in which our world has collapsed around us. What then? Does this mean that God has let us down? I think not. If we accept De Caussade’s understanding and my suggestion that life is a parable, then we need to consider that the experience, no matter how bad, has something to teach us about life itself.

Recently Paula Gooder’s book The Parables was reviewed in New Directions. The reviewer comments ‘Parables challenge us to see God and our human relationships in new ways.’ And so they do if we have open and receptive minds. A useful Lenten discipline might well be to work through some of the parables and consider how they might apply to ourselves. But the reviewer does not stop there but comments that ‘Gooder raises the question as to how a parable might provide insight to church life now.’ So where do we start, those of us who have been called to the priesthood? It might well be that when we are confronted by a parishioner who is going through a very bad time, how do we respond and what ‘spiritual guidance’ do we give? Clearly we have to avoid dishing out platitudes but somehow bringing to bear the method of the parable to enable the person to come to their own conclusion. This approach enables them to exercise personal judgement and to keep control of their own lives.

So no longer can we see the parables of Jesus as an earthly story with a heavenly meaning but very much of the earth, earthy. That is how our Lord intended his parables to be understood. Clearly they are stories to be remembered and for us to work out the meaning and apply it to our everyday life. Take the parable of the man who fell among thieves in St. Luke 10: 25-37. So how do we apply that? Look around our town centres and what do we often see? Vagabonds sleeping rough. Thankfully there are Christians and others who respond to the needs of those who have fallen badly on hard times.  Thankfully over the centuries into our present age Christians have served their fellow beings for the sake of Christ.