HINTS OF HEAVEN

The Parables of Christ and What They Mean for You

By Father George Rutler

Sophia Press, 2014

151 pages, $14.95 (e-book, $9.99)

To order: (800) 888-9344 or SophiaInstitute.com

 

One of the things I love about Walter Farrell’s classic Companion to the Summa was his ability to create vivid yet familiar images to illustrate a point. Explaining that the sacrament of the sick is indicated for but objectively not absolutely necessary to salvation, he wrote: “[The sacrament’s] simplicity suggests the little, insignificant touches that love prompts when it wants its loved ones to look its best: like a mother’s last moment poking, pulling, arranging of a child’s clothes before entering the old homestead with its eagle-eyed inspection. Mother Church is preparing to introduce her child to the ancestral mansion, the home of her forefathers, and she insists, lovingly, on her child looking its best.”

George Rutler is a modern-day Walter Farrell, with a touch of Ronald Knox thrown in. His felicity with a turn of language makes reading him a pleasure. His subject: Jesus’ parables.

Father Rutler, a convert and New York Archdiocesan priest, knows that the parables are themselves so engaging that we can hardly add to them, not unlike setting out to reproduce a Grünewald and “produc[ing] a greeting card.” Still, there are things to be said about the parables.

One of the most important is that they are about heaven. “The kingdom of heaven is like …” a buried treasure, a mustard seed, a sower with his seeds, a vineyard and its workers and a wedding banquet. Knowing that heaven is ineffable, Jesus gives us images to ready us for where we should be headed. Father Rutler insists that the parables are not just moral tales (though unless you do some things — disabuse yourself of the foolishness of building your own barns, for example — you will not see that kingdom). The parables are first and foremost lessons about heaven.

And the reflections Father Rutler offers about those lessons are well worth pondering, both for the depth of his thought and the deftness of his expression. 

Consider: “The yeast kneaded into the dough works so calmly that only a few shepherds in Bethlehem noticed the start of the process. This struck Phillips Brooks in 1868, when he had left Philadelphia for the Holy Land: ‘How silently the wondrous gift is given!” (a stanza from O Little Town of Bethlehem).

“Peter can no longer keep silent and asks plaintively: How often do I have to forgive? Usquequo domine? Seven times? (This is not the most promising start for the father of all the world’s confessors.) Peter is no doubt hoping to appear magnanimous. But his bourgeois arithmetic provokes the Master’s royal calculus: ‘Seventy times seven. That is — without limit.’

“But caution is not always prudent. General Rundle ‘never took a risk and was rewarded by never suffering a reverse.’ He also never won.

“So when Jesus asks, ‘What man of you …?’ and ‘What woman …?’ he may expect that the people will squirm a little and think to themselves, ‘Let’s not object.’ Once again, he is gently correcting consciences. The difference between Jesus humbling others and the Pharisees humiliating others becomes, after a lifetime, the difference between heaven and hell.”

This book is a good place to search for those parabolic “hints of heaven.” (Each of the 24 parables is provided in full, followed by Rutler’s reflections). You could plough through the book in an evening. But, to borrow a phrase from Richard Dillon, another New York priest, that would be like “skating through the Louvre.” Father Rutler — for his thought and style — is more like Cointreau, to be sipped and savored.   

 

               John M. Grondelski writes from

 Shanghai, China.