This spring, Pope Benedict XVI published a 10-chapter book titled Jesus of Nazareth. And while the Pope specifically instructed that the work is a personal project and not part of the magisterial teaching of the Church, his book is a profound reflection on Jesus authored by one of the greatest theological minds in the history of Christianity.
Father Raymond J. de Souza, the Register’s former Rome correspondent, analyzes the book’s contents and its significance in an exclusive five-part series for the Register. This is Part V.
The parables lie at the heart of Jesus’ preaching. So memorable are the stories that they have become a form of cultural shorthand — the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the lost sheep.
Yet the attentive reader of the Gospels must occasionally experience the frustration of the disciples themselves. Why does the Lord Jesus insist on speaking in parables? Why doesn’t he just speak plainly?
Pope Benedict XVI, writing as Joseph Ratzinger, begins with that question in his chapter on parables in his book, Jesus of Nazareth. Not surprisingly, he begins with his own experience as a university professor.
“Every educator, every teacher, who wants to communicate new knowledge to his listeners naturally makes constant use of example or parable,” Benedict-Ratzinger writes. “By using an example, he draws their attention to a reality that until now has lain outside their field of vision.
He wants to show how something they have hitherto not perceived can be glimpsed via a reality that does fall within their range of experience.
“By means of parable he brings something distant within their reach so that, using the parable as a bridge, they can arrive at what was previously unknown.”
The parables of Jesus are more than just good teaching techniques, however. While they bring new knowledge, the parables also make demands upon the listener, who “must enter into the movement of the parable and journey along with it.”
“At this point we see why the parables can cause problems,” the Holy Father writes. “People are sometimes unable to discover the dynamic and let themselves be guided by it. Especially in the case of parables that affect and transform their personal lives, people can be unwilling to be drawn into the required movement.”
Benedict-Ratzinger describes the parables of Jesus as something akin to the Incarnation itself. Just as the hidden God makes himself manifest in the flesh, so too the parables disclose in ordinary things God’s own revelation and the gift of salvation.
“Jesus is not trying to convey to us some sort of abstract knowledge that does not concern us profoundly,” he writes. “He has to lead us to the mystery of God — to the light that our eyes cannot bear and that we therefore try to escape. In order to make it accessible to us, he shows how the divine light shines through in the things of this world and in the realities of our everyday life.
“Through everyday events, he wants to show us the real
ground of all things. ... He shows us God: not an abstract God, but the God who
acts, who intervenes in our lives, and wants to take us by the hand.”
If one considers how vivid the parables are in their ordinariness, the point is clear. Who has not lost something valuable and searched the whole house for it? Who has not come across someone in need and been tempted to pass by on the other side? Who has not felt resentment when others who have done less work are given the same reward?
In his analysis, Benedict-Ratzinger shows how the parables have a very concrete point to make, rather easily grasped. The Good Samaritan teaches us that our “neighbor” is not limited by race or nation. The Prodigal Son teaches us about the Father’s mercy, and the importance of conversion on the part of the wayward son.Going Deeper
Yet the parables provide a departure point for going deeper, even making use of the literary device of allegory. The Holy Father cites the Church Fathers who, for example, considered the man on the road to Jericho who was both “stripped” and “beaten” as a figure of fallen Adam, who was “stripped” of his supernatural grace, and “beaten” by the consequences of his own sinfulness. Or the older brother of the Prodigal Son, who stands for all those who have forgotten the blessings of sonship; who have forgotten that remaining in the Father’s house is the primary blessing, especially in contrast to wandering in the false delights of the world.
The parables, Benedict-Ratzinger stresses, disclose both the person of Jesus and his mission, at the heart of which is the Cross. So we can see in the Good Samaritan a figure of Jesus, who sacrifices himself for the wounded man. Or in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the latter as a figure of Jesus who, full of wounds and afflictions, eventually returns from the dead, even though many still do not believe.
“The parables manifest the essence of Jesus’ message,” the Holy Father writes. “In this sense, the mystery of the Cross is inscribed right at the heart of the parables.”
Father Raymond J. de Souza
served as the Register’s
Rome correspondent from 1999 to 2003.
He writes from Kingston, Ontario.