By fr Brian McCarthy
In St Matthew’s Gospel we find many teachings of Jesus, expressed in parables, little stories which illustrate the teaching readily and are easy to remember. Generations of preachers have admired the simplicity and power of the parables, “art concealing itself”.
Although the parables are stories, they are so true to life that one cannot help thinking that many of them are based on actual events, witnessed by Jesus and reworked for effect. For example, the king who goes to war against another king describes the politics which would have been discussed endlessly by villagers; the man who started to build a tower but ran out of money before it was finished could well be a character who acquired proverbial status in the locality, as also the man who harvested so much produce that he couldn’t store it in his barns but died before he could enjoy the fruits of his labours.
On a more domestic note, the man who disturbs his neighbour at midnight to get food for an unexpected guest could well be St Joseph. The woman baking bread, or lighting the lamp at sunset, must surely be Jesus’ mother Mary. Likewise, the woman who loses the coin gives us an insight into the domestic arrangements of the Holy Family. In those days there were no banks as we now understand them, so the best way to keep money safely was to let the woman look after it. It also shows that Mary controlled the purse strings, which is not something we might expect of a time now regarded as “unenlightened”. A denarius was a day’s wages for a labourer, a considerable sum of money, so it had to be found. The solution—sweep the house—is ingenious is its simplicity and practicality, and no less than we would expect of her.
Although we often lament that we don’t have more information about Jesus’ hidden life, if we read St Matthew’s narrative carefully we realise that both Joseph and Mary speak to us through the parables of the Gospel.
People often remark on the great love of nature one sees in the gospels—unlike for example, in the letters of St Paul, where the only nature ever mentioned is human nature. Where does this come from? The Fathers of the Church explain that God created the world “very good”: it reflects his glory, so it is natural that the Word made flesh should love the world he has created. But in his human nature, we can see him as a toddler being shown these things by his mother as they walked together: “Look at the little birds”, “Look at the beautiful flowers”. This is the raw material behind the parables.
A large part of the parables are termed “the parables of the Kingdom”—God’s kingdom on earth. It has many features: the small seed that grows into a great tree, seed and weeds growing together, a hidden treasure for which a man is ready to sell all he has in order to obtain it. In many of them we see the image of God, the Father: a very wealthy man who likes to organise lavish weddings, for Jesus’ listeners the premier social event they could dream of. The term “kingdom” implies of course that there is a king; and although Jesus carefully avoids saying who the king is, the people understood him to mean the longed-for Messiah, and instinctively saw him as that. On a number of occasions they actually try to proclaim him king, but he flees rather than let it happen.
The principal expression of God’s goodness is his mercy to man, the sinner, so the parables in a sense reach their climax in the ones which speak to us of sin and forgiveness: the lost sheep; the Pharisee and the publican; and above all, the prodigal son, in which the principal character is not the son but his father, who watches and waits for his return with great longing.