Then Jesus told them a parable…
In the name of the Father…
Isn’t it nice when the Evangelists tell us what Jesus’s parables are about before we’ve even had a chance to read them? “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Well, there we are then. Pray always. Don’t lose heart. Need we say any more?
The trouble is, if what Jesus intended to teach his disciples with the parable in today’s gospel could be summarised as easily as “pray always and don’t lose heart”, then you have to wonder why he didn’t just say that to them in the first place. Why bother with a parable at all? Why, above all, this parable? If Jesus’s intention was to encourage his disciples to pray always and not lose heart, then you have to say that a parable in which the God to whom their prayers are addressed is likened to a callous and uncaring judge, wearied and worn down by the nagging of his petitioners, is a pretty strange way of going about it.
Reading the parable for ourselves, it’s hard not to think that in order to make it mean something as straightforward as “pray always and don’t lose heart”, St Luke has had to ignore just about everything in it we might find interesting or arresting. And that, of course, is the great hazard of paraphrasing the parables of Jesus.
But if it is easy for us to smile at St Luke’s earnest efforts to tidy up his master’s teaching, it is probably only because we fail to see the crudity our own simplifications of the Lord’s teaching. It’s difficult not to think that we will look back on our contemporary tendency to turn every parable of Jesus into a narrative about the victimhood of one embattled minority or another with the same indulgence that we read those sermons of an earlier age which somehow managed to see in every mustard seed and lost sheep the struggle of the proletariat.
The problem with this all-encompassing victimhood narrative of ours is not that it is not Christian. It is a mystery to me why anyone should need a sermon to see how obviously Christian today’s politics of victimhood truly is, how difficult it is to imagine such a topsy-turvy politics emerging from any other worldview than that of the crucified God, of the God who becomes the victim of our violence and exclusion.
The problem is not that the politics of victimhood is not Christian, but rather that it bears about the same relationship to the mystery of Christ that “pray always and never lose heart” does to the difficult and unsettling parable in today’s gospel. It is not merely that it is a simplification of something nuanced or complex. It is deeper than that. It is that it so readily invites to forget that the reality to which we seek to be conformed, the reality at the heart of the gospel, is not a formula for the transformation of the world, but a mystery, a mystery which we do not understand and cannot control, but in which we have put our trust.
That is why Jesus teaches in parables, because it is impossible to turn a parable into a slogan or a formula without doing violence to the mystery to which it bears witness. The purpose of the parables is to bring us into the vicinity of a mystery, not that we may grasp it with our understanding, but in order that we may to cleave to that mystery long enough and faithfully enough that our lives may begin to bear its imprint. As Jesus says to the disciples in Matthew’s gospel when asked why he teaches in parables, “to you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is has not been given”. In other words, what distinguishes the disciples from others is not their access to some special kind of knowledge or insight, but the steadfastness with which they adhere to a mystery, the mystery of Christ himself.
And if that is right, then the fundamental question the parables present us with is not a theoretical one, a “what”: what does this mean? what does it represent? what is the moral of the story? but a thoroughly practical one, a “where” and a “how”, namely, where is the mystery of Christ to be found, and how are we to keep faith with it?
Of course, in one sense, the answer to the first of these questions is very simple, since the mystery to which we seek to be conformed is not an abstract principle, but a person, Jesus Christ. And so if we want to know where to find the mystery of Christ then we, like the disciples, have only to go where we know Christ is. And where is that? The scriptures and the sacraments, certainly. And yet for us, both in the Community and in the College, it is perhaps especially true that the mystery of Christ is to be found in our life together. It is, above all, our shared intuition that our life here is one lived in the presence of a mystery that makes it intelligible, that, for all our ham-fisted efforts to manage and control it, the fundamental reality shaping our lives here day after day is not one of our own making, but one, thank God, far greater and more mysterious than that.
But if that is the answer to the “where” question, then we may already begin to perceive the far greater difficulty of the “how”. How am I to keep faith with this mystery that is constantly proving itself to be larger than my capacity to manage, comprehend or control it? As the Cistercian monk Michael Casey puts it: Mystery, self-transcendence, “these are noble words, but the reality they describe is a lifetime of feeling out of one’s depth: confused, bewildered, and not a little affronted by the mysterious ways of God”. And that, at long last, brings us back to the parable in today’s gospel. Because once we have acknowledged that the mystery to which we have entrusted our lives is a reality far greater and deeper than we can comprehend or control, then a dogged determination to keep on returning to the sources of that mystery day after day, to keep on banging on the door of the mystery in the face of its baffling and callous refusal to do what I want it to do, to be what I want it to be, is exactly how we are commanded to live the Christian life.
“And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night. Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”