Jesus' frequent use of parables tells us a lot about Him. Teachers who simply want to add new bits of information to their students' store of knowledge never employ such devices. Parables pop up only when a teacher is trying to retool someone's mind, attempting to change the part of the brain that processes information.

Remember the story of the tourist who pulls his car over to the side of a country road and asks a grizzled farmer for directions? After hearing where he wants to go, the old man smiles and informs him, "You can't get there from here."

That's what parable users are telling their audiences: "With your present frame of mind, you can't get to where I'm trying to take you. The only way to reach that 'new place' is to totally change the way you look at the people, things and circumstances around you."

Two levels

Parables snooker us into admitting something on one level that we'd never admit on another. Once we realize the connection between the two levels, we're trapped.

For instance, when someone points out to Jesus that He's wasting lots of time teaching people who will never carry out His teachings, Jesus reminds the person that farmers waste lots of the seed they broadcast. Yet what little takes root produces much more than all the wasted seed. If farmers don't mind such a waste, why should He? If just a few who hear His word change their lives, the waste doesn't matter.

Jesus wants His followers to acquire a new way of looking at forgiveness as an aspect of their relationship with God. As Paul reminds us, forgiveness revolves around being "a new creation." It isn't only having one's sins wiped away and starting over with a clean slate.

Even the author of the first reading (Joshua 5:9a,10‑12) knows there's more to forgiveness than just getting rid of guilt. "Today," Yahweh tells the Jewish leader, "I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you." No longer are the Chosen People a band of runaway slaves. They now have a homeland. They've taken on a new identity.

Yahweh relates to them in a new way: "No longer was there manna for the Israelites, who that year ate of the yield of the land of Canaan." Since they're a new people, God cares for them in a new way.

Paul is convinced that, when we experience God's forgiveness through Jesus, we're no longer the same people who committed the forgiven sins. He reminds the Corinthians (II Corinthians 5:17‑21), "Whoever is in Christ is a new creation; the old things have passed away. Behold, new things have come."

New creations

Even Scripture scholars who doubt we can know anything for certain about the historical Jesus tell us there's no doubt He took static from the "good folk" for associating with sinners. In his Gospel (Luke 15:1‑3,11‑32), Luke has Jesus lay three parables on those pious people who object to His relating to such outcasts. He narrates stories about the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son.

As the older "good" son points out in story of the prodigal son, his father's forgiving generosity is not only illogical; it's unjust. The father's response can only be understood against a parent/child relationship.

The overjoyed old man isn't the boy's army drill sergeant. He's a loving, relieved parent who sees the boy in a completely different light than anyone else does. No matter what he did in the past, in the father's eyes, the boy is now a new creation.

Jesus could teach this new dimension of faith only through parables. Unless those to whom He's entrusted the "ministry of reconciliation" approach sinners with a frame of mind different from those around them, God's drive to forgive will constantly dead-end against the wall our un-retooled selves have built.

(3/15/07)