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Reflections on the Secrets of the Kingdom

Why do you speak to them in parables? Christ’s answer to this question takes us to the heart of what He calls the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven. But He leads us to the answer by means of a teaching which can, at first sight, seem harsh, even scandalous:  For to him who has more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.

In these ominous words, Christ appears to be saying that in their approach to God those who are already wealthy are to be enriched even further, while those who are poor are destined to suffer an ever deeper impoverishment. This seems to contradict the whole thrust of the New Testament, which time and again, and in many different ways, speaks of grace as leading the rich – those who have – into dispossession, while it is the poor – those who have not – who are favoured by God with an unforeseeable abundance.

So how are we to interpret this apparent contradiction? I think we have to understand that what is being spoken about in today’s Gospel is not wealth in the ordinary sense of the term, something already possessed. Rather we are dealing with something by which possession is undone, implying a lack, an emptiness, and a yearning for fulfilment. What is being spoken of, in other words, is desire, and specifically the desire for God. It is this which, if one has it, will be enriched, and which, if one lacks it, means that whatever else one has will, in the end, be brought to nothing.

Once we understand this, then the appearance of a contradiction with the New Testament as a whole begins to dissolve. For wealth, in the sense of an abundance of possessions, is precisely what stifles the desire for God, because it stifles our ability to see Who God shows Himself to be. If our desire for God is to be awakened and become potent within us, then, we have to undergo a dispossession of all that constrains it. But if we are already dispossessed, if we are not dazed and tranquilized by what we have, then the desire for God can be more easily released in us. And this is because our very poverty establishes an affinity between God and ourselves, Who shows Himself to us as making Himself poor so that, precisely in our poverty, He can enrich us. It is this that the New Testament insistently teaches. The rich cannot recognize God, and so cannot desire Him, because in the Crucified One He shows Himself to them in the form of a poverty which they fear and despise and from which they flee. Only the poor can perceive Him, because He shows Himself to them in a likeness to themselves, from which He can begin to fashion His own likeness within them.

And today’s Gospel does not contradict this, but speaks of exactly the same pattern. What it tells us is that she who, in her poverty, has a wealth of desire for God will be enriched as He responds to that desire and uses it to draw her into Himself; whereas he who, in his wealth, conceals within himself a poverty of desire for God will find that what he has will be taken from Him, impoverishing him, precisely so that his desire for God can be awakened and activated for his enrichment.

Now in this whole Christian pattern, by which wealth and poverty are disclosed as disguising one another, there is of course a defeat of our expectations, an inversion or reversal of the values and goals which fallen human beings instinctively acknowledge and pursue. In this sense, Christianity can be called a paradoxical religion, and the path of discipleship a paradoxical path. Along this path poverty is revealed as inhering in accumulation, and we grow rich only in undergoing subtraction: we find ourselves, but only by losing ourselves; we die, in order to discover ourselves made alive.  And this paradoxical pattern shapes both Christian life itself and the forms of discourse in which that life is expounded.

Now that this pattern has been glimpsed, we can better understand Christ’s answer to His disciples’ question: Why do you speak to them in parables? The problem with parables is that they seem deliberately to obscure the meaning they are intended to convey. The surface of the discourse resists our grasping it all at once, does not immediately yield its meaning to our understanding, and leaves us instead with the arduous process of interpretation, which means a willingness to abide in uncertainty until, from within our obscurity, light is given to us and we can begin to discern the Divine logic that is at work.

In other words, parables are instruments of that defeat and reversal of expectation by which the hidden paths of grace take shape within us. Rather than immediately enriching us with meaning, parabolic ways of communicating impose a kind of poverty of understanding: a poverty which turns to our enrichment only if we remain faithful to the arduous unfolding of an enlightenment which we ourselves cannot produce, but which we must await as Divine illumination. Parables, then, not only teach the Gospel, they also enact it: they not only speak about, but also perform, the healing pattern of self-dispossession for the sake of enrichment at the hands of God.

And that, in turn, means that parables, if they are to take effect within us, depend not so much upon our understanding of God as upon our desire for Him. For desire seeks, but it also knows how to await; it is urgent, perhaps, but it also persists, across the distances measured by obscurity and disappointment. Desire is what leads us into the darkness of the parable, and sustains us there in anticipation of enlightenment.

But without desire, parables are transformed into mere obstacles:

For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are heavy of hearing,
and their eyes have closed,
lest they should perceive with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their heart,
and turn for me to heal them.

These words show us that the people’s demand for gratification has suffered the imposition of a frustration: the need to await what cannot be given to them immediately and all at once. The thing that could sustain them, in this reversal of expectation, is a desiring anticipation of enrichment, not necessarily as something foreseeable, but as that for the sake of which they entrust themselves to Divine goodness, confident that God alone can make darkness light. But instead of this they have allowed their desire to decay, and therefore find themselves stuck, resentfully, in demanding something which the very fact of demanding it makes them incapable of receiving. It is as if they are saying to God that they consent to perceive, to hear and to understand only on terms which they themselves establish, according to their own conception of the enrichment that is owing to them, and therefore refuse to give themselves to Him so that He can teach them differently. They refuse the light inhering in a poverty which they must first embrace, before it can be relieved according to the mysterious achievements of His grace.

Why, then, does Christ speak to us in parables? It is so that we can learn to desire, through poverty, the wealth that He alone can give.

By Fr Philip Cleevely, Cong. Orat.

St Philip's Seminary, Toronto
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