Wednesday, January 27, 2010

First believe, then you shall understand (Wednesday, Week III in Ordinary Time, Mark 4:1-20, The Parable of the Sower)

We’ve heard the parable of the Sower many times; and we know what it means. Jesus' parable is rather straightforward, and one doesn’t have to be an exegete to understand what it says.

But there is one particular line in it that has always baffled me. In explaining the purpose of this parable—the mother of all parables—Jesus says to the disciples: “To you has been given the secret of the Kingdom, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may hear but not understand; lest they turn and be forgiven”. How harsh can you get! Why would anyone want to preach in a way that would only confound and confuse the listeners? And why would you want them to be condemned on account of their confusion. That doesn’t only make preaching harsh, but pointless as well.

Mark’s account of Jesus explanation of the parables’ purpose differs from Matthew and Luke in this regard. In Mark, there is a certain sternness, a certain grim tone to Jesus’ words. It doesn’t seem to coincide with Jesus’ ministry of compassion. We find the same harshness in Isaiah, when God says to the prophet: “You are to say to these people, Listen carefully but you shall not understand. Look intently, but you shall know nothing. You are to make the heart of this people sluggish, to dull their ears and close their eyes. Lest their eyes will see, their ears hear, their heart understand, and they will turn and be healed”.

Why would Jesus want to preach in such a way as to make his listeners stumble? Why? I think there’s something not quite right with this question. For it involves a wrong understanding of the causality involved. Jesus’ parable is not the cause of their stumbling. For they are already stumbled, even before he preaches. Their hearts are already closed, even before they hear his words. This is the source of their confusion. That they are confused is proof of only one thing, and this the parable makes clear: they just aren’t good soil. They don’t have the disposition. They’re not disciples. They don’t believe.

Augustine and Thomas Aquinas got it right. Faith comes first, then understanding. We usually equate Augustine and Thomas with grand theological and philosophical systems meant to buttress and provide proofs for the faith. But if one were to carefully read the Summa Theologica or any of Augustine's works, one will notice a thread that runs throughout them. Perhaps we can sum this up by saying:
One has first to believe, then one can comprehend. Discipleship comes before understanding. The eyes of the heart need to be opened first, before the eyes of the mind can see.

Discipleship is a necessary presupposition for understanding Jesus’ teaching. Without this there is only confusion for one who tries to comprehend Jesus’ words. “He who has ears let him hear”. To be a disciple is to hear. Interestingly enough the Latin “audire”, which means “to hear” forms the second half of the root of the word “obedience”: ob - audire. To be a disciple is to learn to obey the words of the Master. Without obedience there is no discipleship. And without discipleship, there is only confusion. Dietrich Bonhoffer in The Cost of Discipleship could not have put it more clearly: One must first believe, then he can understand. But one must first obey, before he can believe. And one must first hear, before he can obey.

We have often equated Aquinas’ works with proofs for the faith. I say this is inaccurate. For faith is already presupposed by his so-called proofs. Faith does not come at the end of a long and rigorous attempt at intellectual gymnastics. It lies at the very beginning. It is first and foremost a tug on the heart before it is a captivation of the mind. Sit at the Master’s feet, then shall you understand. Listen attentively to his words, then shall you comprehend.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)