Text: John 16.16-33
There are no parables in the St. John’s gospel. Strange. And yet it would be accurate to say that St. John’s gospel is deeply parable-like in character. All through the gospel, people are mystified, confused, hard-pressed, and bewildered by Jesus’ words and deeds. That is, after all, the purpose of a parable.
Some people think a parable is a story that seeks to make a point clear using everyday examples. But, nothing could be further from the truth.
“As soon as He was alone, His followers, along with the twelve, began asking Him about the parables. And He was saying to them, ‘To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, so that while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven.’” (Mark 4.10-13)
“You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. ‘But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’” (Matthew 15.8-9)
Jesus was speaking to those who had a readiness of heart to hear and understand and follow. So, really, receiving, understanding, and living it out are all aspects of the same reality. Hearing the word and keeping the word cannot be separated (John 12.47; 14.21).
The prerequisite for receiving the gospel AND living it out is a readiness of heart. A perceived need and desperation. The cost of discipleship must be outweighed by the benefit to put it bluntly (see Philippians 3.8-10).
Understanding a parable — the Gospel — IS THE POINT, of the parable, but only for those who are ready for it. Yep, a paradox.
Understanding the gospel is not related to high intelligence, or years of seminary study. One can understand only when the heart – the very life of the person — has been broken open to truth – by the Holy Spirit (see Mark 2.17).
It is the way of the Spirit. It is, therefore, a dangerous tendency to artificially attempt to make the gospel “easy to understand” or “easy to receive” or even “easy to follow.” Jesus didn’t fudge on this and neither should we.
“These things He said in the synagogue as He taught in Capernaum. Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this said, ‘This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?’ But Jesus, conscious that His disciples grumbled at this, said to them, ‘Does this cause you to stumble? What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him. And He was saying, ‘For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.’” (John 6.59-65)
Let’s take a step farther into this mystery of readiness. Such openness is not, however, just a prerequisite. It is essential to our ongoing life of discipleship. We grow/maturity in our capacity to understand as well as what we understand. We need a “ready heart” or a heart that yearns to hear more and more.
In the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, there are several times in which the priest says, “let us be attentive.” In addition, the priest prays this before the reading of the Scriptures appointed for the day:
“Illumine our hearts, O Master Who lovest mankind, with the pure light of Thy divine knowledge. Open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of Thy gospel teachings. Implant also in us the fear of Thy blessed commandments, that trampling down all carnal desires, we may enter upon a spiritual manner of living, both thinking and doing such things as are well-pleasing unto Thee. For Thou art the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto Thee we ascribe glory, together with Thy Father, Who is from everlasting, and Thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”
It is important to remember, then, that the Christian faith is a revelatory faith. Story after story in both the Old and New Testaments are about revelation, its prerequisite, and its fruit (illumination, purification, and deification). The narrative of the Scriptures are the “Church’s book.” It is certainly offered to the world. But, it is offered with the conviction that only those who are ready or “drawn by the Father” will hear and respond positively.
And, of course, the Scriptures are for those who do believe that they may mature in their faith, hope, and love, being transformed into the likeness of Christ Jesus. As we allow the Holy Spirit to continue to break our hearts open, to soften our hearts, to “purify our hearts,” then, we will be illumined. We will “see God” more and more and be conformed to His likeness from one degree of deification to another.