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The Spiritual Teaching of Christ

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The Parables

With the coming of Christ, the spiritual legacy of Judaism reached its fulfillment. This becomes obvious the moment we recognize who was Jesus Christ. When He asked His disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” they instinctively answered that people thought He was one of the ancient prophets come back to life, or maybe John the Baptist whom his father had identified as “prophet of the Most High” (Luke 1:76). But then Jesus changed the question, and asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter gave the answer and world history has not been the same ever since. “You are the Christ,” Peter replied, “the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15-16).

Jesus Christ is the infinite God in human form. What He taught, therefore, is not merely prophetic wisdom, not even such as Isaiah or Jeremiah taught under divine inspiration.

The teaching of Christ is literally the teaching of God or, better, it is God Himself teaching His creatures. The attributes of Christ as God were made manifest in the words and actions of Christ as man. Everything He said and everything He did were so many self-revelations of the mind and will of Yahweh.

Our focus in the present study is very specific. No doubt Christ taught not only verbally but vitally, not only in human language but in human living. Yet our concentration here is rather on what He said, on the words He spoke and on the truth He uttered with human lips.

Yet, once again, Christ spoke in many ways and used a variety of forms of human discourse. We shall further concentrate on one form of teaching, among others, namely the parables of the Savior.

As we go deeper into our subject, we shall examine reasons for doing this, why the parables of the Gospels are such a treasury of wisdom. For the present we can at least say that Christ used the parables to teach His contemporaries because He saw in the parable a most effective means of communicating divine mysteries in humanly intelligible form.

We may therefore safely say that Christ is our Teacher not only in what He taught, but in how. His teaching is divine revelation twice over: once in the matter revealed, and once again in the manner of its being revealed. From this perspective we see that there are two lessons we should learn from the Master. We should learn the truths we need to be saved and sanctified, but we should also learn the method of communicating these truths to others.

That is why the parable is not only a convenient way of learning the content of our faith. It is also a sure way of learning how to share this faith with those whom God places into our lives. The importance of this becomes more clear once we realize that our practice of charity in sharing the true faith belongs to the essence of Christianity. We are to share the true faith; nothing less will do. But we are also to share what we believe in the most effective way we can. Following the way that Christ taught means, in practice, using parables as He did in order to convey the message of God’s love to a sinful human race.

One more distinction needs to be made. We are here speaking not only about Christ’s teaching in general; we are talking about His spiritual teaching. Concretely this means we are focusing on what Jesus taught for our sanctification, and not only our salvation. We center our attention on His teaching of holiness, and not only on the avoidance of sin.

This single fact will open up vistas in the spiritual life that may never have been seen before. Why do we say this? Because the New Testament is new in many ways, but in none more certainly than its capacity for making saints. And whatever else the modern world should teach us, it is the fact that ordinary Christians cannot survive in today’s chaotic world. Our Catholic faith must take on the qualities of heroism, our hope must have something of the dimensions of martyrdom, and our charity must become more and more like that of Christ, or, like so many in modern cultures like the American, we shall fall by the wayside.

Holiness, we know, has always been the will of God for the followers of Christ. But today it is nothing less than a condition for survival.

The subject of our reflections, consequently, is Christ’s spiritual teaching, with an emphasis on its spirituality. There is, of course, such a thing as Christ’s moral doctrine. For our purpose, we assume that. Nor do we deny that what the Master taught was simply revealed truth, which includes both morality and spirituality. However, there is a difference between morality, or what we must do to reach heaven and avoid hell; and what with divine grace we can do beyond the basic obligations of the moral law. The latter we call spirituality.

The New Testament Parables

Parable is the name given to similitudes drawn from nature or from human experience, especially those containing a short narrative, that Christ used to convey the spiritual meaning of the mysteries He came to teach the world.

There is no sharp line to distinguish parables from the minor metaphors and similes that are a feature of Christ’s pedagogy. Scholars commonly agree that there are no parables in the Gospel of St. John. The fourth Gospel does, however, contain sayings that Jesus used about Himself which resemble parables, e.g., He called Himself the Good Shepherd. But parables in the strict sense are found only in the Synoptic Gospels.

Understandably there is divergence among authorities regarding the classification of the parables. Our grouping is based on the general idea of the Kingdom of God. Moreover, we subdivide this large classification into three categories, namely parables dealing with the Kingdom of God as such; those treating of membership in the Kingdom and those concerned with the conduct or responsibilities of persons who belong to God’s Kingdom, and finally those parables revealing the Head of the Kingdom and His relationship to its members.

Classification of the Parables

I. Parables of the Kingdom of Heaven and its Gradual Development, its Nature and Activity

  1. The Sower (Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23; Mark 4:3-9, 13-21; Luke 8:5-8, 11-15).

  2. The Seed Cast into the Ground (Mark 4:26-29).

  3. The Tares or Cockle (Matthew 13:24-30, 37-43).

  4. The Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31+; Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18+).

  5. The Leaven (Matthew 13:33; Luke 13:20+).

  6. The Hidden Treasure (Matthew 13:44).

  7. The Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:45+).

  8. The Fishing Net (Matthew 13:47-50).

  9. The Great Harvest and the Few Laborers (Matthew 9:37+; Luke 10:2).

  10. The Bridegroom and the Wedding Guests (Matthew 9:14+; Mark 2:18-20; Luke 5:33-35).

  11. The Old Garment and the Old Wine Bottles (Matthew 9:16+; Mark 2:21+; Luke 5:36-38).

  12. Old and New Wine (Luke 5:39).

  13. The Wayward Children (Matthew 11:16-19; Luke 7:31-35).

  14. Real Defilement (Matthew 5:10+; 15:20; Mark 7:14-23).

  15. Uprooted Plants and Blind Leaders of the Blind (Matthew 15:13+; Luke 6:39).

  16. The Children and the Dogs (Matthew 15:26+; Mark 7:27+).

  17. The Kingdom of Christ and the Kingdom of Satan (Matthew 12; Mark 3; Luke 11).

  18. The Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16).

  19. The Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-32).

  20. The Wicked Husbandman (Matthew 21:33-46; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19).

  21. The Marriage of the King’s Son (Matthew 22:1-14).

  22. The Great Supper (Luke 14:16-24).

  23. The Signs of the End (Matthew 24:32+; Mark 13:28+; Luke 21:29-31).

  24. The Body and the Eagles (Matthew 24:28; Luke 17:37).

II. Parables Concerning the Members of the Kingdom of God Individually and their Responsibilities

  1. The Barren Fig-Tree (Luke 13:6-9).

  2. The Good Tree and the Bad (Matthew 7:16-20; 12:33-35; Luke 6:43-45).

  3. The Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14).

  4. The Last Place at the Feast (Luke 14:7-11).

  5. The Poor Guests (Luke 14:12-14).

  6. The Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21).

  7. The Vigilant Servants (Mark 13:33-37; Luke 12:35-38).

  8. The Thief in the Night (Matthew 24:43+; Luke 12:39+).

  9. The Faithful Steward (Matthew 24:45-51; Luke 12:41-48).

  10. The Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13).

  11. The Closed Doors (Luke 13:25-30).

  12. The Five Talents (Matthew 25:14-30).

  13. The Pounds (Luke 19:11-27).

  14. The Unprofitable Servants (Luke 17:7-10).

  15. The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37).

  16. The Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-9).

  17. The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).

  18. Serving Two Masters (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13).

  19. The Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:23-35).

  20. The Mote and the Beam (Matthew 7:3-5; Luke 6:41+).

  21. Pearls before Swine (Matthew 7:6).

  22. The Son Asks His Father for Bread (Matthew 7:9-11; Luke 11:11-13).

  23. The Friend Coming at Midnight(Luke 11:5-8).

  24. The Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8).

  25. The Two Debtors (Luke 7:41-43).

  26. The Salt of the Earth (Matthew 5:13; Mark 9:50; Luke 14:34+).

  27. The Lamp on the Lampstand, and the City on the Mountain (Matthew 5:14-16; Mark 4:21; Luke 8:16; 11:33).

  28. The Builder, the King Going to War (Luke 14:28-33).

  29. The Disciples, Servants and the Household (Matthew 10:24+; Luke 6:40; John 13:16; 15:20).

  30. The Prudent Householder (Matthew 13:52).

  31. The House Built on a Rock and the House Built on Sand (Matthew 7:24-27; Luke 6:47-49).

III. Parables on the Head of the Kingdom and His Relation to His Members

  1. The Light of the World (John 3:19-21; 8:12; 9:5; 12:35+, 46).

  2. The Grain of Wheat (John 12:24+).

  3. The Vine (John 15:1-8).

  4. The King’s Son Free from Tribute (Matthew 17:23-26).

  5. The Physician (Matthew 9:12+; Mark 7:12; Luke 5:31+).

  6. The Good Shepherd (John 10:1-16).

  7. The Lost Sheep (Matthew 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7).

  8. The Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10).

  9. The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).

Note: the above list of parables is all but exhaustive. It includes what some writers consider parables in the Gospel of St. John. It also includes short parabolic statements that follow the pattern of full-length parables, and are to be interpreted in the same way.

Distinctive Qualities

When St. Peter wrote to the early Christians that, “It was not any cleverly invented myths that we were repeating when we brought you the knowledge of the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (II Peter 1:16) - he was speaking to people who lived in a myth-laden world. This is important to keep in mind as we begin to examine some of the distinctive qualities of parables.

The Gospel parables are therefore unlike anything that we know existed in the literature of the ancient world of Egypt, Greece or Rome. If we are to find roots for the New Testament parables, we should look for them in the inspired writings of the Jews. Under divine protection, the Hebrew genius was not given to making myths. It avoided personifying nature, unlike, for example, the myth-making Greeks. There is not a trace of deifying the elements that was so common for centuries in the writings of the Mediterranean peoples.

The reason for this stark realism of the Old Testament authors was, of course, their firm belief in one, and only one, God who was Creator of the universe. Nature worship was abhorred as a blasphemy against Yahweh, who forbade His people to have any other gods beside Him or even to make graven images that might possibly lead to idolatry.

As a result, the parables of Christ are faithful to the spirit of the Torah and consistent with the faith of believing Jews in His day. We never come across enchanted stones or talking beasts or trees with magical powers. The world described in the parables is the real world of every day. Not even miracles break in upon the established order that God has set in the world.

If we compare the Parables of Christ with what the Oriental imagination produced in writers like Aesop and Hesiod, the contrast becomes indescribably great. Christ drew His examples of spiritual teaching from a world which everyone knew. What He told His followers He expected of them was based on experiences that all of His listeners could identify in their own lives. The kingdom of God that He was preaching was not some starry dream but a reality that already had its foundations in this life, and its consummation in a reality that was to be realized in the life to come.

There is something still deeper, however, about the quality of Christ’s parables. They are drawn from facts; and they are meant to teach facts; i.e., facts about the real world of God, and heaven, and the angels. But that is not all.

What we know from the writings of the mystics tells us that the highest degree of religious knowledge is a clear intuition, without veils or symbols dimming its light. This is exactly the kind of knowledge that Christ reveals in His teaching. He has this pure comprehension. He never appears as a visionary.

Seen from this perspective, we may say that the parables are not for Him but for us. When He speaks of His relation to the Father, His words are plain and direct; there are no metaphors. But when He teaches through the parables, Christ uses a story - drawn from real life, to explain to others by means of comparison or analogy the message of salvation He wishes to convey.

On closer inspection, we can find four qualities in every parable spoken by the Savior: 1) Each parable has a certain internal independence or completeness; 2) It contains a higher, supernatural truth; 3) This truth is clothed in figurative language; 4) There is a recognizable comparison between the supernatural truth and its image drawn from natural experience.

Internal Independence. If we keep in mind that a parable is an expanded proverb, then a proverb is a closed or contracted parable. Like a proverb, therefore, a parable stands by itself. Some of the Savior’s parables are shorter and others longer. But, regardless of their length, they possess autonomy, which is unmistakable. The greater or less detail surrounding the wording of a parable does not affect the basic thought which Christ intends to communicate. We might almost say that every parable has a personality, or individuality, of its own.

Higher Supernatural Truth. Christ uses human language to convey superhuman truth. This is saying more than most people realize. In the last analysis, how can we know anything about the mysteries revealed by Christ? Is it not by means of comparison with what we already know from the world in which we live?

The First Vatican Council gave this principle of analogy authoritative status in its teaching on, “The place of reason in the study of supernatural truth. First the council declared that there are two sources of knowledge open to the human race. We can know by the light of natural reason, and we can know by means of divine faith. But then the council stated that what we know by means of divine faith includes mysteries “that are hidden in God and which, unless divinely revealed, can never be known.” Christ revealed such mysteries whose very existence we would never have conceived unless He had disclosed them.

Nevertheless, once revealed, these mysteries are not unintelligible. We cannot, indeed, comprehend, in the sense of totally understanding them. But we can and should understand something of their meaning. Declares the council:

“If human reason, with faith as its guiding light, inquires earnestly, devoutly, and circumspectly, it does reach, by God’s generosity, some understanding of mysteries, and that a most profitable one” (Db 1316).

How can we arrive at “some understanding” of God’s mysteries, and “a most profitable one”? The first way this is achieved, the Church tells us, is “by the similarity with truths which it (reason) knows naturally” (Db 1316).

It is in this way that the parables of Christ provide human reason with its first and most accessible means of penetrating, with divine grace, into the meaning of revealed mystery.

We get some insight into what all of this means in the spiritual life once we reflect that the very language Christ used to teach us was our human vocabulary. He used words like “life” to describe grace, and “light” to mean truth, and “banquet” to tell us something of heaven. Whatever grasp we have of revealed wisdom depends in great measure on these comparisons between mystery and nature.

In the parables, the Savior is applying this principle of comparison in order to teach us what would otherwise remain hidden from the eyes of our mind.

Figurative Language. In the light of what we have just said, it is evident that the parables are no mere figures of speech. They are not, in the ordinary sense, similes or metaphors. They are God’s use of our human discourse to share with us the secrets that, until the coming of Christ, were hidden in God from the foundation of the world.

The parables are nothing less than our keys to unlocking the treasury of divine wisdom and discovering how God wants those who believe in Jesus Christ to show their love for Him. To know the parables is to know the mind and will of God, speaking through His only-begotten Son in language that we can all understand.

Comparison between Mystery and Nature. Most of the parables are introduced by an expression which tells the listeners (and now readers) that a comparison is being made. For example, Christ said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed” (Matthew 13:31), and “the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea” (Matthew 13:47).

But even where such an expression is not explicit, the implication is clear from the context. Those who hear (or read) the parable are to bring vividly before their minds the image of what happens to the seed in the ground, or the dragnet let down into the fishing waters. Then a comparison is to be made. We compare what happens to the word of God sown by faith in the hearts of men, with what happens to the seed in the soil. Or we care what will happen at the end of the world, when the saved will be separated from the lost, with what happens when a fisherman pulls up his net and separates the good fish from those that he will throw away.

To Whom Were the Parables Addressed?

There is more than saving value in asking ourselves: To whom did Christ address His parables? To answer this question is to be able to distinguish between two kinds of people that Christ had in mind when He taught His contemporaries in Palestine. There were those who believed and those who refused to believe.

Moreover, the parables were intended not only for His listeners two thousand years ago. They were meant for all peoples, in every age, over the past centuries and until the end of time.

Parables for Believers

We are not saying that, among Christ’s parables, some were selectively intended only for believers. No, the Will of God is that all men should be saved, and in order to be saved they must first believe, and in order to believe they must be taught revealed truth.

However, God foresees, and Christ foresaw, that not everyone who is told the truth accepts it. We may, therefore, say that Christ’s will was that all should believe. In this sense, the parables were meant for all potential believers.

Given the mystery of human freedom, some of those to whom Jesus spoke were willing to believe. Their willingness to believe was all they needed, assuming the help of God’s grace, to open their minds to what Christ was teaching. Such persons became, “the disciples,” which literally means “those who have learned.”

To such persons, Christ went to great lengths to further explain the meaning of what His parables said. In fact, part of their discipleship was this special instruction that the Master offered to them. Why? Because they were ready to learn; their hearts were open to the truth.

Even more. He promised His disciples to send them the Holy Spirit who would instruct them beyond what they would learn from Christ during His visible stay on earth. That is what He meant by those mysterious words at the last Supper “I still have many things to say to you, but they would be too much for you now. But when the Spirit of truth comes, He will teach you all truth” (John 16:12-13).

For those who believe, then, the parables are a never-ending source of divine instruction. They are one of the principal areas of doctrinal development in the Catholic Church. Their essential teaching remains unchanged. But under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the faithful discover new insights in their understanding of what the parables mean.

Parables for Unbelievers

Except for Christ’s clear declaration on the subject, we would hardly suspect that the parables are also meant to serve a providential purpose for unbelievers. Time and again, His teaching was rejected by those who heard Him in Palestine. Not only the Scribes and Pharisees but even those who supposedly were His disciples, turned away. “This is intolerable language,” they protested. “How could anyone accept it?” (John 6:60).

What is this providential purpose? It is mysterious, indeed, but unmistakable. Christ had just begun to give His full chapter discourse in parable form, when the disciples went up to Him and asked, “Why do you talk to them in parables?” He told them, “Because the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven are revealed to you, but they are not revealed to them. For anyone who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough; but from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away. The reason I talk to them in parables is that they look without seeing and listen without hearing or understanding” (Matthew 13:10-13).

This statement of Christ is not easy to grasp. He did not mean that He deliberately taught some people in parables so they would not understand. What He meant was that among His listeners then, and among many to this day, the ill-disposed will “listen without hearing or understanding.” Worse still, such people will even lose what they already have, which for Christ’s contemporaries was the Jewish law. In fact, by rejecting Christ and His teaching, grace is withdrawn from persons who once were believers and their condition is worse than that of those who had never been in contact with the true faith.

Behind this permissive providence of God is the obvious fact that the parables are so simple yet the lessons they are intended to convey that all they require - but they do require - is the readiness to believe. There can be no excuse on the score of difficulty of language or complicated thought. Anyone, therefore, who does not accept the teaching of the parables is lacking, not in intelligence but in good will. And where the free will of man is concerned, God Himself will not coerce submission.

The Interpretation of Parables

It is worth looking, even briefly, into the matter of how the parables of Christ are to be explained. All the normal rules of interpretation of Sacred Scripture apply also to the parables. But the parables are unique.

They are vivid illustrations of supernatural truths by means of images taken from the natural world and from daily human experience. Consequently our interpretation must mainly be concerned with the truth which our Lord wanted to teach in the parable. That truth must always be considered in its literal meaning, no matter how colorful the story may be. St. Thomas Aquinas has some salutary advice on this subject, when he answers the question of “Whether in Holy Scripture a word may have several senses.”

The parabolic sense is contained in the literal, for by words things are signified properly and figuratively. Nor is the figure itself, but that which is figured, the literal sense. When Scripture speaks of God’s arm, the literal sense is not that God has such a member, but only that what is signified by this member, namely, operative power. Hence it is plain that nothing false can ever underlie the literal sense of Holy writ (Summa Theologica, I,I,10,3).

This truth, which Christ wished to teach, therefore, must not be taken as a figurative sense of the words of Scripture. Rather it should be understood as the actual literal meaning of the parabolic, or story-form, way of speaking.

Moreover, and this follows from the foregoing, each parable has its own basic truth that the Master wants to reveal. The story with its sometimes numerous details is only a means to this end. The parables do not correspond to the exterior images in all parts of the subject to be considered; they direct attention only to the principal truth.

One more authority on the interpretation of parables should be cited, ‘because the principle at stake is so basic. St. John Chrysostom insists on our not getting lost in the details of the story, but concentrate on its underlying truth.

We must not interpret the parables word for word. We must rather seek to discover the reason why the words were spoken, and keep to this without troubling ourselves much about anything else (Commentary on Matthew 20:11 and following).
As I have always said, we must not interpret the parables word for word, for, if we did, many inconsistencies would result. (For example in Christ’s parable of the cockle), He wanted to teach us this (fundamental truth,) and therefore He thus explains the parable. He does not tell us who the servants are who appear on the scene, but passes over this part to show us that He has only brought them forward for the sake of consistency, and to amplify the image. On the other hand, He explains the principal and most important points by showing that He is Lord and Judge of all, which was His motive in proposing the parable (Commentary on Matthew 13:36 and following).

Having said this, however, we may not go to the opposite extreme and suppose that this fundamental truth conveyed in a parable is a simple, isolated mystery. On the contrary. The motive and the image for which the truth and its image are contrasted may extend to several features of the image. Christ Himself points this out, more than once. For example, in His explanation of the Sower and the weeds, He tells us to pay attention to the various parts of the story, and even to learn salutary lessons from the stone and the thorns.

Maxims of the Spiritual Life Based on the Parables of Christ

Given the ocean of divine wisdom that Christ revealed in the parables, it seems wiser for our purpose not to examine in detail any single one of the parables. Each parable has, by now, volumes of commentary written by the scholars and spiritual masters of the Catholic Church.

Our plan here is to choose certain basic insights of the spiritual life that are provided by the parables. This will serve the twofold purpose of better understanding the parables themselves, and of applying these perceptions to our closer following of Christ.

The number in parentheses following the sub-title of each maxim is the number of the classification of the parables given above.

1. We must understand our Christian faith, at the risk of losing it. (1)

In the parable of the Sower, Christ explains why the seed of God’s word produced no yield on three different kinds of soil. The first barren soil, Jesus explains, refers to a person who “hears the word of the kingdom without understanding.” So “the evil one comes and carries off what was sown in his heart, this is the man who received the seed on the edge of the path.”

Any seeds that fell on the hard surface of a much-used path were naturally bound to take no root. In fact the “birds came and ate them up.”

Two results followed: the seeds did not sink into the ground, and the birds came along to feed on seeds that were on the surface of the path.

The same thing happens in the spiritual life. There is no spiritual life; in fact there is no Christianity without faith. The foundation of the Christian religion is the assent of the intellect to God’s revealed word, accepted on His authority, who can neither deceive nor be deceived.

But receiving the gift of faith is not enough. It is only the beginning. We must do our part. God’s revealed word cannot just remain on the surface of our minds. We must do all we can to have this word penetrate into our minds; we must assimilate this word and make it our own; we must allow God’s word to grow within us and produce the fruits of virtue that Christ desires. We must grasp what we believe, or, in Christ’s phrase, we dare not receive the seed of His truth “without understanding” what He is trying to teach us.

Failure to understand the mysteries of our faith leads to a disastrous consequence: the evil spirit steals the faith we once possessed.

There is no question about what the Savior meant when He warned His followers about not understanding what He revealed. The original Greek and the Latin Vulgate clearly show that we are to grasp, realize, in a word understand our faith. What we believe must “make sense to us.” It must be intelligible because it is rationally credible, and because we see, with the help of God’s grace, something of the inner meaning of what we believe. Otherwise the inevitable happens. The evil spirit will deceive us by specious arguments. The net result will be what is so widespread in the modern world, once apparently committed Catholics who no longer have the faith.

Understanding Christian mysteries does not mean comprehending them. Comprehension is full understanding, which only God enjoys absolutely, and in which we hope to share in the beatific vision of God.

This side of heaven, however, we are to attain some and, in fact, a considerable insight into what God became man to reveal to us. He calls Himself the Light of the world, and assures that those who follow Him will not be walking in darkness.

On the practical level of how we are to grow in this understanding of the faith, the Church’s magisterium and her saintly writers tell us there are mainly four ways of doing this:

  • By studying the faith, which means exactly what it says. Continuing education in the Catholic faith today is a moral imperative.

  • By prayerful meditation on the mysteries of faith. St. Theresa of Avila declared that meditation, or mental prayer by reflecting daily on the truths of revelation, is indispensable in the spiritual life.

  • By putting our faith into practice. As Catholics, we believe in many things, e.g., the Real Presence, God’s Providence, selfless love of others. The secret of growth in the virtue of faith is to put these truths into daily practice.

  • By zealous efforts to share with others what others have generously shared with us, namely our Catholic faith. It is remarkable what opportunities will arise for exercising this zeal, once we are convinced that God wants it.

2. God is the final Master of the graces He gives to human beings. (18)

The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is one of the most detailed in the Gospels. Christ compares the kingdom of heaven to a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard. No doubt because it was vintage time, and laborers were badly needed, the owner hired workers again at the third hour, the sixth and ninth hour, and finally at the eleventh hour, just before the end of a working day.

At the end of the day, all the workers received the same wage, on which only the first had agreed. The others were simply hired because they were “standing in the market place idle.” The wages were paid first to those who had been hired last. No one complained until those who were hired first came to receive their salary. They objected to what they considered an injustice. “These last,” they told the owner, “have worked but one hour, and you have made them equal to us, that have borne the burden and heat of the day.”

“My friend,” the owner replied, “I am not being unjust to you; did you not agree on one denarius? Take your earnings and go. I choose to pay the last-comer as much as I pay you. Have I no right to do what I like with my own? Why be envious because I am generous?”

The closing words of the parable are Christ’s statement that, “Thus the last will be first, and the first, last.”

There are several levels of meaning to this parable. One meaning is that people are called at different hours of the day, that is, at different times in their lives, in a special way to the service of God. The call may be in early childhood, or after a life passed in sin or indifference in youth, in adulthood, or in old age.

Evening, with the payment of the wages, points out to us the end of everyone’s working time, when “the night comes when no man can work” (John 9:4). The moment we die is also the moment that our time of merit ends. We shall be judged immediately, and paid according to what we had deserved.

On this level of interpretation, then, we should not be scandalized that God is ready to reward a person’s good works no matter how long or short his life may have been. Deathbed conversions bring one to heaven no less than a long lifetime of faithful service of God.

But there is another meaning of the parable, which is allied to the preceding, and yet more intimately connected with the spiritual life. This is bound up with God’s mysterious dispensation of His gifts to different people, in different measure and, indeed, in what humanly speaking we would call inequality. These differences, or inequalities, are not only in the order of nature - health, wealth, physical strength, intelligence and social ability. They are especially true in the order of grace.

Some people simply have received more and greater supernatural gifts from God. In fact, no two persons are equal in this regard. Other lessons will be taught by Christ in other parables on how we should react in the face of these inequalities. The lesson here is that we dare not envy others their possession of grace, by complaining that we have received less than they.

The struggle with envy is a lifetime conflict in the spiritual life. It was the subject of the first papal exhortation outside the Scriptures, the Letter of Pope St. Clement I, addressed to the Corinthians before 100 A. D.

3. Heaven is worth the sacrifice of everything on earth. (22)

Christ’s parable of the Great Supper is a sober reminder that we were not made for this life, but for perfect happiness in the life to come.

A certain man had prepared a great banquet and invited many guests. But when the hour for the supper arrived, one after another among the invited guests begged to be excused. In each case it was some personal advantage that the guests would have had to give up.

So the master of the house became angry and told his servant, “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in here the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” The servant did as he was told, and then said, “There is still room.” The master then ordered his servant to “compel people to come in to make sure my house is full.”

There is a series of lessons for the spiritual life, which this parable can teach us.

All three apologies for not accepting the invitation to the banquet are alike in that those invited valued their own particular interests more than participation in the feast to which they were called. They preferred their business and what they liked better, to the wishes of the one who sponsored the banquet.

This applies to all of us. We have been created for only one purpose; to do God’s will in this life so as to gain life everlasting. But doing God’s will is costly, not may be costly, but is costly. We have to give up what we like, for what pleases God. We must surrender what we prefer, to avoid offending God. We are often required to surrender what we possess, especially our own self-will, in order to conform to the divine will.

All of this is demanding on our generosity, and the only mistake we can make is to think there is some mistake on the part of God.

The idea of invitation to a banquet is no mere figure of speech in God’s sending us graces with which He wants us to cooperate, as a condition for reaching the banquet of heaven. We can resist these graces, no less than the invited guests turned down their invitation.

The further fact that the servant was sent out, not once, but twice, to get people from “the streets and alleys” to attend the banquet, brings out in dramatic language how eager God is to have us reach our eternal destiny. Even the expression, “compel people to come in to make sure my house is full,” is only a powerful way of saying the same thing. The messenger was to “compel” people, not by force as the Greek original makes plain; but he was to urge them by entreaties because these strangers would hold aloof through shyness from an unexpected invitation.

What is Christ telling us? That God is more, far more anxious to have us reach heaven than we are of getting there. That nothing on earth is so precious that we should not be ready to surrender for the sake of the heavenly banquet. That the less we have on earth, in terms of what the world calls good, the less our hearts will be attached to the fading pleasures of time and the more eager we will be to attain the joys of eternity.

4. We are only as holy as our heart is united with God. (26)

Christ’s comparison of the Good Tree with the Bad Tree is a short parable that synthesizes the spiritual life. The image of a tree is often used in Sacred Scripture to describe human goodness and human sin. In the first Psalm, the just man is compared to a fruitful tree planted by running waters. St. John the Baptist prepared the way for Christ by telling his listeners that, “Now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not yield good fruit shall be cut down and cast into the fire” (Matthew 3:10).

In His parable, Christ wants to teach us three things: 1) a person’s character is shown by his behavior, 2) external behavior is the result of interior dispositions of soul, and 3) interior dispositions are good if they conform to the teaching of Christ.

When is a tree good? When it produces good fruit. So, too, among human beings. We are as morally and spiritually good as our conduct is good. No more and no less. This is why Christ told the disciples to listen to the Jewish teachers of the Mosaic Law, but not follow their example. We may say that “virtue will out.” Conversely, “vice will out”, as well. This is an invaluable test in any age, and certainly in our age when there is so much learned religion being written and talked about. How do you judge the truth or error of religious speech and writing? By the conduct of the speaker and writer. Are they humble, patient, prayerful, obedient and chaste? If they are, you can safely profit from their communication.

Our interior dispositions of soul determine our external behavior. Among these internal dispositions, Christ would say, the humble willingness to submit one’s self to the will of God is paramount.

Finally, when are our interior dispositions good? They are as good as they conform to the teaching of Christ, who is Truth Incarnate. The sequence therefore from Christ to our holiness is perfectly logical:

  • Christ, who is God, is the Truth because His mind is in full conformity with Reality. He knows what we need to become holy.

  • Christ revealed what we need to know and do to become holy.

  • If we accept on faith what He tells us, we know what we should do.

  • If we carry out in practice what we know on principle, we shall become more and more like Christ.

The key to holiness is putting on the mind of Christ, by believing what He teaches; and uniting our will with Christ, by doing what He wants.

5. We must use our gifts for the extension of the Kingdom of Christ. (36)

One of the longest parables in the Gospel is the parable of the Talents. Assuming that a talent was equal to 6000 drachmas, and the Romans considered a drachma as equivalent to the denarius or daily wage for unskilled labor, it becomes clear that a talent was a great deal of money.

In the parable, the master gave three different servants varying amounts of money - five, two and one talents respectively. To each servant, he gave “according to his proper ability.” After a long time, the master returned and “reckoned with them.” The first two servants doubled the amount they had received, and were praised by the master. Both were told, “Enter the joy of your lord.”

But the servant who received only one talent returned it to the master with the comment, “being afraid I went and hid your talent in the earth.” The master rebuked him for being “wicked and slothful,” and threw him out “into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.”

What makes this parable so important is that Christ told it just before His prediction of the last days. In other words, the parable of the Talents is of the essence, not only of our sanctification but of our salvation. We shall be saved or lost according to our use or non-use of the gifts that God has entrusted to us by His grace.

It is sobering to point out that the one who was so severely punished by the master was the man who had received the least. There is a natural reluctance to use what gifts God has given us if what we have seems so small compared to the obvious talents of other people. Whatever the motive, whether sloth or lack of humility or the fear of failure, we shall be held accountable on the day of judgment if we had not put to good use even what little we may think we possess.

But notice our talents are to be used for the cause of Christ, for the good of souls, for the advancement of His kingdom. The master in the parable is Christ. It is, therefore, in His interests that we are to labor. In fact, one of the main lessons of the parable is the duty that all of us have of exerting ourselves in the apostolate of souls. Why? Because in God’s ordinary providence, He gives the internal gifts of grace normally through other human beings. We are external graces for other people, as they are for us. We provide the occasion for the conferral of supernatural graces for one another. The New Code of Canon Law could not be plainer. “All the Christian faithful,” says the Code, “have the duty and the right to work so that the divine message of salvation may increasingly reach the whole of humankind in every age and in every land” (Canon 211).

6. We are to practice charity toward everyone who enters our lives. (39)

Among the “famous” parables of the New Testament, none is more practically important in the spiritual life than Christ’s account of the Good Samaritan. In context, a lawyer came to quiz Christ on what he needed to do to gain eternal life. He was told to love God with all his heart, and soul, and strength, and mind, and one’s neighbor as oneself.

The lawyer tried to justify himself by asking, “who is my neighbor?” It was in answer to this question that Christ gave the parable of the Good Samaritan. What are some of its features that deserve special emphasis?

  • There was a centuries-old enmity between the Jews and Samaritans.

  • The one who fell among robbers was a Jew.

  • His fellow-Jews passed him by.

  • A hated Samaritan stopped to help the helpless Jew.

  • The Samaritan went to extraordinary lengths to help the hapless Jew.

  • According to Mosaic law, as interpreted in Christ’s time, none but Jews had any claim to be regarded as “neighbors.”

  • What Christ was hereby doing was elevating and explaining what was to become the Christian standard of fraternal charity.

Volumes in commentary have been written on this parable. One aspect of their teaching should be stressed, namely the charity we ought to show our erring neighbors. Why? Because among the forms of generosity that God gives us the opportunity of practicing, none is more basic than teaching the Gospel truth to those who are in error about the Christian faith. We are to do so kindly and gently, but we are to tell others what our Catholic religion holds on whatever people need to have told. The key words are “need to have told them.” There is no greater need on earth than the possession of God’s revealed truth. Every other form of charity depends on this one; as every other charity is only as eternally useful as a person knows religious truth. No doubt, sharing one’s material goods with others is pleasing to God. But sharing of spiritual goods is immeasurably better. And among the spiritual goods, none is more fundamental than the true Christian faith.

If we further analyze the qualities of the charity practiced by the Good Samaritan, we see it had especially these features:

  1. It was performed in favor of someone in real, even desperate, need.

  2. It was performed after others had failed to take pity on the man lying half-dead on the road.

  3. It was performed the moment the Samaritan saw the Jew’s condition.

  4. It was performed without previous anticipation; the Jew was simply there.

  5. It was performed by the Samaritan because he was “moved with compassion.” There was a predisposition in the Samaritan to act charitably.

  6. It was performed at some inconvenience, since the Samaritan got off his own beast, went down to bind up the man’s wounds, poured in wine and oil, took him up and brought him to an inn, at the inn personally took care of him, stayed overnight with the injured man, on the next day paid the inn keeper a certain amount of money, instructed the inn keeper to give the Jew further care, told the inn keeper he would return to see how the injured guest was doing, and, finally, the Samaritan instructed the inn keeper that he would pay for any extra charges that caring for the Jew would require.

Christ could not have been plainer. True Christian charity, the kind that He came into the world to practice and, through the parables, to teach, is selfless, generous, self-sacrificing, and, to say the least, goes out of its way to serve the needs of another, even of someone who a moment before had been a perfect stranger.

7. God will be as merciful to us as we are to others. (43)

If there is one theme that runs through the Gospels like a uniting chain it is Christ’s insistence that we forgive others, if we expect God to forgive us. The parable of the Unmerciful Servant is a dramatic explanation of what this means.

There are two parts to the parable. In the first part, a king demands of one of his debtors the repayment of a huge debt; this would be in our money some ten million dollars. Because the man was unable to pay, the king orders him and his family to be sold into slavery. The debtor begs for mercy and the king, out of compassion, remits his whole debt.

In the second part, this same man comes on one of his fellow vassals and demands the repayment of a small debt which he owes. But no, the small debtor is thrown into jail and told to repay the small debt, which amounted to about a week’s wages.

Seeing what happened, the other servants complain to the king, who has the unmerciful man brought in. The king is angry, and reminds him that the mercy shown him, he should have shown (on a much lesser matter) to his fellow servant. Because of his own lack of mercy, the king has the unmerciful man imprisoned and is required to repay the huge debt that shortly before had been remitted. Christ then draws the lesson for us, “So also shall my heavenly Father deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart.”

This theme of merciful forgiveness becomes part of the Lord’s Prayer and is centered in the Beatitudes. It covers every form of mercy that we are to show to others, whether they intend to offend us or not. People can be “offensive” by what they say or do, in fact by simply being who they are. No matter. God has placed other persons into our lives, with their weaknesses and oddities, with their selfishness and thoughtlessness, with their sometimes crude and even cruel speech and action toward us - among other reasons - in order that we might expiate our sins against God and obtain His merciful love.

8. Honest self-knowledge is the first step toward sanctity. (44)

In the short parable of the mote and the beam, Christ compares our natural tendency to see the failings of others with our blindness to recognize the more serious sinfulness in ourselves.

Underlying this double standard, to which we are all prone, is the inveterate self-love that must be struggled against if we wish to grow in the knowledge and love of God.

We are so quick to spot the least weakness in other people because this tends to inflate our self-esteem. And we are so slow to admit the glaring defects in ourselves because this would humiliate us in our own eyes.

The masters of the spiritual life placed an honest self-knowledge at the foundation of growth in sanctity. The saints so closely associated the humble (and humiliating) knowledge of ourselves, with the loving knowledge of God as to make the two inseparable. This has been beautifully expressed in St. Augustine’s famous prayer, May I know myself; in Latin Noverim Me.

Lord Jesus, may I know myself as well as you, and desire nothing but only you.
May I hate myself while loving you. May I do everything for the sake of you.
May I humble myself and honor you. May I think of nothing save only you.
May I die to myself and live in you.
May I banish self and follow you, and ever desire to follow you.
May I fly from myself and take refuge in you, in order to merit being defended by you.
May I fear for myself, while fearing you, and be among those who are chosen by you.
May I distrust myself and trust in you.
May I be willing to obey for the sake of you.
May I cling to nothing save only you, and may I be poor because of you.
Look upon me, that I may love you.
Call me that I may see you, and forever enjoy you. Amen.

The sentiments of this prayer are meaningful on one condition, that we have learned to master the most difficult task in life: to practice interior humility of heart – by admitting our own weakness and sin; joined with interior charity of heart – by looking for the virtue and good qualities in every person who enters our lives.

9. We have a duty to give others a good example. (40, 41, 42)

There is a series of three short parables that are quoted by St. Matthew immediately after Christ taught the Beatitudes to His disciples.

The Savior had just told the disciples what they were to do to become His true followers. They were to be poor in spirit and gentle, they were to mourn and hunger and thirst for what is right, they were to be merciful and pure of heart, they were to be peacemakers and be willing to suffer persecution for His name.

But then came the conclusion. The Beatitudes were indeed to be lived out and put into practice. They are the eight conditions for happiness in this life and the next. Yet, that is not all. Having mastered the meaning of the Beatitudes personally, and made them the pillars of our own lives, we are to realize that we are channels of grace to others. Our practice of virtue is emphatically not only for our own sanctification; it is also for the sanctification of others.

Three similitude’s are used by Christ to bring this lesson home: salt of earth, light of the world, lampstand in the house.

  1. We are to be the salt of the earth. This applies to every follower of Christ, but with special emphasis to those who labor actively for others, e.g. parents toward their children, teachers toward their students, bishop, priests and deacons in their ministry, and religious toward those under their care. The implication is clear. We must above all preserve ourselves as the salt which keeps far away the corruption of error and of moral evil; we much communicate to others the savor of the true spirit of Christ.

  2. We are the light of the world. Christ spoke of Himself as the Light of the World. But we are to share in this privilege, which is also a grave responsibility. Indeed, this responsibility is so serious that on it depends, in God’s ordinary providence, the salvation of the world. How so? Christ came into the world to teach the truth. Those who believe in Him are in possession of the truth. Christ wants to continue enlightening the world, until the end of time. And He wants those whom He has enlightened, to enlighten others in their turn. We are to be communicators of the Truth, who is Christ, by everything we say and do, in fact by everything we are. People are to see, in us, Christ on earth today.

  3. We are the lampstand in the house. This house is first of all our own household, our family; it is the house of our immediate circle of friends and neighbors; it is the house of the Catholic Church; and finally it is the house of the whole human race. God made us members of a society, and we therefore have duties toward others in society. We need them, and they need us. And on no level is this need greater than to witness to the Christ in whom we believe and whose disciples we claim to be.

Christ gives two warnings, however. We are to be the salt of the earth, but woe to us if we lose our savor! Giving others a good example is no luxury of the spiritual life. It belongs to the essence. Moreover, we are not, out of false humility, to hide the gifts of grace that God has given to us. In true humility, we are to share with others what He has generously given to us. Why? So that people might praise us? No, “so that seeing your good works, they will glorify the Father who is in heaven.”

10. All our effectiveness in the spiritual life depends on our union with Christ. (58)

During His discourse at the Last Supper, Christ left us the most important principle of the spiritual life, namely the absolute necessity of being united with Him. Through the analogy of a vine and its branches, He explained what it means to be joined with Him, under what conditions, and what are the blessings we can expect from this union with the Savior.

St. Augustine sets the groundwork for a correct understanding of this mystery of faith.

In this passage of the Gospels, where the Lord says that He is the vine and His disciples are the branches, He is speaking of Himself as the Head of the Church and of us as His members. He identifies Himself as Mediator between God and men, the Man, Christ Jesus.
A vine and its branches have the same nature. What this means is that He who is God, whose nature we do not possess, became Man. Human nature thus became part of Him, who is the Vine, so that we human beings might became His members. (Treatise on St. John, 80, 1).

Christ therefore declares that He is the Vine, and His Father is the Vinedresser. It is not enough, however, to have been grafted on the vine through Baptism; we must bear fruit through cooperation with the graces received at Baptism. Otherwise, “every branch in me that bears no fruit He (the Father) cuts away.” But even branches that bear fruit are to expect to be trimmed. “Every branch that does bear fruit, He prunes to make it bear even more.”

So far, Christ has said three things:

  • All the supernatural life we have comes to us from Christ as the Vine, of which we are the branches.

  • We must grow in the supernatural life, i.e., bear fruit. Otherwise we shall be cut off from Christ.

  • As we cooperate with the graces that come to us from Christ, we are to expect trials and sufferings, in a word, to be pruned, so that we might be more fruitful in the spiritual life.

Christ goes on to stress the close relationship between Him and those who are united to Him by grace. He makes His home in them; and He bids us make our home with Him. His loving generosity to us should be met with our corresponding generosity toward Him.

This union with Christ, by His grace to us, must be requited by our voluntary response to Him. But there is no possibility of bearing any fruit in the supernatural order unless we are united with Him. There is no prospect of heaven, except through the grace received from Him. There is no chance of holiness, unless we are joined with the Vine.

Then comes one of the most important statements in the New Testament. The Latin Vulgate says, “Sine me nihil potestis facere.” The literal English declares, “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). In other words, without divine grace, which comes from Christ through the Church, we can do nothing on the way to heaven, nothing that makes us holy in this life or deserves the beatific vision in the life to come.

Copyright © 2004 by Inter Mirifica

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