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SIDIC Periodical XX - 1987/1
Rabbinic Parables and the Teaching of Jesus (Pages 16 - 18)

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Education: The Parables in Catechesis
Sofia Cavalletti


Apart from its content, the parable has a second function, that of being a teaching method, which, from a catechetical point of view, is of special interest. In fact, the parable is the teaching method used by Jesus: "(Jesus) said nothing to them without a parable" (Mt 13:34); such a fact must not be overlooked when the transmission of the Christian message is under discussion.

From Methodology to Mystery

In catechetical methodology it used to be the practice, especially with children, but also with adolescents, to use primarily definitions, formulae drawn up by theologians, which tried to condense in a few words the entire content of the principal articles of faith. Such formulae were given to those under instruction to be learnt by heart. The very term definition implies a limiting factor, something which encloses within boundaries. It seems strange that definitions should have become so widespread in the task of handing on what it has been given to us to know of infinite Mystery. Infinite Mystery and definition are diametrically opposed, and can never be reconciled; Alonso Schockel does not ask for an effort to be made to find better definitions, but rather for attention to he paid to the fact that formulae tend to restrict and deform biblical data. 1

On the other hand, the parable "grows in a certain manner with the readers", according to St. Gregory the Great. "The unlettered recognize it, the cultured find it ever new." In contrast to the static nature of definition, the parable has within itself an ever-renewed vitality, an inexhaustible dynamism. It presents the message "as a nut hidden in its shell", according to St. Jerome, thus as something worth having therefore, which nevertheless has to be looked for in order to. be found. Examples could he multiplied: one could talk of a jewel enclosed in a casket, with many wrappings, so that much patient work is needed before it can be seen and enjoyed to the full; or of a house which, behind its facade, hides many rooms into which we must enter slowly, as it were on tiptoe and with profound respect.

The Two Realities of a Parable

The parable comprises two elements, one for the most part taken from everyday life and contrasted unexpectedly with the second, which is on the metaphysical plane: the kingdom of heaven is like a woman who baked bread! The greater the contrasi between the two levels, the greater the "linguistic event", that is to say, the parable has the capacity both to open up new horizons of the Mystery and to bring out new possibilities in the listener's situation. In actual fact the two elements of the parable are not juxtaposed in an arbitrary fashion, on the basis of a similitude which merely unites them formally and externally, by an act of the author's imagination, making it something which is only capable of arousing an external, visible effect in the listener. If we say a man is as strong as a lion, or that he falls like a tree, etc. we are saying things about the man which have no echoes in his essential being. The comparison created is external to the element compared, something which touches it only. The juxtaposition of the two constitutive elements of the parable is something quite different; the bonds which unite them are ontological and are justified by the very nature

of the two elements. This is not a mere flight of fancy but the fruit of a particular insight into reality on the part of the formulator, of a capacity to discover and reveal an intrinsic connection between the two elements which carry, albeit at different levels, the single mystery. In the leavened dough, as in the seed, there is revealed a law which, based on what is said in the parable, is fundamental to the Kingdom of God; a mysterious transition from less to more, which is beyond human capacity. The element taken from everyday reality tends to disclose such a mystery in things which are very close to us, which it puts into our hand, so to speak; putting this element alongside the Kingdom of God opens up before our eyes infinite and transcendental vistas, governed nevertheless by the same law, that of continual advance towards plenitude.

The element taken from daily life, set on fire by the parable, thus becomes a point radiating diffused light, capable of illuminating the whole of reality. It holds our attention and initiates us into the mystery. In such infinite and transcendental realms the parable touches us only by allusion. The parable never explains its content, but simply alludes to it, convinced that the indirect approach and the wisdom not to try to be exhaustive are the only legitimate ways of dealing with certain realities. It could be said that the parable is a poverty which conceals within itself great riches: it is poverty because one of its elements can seem absolutely banal, but it is in the contemplation of this banality that we can touch the more metaphysical level of its real meaning. The poverty of the parable can seem to he downright provocative: to those who ask what is the kingdom of God Jesus shows "the smallest of all the seeds". But this kind of challenge is the summit of pedagogical wisdom. By it we are led to fix our gaze on the seed, constantly and with ever-increasing wonder, and at the same time to cross the frontiers giving on to an ever-expanding horizon, in an interior exercise which slowly but surely opens the gates of infinity.

Hidden Depths to be Revealed

The pedagogical wisdom of the parable is such that it is woe to the catechist who attempts to explain it; parables are not made to be explained, hut rather to be contemplated and meditated upon. To explain them would limit their meaning to this one interpretation whereas, according to the teaching of Jewish tradition, the Word of God reverberates in seventy languages. II this be true of the Word of God in general, it is particularly true of the parable. The two elements in the parable serve as twin tracks for our meditation, which prevent us from running off the rails or confining ourselves to athitrary ideas, but which carry us forward progressively on our journey towards the plenitude of reality. To explain the parables would mean interrupting such a journey, it would mean reducing them to thepoverty of a definition; it would be like impaling the butterfly on a pin, thus preventing it from using its ability to fly.

When we present the parables, there is in truth only one Master; adults and children together listen to a Word which plumbs the bottomless depths of revelation. The way in which we present the parables must respect their nature; it can therefore only be by meditation together, meditation punctuated by many question marks and no fun-stops. Let us give the parables to those being catechized without looking for an immediate response, other than an attitude of surprised enquiry ill the face of something greater than ourselves; we will not look for explanatory answers which, given too quickly, would come from a superficial level and perhaps even impede a further deepening of understanding. We should give the parables to those we arc catechizing as if we were handing them a treasure, so that afterwards they can profit from them as need arises. We help them to become aware that there is an infinitude to be discovered in the parables; and it is only by living with them that one can little by little penetrate their vast range of meaning.

In this way the parabolic method becomes art educational instrument of the highest value; it helps to avoid limiting one's horizon to the world of the senses. By means of the parable one learns not to restrict oneself to what the eyes see, or the hands touch, and to become used to seeing a different reality on the horizon. The parables are an instrument for educating in faith, faith being understood as a mode of knowing which goes beyond the senses.

The Mysteries of the Kingdom

The gospel has preserved a good number of parables, which speak mainly of the kingdom (reign) of God. It comes as a surprise to find so many parables with the same central idea although diverse in form. This is something which highlights the unfathomable depths of the reality signified by kingdom of God; one is able to approach that reality only by approximation, and so the approximations are bound to he many, precisely because they are not exhaustive.

Classification of the parables is a very delicate matter, and certainly only has a provisional value. Nevertheless, we can say that a few of them have a greater revelatory value than the others and require a special contemplative sensitivity in those who listen to them.

Such are the parables (if that is the correct term) in which Jesus reveals the mystery of his person and his relationship with us: the Good Shepherd (Jn 10: 1 ff) and the True Vine (Jn 15:1 ff.). Such are also the parables which reveal to us the mysterious nature of the kingdom (the grain of mustard seed, Mt 13:31 ff., the leaven, Mt 13:33, the grain of wheat, Mt 4:26 ff.), and its inestimable value (the pearl of great price, Mt 13:45 ff., the hidden treasure, Mt 13:44). These are parables in which the actions of the protagonists are reduced to the minimim, in which trivialities are very few indeed. Catechetical experience' has shown that these parables are particularly enjoyed by the very young (i.e. infants under six years old). In fact, we believe that some texts of the Bible, held to be best adapted to infants on account of their wealth of narrative detail can, on the contrary, impede their reception of the true religious message. The listener tends to concentrate on isolated details, or on the unfolding of the story without being able to go further. "What are swine?" asked one four year old who had been told the parable of the Prodigal Son.

Methodological Observations

The content of these parables is certainly very profound, but observation of children has convinced us that the greatest things should be given to the littlest people. To give them to small children does not mean that they must he limited to infancy; it means that from infancy onwards children must become familiar with them so that they become a precious part of their relationship with God throughout their lives.

There are also a certain number of parables which tend to teach certain behavior patterns (e.g. the Prodigal Son, Lk 15:11 ff.; the debtors, Mt 18:24 ff.; the Pharisee and the Publican, Lk 18:9 ff.; the importunate friend, Lk 11:5 ff. etc.). These should be given to children when their moral sense is awakened at the level of behavior, that is to say, after the age of six.

Nevertheless we must not forget that even these parables are primarily revelations from God, making known to us his willingness to pardon, the type of prayer he prefers, his fidelity in listening to us, even in those moments that we might call the silence of God.

In these parables the moral teaching is interwoven with knowledge of God and derives from it. Th catechist must be very careful not to forget this aspect, underlining only the first one; this would mean depriving the moral teaching of its root, taking away its fundamental reasons, a knowledge of God that is broadened and deepened slowly but surely.


D. Otto Via Jr. The Parables, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1967.
N. Perrin: Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1976.
J.D. Crossan: In Parables, Harper and Row, New York.

Prof. Sofia Cavalletti is known internationally for her catechetical expertise; she directs a Montessori Catechetical Center in Rome. Among her other activities is her interest in Jewish-Christian Relations. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the SIDIC Center and a member of its Editorial Board.

1. L. Alonso Schoekcl, 11 dinanzismo della tradizione, Paideia, Brescia 1976, p. 265.
2. S. Cavalletti, Il potenziale religioso del bambino, Roma, Citta Nuova, 2a ed., 1980.


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