Parables and Ignatian Pedagogy

One of the resources I turn to for annotations on passages from scripture is the Sacra Pagina series edited by the late Fr. Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. This series provides excellent commentary, almost line by line, of the texts of the New Testament, drawing out meanings of words, historical context, and much more. I highly recommend the books. 

Recently I've been reading the commentary on the Book of Matthew to enhance my appreciation for the daily readings. This is what Fr. Harrington has to say about the parable of the sower:


If we assume that this parable goes back to Jesus (as most interpreters do), it would have been especially appropriate for an audience made up largely of Galilean farmers. Even nonfarmers in an agricultural society would have had some familiarity with seeds and harvests. There is every reason to assume that Matthew's readers also knew something about such matters and could easily relate to them.

What Harrington makes clear about the parable of the sower is clear for just about every one of Jesus' parables: Jesus drew upon the context of his listeners. He relied upon imagery from their worlds and their preoccupations, whether farming, shepherding, having a meal, relating to family, and more. He demonstrated an understanding of, and sympathy for, their lives and concerns.

It's a good lesson for educators in the Christian faith: As we introduce students to an ancient and sometimes puzzling system of rituals and beliefs, we must start with their context. We must be able to show, as Jesus did with his followers, that we sympathize with their worries and concerns, and also with their hopes and interests. 

This emphasis on the context of the listener forms a foundational principle for educators in the Ignatian tradition. A passage from "Ignatian Pedagogy: A Practical Approach," provides:

Since human experience, always the starting point in an Ignatian pedagogy, never occurs in a vacuum, we must know as much as we can about the actual context within which teaching and learning take place. As teachers, therefore, we need to understand the world of the student, including the ways in which the family, friends, peers, youth culture and mores as well as social pressures, school life, politics, economics, religion, media, art, music, and other realities impact that world and affect the student for better or worse . . . What are forces at work in them? How do they experience those forces influencing their attitudes, values and beliefs, and shaping our perceptions, judgments and choices?

Understanding this context is not necessarily easy. When I returned to teaching a few years ago, I realized there was much I didn't know about the culture of sophomores, and I expected them to meet my context more than the other way around. This was never going to work.  

But then I began to take note, for example, of the music my students listened to, the films they loved, and the YouTube videos they all wanted me to see. As I began to learn more about what they cared about, I began to modify how I taught and ask different questions, all in the interest of doing what Jesus did: connecting with my listeners. It has yielded wonderful and sometimes troubling breakthroughs, one of which I wrote about for a post at The Ignatian Educator (see "The Coachella Fest Faithful").

Human experience never occurs in a vacuum. Jesus understood this, and so do we. As the new academic year begins to dawn, we ask these questions anew: What is the context in which we teach and learn? What forms our students and their perceptions?  

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