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James Martin, S.J.October 20, 2022
wheat field with dark cloudy sky behind itPhoto via iStock.

A Reflection for Friday of the Twenty-ninth Week in Ordinary Time

Find today’s readings here.

“When you see a cloud rising in the west 
you say immediately that it is going to rain—and so it does; 
and when you notice that the wind is blowing from the south 
you say that it is going to be hot—and so it is. 
You hypocrites! 
You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky; 
why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Lk 12:54-56)

In his book Parable of the Kingdom, the great Scripture scholar C.H. Dodd offered what has become a classic definition of a parable. A parable, said Dodd, is “is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt to its precise application to tease the mind into active thought.”

There are so many wonderful things about that definition, including the insight that a parable was never meant to be fully “understood.” That’s why we’re still discussing, and sometimes debating them, over 2,000 years later.

But the part of that definition that always stuck out for me was the “drawn from nature or common life.” Jesus used images from nature (birds and seeds, flowers and wheat) and from the common life of the time (a woman sweeping her home, a farmer sowing seeds, wayward son on his way home to his father) in order to make himself, and the elusive concept of the reign of God, more accessible to the people around him.

We would be ignoring what Jesus said if we failed to see where God is at work not only in our world today, but in our private lives.

Today we have not a parable precisely, but another vivid use of nature and common life. Jesus reminds his listeners that they are adept at reading signs in nature (a cloud rising in the west, the wind blowing from the south) to make decisions, presumably for their crops. Yet Jesus notes, with some anger (calling them “hypocrites”) that they’re not as good at reading the “signs of the times.” And what are those signs? Well, in Jesus’ day, he was the sign. And many people weren’t paying attention to what he was saying and doing. And there is an implicit warning: If you can’t read the signs of nature, your crops will fail, and you’ll starve. But Jesus is implying, if you can’t read the signs of the times, you’ll suffer spiritual starvation and death.

What are the signs of the times today? Well, Jesus is still the sign. But we would be ignoring what Jesus said if we failed to see where God is at work not only in our world today, but in our private lives. War, pandemic, violence, starvation, poverty, racism, xenophobia, homophobia and other ills call us to respond. At the same time, signs of love, charity, compassion, generosity and selflessness are clear signs of God’s presence. And in our private lives, we can spend time in prayer each day reflecting on where God is present to each of us.

So where, to use C.H. Dodd’s wonderful phrase, is God “teasing your mind into active thought”?

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