• Rev. Noah Carter

Speaking in Parables

With many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it. Without parables he did not speak to them, but to his own disciples he explained everything in private. — Mark 4:33-34

When I was teaching middle school Latin in a Catholic school a number of years ago, a student got stuck in the middle of an exercise. Immediately, hands shot up around her. Other students knew the answer, and I could tell which ones were using all of their strength not to blurt it out. That didn’t help; the pressure was on. Seemingly everyone else knew the answer. Her face turned red. “Fr. Carter, I just don’t get it!” she uttered intensely. I came in front of her desk and crouched down to her level. Calmly I said, making the sign of the cross, “In nomine Patris, et Filli, et Spirtus Sancti.” Then I said, “You already know the ending because you use it whenever we pray in class.” She scrunched her face for a few moments and suddenly perked up. “Navis!” she exclaimed. “It’s the anchor of the ship, just like of the Father. So, if it’s Patris in the sign of the cross, it would be navis in this sentence? Et dimmitunt ancoram navis?” I smiled and confirmed that she was right.


A number of years later, I saw the same student at a diocesan event. She was getting ready to graduate high school and head to college. As we chatted, she asked, “Remember my boat problem?” I replied laughing, “Your what?” She said, “Navis; ‘boat’ in Latin. Do you remember I had trouble with the declension, and you wouldn’t give me the answer? I really just wanted you to tell me what to write.” I replied, “Yes, I remember. You were very hard on yourself in middle school.” She said, “More than learning how to decline ‘boat,’ I learned in Latin class to not get frustrated trying to figure out the right answer. I learned to be patient and keep digging. I stopped being so hard on myself and found out that looking for the right answer can be just as enjoyable as knowing the right answer.”


Finding the meaning of Jesus’ words can be even more difficult than declining vocabulary words in Latin. He seems to speak in contradictions. Jesus says that a man scatters seed and knows not how it grows. However, there was a good knowledge of natural plant growth at the time of Jesus. Maybe they didn’t have scientific knowledge of cellular photosynthesis, but ancient civilizations weren’t ignorant of the stages of growth. And then there’s the mustard seed. Jesus says it’s the smallest of seeds and the largest of plants. But that’s simply not true. There are smaller seeds and taller plants. In the end, St. Mark says that he spoke in these parables to the people but explained them to his disciples.


Jesus is not being cruel, nor is he showing favoritism to his disciples. He spoke in enigmas to make the hearts of those listening to him hunger for more. He wrapped the truth in puzzles so that they would walk home discussing it amongst themselves and spending time coming to his meaning and truth. Like my young student with a “boat problem,” he wanted his followers to enter into the process of searching for the answer. This is why the words of Jesus and the truths of Scripture hone our mind, sharpen our intellect. He doesn’t plainly give us an answer at all times but wants us to be hungry for more Scripture; he wants us to continuously feast on his words and all the texts written about him. He wants us to simply enjoy the search for him in all we do.


How often do we discuss with our family the meaning of the Scriptures and the intent of Jesus' words?

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