In the 13th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, which we are currently going through in daily Mass, there are a number of parables that Matthew seems to have collected from Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Among them are the parable of the sower, the parable of the wheat and tares, the parable of the mustard seed, and the parable of the yeast.
Another structure employed by Matthew, likely recording the actual practice of Jesus, is the mention of “the house.” Chapter 13 begins with Jesus going “out of the house,” and speaking to the crowd in parables. Midway through the chapter (verse 36), Jesus goes back “into the house” and explains the parables to his disciples at their request. While the exact location of “the house” is not mentioned, it seems reasonable to assume that it is Peter’s house in Capernaum, which was Jesus’ home base for his ministry in Galilee.
With this background we do well to consider a four-staged teaching of Jesus on the centrality of the Church in evangelization, catechesis, and understanding the Word of God.
I. The Place of Pedagogy – Plainly put, the Church is the place of pedagogy, the place of teaching and experiencing the deeper mysteries of Christ. While Jesus’ teachings and words may in fact go out among the multitudes, it is necessary to come “into the house” in order for them to be fully understood and explained at length. Outside the house there are parables, snippets, riddles, and puzzling stories, if you will. But inside the house there is teaching that respects the subtleties and extended meanings of the sayings, parables, and utterances of Jesus.
And if we can allow for the identity of the house as being that of Peter, then we are not just talking about any old house, or any gathering place. We are talking about Peter’s house, the Church.
More on this in a moment, but first let us consider what takes place “outside the house” and why it is important to bring people “inside the house.” To do this we must ponder the paradoxical quality of comparables, and the sad picture painted by Jesus of the condition of many.
II. The Paradox of Parables – Early in Matthew 13 the disciples approached Jesus, who was still outside the house, and asked him, Why do you speak to the crowds in parables? (Matthew 13:10)
Their question may puzzle us just a bit. For the fact is, we moderns tend to think of parables as ingenious devices by which to teach. And it is true that parables can and do contain memorable teachings, at least to us who have had 2000 years to ponder them. Thus, we expect Jesus to answer the disciples simply by saying, “I use parables in order to teach them.”
But the question of the disciples presupposes another dimension of parables less familiar to us, who have had these many centuries to ponder their meaning. And Jesus understands the puzzlement of the disciples, who see parables as a sort of inferior brand of teaching, and he will answer them accordingly.
What is inferior about parables? Stated plainly, the aspect of parables that we often miss is that parables are largely like riddles that have to be figured out by those who hear them for the first time. Consider the following “parable” by me and note to some degree how it is like a riddle.
A man went out to clean his car. And as he went, he took with him a bucket, water, and soap, along with some sponges. And as he washed the car, some dirt came off immediately; some dirt came off only after scrubbing. But some dirt remained even after he was finished. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear this.
Note how this parable has something of the quality of a riddle. In some sense, you know what I’m talking about, but you’re not exactly sure. The parable makes you think, but you may well struggle to apply it perfectly to your life or to your situation. If a group were to hear me relate this, people might become rather divided over the root meaning of the parable. While most to present might understand dirt as a metaphor for sin, many would struggle to understand the fact that some of the dirt remained, even after the washing. Is this concupiscence? Is it impenitence? Is the man who washes the car Jesus? If so then why did he fail to get all the dirt off? Perhaps then the man is a human who can overcome some but not all of his sins. Debates and opposing camps might well set up among those who heard my parable.
And thus parables are a bit like riddles: ultimately most of them need some explanation. As already noted, most of us moderns miss this aspect of the parables of Jesus because they have been explained to us for over 2000 years now. But of themselves, parables, like riddles, need some explanation.
And thus the question of the Apostles as to why Jesus speaks to the crowds so often in parables is both poignant and instructive for us. The parables, indeed the whole of the Word of God, cannot simply be presented or announced to the multitudes; they require extensive teaching and careful explanation. The parables and all the Word of God cannot be simply published as a book. It is a Church book and must be read within the Church and in the context of the lived experience and faith of the Church.
Therefore, Jesus goes on to say to his Apostles in response to their question, The knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them, it has not been granted (Matthew 13:11). So inside the house there is instruction, and knowledge as to the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven is granted there; outside the house this knowledge is not granted. In the house of the Church there is knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but outside there is not. And this leads us to the third point that Jesus makes.
III. The Picture that is Painted – Jesus goes on to paint a rather sad portrait of those who are “outside the house.” His portrait is not merely a picture of their condition but it also serves to explain why most of them remain outside the house.
Jesus says of those outside, They look but do not see, and hear but do not listen or understand (Matt 13:14) He goes on further to quote Isaiah in reference to them saying, Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes, lest they hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and be converted, so that I would heal them (Matt 13:15; Is 6:9-10).
And here Jesus describes the sad condition of many who willfully remain outside the house. And the number today is large. Being outside the house, they hear the Word, the utterances and positions of the Church and Scripture, but they do not understand. Frankly, most do not want to understand.
And being outside the house, and thus lacking understanding, they ridicule God’s Word. They often misquote it and/or quote it out of context. Further, they ridicule the Church, speaking of her as being out of touch, old-fashioned, intolerant, bigoted, etc.
Much of this dismissive arrogance toward the Word of God is explained by the fact that many in the world simply do not understand the Word of God. They do not understand it because they are outside the house, outside the Church.
Perhaps a brief reflection on the meaning of the word “understand” will help explain why this is so. The Greek word translated here as “understand” is συνίουσιν (syniousin), which more literally means to put the pieces of something together, to synthesize (sýn, “together with” + hiēmi, “to put, or send”) . There is a modern expression, “to connect the dots.” So, “understanding” is an act of knowledge whereby one patiently acquires the many pieces that make up a teaching and, almost like a puzzle, put the pieces together and see the picture emerge. This is understanding.
One can see that with faith, as with any discipline of knowledge, long study and patience are often required in order to master the material, in order to understand it properly. One does not pick up the discipline of particle physics through sound bites, but rather through long, careful study of all the elements, which are gradually pieced together and bring understanding to the one who masters the material. It is this way with faith as well.
Thus many outside the house, outside the Church, lack understanding of our teachings because, they have not undertaken the careful and lengthy study required. This struggle is common even to many inside the Church. Too many today, both inside and outside the house, want to reduce the faith to sound bites, to bumper sticker slogans, and so forth. Yet the faith does not consist of a collection of clever sayings, but rather it is a whole discipline of life, mind, and heart that must be mastered after careful study. Through this study one approaches understanding through syniousin (the synthesis that is understanding), by collecting the pieces, connecting the dots, and seeing the picture emerge.
Jesus sadly notes that this is a discipline many are not interested in shouldering. For many this is too much work, and the whole topic is not that interesting to them anyway. If they go to Church at all, they want simply to be entertained with clever little stories, quick sayings, and so forth. But to do the careful work of a disciple, to study the teachings of Jesus over a lifetime and come to understanding is too much work for many.
So Jesus describes them as having hearts that are gross, that is, heavy and weighed down with passions and preoccupations. Elsewhere God describes us as being stubborn and stiff-necked, as having necks of iron and foreheads of brass. It is a lamentable diagnosis of so many in the human family. It is something that can only be remedied through the power of grace, leading us to fulfill the fourth aspect of what Jesus teaches here.
IV. The Prescription for the Problem – To his Apostles, Jesus turns and says, But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear (Matthew 13:16). This is more than mere flattery; these words of Jesus’ amount to a prescription for the problem.
In effect, the Lord announces that the problem of the lack of understanding is resolved by coming “into the house,” coming into the Church with open ears and heart, listening carefully and with faith, and having our eyes open to behold the mysteries of God. This takes place “in the house,” in the Church.
This is exemplified in verse 36: Then Jesus left the crowds, and went into the house; and his disciples approached him saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field’ … (Mat 13:36). Jesus then goes on to teach at some length as to the meaning of the parable which, outside the house, seemed to them as a kind of riddle. But now, inside the house, it is carefully explained.
Therefore Christ’s prescription for our problems—our lack of understanding, our spiritual deafness and blindness, our darkened intellect—is to come into the house, into the Church, where there will be careful and persistent teaching. It is not enough to have parables and proclamations, to have a biblical text sitting on a bookstore shelf that someone opens. Alone, this is insufficient, though it may have something of an inviting quality, something of the quality of the seed. But more than proclamations, more than parables, there must be what the Scriptures call didache (teaching).
And thus in our evangelization we cannot simply put information, tracts, or paperback Bibles into people’s hands. We must invite them “into the house,” where Jesus teaches; we must invite them to Peter’s house, the Church.
Put another way, we must invite them into a life-changing transformative relationship with Jesus Christ Himself. Jesus is found in the Church, in Peter’s house, where He teaches and celebrates the mysteries for us. And the Church contains the whole Christ, not the head only, but also the members of His body, us, the Church.
To evangelize is not simply to get the Word out, although that is a good beginning. Without understanding, many fall away from the Word, or even outright ridicule it. To evangelize is to invite people to a lifelong walk with Jesus in His Church, head and members together. True evangelization summons everyone “into the house,” where Jesus is found and is teaching; it summons all into the Church.
To those who say, “Yes,” comes the blessing of Jesus: But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear.