“Then the disciples came and said to him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ And he answered them, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.’” – Matthew 13:10-11
When I got out of seminary and landed in my first parish, I became overwhelmed with the disease of alcoholism in a number of families. The results of the disease seemed disastrous and I had no idea how to be of help. Nothing I tried seem to work. So, after a couple years, I went to a local treatment facility and asked for help. They had resources especially designed for clergy and very quickly I found the Twelve Steps to be life-saving and life-giving. As I was experiencing a breakthrough of understanding, I found myself thinking resentfully that my seminary education should have included work in this area. A few years later, when I packed up my office to go to another parish, I found a file in a drawer from a class I had taken in my second year of seminary. The name of the course was: Alcoholism – Disease and Treatment. My seminary training had indeed included a course designed to help me but I obviously didn’t learn anything from it. Later on I was ready to learn and what I needed was there. When the student is ready, the teacher will come.
As Jesus uses parables to do his teaching, he presents images which the listeners can carry with them as they engage their worlds. He doesn’t just give them a list of rules or formulas to memorize. Nor does he expect anyone to learn everything right then and there. He gives them images which the people can understand at their own pace. People learn in different ways. Some are slower than others. Some days I am quicker than other days. We may have always been told to look both ways before we cross the street but it takes experiencing the reality of a moving car to learn that lesson. How we learn involves a lot of different factors. So Jesus uses stories which are portable and convey eternal truths. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…. The kingdom of God is like a net…. There was a man who had two sons…. Behold a sower went out to sow…. Every time we hear the parables we learn more. The lessons Jesus teaches just can’t be taken in at one hearing.
Knowing what our children need to do is often pretty clear to us. Them figuring out what they need to do takes longer. When I meet with people who are dealing with dilemmas it’s often pretty easy for me to see what needs to happen. I’ve given some mighty good advice over the years but advice isn’t good for much. When I can draw something out of someone else by asking questions or sit with them while they reflect on their circumstances, people seem to learn more.
There is so much in life to learn. But there is very little that can be taught. My best teachers have not just taken what is in their head or heart and poured it into mine. My best teachers have shared what they know when I have been ready to receive it. Sitting a child down and telling him what is what is like talking to a wall. But when a child comes to us with a question, their world has the potential of opening up in a big way. Jesus understood how people learn which of course means that God knows how we learn and honors that.
Whenever I do learn something new and valuable, I immediately begin wishing I had learned it earlier. But something else I understand from time to time is that all the things I have been through make it possible for me to learn lessons when I learn them. I didn’t learn them earlier because I wasn’t ready. I learn now because I am ready. Learning – growing in understanding God’s ways – just takes time. As I take new lessons in and appreciate them, I can also come to appreciate all the times of struggling and not knowing that led up to the breakthrough. The lessons are always there for me to learn, waiting patiently for just the right time.
To know that we are made by God, loved by God, recipients of grace, is all a lifelong sort of endeavor. There is more to know than I can take in. The more I come to know God, the more there is to know. Sit with God and yourself patiently and attentively. Seek to be an open vessel. Gradually God’s goodness is revealed to us, sometimes in fits and starts. Part of that is because we’re limited. And part of that is because God is unlimited.
Meditate on what God offers us in Jesus: sacrificial love; generous acceptance; transforming compassion. What are you ready to learn?
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.