Eldest Sister could tell a story. Whenever a cousin came to visit, she would sit with Eldest Sister for a storytelling session, and they would stay up well into the night.
Of course, all of us love stories. I myself would stay within hearing distance from the girls, listening to the romance or adventure or fairy tale, whatever story Eldest Sister might spin. I would await its unfolding with the same open-mouthed eagerness as my cousin.
As a law student, I told stories to myself as an aid to remembering the provisions of the Civil Code. It helped to put the law within the stream of life.
Sure, the characters that I conjured up to illustrate the different situations that, for instance, the law on marriage contemplates, did not exist except in my imagination. But in due course, their lives paralleled the lives of actual couples as they bore children, acquired property and pursued their professions.
Nothing sticks to the mind, and the heart, more than a story. Jesus made many minds and hearts remember his message by using stories called parables. He picked an image or incident from the world of everyday and used it to convey a truth, which on many occasions he just left to the listeners to work out — and so, because in time they themselves came to it, the realization stayed with them.
I count among my favorite parables the one about the sower. Each time I split a papaya, which I do most mornings, I scrape the seeds off the insides and throw them into the secluded areas of the garden. I know that, out of so many, some of the seeds must grow and survive.
Hence, Matthew’s account about Jesus speaking about a sower scattering seeds strikes a chord. As my experience bears out, as well as that of Jesus’ listeners then, and as Jesus himself emphasized, not all of the seeds make it to full development. Only those that fell on good ground grow and bear fruit. The birds eat the seeds that settled on the wayside. Those that fell on stony ground, which has only a little earth, shoot up straight away, and as quickly wither in the sun. And the weeds and thorns choke the seeds that have found their way into their midst. (Oh, before I forget, none of the papaya seeds that I strewed about ever germinated. I did not know that the help had regarded the seeds as litter and swept them away.)
Commentators point to three things in a parable: the root, the rind and the marrow. The occasion and purpose that give rise to the parable constitute the root. The incident or imagery makes up the rind. In the case of the parable of the sower, I consider as the root Jesus’ desire to teach the crowd that had gathered around him how to listen to and nurture the message. They had come in such numbers that he had to retreat to the sea and speak from a boat. We know the rind — the separate fates of the scattered seeds. And the marrow relates to how the word of God depends on the disposition of the listener to accomplish its purpose in him or her.
The imagery and truth that the parable has make up its body and soul. We cannot separate them. As Goethe said, we cannot divide, as with an axe, the inward from the outward. Neither can we detach the parable from Christ, in whom alone it finds meaning. We cannot understand the Written Word unless we fix it in the Incarnate Word. Jesus used images to make us perceive the invisible, spiritual reality. In a way, every story does this. The imagined people and scenery have their own universe, but because they resemble the folk and neighborhoods of our own world, they make us realize the deep things about ourselves. Being stories, parables may not be true. But they are stories that can be true.