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The Gospel of Life

In explaining the Parable of the Sower {Luke 8:4-15], Jesus says:

To you, it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but to others I speak in parables, so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.’ Now the parable is this: The seed is the Word of God.
[Luke 8:10-11]

The passage begins with the report that people from many towns had gathered to hear Jesus speak. Clearly their hearts hungered for truth. But Jesus does not speak plainly to them of the things that they yearn to know. He offers them a parable designed to confuse. So why did they come?

In our day, it is even harder, for what do we have of Jesus’ words? He did not write a Gospel, leaving it to his disciples to collect fragments of his teaching in contradictory testimony. Worse, that testimony has been parsed and twisted for centuries by those seeking political authority. Of the three great Christian Inquisitions, all were enforced by political leaders seeking to oppress their enemies. Only in the second, longest episode – the Catholic Inquisition – did the Church in Rome send out priests as Inquisitors to counter politically-motivated dogma with true Christian teaching. As a result, many of the accused repented, received the sacraments, and were saved.

If Jesus had written a gospel, could this have been avoided?

The parable suggests not, for Jesus says:

The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes the word away from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.

This is a confusing image, that of words in the heart. It is repeated in the final verse, when Jesus speaks of those that “hold it fast in an honest and good heart.”

When speaking of the kingdom of heaven, of course, all earthly metaphors eventually must fail. Some hint of the grandeur of the Word of which Jesus speaks is given to us in the opening lines of John’s Gospel, in which he testifies:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and was God. [John 1:1]

Later Jesus offers the metaphor of living water:

If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water. [John 4:10]

During a sermon in which he felt this presence moving through his congregation, I heard one pastor testify that it felt indeed like water pouring over his head, drenching every fiber of his body.

St. Teresa of Avila combines beautifully these metaphors when describing her experience of prayer in her spiritual autobiography, The Book of My Life (translated wondrously by Mirabai Starr). The holy woman talks of prayer as a means of bringing water to a garden. It progresses through stages, the first of which is like lifting a bucket. As we strengthen the mechanisms that process love, the water moves through us as though driven by a water wheel. When we learn to surrender our desires, the gates burst, and love moves through us as though a river, drenching us in “holy madness.” Finally, we enter a state of union and serenity, seeing love entering the world everywhere we go, doing the Father’s work. The word becomes a rain that falls on our garden, which has become the world. There we meet Jesus in the struggle to heal the pain of the world’s separation from Love.

In describing this growth into the Word, Teresa testifies:

O Lord of my soul and my Good! There are souls so determined to love you that they gladly abandon everything else to focus on nothing but loving you. Why don’t you want them to immediately ascend to a place where they may receive the gift of perfect love?

Indeed, the saint’s desire was so powerful that at times she had to order her sisters to sit on her to keep her attached to the ground!

But the answer to Teresa’s plea, of course, is that words such as she gave to the world are no less of the Word than were those that issued from Jesus’ lips. Jesus did not write a gospel because he knew that others would do it for him, not as a fixed testament crafted to a specific age, but ever renewed to reflect the needs of each person in their time. Not dead words captured on a page, but living words, lived with enduring trust, growing into an ever more joyful proclamation that love amplifies Life with majestic, glorious and infinite possibility!

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