Scripture Scholars tell us that the meaning behind the word “parable” is curve, as in throwing a curve. It’s a batter facing a tricky pitcher; the ball comes in and the batter swings at the place he thinks the ball will be — but because the pitcher made it bend away, it isn’t at that spot. The curve surprises the batter.
Surprise is apparent in these many little stories Jesus tells, the ones we call the parables (akin to “parabola,” a curving line). The one in Luke’s 16th chapter about the dishonest foreman is an instance. There this employee discounts the debts other people owed his master so they in turn would later on take care of him. We’re surprised to hear Jesus praising dishonesty and double-dealing, but the curve in the story is that Jesus isn’t focusing on the trickery of the steward but rather on his ingenuity in a tight spot.
When up against pressured and daunting situations, one of the options is to complain about it, feel sorry for myself and remain passive. Another is to be creative and imaginative in searching out ways to overcome it.
Often enough, the believer’s response to trouble and obstacles is to put up with the suffering and simply carry that cross in patience. But here Jesus is pointing in another direction — come at the problem with imagination and resolve. Not just accept your cross, but work with it in a hopeful and creative way.
A case in point is Pope Francis facing the disturbing situation of the world-wide fall-off in Church attendance. Rather than just accepting it as brute fact, he has proposed Church-wide listening sessions called Synods. He is asking the bishops to gather Catholics in various groups and then listen to their views on how the Church operates right now and how it might do better at enacting Jesus’ message in the future.
This is a different tact than simply asking the authorities for guidance about what the Gospel is saying to our times. In proposing this innovative method, the Pope is using ingenuity, mapping out a fresh and creative path to address the disturbing issue. Francis might well be taking his cue from Jesus’ example in this and in so many other of his parables: reframe the problem and envisage a different solution.
Those of us who follow Vincent recognize in him much this same approach. Time and again, he lays out new and creative paths for bringing the Gospel to his times and place.
By weaving this “curve dynamic” into his parables, Jesus is encouraging us to look for yet untried pathways in living out our faith, to spot imaginative possibilities within it, and to approach impasses with not just resignation but also with Spirit-inspired ingenuity.
Our God is a God of surprises. God’s Son, Jesus, will always be astonishing us, not just with his stories but in all the eye-opening ways he comes to us anew in this and every age.