It’s often very interesting and revealing to ask people what they’re reading at any given moment. Some will be focussing on one particular book, some will have a pile by their bedside that long ago exhausted the supply of nice bookmarks and now brandish an assortment of old rail tickets and the receipts that clog up one’s wallet. Some will always have a novel on the go, others a biography, still others an anthology of poems or spiritual writings. Some will re-read a cherished text many times, others will readily give up on a book that doesn’t grab their attention quickly. And it’s interesting, with that in mind, to ask alongside the question of what someone is reading, the less frequently asked question of how someone reads. Quickly, to get in step with the pace of a fast-moving plot; slowly, to savour the well-honed phrases of a stylish writer; critically, to interrogate the opinions of a political commentator; reflectively, to ponder the insights of a spiritual master.
But what about the words of scripture? Do we find a variety of ways of reading these words that sometimes puzzle us with a world-view that feels remote but also grab us with a timelessness that constantly draws us back? I think it is a matter of some importance that Christians reflect carefully on how we read holy scripture because it is a delicate and vital art, a spiritual skill that requires patience and care rather than the simple redeployment of the same skills that we use to digest the contents of the back of a cereal box or an ill-tempered tweet.
Help is at hand, because Jesus himself recognised that he was asking a lot of those who were prepared to engage with his own distinctive teaching style – the parable – and gave us an entire parable whose whole purpose is to suggest to us ways to read parables! The parable of the sower is intended to give some hints, but even this parable, which untypically comes with an exposition, still leaves us a whole lot of work for us to do ourselves. Parables don’t yield simple answers quickly and scripture is not a step-by-step instruction book. I’ll go further. Scripture is not there to give us answers but to invite us into a way of living, a way of seeing. It is there to offer life-giving words, words to wake us up and coax us into fruitfulness, not moral diktats that relieve us of the tiresome business of having to think for ourselves, despite what some of religion’s less intelligent detractors might suggest.
A parable, like any of scripture’s enduring words of life, is like a seed. It grows in us and, if we let it, breaks open our conventional thinking so that we see something new, some fresh, green shoot of insight, reassurance or challenge. The Jesuit William Johnston, who spent his entire ministry in Japan, suggested that we learn to read parables in the same way as Zen practitioners read koans, that distinctive teaching tool that has its origins in medieval Chinese Ch’an Buddhism. The koan does not transmit information but invites awakening. Contrary to some Western assumptions, it is not some kind of absurd puzzle that is intended to break down conventional thinking as much as a word that provokes response from the disciple. Johnston suggested that we learn from the embodied practice of koan study, where students don’t so much analyse the texts as internalise them – they sit and breathe with them in meditation, turning them over in their hearts until they yield fruit. This is a practice of reading with our bodies, of letting seeds settle and germinate. Reading scripture can be like this. It’s not an IQ test but a life skill.
Here’s an example of how that might work in a Christian context. The mothers and fathers of the desert monastic movement developed a practice of using short scriptural texts to counteract unsettling thoughts that came to them in the silence of the wilderness. Evagrius of Pontus offered an entire compendium of such short phrases to respond to some of life’s turbulences that most frequently threaten to overwhelm us and it is based on the words of scripture spoken by Jesus in the wilderness to the tempter. As one example, he suggests, for those facing the kind of listlessness that saps our hope, a repetition of words from Psalm 26: ‘I believe that I will see the good things of the Lord in the land of the living’. Many of us will have a store of similar short phrases, often from the Psalms, which we can sit and breathe with, repeat gently, take into ourselves and allow to germinate when we face moments of challenge or even just the regular flow of the day. ‘Into thy hands I commend my Spirit’; ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation’; ‘The darkness is not dark to you’; ‘As the deer longs for running streams, so longs my soul for you’; ‘O God make speed to save me’; ‘Have mercy on me Lord, according to your abundant kindness’; ‘Bless the Lord O my soul’. To turn these phrases over and over in our hearts can be an act of recentring ourselves on the source of our life, a regular reacquaintance with our deeper spirit, and gentle energy to push back against the darker insinuations that can invade our minds and hearts.
And for the parables, we might similarly turn over in our hearts the image of a mustard seed or priceless pearl, or the emotions stirred by the prodigal son, or words like ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. It’s never a question of coming up with the right answer and always a question of allowing an authentic response to grow within us as we come to these awakening words again and again.
I think this is something like the kind of practice that Jesus was suggesting in today’s parable. We take the seed of the word deep into ourselves so that it becomes much more than a piece of advice, much more than an instruction, much more, even, than an inspiring thought. It becomes a fruitful expression of divine life in us, a well of living water – refreshing, consoling, forgiving, protecting, energising, enlightening.