Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP,
16 Jul 2017

St. Mary's Cathedral

More often than not, we are left to work out the meaning of Christ's parables for ourselves, but this morning we have a rare occurrence: Jesus explains His parable to us. In doing so, Pope St. Gregory the Great once pointed out, Our Lord reminds us that his teachings are profound and often work on several levels. Though He does not unpack all of them as He does today's parables, these examples tell us to look beneath the surface for the full meaning of all Christ's teachings.1

But why teach in parables at all? Why not just speak plainly, whether in clever soundbites, clear headlines, or plain propositions? So convoluted is some of the theology, so overstated some of the rhetoric, so local some of the references, and without long study of the Scriptures and a degree in theology we can sometimes feel excluded on the world of the Bible. Indeed occasionally Jesus seems to avoid telling us exactly what He's thinking or the biblical author seems to be deliberately mysterious…

Well, one reason Jesus often teaches through stories, is that as every parent or teacher knows that is often the most effective way to teach. Philosophers and theologians live happily whiling away the hours debating obtuse matters in technical language, but for many people such a discussion would quickly lose their interest. Like St. Patrick, teaching about the Trinity using a shamrock, the parable allows Christ's theological message to be relatable to his audience, whether educated or not. If any of you were to go to visit the plain to the west of the Lake of Gennesaret, where Our Lord is preaching in today's Gospel, you would immediately see that the parable of the sower was not conjured up out of thin air, but drawn from the very surroundings in which the crowd were standing. The plain is criss-crossed with paths, with rocks lying just beneath the surface or exposed to the scorching sun, and thorns peppering the fields. We can see, then, that far from trying to confuse his audience, Jesus was using a parable to draw upon his listeners' own experiences, on what they could see around them, so that they might better understand.

Another reason for using parables is that they often transcend time and place. Whether it's theological language or even more plain speaking, we often need to translate or reframe what we are saying when we move from one culture to another or one period in history to another. Stories, on the other hand, often have the power to speak to diverse audiences because instead of explaining something they show it to us. Google "How to drive a manual car" and you'll get thousands of instructional sites, printable pdfs, YouTube videos, and so on; but if you really want to learn how to drive a manual car, it's best to get someone to show you. Parables are like that: they don't explain things so much as disclose them. That we might not speak ancient Hebrew or have ever seen the shores of Lake Gennesaret, we quickly grasp what Our Lord is saying through His story and a little explanation.

The third reason for Our Lord using parables is that He seeks gently, step-by-step, to introduce us to the mystery of God, of the world, and of ourselves, rather than overwhelming us; He invites, encourages, almost seduces into the kingdom of God rather than taking us captive. Just as we shield our eyes from the sun in order to see, so too the brightness of heaven must be shaded through a parable for us to be able to see it, let alone embrace it. But it's there if we're willing to look.

A fourth reason why Christ might use parables is that they do require thinking about, discussing, elucidating; they require us not only to ponder the sacred text for ourselves, but also to be immersed in a tradition and a community that transmits and elucidates that text. As the disciples have the humility to ask Christ to explain his parable today, so we disciples look to the Church to provide authentic, even authoritative, interpretations of the Scriptures. When Jesus explains His parable today, He's not saying here's one explanation, take it or leave it, make up your own interpretation if you prefer: no, He's saying there are some readings of His words, of His mind, that are better than others, in the community of disciples gathered around him - the Church - is where we go to find them.

Jesus' parables tell of the mysteries of God, the world and of ourselves, that we will never fully plumb, but which speak directly to our souls and are worthy of our pondering alone and in the company of the Church. They invite us into relationship with our fellow Christians, with the tradition which is all those who have asked the questions all the way back to the apostles, and with Christ the storyteller, Christ the teacher, Christ the parable of God. "Look around you", He says to us this morning, "where you are standing there is rocky ground, there are thorns, but there is also good soil for the word of God. Which will you be?"


St. Mary's Cathedral, Sydney

Welcome to St Mary's Cathedral for today's Solemn Mass. today we will witness the inaugural presentation of the Dempsey Medal for outstanding service in the Archdiocese of Sydney. It is named in memory of James Dempsey, an Irish Catholic convict who was transported to Sydney in 1802 and later pardoned. As a stonemason, he oversaw the building of the first bridge, barracks and hospital all near this cathedral site.

The Dempsey home was pivotal for Catholics of the early colony, especially in the years when there was no priest and no Mass. There were hosted regular recitations of the Rosary, along with Sundays Vespers. Dempsey also accompanied and prayed with prisoners condemned to the gallows. Fr Jeremiah Flynn arrived in 1817 and whether by accident or design, he left the Blessed Sacrament behind when he was deported by Governor Macquarie six months later. Whether that Host was protected by James Dempsey or by another prominent Catholic, William Davis, has long been debated and I will not pretend to referee. What is certain is that the lay faithful kept it for adoration in a private home. A depiction of that scene is among stained glass windows on the western side of this Cathedral. When Father Therry arrived in 1820, Dempsey became his right-hand man, helping plan, build, fundraise for and himself pay for the building of the first St Mary's on this site. Today we have with us the crucifix and candlesticks preserved by the Dempsey family ever since, as well as members of the family and representatives of the lay Carmelites to which he belonged.

Also present today are members of the Archdiocesan Honours Committee, led by Mr Justice Kunç, and on their recommendation, following nominations from parishes and agencies, we will today honour people long involved in parish life, in building or maintaining their church buildings or parish community, in liturgical, catechetical, music or hospitality ministries, by membership of their parish council, social justice group, St Vincent de Paul conference, Catholic Women's League chapter, prayer group or altar society, by involvement with their parish school or sacramental team, by fundraising for our seminarians, retired priests or other good causes, or by engaging in ministry to the sick, the deaf or otherwise disabled or disadvantaged. They are a truly impressive group of people!

To everyone present, but especially to our twenty Medal recipients, a very warm welcome.


1 St. Gregory the Great, Forty Gospel Homilies, 1.15.1-2, 4