William J. O’MALLEY, SJ. Being There, the Parables of Jesus in a Different Voice. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2016. Pp. 200. $20.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-62698-181-2. Reviewed by Francis BERNA, La Salle University, Philadelphia, PA 19141.
William O’Malley’s text on parables could have served as a very useful tool for preachers over the past year. Too great a presumed familiarity with a text can breed too many dull and boring sermons. Parables in proclamation and preaching ought never to be dull. This book provides fresh insight that combines solid academic scholarship with fine pastoral application. And, as with his other books, the reader will appreciate O’Malley’s wonderfully artful use of language.
By way of introduction the author describes the nature of parables, describes important terms, and cautions against turning parables into allegory. The text offers a sound explanation of exegesis and eisegesis, highlighting the importance of meaningful biblical scholarship. O’Malley’s explanation of teleios provides a clear sense of his general style and purpose. Rather than the common translation of the term as “perfect” the author writes, “What Jesus meant was ‘heading in the direction you were born for’” (p. 9). He makes clear that while built on the backbone of scholarly work, he intends to offer the ordinary Christian “a more personal insight into the mind of Christ” (p. 15). As he moves beyond the introduction he does just that.
Part One consists of a retelling of familiar stories. O’Malley amplifies each story with additional details and new language to jolt any feelings of being too familiar. He follows each retelling with some “Thoughts to Ponder.” The story of “The Prodigal Son” gets divided into two stories: “The Spendthrift’s Father” and “The Dutiful Son.” The reader may be reminded of the powerful meditations of Henri Nouwen captured in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son. O’Malley’s language, however, engages from a different perspective. In pondering God, the Father, the author describes the story’s father as “the one who is, in a much deeper sense rash, incautious, foolhardy.” The spendthrift son is “brazenly offensive, insolent, ungrateful” (p. 39).
By way of the other stories, O’Malley repeatedly brings the reader to reconsider their thoughts about God. In his own life he finds a theology of atonement wanting; the Good Shepherd and the woman searching for a lost coin speak of a God well beyond that proposed by the “bean counters” (p. 84). He laid the foundation for this imagery by describing Duns Scotus’ theology for Christ’s death. Rather than justice, economics, ransom – he saw it as “an ultimate act of God trying to show us how important we are to him” (p. 63). For the conclusion of his pondering the story of Lazarus and Dives O’Malley includes the poem of James Stephens, “In the Fullness of Time.” In these verses Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael welcome their old friend Satan into Paradise.
To open Part Two, O’Malley draws on the famous quotation attributed to Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” This section vividly describes Jesus as a living parable. With perhaps too great detail, the author retells the response of Jesus to the question about who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Mark’s gospel has Jesus put a child in the middle of them. Jesus answers the question with action. Here the author invites the reader to reclaim childhood imagination, a sense of wonder and magic. He wonders, “What would happen if some emissary from Middle Earth or Hogwarts cast a spell that sucked out the energy from all the batteries on earth?” (p. 121). Then one might notice a star and find God hidden in an infant.
“When the worst of the spring rains had dwindled, the relatives of Jesus in Galilee began to suggest, with some insistence, the he take his layabouts and traveling circus elsewhere…” (p. 143). With these words O’Malley opens his reflections on the raising of Lazarus through Jesus’ death and resurrection. In these brief chapters with their similarly striking “Thoughts to Ponder” one finds enough for a few days retreat. The moving way in which the words depict Peter’s betrayal and the tender questioning of Jesus, “do you love me?” allow the reader to consider the ongoing character of God’s reconciling love. The God of the parables, making the first move though one is still “a long way off.”
The Epilogue opens with the words of Simone Weil, “Every perfect life is a parable invented by God” (p. 199). O’Malley finds this a fitting description for understanding the “will of God” for one’s life. God offers no masterplan, blueprint, or play script. Real life consists of “a lifelong exercise in improvisation” (p. 199). To capture the parabolic character of one’s own life the author invites the reader to ponder the triumphs and tragedies while listening carefully to hear the word that God spoke. And then, one might be more attentive to the dynamic presence of God in the present moment.
Matthew holds center stage for this year’s gospel proclamations. He will offer a few parables that will hopefully generate some engaging sermons. One should not, however, wait another two years for Luke. This book, in season and out, provides a wonderfully engaging encounter with the stories and the story of Jesus.