The Word Among Us

Personal Spirituality Resources

Pictures of the Church

Jesus’ parables tell us who we are.

Pictures of the Church: Jesus’ parables tell us who we are.

If, as the popular song says, a picture paints a thousand words, then Jesus’ parables must be in a class by themselves. The pictures he painted in these stories have inspired not just thousands but millions of words!

If, as the popular song says, a picture paints a thousand words, then Jesus’ parables must be in a class by themselves. The pictures he painted in these stories have inspired not just thousands but millions of words!

Entire books have been written on just one parable alone, not to mention the countless homilies that have been preached, reflections that have been offered, and theologies that have been proposed, all based on these moving word pictures.

In many of his parables, Jesus paints pictures that teach us about the relationship he wants to have with us, his church. He talks about a shepherd tending sheep, a farmer cultivating the land, a vinedresser caring for a vineyard, and a builder building a building.

Images like these can help us see that Jesus is always with the church. They also tell us how he wants his church to respond to him. And finally, they give us insights into how Jesus is calling us to build the church.

Let’s look now look at some of these images of the church. So as you read, ask the Spirit to show you how precious the church is in God’s eyes. Ask him to show you through these images how Jesus wants us to be holy as he himself is holy.

I Am the Good Shepherd. Let’s begin by looking at the image of a shepherd and his sheepfold. In the Gospel of John, Jesus talks about how the shepherd walks ahead of his sheep, leading them and caring for them. Unlike a hired hand, the shepherd feels a close bond to his sheep, to the point where he is willing to lay down his own life for them (John 10:1-18). In this parable, Jesus tells us that he himself is the Good Shepherd, the One who loves us and lays down his life for us.

In this parable, the “sheepfold” represents the whole church, not just one individual or a few people. It’s the entire body of people who know that they were once lost but have been found by Jesus (Luke 15:1-7). It’s the people who hear his voice (John 10:3). It’s all of us who have committed ourselves to following Jesus to the best of our ability—and who trust that he will feed us and care for us (Matthew 9:36).

Jesus also called himself the “gate” for his sheep, the one through whom the sheep can “come in and go out” (John 10:9). On one hand, he is saying that we should all come into the church to be fed and protected by him. But on the other hand, he is urging us to “go out” from the church to work hard, to build good and loving relationships, to care for our families, and to be God’s witnesses. He is telling us that he will be there in all of our comings and goings, watching over us and protecting us. All we have to do is listen for his voice and be careful not to wander off and get lost.

The Vineyard. Another image paints the church as a vineyard. As they reflected on this image, the Fathers of Vatican II wrote: “The Church, like a piece of land to be cultivated, the tillage of God” (On the Church, 6). The word “tillage” gives the idea of digging deep into the soil, planting seeds, and adding fertilizer in the hope of a fruitful crop. In his parable of the vineyard, Jesus tells us that our Father has sown seeds into the church: seeds of healing, good news, forgiveness, and justice. He tells us that God wants to see us cultivate these seeds so that we can bear fruit in the world—the fruit that comes when we share his love and grace with the people around us (Matthew 21:33-44).

In the parable of the vine and the branches (John 15:1-10), Jesus tells us that he wants to nourish us with his own divine life. He tells us to remain in him so that we can keep receiving his life and his love and his grace. He tells us this so that we won’t wither and die. Like the parable in Matthew, this parable also tells us that Jesus wants us to bear fruit.

This is our call, and it is a challenging one. And yet in the midst of this challenge, it is wonderful to know that Jesus is always with us, feeding us and helping us fulfill the call. We are not alone. “The true vine is Christ who gives life and the power to bear abundant fruit to the branches, that is, to us, who through the Church remain in Christ” (On the Church, 6).

The House of God. St. Paul called the church “the household of God” (1 Timothy 3:15). He also wrote that this household is the place where we, God’s family, live no longer as strangers but as “fellow citizens” with each other and with the Lord (Ephesians 2:19). Jesus said that he is the “cornerstone,” the foundation of the church (Matthew 21:42). Peter continued this teaching when he called us all “living stones” who are being built into a “spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5). Here we see another image of Jesus ministering to us through the church and at the same time making us (as a church) into a visible presence in the world. Jesus is always building his spiritual house, and he wants us to be co-workers, even cocreators with him. He wants us to be living stones, not just dead weight, as we join him in this great construction project! This image of the church as a household shows us how closely God wants us to work with him. He is the general contractor who guides us as we build, and we are the construction workers who carry out the contractor’s plans.

The disciples were Jesus’ first living stones as they went out and preached the gospel and built the church. But we too are living stones, and we are just as important as they were. Every time we serve and sacrifice, every time we intercede and worship, every time we love as Jesus loved, we are building the church. As active, living stones, we are both supporting the existing structure and helping it to expand and grow even greater.

Best of all, whenever we work to build this magnificent household of God, we bring joy to Jesus’ heart. We glorify him as we build on his foundation, and he rejoices to see his beloved church grow stronger and more glorious.

Be Holy As I Am Holy. The Hebrew word for holy (qadosh) means set apart. Israel was holy—set apart from the pagan nations around it. The vessels in the Temple were holy because they were set apart strictly for use in worship.

But none of this compares to God, who is completely holy. He is the Creator, and we are the creatures. He is perfect, and we are sinful. He is eternal, and we are mortal. He is all-powerful, and we are limited. As both Isaiah and Job show, simply seeing the Lord is enough to bring us to our knees (Isaiah 6:5; Job 42:5-6). His awesome presence moves us to cry out: “Woe is me! I am doomed without God!”

Still, as holy as he is, God wants us to share in his holiness. He told the Israelites: “Sanctify yourselves, then, and be holy; for I, the Lord, your God, am holy” (Leviticus 20:7). If we look at this verse in light of the images of the sheepfold, the vine¬yard, and the household, we can see how special the church must be in God’s eyes.

One of the central mysteries of the church is that it is holy, since it has been sanctified by Jesus himself. As far as its identity in Christ, its calling, and its mission are concerned, the church is spotless and perfect. And yet, as pure as the church is, each of us—every member of the church— is still called to deeper purification and greater holiness. That’s right. All of us, including the pope and all our bishops, are imperfect members of a perfect church!

How encouraging it is to know, then, that while God has called us to be holy, he has generously given us his own divine power to help make us holy. He has given us the grace that we need to live a new life in Christ. He has given us his Holy Spirit to guide us and comfort us and teach us. He feeds us through the sacraments, the Scriptures, and prayer. He has given us everything we need to become the holy priesthood that he has called us to be.

God Is with Us. With all these marvelous truths in mind, let’s pray that we will fulfill this grand vision that God has for us, his holy church.

“Father, we know that your church is the greatest visible sign of your presence in the world. The church is your vineyard. It’s your building. We ask you to pour out a new Pentecost upon the church so that we will shine brightly.

“Jesus, we thank you for making us into living stones, who are being built into your spiritual house. Give us the grace to know, love, and serve you more each day.

“Holy Spirit, you are the light of the church. Bless us and protect us from every temptation. Enkindle in us the fire of your love. Send us forth and renew the face of the earth!”