Jesus was once asked why he spoke in parables. His answer is more than a little curious: “I speak in parables . . . lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn again, and I should heal them” (Matthew 13:15).

At first glance, this seems to suggest that Jesus was being deliberately vague so that people would not understand the truth—and so could remain ignorant and obstinate.

The opposite is true. His deliberate vagueness is a studied gentleness, a deep compassion that recognizes that people’s lives are complex and that truth is not a sledgehammer.

It is not enough just to have the truth. Truth can set free but it can also freeze hearts still further, if it is not presented with the utmost compassion, gentleness and understanding. Let me try to illustrate this:

The novelist, Joyce Carol Oates, received a letter one day from a young woman whom she had once taught in a classroom. This woman shared with Oates much of her own story, which was a very checkered and painful one. She has come from a bad home, been abused as a young girl and had spent a number of years consoling herself in her depression by mindless and anonymous sex.

At the time she writes this letter, she is trying to pull herself out of both her past and her depression and is, among other things, attempting to make one of her teachers, a married man with children, fall in love with her so that he would leave his wife and marry her.

In her letter to Oates she complains bitterly that she was not helped much by the class she took from her. Allow me, with a few slight redactions, to quote from her letter:

“You once said in one of your classes: ‘Literature gives form to life.’ I remember you saying that very clearly. And now I want to ask you something: ‘What is form? And why is that better than the way life happens by itself?’

“I hate all that, all those lies, so many words in all those books. What form is there to the way things happen? I wanted to run up to you after class and ask you that question, cry it out at you, shout it into your face because your words were wrong! You were wrong!

“And yet I envy you. I have envied you since I first saw you. You and others like you. Your easy way with words and people. The way you can talk to others, like friends.

“One day before class I saw you walking into the building with another teacher, the two of you, well-dressed, talking, smiling, like that was no accomplishment whatsoever. And another time I saw you driving away from school in a blue car.


“And I hate you for that. For that and for your books and for your words, and for your knowing so much about what never happened in any perfect form.

“I even see your picture in the newspapers sometimes. You, with all your knowledge, while I have lived my life already, turned myself inside out and got nothing out of it. I have lived my life and there is no form to it. No shape.

“I could tell you about life. I and people like me. All of us people who lie alone at night and squirm with a hatred we cannot get straight, into a shape. All of us women who give themselves to men without knowing why, all of us who walk fast with hate, like pain, in our-bowels, terrified. What do you know about that?”

“Like the woman I am sitting across from right now in the library as I write this letter. She is fat, heavy, thick cream colored fat-marbled old legs, cracked with varicose veins. People like her and me know things you don’t know, you teachers and writers of books.

”We are the ones who wait around libraries when it is time to leave, and sit drinking coffee alone in the kitchen. We are the ones who make crazy plans for marriage, but have no one to marry. We are the ones who look around slowly when we get off the bus; but don’t know what we are looking for.

”We are the ones who leaf through magazines with colored pictures and spend long hours sunk in our own bodies; thinking, remembering, day­dreaming, waiting for someone to come and to give form to so much pain. And what do you know about that!” (Them)

There is a story told about Vincent de Paul which says that, on his deathbed, he spoke words like these to his community: “When you grow tired of giving to others, when you are tempted to self-pity and begin to believe that others, the poor, are taking advantage of you, that you are being asked to give more than is fair, then continue to give and, maybe, sometime in the future, the poor will find it in their hearts to forgive you. For it is more blessed to give than to receive—and it is also a lot easier!”

Maybe, sometime in the future, the poor will find it in their hearts to forgive us for, so often, using the truth as a hammer to enslave them further rather than to set them free.