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Kingdom, Grace, JudgmentParadox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus
By Robert Farrar Capon
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2002 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Word about Parables
A book about the parables of Jesus faces two obstacles at the outset. The first and more troublesome, oddly enough, is familiarity. Most people, on reading the Gospels' assertion that "Jesus spoke in parables," assume they know exactly what is meant. "Oh, yes," they say, "and a wonderful teaching device it was, too. All those unforgettable stories we're so fond of, like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son." Yet their enthusiasm is narrowly based. Jesus' use of the parabolic method can hardly be limited to the mere handful of instances they remember as entertaining, agreeable, simple, and clear. Some of his parables are not stories; many are not agreeable; most are complex; and a good percentage of them produce more confusion than understanding.
Most of this book, therefore, will be devoted to the removal of the obstacle of a too-facile familiarity. Jesus spoke in strange, bizarre, disturbing ways. He balked at almost no comparison, however irreverent or unrefined. Apparently, he found nothing odd about holding up, as a mirror to God's ways, a mixed bag of questionable characters: an unjust judge, a savage king, a tipsy slave owner, an unfair employer, and even a man who gives help only to bona-fidepests. Furthermore, Jesus not only spoke in parables; he thought in parables, acted in parables, and regularly insisted that what he was proclaiming could not be set forth in any way other than in parables. He was practically an ambulatory parable in and of himself: he cursed fig trees, walked on water, planted coins in fishes' mouths, and for his final act, sailed up into a cloud. In short, this book is not a routine, pious review of the parables; rather, it is a fresh, adventurous look at the parabolic words and acts of Jesus in the larger light of their entire gospel and biblical context.
Mentioning the Bible as a whole, however, brings me to the second of the obstacles: the doubt that exists in the minds of many people as to whether anything fresh or adventurous can ever be said about Scripture by one who, as I do, views it as inspired by God. Let me try to remove that difficulty by making my own position clear.
"I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God and to contain all things necessary to salvation. ..." So read the words of the ordination oath that I took many years ago and that I am still happy to keep. I suppose it may sound, to both believer and unbeliever, like one of those bell-book-and-candle pronouncements designed to end discussion, but as far as I am concerned, it was and still is the essential precondition of my biblical study. Precisely because it forbids the neglect of even the oddest bit of Scripture, I find it nothing less than the taproot of an endlessly refreshing openness to all the wonderful, perplexing, and intriguing words by which the Word himself has spoken.
Accepting the Bible as inspired is a bit like receiving an entire collection of one's grandfather's writings. Suppose, for example, that on opening such a treasure, I found it to contain everything my grandfather ever wrote: letters, poems, recipes, essays, short stories, diaries, family histories. And suppose further that I was fully convinced not only that they were authentically his but that he had sent them for the express purpose of providing me with everything he wanted me to know both about himself and about our relationship. Far from putting an end to my study of his words, those convictions would be the very thing that started me wrestling with them in earnest.
And not just to be able to spout his words or to confirm what I already thought. Indeed, I would be well advised to approach them with as open a mind as possible, always ready to sit loose to what I had decided about him and simply to listen to him. It should be only after long study and repeated readings that I would dare to conclude what any particular passage meant, let alone what the entire thrust of his writing was. With such a wildly various collection, there would always be a temptation to let my own sense of what he was up to get in the way of what he himself really had in mind.
I might, for example, decide that, while his brief aphorisms lay close to the heart of the man, his longer stories had little to teach me about him. That would be a mistake; all that this conclusion would actually show was that I had a liking for agreeable bits of information served up on small plates but balked at the labor of trying to take his meaning when he expressed himself by putting on a feast of strange fictions. Or I might decide that only his serious metaphysical writings, and not his strictures on the proper way to make gravy, truly revealed the man. In the case of this particular grandfather, that would be an even bigger mistake: if there was ever a place where he disclosed himself as the lover of creation he really was, it was in the kitchen. Without a willingness to wade through his recipes, a reader would miss a good half of his charm.
So too with Scripture. Often when people try to say what the Bible is about, they let their own mindset ride roughshod over what actually lies on the pages. For examples: convinced in advance that the Bible is about God or Morals or Religion or Spirituality or Salvation or some other capital-letter Subject, they feel compelled to interpret everything in it in a commensurate way. To a degree, of course, that is a perfectly proper approach, but it has some catches to it. For one thing, it puts their notion of what God, or Morals, or Religion, or whatever is all about in the position of calling the tune as to what Scripture may possibly mean - or even of being the deciding factor as to whether they can listen to what it is saying at all. Jesus, for example, was rejected by his contemporaries not because he claimed to be the Messiah but because, in their view, he didn't make a suitably messianic claim. "Too bad for God," they seemed to say. "He may want a dying Christ, but we happen to know that Christs don't die."
For another thing, people's notions of the really big scriptural Subject can be quite beside the point. Suppose, by way of illustration, they were to decide that the Bible is a book about God. Harmless enough, you think? Look at how many difficulties even so apparently correct a statement can give them - and how many otherwise open scriptural doors it forces them to close. Such a position can easily lead them to expect that on every page they will find the subject of God addressed - or if it is not, that they will find there some other subject that is at least worthy of him (as they understand worthiness, of course). But that is a tricky proposition. In the Gospel of John, we read, "No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten Son [many texts read God], who is in the bosom of the Father, he has said the last word about him" (1:18). Only Jesus, apparently, is the full revelation of what God is and does; any notions we come up with are always partial, frequently misleading, and sometimes completely off the mark.
In the Bible, as a matter of fact, God does so many ungodly things - like not remembering our sins, erasing the quite correct handwriting against us, and becoming sin for us - that the only safe course is to come to Scripture with as few stipulations as possible. God used his own style manual, not ours, in the promulgation of his Word.
Openness, therefore, is the major requirement for approaching the Scriptures. And nowhere in the Bible is an un-made-up mind more called for than when reading the parables of Jesus. Indeed, if I were forced to give a short answer to the question "What is the Bible as a whole about?" I think I would ignore all the subjects mentioned so far and base my reply squarely on those parables. If they have a single subject at all, it is quite plainly the kingdom of God. Therefore, even though my answer would sound like no usual formulation at all, I would say that the Bible is about the mystery of the kingdom - a mystery that, by definition, is something well hidden and not at all likely to be grasped by plausibility-loving minds.
Jesus, when he was asked why he constantly used parables, why he so habitually resorted to roundabout, analogical devices in his teaching - why, in fact, he said almost nothing without a parable - answered that he taught the crowds that way precisely in order that "seeing they might not see and hearing they might not understand" (Mark 4:12). True enough, when he was alone with his disciples, he spoke more plainly - giving them, he claimed, nothing less than the mystery itself. But it is hard to see that such directness had a different result. On three separate occasions, for instance, he spoke quite clearly about the certainly of his dying and rising at Jerusalem, but when he came to those mighty acts themselves, his disciples might as well never have heard a word he said. The mystery of the kingdom, it seems, is a radical mystery: even when you tell people about it in so many words, it remains permanently intractable to all their attempts to make sense of it.
In any case, a close examination of Jesus' parables may well be the best way we have of ensuring that we will be listening to what he himself has to say, instead of what we are prepared to hear - provided, that is, we are willing to take note of the almost perverse way in which he used parables.
Speaking in comparisons and teaching by means of stories are, of course, two of the oldest instructional techniques in the world. And in the hands of almost all instructors except Jesus, they are a relatively straightforward piece of business. Take an example: a professor is trying to give his students some idea of what goes on inside the atom. But because neither he nor they can actually see what he is talking about, he uses a comparison: the electrons, he tells them, are whirling around the nucleus as the planets whirl around the sun. The students suddenly see light where there was only darkness before, and the professor retires from the classroom to grateful applause.
With Jesus, however, the device of parabolic utterance is used not to explain things to people's satisfaction but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all their previous explanations and understandings. Had he been the professor in the illustration, he would probably have pushed the comparison to its ultimate, mind-boggling conclusion, namely, that as the solar system is mostly great tracts of empty space, so too is matter. What they had previously thought of as solid stuff consists almost entirely of holes. He would, in other words, have done more to upset his students' understanding than to give it a helping hand.
Watch an actual instance of Jesus at his parabolic best. In the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we find him addressing a group of people who are smugly content in their confidence that they are upstanding citizens - and who are convinced that anyone not exactly like themselves has no chance of making it into God's guest register. So he tells them the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. Note not only what an insulting story it is, but also how small the prospects are that his audience will ever be able to get past its details to its point. Far from being an illustration that shines an understanding they already have on something they haven't yet figured out, it is one that is guaranteed to pop every circuit breaker in their minds.
God, Jesus informs them, is not the least bit interested in their wonderful lists of moral and religious accomplishments. Imagine the scene for a moment. You can almost hear the reaction forming in their minds: "What do you mean, God's not interested? We have read the Scriptures - with particular attention to the commandments. We happen to know he is absolutely wild about fasting, tithing, and not committing adultery." But Jesus ignores them and presses the parable for all its worth. Not only is God going to take a dim view of all their high scores in the behaving and believing competition; he is, in fact, going to bestow the gold medal on an out-and-out crook who just waltzes into the temple, stares at his shoelaces, and does nothing more than admit as much.
But since that is not at all his audience's notion of how God should behave - since, suddenly, they now see only darkness where before they thought they had some light - since, in short, the professor has now explained something they have an utter dread of understanding, he retires from the classroom to nothing but hisses and boos.
On the way out, however, just to make sure they have not been incompletely confused, he unburdens himself of three more pieces of unwelcome instruction. First, he informs them that the kingdom of God will be given to babies sooner than to respectable religionists; second that a camel will go through a needle's eye sooner than a solid citizen will get into the kingdom; and third, that he himself, the messianic "Son of Man," is about to fulfill his messiahship by dying as a common criminal.
True enough, this last pronouncement was fairly unparabolic and was actually addressed to the disciples only. But once again, straight talk about the mystery of the kingdom produced not one bit more understanding. As Luke observed when he wrapped up the whole episode: "The disciples did not understand any of these things; the meaning of the words was hidden from them, and they did not know what Jesus was talking about" (Luke 18:34). So much for the utterances of Jesus as teaching aids.
G. K. Chesterton, who was a master of the apt illustration, once gave some sardonic advice about the limitations of parabolic discourse. He said that if you give people an analogy that they claim they do not understand, you should graciously offer them another. If they say they don't understand that either, you should oblige them with a third. But from there on, Chesterton said, if they still insist they do not understand, the only thing left is to praise them for the one truth they do have a grip on: "Yes," you tell them, "that is quite correct. You do not understand."
To put it simply, Jesus began where Chesterton left off. In resorting so often to parables, his main point was that any understanding of the kingdom his hearers could come up with would be a misunderstanding. Mention "messiah" to them, and they would picture a king on horseback, not a carpenter on a cross; mention "forgiveness" and they would start setting up rules about when it ran out. From Jesus' point of view, the sooner their misguided minds had the props knocked from under them, the better. After all their yammer about how God should or shouldn't run his own operation, getting them just to stand there with their eyes popped and their mouths shut would be a giant step forward.
We, of course, after two thousand years' exposure to Scripture in general and the Gospels in particular, might be tempted to think of ourselves as less likely to need such hard-nosed, parabolic tutelage. But Jesus still gives it to us. Despite our illusions of understanding him better than his first hearers did, we vindicate his chosen method by misnaming - and thus misunderstanding - even the most beloved and familiar parables. The Prodigal Son, for example, is not about a boy's vices; it is about a father's forgiveness. The Laborers in the Vineyard are by no means the central characters in the story; they are hardly more than stick-figures used by Jesus to rub his hearers' noses in the outrageous grace of a vineyard owner who gives equal pay for unequal work. And if there is a Christ-figure in the parable of the Good Samaritan, it is not the Samaritan but the battered, half-dead man on the ground. Our relationships are defined, the parable insists, by the one who walks through our history as victim, not as medicine man. All those Good Sam Medical Centers should really have been named Man Who Fell Among Thieves Hospitals; it is the patients in their sufferings and deaths, not the help in white coats, who look more like Jesus on the cross. Jesus drives the same point home in the parable of the Great Judgment: it is precisely in the hungry, the thirsty, the estranged, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned that we find, or ignore, the Savior himself.
With a track record of misunderstandings like those, therefore, we should probably make as few claims as possible and be content to take up the parables from scratch, beginning with the word itself.
The Greek for parable is parabole. As far as the Gospels are concerned, the word occurs only in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John, infrequently, uses another word, paroimía ("adage," or "dark saying"). Although paroimía has occasionally been translated "parable," neither the Greek word parabole nor any parables in the usual sense appear in the Fourth Gospel.
Excerpted from Kingdom, Grace, Judgment by Robert Farrar Capon Copyright © 2002 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company . Excerpted by permission.
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