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Into the World of the Parables
Imagine the Scriptures as a house, a mansion of huge proportions. Suppose we are taking a tour of this house. We are led through many large rooms, like galleries. Each gallery turns out to be a kind of theater in which actors perform different types of scripture. Every room features one biblical form in multiple performances. In one room the great primal narratives are performed. In other rooms different kinds of psalms are sung. In still others are prophets chanting oracles, sages pronouncing proverbs, apostles reading their correspondence to the churches. Several galleries feature stories from the Gospels. In different rooms are performances of Jesus' birth, his miracles, his pronouncements, his passion, his resurrection appearances. But there is one room that stands out as uniquely curious, beguiling, and strange—the gallery of his parables.
Inhabiting this room is an odd assortment of colorful characters: we see a sneaky financial officer being praised by the boss who just fired him, a farmer shrugging off an invasion of weeds, a gardener fertilizing a dead tree, an extortionist saying his prayers, a half-breed paying the bills of a battered man who hates his kind. There is a woman shouting at a judge, another peering under furniture, and another who gives us a wink while hiding a pinch of yeast in a huge batch of dough. This gallery is crowded with mad farmers, rascals, beggars, slaves, and kings. It performs business deals, harvests, huge parties, extravagant pardons, and riveting punishments.
What a strange world we have entered here. Within the house of biblical forms, Jesus' parables are unique. Here we find a body of deliberate fictions peopled with characters whose behavior is often irregular, if not absurd. The plots take astonishing turns. There is a wildness in these tales, a recurring capacity to shock. The parables are difficult to pin down. We may decide what one of them "means" but a closer look discloses other possible meanings—while yet further reflection reveals something larger and more elusive, less like a meaning and more like a reverberating encounter. Such encounters may leave us scratching our heads.
For these reasons and more, the parables pose a special challenge to those of us who preach. They are very rich, very inviting; they bear powerfully and often beautifully the very core of the gospel. They are also, as a rule, highly complex and resistant to easy explanation. Tom Long puts it nicely: "Preaching on a parable is a novice preacher's dream but often an experienced preacher's nightmare." We will explore how we may enter the parables with keener sensitivity to what they do, and how we might preach them in ways that honor them and continue their amazing work.
A Preliminary Amazement
Before we take the first step in studying the parables, it would be worthwhile to pause and let ourselves be amazed. The stories Jesus told are like old friends to us now, so naturally we forget to be surprised by their existence. This is a little like walking through your house not noticing that the walls are hung with dozens of original Rembrandts, van Goghs, and O'Keeffes.
Think of it this way. Would we really have expected Jesus, on top of everything else he did and was, to be such a teller of tales? The church calls him the Christ, Lord, Savior, the Word made flesh. Suppose we were looking for such a person in the world; what would we expect? We would expect someone beautifully good, showing tenderness to the sick, gentleness to children, and a proper rage against oppression. We might expect withering words against hypocrisy and mercy for sinners. We might well expect mighty works and wonders. It would not surprise us to find vast sorrow in his eyes and a wild joy. If we were uncommonly discerning, we might even expect that such a life would finally heave the sins of the world on its shoulders into a terrible death. But what could have led us to expect that he would be a narrative artist, a spinner of brilliant fictions? Many who hold no faith in Jesus recognize in him a narrative genius.
On the whole, the church has not. We value his parables but are unsurprised by them. Perhaps the assumption is as follows: of course he told stories! Loving as he did the common folk, Jesus would naturally be generous with earthy analogies from everyday life, accessible stories to help the people see what he meant. A teacher with his kind of heart would fill his talk with luminous illustrations for his hearers.
Such a view of the parables is dangerously naive and guarantees failure to hear them. There is, in fact, something about the parables that can rightly be called central, essential, even necessary, to the message and the life of Jesus; but this is precisely because they are not simple illustrations. Like him, they come to us as mysteries, as depth, as encounter. Like him, they are subversive and dangerous. Like him, they signify more than can be said. They do more than point to the reign of God; they are something like narrative incarnations of it. And they are amazing.
But we are already ahead of ourselves. Having ventured that a proper beginning with the parables is to notice that they are wondrous, we now turn to the business of asking what a parable is and what a parable does.
The Parameters of Parable
The available literature on Jesus' parables is immense, even daunting. Recent parable study has been explosively profuse and diverse. The parameters of this book do not permit a complete survey of that literature or any full discussion of the many ways that parables have been understood. But a brief exploration into the essential character of parables is in order. Perhaps the best way to begin is this: the parables of Jesus are a specialized subset of a broader range of Jewish figurative speech.
The Hebrew word for the full range of figurative speech is mashal, the root of which means "to be like." Mashal is used for all kinds of figurative or allusive expression, including proverbs, riddles, stories, allegories, and analogies. Even a person can be called a mashal. Job uses the word when he cries that God has made him "a byword" (Job 17:6; cf. Ps 44:14).
When the Hebrew Scriptures and other writings were translated into Greek for what we know as the Septuagint, the word mashal, in most instances, was rendered parabole, an apt word for figurative speech since it refers literally to something "thrown beside." This Greek word retained a broad range of applications, as is clear from the way that the Gospel writers employed it. For example, when Mark and Matthew report Jesus' comparison of a fig tree's leaves to signs of the end time, it is called a parabole, (Mark 13:28; Matt 24:32; NRSV translates, "lesson"). When Jesus declares that a person is defiled not by what goes in but by what comes out, the disciples call it a parabole, (Mark 7:17; Matt 15:15). Luke employs parabole, for several proverbs, including the one about the blind leading the blind (6:39; cf. 4:32; 5:36; 12:41).
Clearly then, the sense of the word parable in the Synoptic Gospels (John's Gospel neither uses the word nor reports any stories told by Jesus) is by no means limited to the stories that we call his parables. The tales he told were part of a larger traditional way of speech that was figurative or allusive and often metaphorical.
The fact remains that the stories themselves stand out as a unique form within the body of Jesus' speech. As fictions featuring characters and plot, they constitute a quite distinctive mode of his proclamation; they bear unusual powers of disclosure, and they present special challenges to the preacher. We have good reason to consider them as a separate form and to call them, uniquely, his parables.
This doesn't mean that they are all full-blown narratives. Some parables have only the rudiments of plot. Consider, for example, the comparison of the kingdom of God to a woman who hides yeast in a large amount of dough (Matt 13:33; Luke 13:20-21). Its form is not a straightforward story (e.g., "A certain woman took some yeast") but a comparison ("It is like yeast that a woman took"); yet we are still given the sketch of a plot: the woman takes it and hides it, then in time the whole batch is leavened. The presence of such rudimentary plots in several of the comparisons made by Jesus permits us to count them among his parables.
A Jewish Music
Jesus' parables are entirely and marvelously Jewish. They sprang from a Jewish mind that drew broadly and deeply from his people's traditions, images, characters, plots, and themes. In this regard, there has been some question as to how original or unique his parables were. The issue bears at least a brief consideration here.
Varying claims are made about the relationship between the parables of Jesus and the rabbinic parables in the later Talmud and Midrash. Perhaps too much has been claimed on both sides of the question. One striking fact is reported by Bernard Scott, citing the work of Jacob Neusner: "A survey of the rabbinic materials turns up a curious anomaly. In those layers of tradition that can be isolated as belonging to the Pharisees, there are no parables." It must be stressed that this apparent silence does not mean that Jesus was alone in telling parables in his day. It is not impossible that some of the Talmudic parables have their origin in the Second Temple period.
We must be cautious, then, in what we claim about the uniqueness of Jesus' parables. Joachim Jeremias surely overstated the case when he declared, "Jesus' parables are something entirely new." What can be said is this: (1) Jesus' parables are consistent with the figurative repertoire of the Jewish tradition, including some parabolic narratives told by prophets (e.g., 2 Sam 12:1-4; Isa 5:1-7). (2) Whether or not his contemporaries told parables, Jesus was remembered not only for the force of his parables but also for the sheer preponderance of them. Aside from testimony that "without a parable he told them nothing" (Matt 13:34; Mark 4:34), a full third of what we have as the sayings of Jesus is made up of parables. (3) His parables have unique qualities of genius, beauty, stunning complexities, and evocative power. George Buttrick said it this way: "Jesus did not invent this form of story, but under His transforming touch its water became wine. The sonata existed before Beethoven."
Central to understanding the parables of Jesus as quintessen-tially Jewish is their character as highly imaginative theological speech. David Stern says of the parables of the rabbis, "Above all else, the mashal represents the greatest effort to imagine God in all rabbinic literature." The fictions of Jesus offer radical imaginings of God, inviting their hearers to nothing less than the re-imagining of reality itself
Imaginative evocations of God were integral to the task of Israel's poets, prophets, and sages. Yahweh—who can never be carved or kept or used, whose ways are a sovereign, insistent wild-ness—is served by a constant renewal of imagination. To become and remain the people of such a God among the persuasive structures of idolatry in the world requires revolutionary re-imagining of God's reign among us. The parables of Jesus, in continuity with the speech of Israel's other prophets and teachers, are acts of imagination to awaken imaginative responses toward the living God.
The Parables' Freedom
The history of parable interpretation is crowded with claims about what they must and must not mean. Perhaps it is inevitable that such imaginative tales should prompt managerial responses. From the earliest days of the church until the late nineteenth century, the predominant hermeneutical device with parables was to discover secret, often elaborate, allegorical meanings. The impetus for reading the parables allegorically was derived from the Gospels themselves, which append such readings to some parables.
In 1888 Adolf Jülicher brilliantly demolished the allegorical hermeneutic, but he replaced one excess with another. All parables, he claimed, can be reduced to a single point of meaning. His critical insights notwithstanding, the single points discovered by Jülicher turned out to be identical with the slogans of nineteenth-century liberalism.
The works of C. H. Dodd and Jeremias in the mid-twentieth century built on Jülicher's work while critiquing his interpretations. For them, the locus of all the parables was eschatological—the kingdom of God. Their meanings, especially for Jeremias, must be found in the life-situations of Jesus' ministry Dan Via countered that as aesthetic literary objects, the parables possess their own independent and existential force, whatever their originating contexts may have been. Many literary-critical studies followed, focused on the parables' essential character as metaphor or symbol. But increasingly this approach has been coupled with strong interest in reconstructing the intentions of the historical Jesus and, if not his original words, the original parameters and plots of his parables and the first-century social realities they reflect and address. Many scholars now read the parables through the lens of social-science theory, often asserting that the original parables were pedagogical commentaries on socioeconomic injustice.
Such diversity of interpretation is in part a tribute to the explosion of critical methods and in part a tribute to the multilayered suggestiveness of the parables themselves. What must be avoided, and often is not, is the making of rigid pronouncements on what a parable of Jesus can and cannot be. For example, by what authority can it really be said that no parable of Jesus could have carried allegorical elements? Such a claim is arbitrary and assumes Jesus was above using a narrative device found in his own Scriptures. Or again, why limit a parable's application to one kind of circumstance in Jesus' ministry, when it is quite possible that he performed the same parable on different occasions with different nuance? For that matter, when a parable attributed to him is, by our standards, in some theological tension with others of his sayings, who is to say that he cannot have spoken it or something very like it? Through different seasons, in different circumstances, and toward different hearers, his sense of the divine mystery may have required less "consistency" than do we.
Part of what we have called the parables' "freedom" pertains to their character as metaphor or poetic expression. The language of metaphor or poetic images yields not one-dimensional meaning but an expansive suggestiveness or elasticity of meaning. Though parables are not Rorschach tests for undisciplined free association, we can rightly think of a certain polyvalence of meaning in them. They may invite us to more than one trajectory of reflection, more than one possibility for decision. For preachers, this is bad news and good news. The bad news is that choosing how to preach a parable— especially choosing what to leave out—can be a maddening decision. The good news is that there is no single correct way to preach any parable.
It is in the nature of parable to be unpredictable. Like Jesus himself, parables refuse the management of neat categories; they come to us on their own terms. To hear them requires uncommon openness, a suspension of expectation, a lightness on the feet. This is not to say that we dispense with our critical faculties. But since Jesus generally unloosed these stories as instruments of surprise, we would be wise to receive them without having already concluded what they can and cannot do.
Having cautioned ourselves against presupposing too much, we are in a better position to acknowledge certain tendencies, at least, in the parables of Jesus. The remainder of this chapter seeks to describe these patterns in the hope that familiarity with them may sharpen our sensitivities to what the parables intend.
The Aspect of the Earthy
The parables are secular stories; they point to the actual world of mundane objects, occurrences, and relationships. In the tales told by Jesus we encounter no talking animals, no giants or heroes or magic or mighty works. Nor do the parables take us to exotic places; they unfold right here at home. Two parables form an exception by reporting afterlife conversations (Matt 25:31-46; Luke 16:19-31), but, strikingly, both do so only to point back to the most common earthy acts. The stock-in-trade of Jesus' parables is always the familiar mundane: crops, a coin, a callous judge, employers and employees, farmers, cooks, travelers between two actual cities, family conflict.
Theologically, this is rich. As Amos Wilder said, "What does this mean except that he brought theology down into daily life and into the immediate everyday situation? Here is a clue for the preacher, indeed for the Christian whatever his [or her] form of witness." Jesus in the parables "shows that for him [our] destiny is at stake in [our] ordinary creaturely existence, domestic, economic and social."
Excerpted from The Parables by Paul Simpson Duke. Copyright © 2005 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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