Monday, July 5, 2010

Parables

Preachers who take their sermon texts from the Revised Common Lectionary are in for a treat over the next few months. This is Year C in the Lectionary cycle, and that means that the Gospel lessons come from Luke. While all of the Gospels (save John) preserve and pass on to their respective audiences some of Jesus’ parables, Luke’s parables are among the most unique and beloved: The Parable of the Good Samaritan; The Parable of the Prodigal Son; The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, to name a few. And so, I thought it might be helpful here to say a few words about the nature, character, and purpose of Jesus’ parables in order to provide the preacher with a bit of context and framework to facilitate the weekly exploration into these surprising stories.

It is often said that the parables are “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” That’s true enough as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go quite far enough. Parables are analogies - a way of talking about one thing by means of something else. We usually do that because the thing we really want to talk about is too complex and/or difficult to discuss directly, and so we resort to analogies to try to help the listener get a grasp of our real subject.

And therein lies the dilemma. In the case of the parables, the “thing” about which the analogy is being made is always the Kingdom of God. But what in this world can you point to in order to compare it to the Kingdom of God? The Kingdom is so eschatological and counter-cultural that any attempt to point to anything in this world and thereby say: “The Kingdom is like this” would be fraught with misunderstanding and unintended associations. Hence, what Jesus does is to tell a story (parable) the purpose of which is to invite the listener into a world that only looks familiar, safe, natural, and normal. Then, when your defenses are down, he turns the whole thing upside down and disorients your whole perspective. Everything you thought you knew, you now know you do not know! It’s a teachable moment, a discovery moment. Hence, a parable is indeed “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning,” but it’s not “simply” that. It’s a story with a “hook” in it – something not right, something out of place, something that’s so shocking, so unsettling, so disturbing that it causes you to re-think everything you thought you knew about God and His Kingdom. So radically different from this world; so competitive with it; so counter to it; so at cross-purposes with it (pun intended!) is the Kingdom of God, that Jesus must resort to these special kinds of analogies called parables in order to describe it.

Perhaps an illustration from George Macdonald will help. Imagine, for the sake of argument, that the room in which you currently reside is the only room in the whole world, and the people with whom you occupy that room the only people in the world. There are no windows or doors in your room; hence, you have no concept of anything outside your little “world.” Indeed, the word “outside” doesn’t exist in your language. You would be forgiven, in such a situation, for believing that your room and the people with whom you occupy it were the entire universe. However, unbeknownst to you, there is another floor above your room where other people are living other lives and doing other things. You are not aware of them, because you’ve never been outside your own little “world,” but they’re there nonetheless. Suppose somehow a hole were torn in the ceiling of your “world,” the floor of the “world” above, so that for the first time you were to become aware of this “other world” just above you. And suppose some in your “world” began to call up to the people in the room above, interacting with them, learning about all sorts of strange and wondrous things, things utterly inconceivable in your “world.” Indeed, you discover, to your amazement, that the people in the room above live their lives according to entirely different “rules” than those which govern life in your “world.” In the room above, the poor are not regarded as a drain on the system, but are precious and prized; the old and the sick are honored and valued rather than warehoused and discarded; in this “world,” if one makes a promise, one keeps it, even when inconvenient or difficult; and in this “world,” it’s okay to suffer for doing the right thing. Some in the “world” below find themselves strangely drawn toward this “world” above. Indeed, a few are so captured by this new “world” and its new way of living, that even though they still live in the “world” below, they start to think of themselves as really belonging to the “world” above. Though they are still in your “world,” they are no longer of your “world.” The knowledge of the room above, having broken through into their “world,” has changed them forever (for a fuller treatment of this theme, see my “Introduction to the Thessalonian Correspondences,” Review & Expositor Vol. 96, No. 2, 175-194). That’s what Jesus meant when he described the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God in his life and ministry, creating a new community which he called the “church” (cf. Mark 1:15; Matt. 16:13ff.).

And so, when Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God, he is not talking about this world at all; he’s talking about an “alternative reality” that can only be glimpsed through the eyes of faith. That’s why he has to use analogies (parables) to describe it, and that’s why there is an element of shock and surprise in every one of Jesus’ parables intended to grab the hearer and shake him from his complacency so that he can look at life from a radically different point of view - the view from the Kingdom.

The best modern example of the parables of the New Testament, in my judgment, are the stories the late Rod Serling told on the old television series, The Twilight Zone. My favorite was an episode called “The Eye of the Beholder.” The story takes you into a hospital room where a woman is lying in bed, her face all bandaged from recent surgery. As the episode unfolds, so does her story. She had been born hideously disfigured and had come to hospital for reconstructive surgery. As she shares her story with the hospital staff who tend to her (whom you see only from the shoulders down, never their faces), you hear the pathos and tragedy of her pathetic life – ostracized as a child, shunned in school, unable to have a meaningful relationship – all because of her horrible disfigurement. Her hopes are at last buoyed by the prospect of a normal life, once the bandages come off and her disfigurement corrected. Finally, the big day comes, and the doctor comes into the room to remove her bandages. The doctor slowly removes the bandages, but when her face is finally revealed, you hear the doctor gasp, “Oh no!” and shrink back in horror. She gets up, walks over to the mirror, and looks at her face for the first time since the surgery. “Oh my God!” she shrieks, and then buries her face in her hands sobbing, the surgery obviously having been unsuccessful. Slowly she pirouettes so that for the first time we see her face – Donna Douglass, Ellie Mae Clampett of The Beverly Hillbillies, hardly a grotesque countenance. “Wait a minute!” you say to yourself. “What’s going on here? I thought she was supposed to be hideous!” And then, slowly the camera for the first time reveals the faces of the others in the room, the doctor and nurses and hospital staff all bearing the same horrible hideous disfigurement. And then you hear Serling’s baritone voice overtone: “What is ugly? What is beautiful? Perhaps beauty really is in ‘the eye of the beholder.’” Now, that’s a parable!

And so, when you read a parable, look for the hook – something out of place, something not right, something so unsettling, disturbing, troubling that it causes you to reexamine what you thought you knew. That’s what parables do.

One example. In the Synoptic Tradition, Jesus tells a story about the Kingdom of God in which he likens it to a farmer going out to plant his fields – The Parable of the Sower. “Listen!” he says. “A sower went a-sowing. And while he was sowing, some (of the seed) fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. But other (seed) fell upon the rocky soil where there was not much earth, and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose it was scorched, and since it had no root it withered. And still other (seed) fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it gave no fruit. But still other (seed) fell on the good ground, and it gave fruit growing and increasing, producing thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold” (translation mine).

Now, that’s the parable. And remember, the subject is the Kingdom of God. Jesus told this parable in the context of his ministry of preaching about the Kingdom of God, a ministry that had started out like gangbusters, but had lately fallen on hard times. The crowds were enormous at first, when following Jesus meant that their needs were being met (for food, for healing, for restoration of various sorts), but when Jesus started to speak of the demand of the Kingdom of God – that it is, as he says elsewhere, a “pearl of great price,” but a pearl that will cost you everything to acquire and possess – the feckless folk withered in the noonday sun. And the disciples, hoping for a “bumper crop” of converts, started to get discouraged (the validity of the message being determined by the responses it receives, they believed). And so Jesus told them this story to encourage them.

But it doesn’t take much of a Bible scholar to pick up that this story was not very “encouraging.” Three out of four of the seeds the farmer had hopefully planted failed to produce a thing! Do the math! That’s a 75% failure rate! And Jesus’ disciples, I’m sure, thought (if not said), “Gee thanks! That’s encouraging! So the point of your little story is, ‘Most of what you do for the Kingdom of God will fail!’ Got any more stories, Jesus?”

But Jesus said: “You didn’t listen. I told you to listen! Yes, three out of the four seeds you planted with such hope failed to produce a thing, but one did! And that one produced a harvest so bounteous that it made the whole planting enterprise worthwhile! Because you see, this is God’s seed, and it’s really good seed! Because God is one who can do just about anything with just about everything, no matter how meager the sower's gifts or modest the soil. So stop your whining and just sow…sow…SOW...and leave the rest to God.”

It’s called a “parable.” He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

1 comment:

Gabe said...

Excellent points!
I've read a lot of MacDonald, but I've not read that story. In which work of his is that found?