Intro to the Parables

Here is the rough transcript of the message I gave on Sunday. It’s pretty quote heavy, but it ended up working out pretty good because of the amount of people we had, the discussion was great for it.

Today is our intro week to the parables. So I’ve taken it upon myself to prep us to be prepared for what these stories consist of. Hopefully we can understand better why they are there and hopefully to prepare our hearts for what these little stories are going to tell us. Parables are difficult to read and talk about, and even harder to live out because they aren’t a list of rights and wrongs like we would have read in Leviticus. Parables rather tell a fictional story that offer some sort of deeper meaning than just the story. This is why they are annoying because you can’t look at this story and say oh ok, looks like I have to do this now. And if I do this, and I do this, then this will happen. Jesus would walk around all day and speak constantly with these stories and it must have got annoying after a while. At least the disciples felt that way. We can read here in Matthew when Jesus tells yet another parable and the disciples finally have enough, so here is his response.

Matthew 13: 1-17
At about that same time Jesus left the house and sat on the beach. In no time at all a crowd gathered along the shoreline, forcing him to get into a boat. Using the boat as a pulpit, he addressed his congregation, telling stories. “What do you make of this? A farmer planted seed. As he scattered the seed, some of it fell on the road, and birds ate it. Some fell in the gravel; it sprouted quickly but didn’t put down roots, so when the sun came up it withered just as quickly. Some fell in the weeds; as it came up, it was strangled by the weeds. Some fell on good earth, and produced a harvest beyond his wildest dreams.

“Are you listening to this? Really listening?” The disciples came up and asked, “Why do you tell stories?”
replied, “You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight; it hasn’t been given to them. Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it. I don’t want Isaiah’s forecast repeated all over again:

Your ears are open but you don’t hear a thing. Your eyes are awake but you don’t see a thing.
The people are blockheads! They stick their fingers in their ears so they won’t have to listen;
They screw their eyes shut so they won’t have to look,
so they won’t have to deal with me face-to-face
and let me heal them.
“But you have God-blessed eyes-eyes that see! And God-blessed ears-ears that hear! A lot of people, prophets and humble believers among them, would have given anything to see what you are seeing, to hear what you are hearing, but never had the chance.

Jesus doesn’t offer much of an explanation, at least not a satisfying one to normal ears. Basically he says that he is talking this way because he doesn’t want to make it easy. Parables demand that you actually think about them. They demand that you engage with it and wrestle with it. They cause a certain level of discomfort because you know there is something in there but upon first reading it you have no idea. So to know, you have to want it. So Jesus is here saying that whoever wants this bad enough is going to be the ones that get something out of it, for those that don’t care or refuse to dig well it’s just another story.

This is why we jump into these stories and this is why we read the Bible the way that we do. This is why many Sundays you may leave her frustrated or hopefully at the very least challenged to a point where you can’t stop thinking about it for the week. It is impossible to be indifferent to life. You know those movies you watch, where that guy leaves the girl and goes with that sleezy girl at the end and you are just so upset. Or when someone horrible or amazing happens in a movie and you are equally as excited or depressed. So we leave movies angry or happy thinking that our emotions somehow could have affected the decision. We’ve all seen someone yell at the TV screen to “LOOK OUT.” Parables are like this. They are stories that we have no control over and that have been laid out in front of us and we all are hearing about it from a specific author with his own twist and we have no control over the ending, whether we like it or not. It could cause us to love or hate the movie in the end.

The kingdom of God demands that we wrestle with it and struggle with it. To not want to, or to not means that we won’t hear or see what is really going on. These parables are for people that desire to know and desire to struggle and wrestle with the kingdom and what God is about. We live in a culture that worships at the throne of superficial, and Jesus refuses to give in to that. It will be frustrating, because it will provoke you to think, and it will provoke you to rethink about things you thought you knew. So I ask, are you ready to be provoked? Are you ready to be challenged and to actually dive into these stories where anything at all is possible? Where the things you have assumed are put at the mercy about a story of a guy and his son.

So why parables? Where do they come from? Well, parables as you probably aren’t surprised to learn, aren’t new with Jesus. Parables were a form of communication that rabbi’s had been using for years and years before Jesus ever stepped onto the scene. In fact, some of Jesus’ parables have roots from previous Jewish rabbis before him. In the 1st century C.E., there were two great Rabbis in Israel. They had very different understandings of religion, one considered more theologically conservative and one more theologically liberal for that day, one more “letter of the Law” and one more “Spirit of the Law.” Rabbi Shammai (50 B.C.E.- c. 30 C.E.) taught a strict adherence to every jot and tittle of Torah. Rabbi Hillel (c. 70 B.C.E.- c. 10 C.E.) taught that one should discern the meaning behind the letter and live according to intent whenever intent and letter seemed to disagree.

Many of the arguments brought to Jesus were common theological/philosophical/social disputes of the day, and much of it could have been framed as asking if Jesus agreed with the school of Shammai or the school of Hillel. It’s interesting to note that Jesus nearly always sided with the Hillel (spirit of the Law) school of reasoning (a prominent exception to this was when Jesus sided with the more conservative Shammai on the issue of whether or not divorce and remarriage was acceptable). Yet many times, instead of picking a side, he answered with a parable. (got a lot of the rabbi information from here) A story. So it’s hard to say or to pinpoint Jesus to one side. A book by John Dear does a study on the answers of Jesus, and he says that Jesus only answers directly 3 questions of around 200 of them asked. So what did he do all the other times? Well he usually used a parable. Over one-third of Jesus’ teaching is in parables. In Jewish terms they would call this agada, which means storytelling to illustrate a message. Jesus creates word pictures so that everyone around can understand what Jesus is like. The Hebrew word is mashal which basically means that it is defining what is unknown by what is known.” A mashal begins where the listener is and then pushes beyond into a new realm of discovery.

“The stories of Jewish agada inspired listeners to view God and his relationship to each individual created in the divine image in a fresh way. Agada engages the intellect but pushes beyond the mind to reach the heart and imagination. ”
– Brad Young

The problem with how we’ve read parables is that we’ve given them answers and meaning and then left it at that. We have given parables titles, and many of these titles usually already embed summaries of what we think these parables mean. For instance like the parable of the prodigal son, this titles not only ignores the elder son but also summarizes the younger son’s behavior. It gives us an already definite perspective on the parable and leaves no room for a fresh meaning. In reading about these parables, almost every scholar has renamed the parable in how they are interpreting it because they don’t feel like the NIV (or any other translation or title) does the parable justice. So you may realize that we will not stick to the traditional titles because we don’t want to limit where these stories could take us.

“Story entertains, informs, involved, motivates, authenticates, and mirros existence. By creating a narrative world, stories establish an unreal, controlled universe. The author abducts us and -almost god-like – tells us what reality exists in this narrative world, what happens and why…there, to a degree we cannot do in real life, we can discern motives, keep score, know who one, and what success and failure look like. Life on the outside virtually stopsl we are taken up in the story. The storyteller is in control so that we are forced to see from new angles and so that the message cannot be easily evaded. ”
-Klyne Snodgrass

However, these stories aren’t just stories that we are going to be reading. They are parables. Parables presuppose something. I remember my first week of New Testament class and Professor Stephen Thompson asks the class what the entire coming of Jesus was all about, why was he here, what was his purpose. Hands started going up with answers about salvation, grace, to die, to live a good life. After listening to everyone, he said, while all these things are important, the central message of Jesus was proclaiming the Kingdom of God. This is what the parables are mostly doing. He takes these stories and these stories are full of meaning only because these stories mirror something greater and bigger.

“The primary stance in interpreting is the willingness to hear and respond appropriately, a point made specifically by the parable of the Sower, but even the willingness to hear froes not guarantee objectivity and right hearing. I will be the first to grant that objectivity when interpreting the parables is difficult. Parables are not lists of information they are stories, but they may not be the stories we think they are. Each much be approached and dealt with on its own grounds, not with some pre-determined view as to what parables must look like and do. Stories create worlds. By reading a story we, at least temporarily, inhabit that world. If we bring too much of ourselves into that world, we reshape it and rearrange its landscape. But if we do that, we have created a world other than what the story portrays. Further, parables mirror pieces of reality and sometimes mirror the lives and histories of their readers. They may contain a plot we have already lived. They reveal us and at the same time call us to embrace plot in order to be taken up in the plot (or, if negative, to choose another plot.) We are asked not to be objective and distant but to embody the parable’s intent.
-Klyne Snodgrass

These parables mirror the kingdom of God. One of the books we are reading for this series is called Stories of Intent, and that’s our goal in listening to these stories is to dig to figure out his intent, anything else says this book is to be rewriting Jesus’ parables. The question that we should be asking is “How did Jesus seek to change attitudes and behaviors with this parable. ” There are all sorts of things that come to the surface when we ask this question. We need to understand the culture of Jesus and who he was talking to, they need to be read in context. We need to know if Jesus is telling/re-telling a story that has already been told. We cannot read into the parables our own theology or what we think this parable is about (which we will see when we get to the parable of the talents especially).

Here are some of the things we will be doing and questions we will be asking when looking at these parables. (go through them quickly)

  • Analyze each parable thoroughly, especially if it appears in more than one gospel
  • Listen to the parable without presupposition about the former meaning (this could mean that we pay particular attention to people who have never heard the parable before).
  • Keep in mind that parables are oral instruments in an oral culture, all these stories would have been retold, with different variations.
  • If we are after the intent of Jesus, we must seek to hear a parable as Jesus’ Palestinian hearers would have heard it. (OT and Jewish metaphors, breathing the air of first century, understanding biblical culture)
  • Note how each parable fits within the larger goal of the author writing the book (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and remember that they are retold because of their significance in understanding the larger story
  • Do not impose real time on parable time
  • Pay close attention to the rule of end stress (the most important material is at the end, for most parables this is crucial in clinching the meaning of the intent)

We need to approach these stories carefully, creatively but with the proper tools and heart. Because these stories are messed up. These stories are uncomfortable. You can’t just read the story and pull a meaning off the top of your head and apply it. These stories are the modern equivalents of those movies that you watch and feel anguish and surprise at the end because they don’t end like they should. In fact Jesus’ parables flip everything on its head. If these parables are truly telling stories about what the Kingdom of God is like, then we better look out because the Kingdom of God is going to take us for a ride. Everything that comes naturally is pushed aside as the first become last and the last become first. Are we ready?

Can we handle stories that seriously take the people that we have pushed aside and make them into heroes? I don’t just mean like feel good stories where the un-achieving guy gets the girl, but I mean stories where the pedophiles, murderers and sluts are actually the ones that are central to the story because it’s who Jesus comes to save. Can we handle that? Can we handle stories that actually make us seem as bad as these people or in as much need of grace? Can we handle stories that are going to flip on its head everything we have known and believed about relationships, money, time, sin and grace? That is what these stories do, they reverse the empire’s belief system, and as we will soon find out most of us still have very similar belief systems of that of the empire, and these stories are going to stand up right against them.

Jesus was the first world leader to inaugurate a kingdom with a heroic role for losers. He spoke to an audience raised on stories of wealthy patriarchs, strong kings, and victorious heroes. Much to their surprise, he honored instead people who have little value in the visible world: the poor and meek, the persecuted and those who mourn, social rejects, the hungry and thirsty. His stories consistently featured ‘the wrong people’ as heroes: the prodigal, not the responsible son; the good Samaritan, not the good Jew; Lazarus, not the rich man; the tax collector, not the Pharisee. As Charles Spurgeon expressed it, “His glory was that He laid aside His glory, and the glory of the church is when she lays aside her respectability and her dignity, and counts it to be her glory to gather together the outcasts.”
-Philip Yancey

Jesus is the universalist par excellence, always making the outsider the heroes of his stories: the non-Jews appear as those with more faith and more compassion, the sinners become those who are saved, the women better than the men, and as he continually puts it, ‘the last will be first’.”
-Richard Rhor

Since they frequently seek to reorient thought and behavior, in keeping with Jesus’ teaching elsewhere parables often contain elements of reversal. Not all parables implement reversal, but when they do, they are among the most powerful instruments for change Jesus used. When parables cause reversal, they force unexpected decisions and associations. The tax collector is righteous, not the Pharisee; the Samaritan is neighbor, not the Jewish elite; David is the guilty party, not some terrible person anyone would condemn.”
-Klyne Snodgrass

What comes out of this I hope is that we as a community can learn to enter into these parables properly. That we start to see them and wrestle with them for what they are and we stop reading our own biases into them. I hope that we can answer the call to wrestle with these stories and that we begin to see the heart of Jesus and the Kingdom of God be revealed through them.

“The truth of the story does not lie in the principles that it supposedly embodies, but in the story itself. Truth emerges as the hearers are drawn into the narrative.”
-Stanley Grenz

Parables were told to create interest, and various schemes are used to draw hearers in and compel dealing with the issues at hand….the intent of parables is to force thought, usually new and unexpected thought, so as to gain insight and bring about response. A number of parables end with the statement “Let the person who has ears to hear hear” or something similar, which is a call to move past superficial thinking, to discern, and to understand the impact of the parable.”
– Klyne Snodgrass

I hope we can be as excited to listen to these parables as Jesus’ first hearers were. I hope we can dig in deep, ask questions, read books and really try to get at what Jesus was saying. I hope you join us. Today we are going to end with an old Franciscan benediction that I hope will give us a good start into jumping into these parables.

A Franciscan Benediction:

May God bless you with discomfort,
at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,
so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger,
at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

My God bless you with tears,
to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war,
so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their
pain to joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness,
to believe that you can make a difference in this world,
so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

2 Comments

  • I hope the message came of well.
    Glad i could be of some service in your research. I’m loving all this that i’m learning in Judaism class, and should be posting more from my notes intermittently for the rest of the semester, if you’re interested.

  • man oh man – how long did you preach for? It tok me a long time just to read this or do you talk fast :-)

    I liked the Franciscan blessing there!

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