Monday, June 25, 2007

Why Parables?

Matthew 13:13 (NIV) This is why I speak to them in parables: "Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

Jesus’ explanation about why He used parables is a parable all by itself. Was He purposely trying to be unclear and difficult? Wasn’t His message something that should have required directness and clarity? Instead it’s like a message within a message or riddles for little children to ask about. Why doesn’t He speak with clarity like we expect in good sermonizing?

I’ve often pondered His purpose and design for using parables and when reading a book by Brian Maclaren, “The Secret Message of Jesus”, that I found the clearest explanation for such a “poor” method of dispensing cognitive information. I’m almost hesitant to write this excerpt as it will give away the secret. But as a friend of mine often reminds me, “When you tell someone the truth they only hear it if they want to.”

So here’s the excerpt for those that can hear the secrets of the kingdom.

“One might expect the disciples to ask, “What does this parable mean?” But instead they ask why: “Jesus, why are you doing this? You’re telling these stories, but nobody is getting your point. Can’t you find a clearer, more direct, obvious approach?”

Parables entice their hearers into new territory. If the goal is an interactive relationship (which is at the heart of terms like kingdom of God and eternal life, as we have seen), a parable succeeds where easy answers and obvious explanations couldn’t. With a clear and easy explanation, hearers can listen and achieve understanding and then go on their way, independent of the teacher. But when a parable confounds them, it invites them to ask questions, so they continue to depend on the teacher himself, not just their independent understanding of his words.

So if a parable leaves you confused, you will have one of two responses. You can respond with arrogant and impatient anger (“I have not idea what he’s saying. This is a waste of time!”), which makes you walk away. Or you can respond with eager and curious humility (“I can’t let this go. I must know more!”), which keeps you coming back. In this way parables have a capacity that goes beyond informing their hearers; parables also have the power to help transform them into interactive, interdependent, humble, inquisitive, and persistent people." (end of excerpt)

It’s probably why institutional church models with distant pastors are so captivating. We demand clear explanations with no confusion. Things are clearly spelled out and ritualized in such a way that further relationship building processes can be minimized or better yet, put into a memo or a policy.

But whoa!!! Kingdom of God stuff is all about relationships. We need more stories and more messy communication so that our hearts can be knit together by something deeper and more meaningful than a few axioms that make us look smart but often merely isolate. Let’s cherish the weaving back and forth of our stories through dialogue and action in such a way that we truly infect each other’s lives with His life.


dan said...

I think that there is more to it than that. Parables also keep alive those who are preaching a subversive message. If the Powers had realised what Jesus was all about from the beginning of his ministry, he never would have had the time he needed to develop a community of disciples around himself -- a community that could continue his mission after his death.

Further, given the fate of his predecessor, John, Jesus probably learned how to speak another way in order to live a little longer. This, I suspect, was another reason why Jesus stayed on the move and, generally, stayed away from the centres of power. When Jesus "sets his face toward Jerusalem" he knows he is going there to die.

David Grant said...

I think there is definitely wisdom in parables protecting the messenger. It takes a lot of patience to put into practice as we often want people to understand us right away.

The parables of Jesus were unique in that they didn't call people to some new message of how to change or fix things. His parables were about having a vital relationship with himself and his father in the present.

dan said...

Certainly the Church Fathers and Mothers provide us with a precadent for reading the parables Christologically. In fact, Ratzinger's recent book on Jesus stresses almost (but not quite) the exact point that you make. According to Ratzinger, the parables are all about Jesus, and the Gospels are all about Jesus' vital relationship with his Father.

However, I would object to the "allegorical" approach that you, and others, seem to advocate. I think that many of the parables were both about "how to fix things" (although that is rather poorly worded) and contained something new in this regard. Jesus is often describing both (a) how to be God's out-of-exile people, the new Israel constituted by allegiance to Jesus; and (b) what will happen if Israel rejects Jesus and continues to pursue the trajectory of nationalistic violence. Certainly there are many other things going on in the parables but to reduce them to parables about my personal relationship with Jesus and the Father seems to hardly take their context and genre very seriously.


David Grant said...

No question that reducing the parables to merely my personal relationship with Jesus and His father is a travesty that is actually what a good chunk of evangelical christianity has done. Somehow the salvation message has been morphed into a formualistic prayer followed up by either getting others to say the same prayer and/or waiting for heaven.

It seems it is far easier to agree on language like a personal relationship with Jesus than on what follows after that initial step is taken. Sadly Jesus message of the kingdom of God gets mixed up with looking just like the culture of whomever makes him their savior. Or even nastier cultures are exported in the name of Jesus through things like manifest destiny.

It seems to me that the only place to understand Jesus words and abiding presence is in a small community of people who are learning how to love him and each other in the realest way possible. This is not some simplistic equation as it is far easier to go to a church of 10,000 than to enter into each other lives at the deepest level possible.

The neat thing about this approach is that it isn't limited by cultural or social status but a determination to experience Jesus together each day with others.

This is what I think the early church experienced but I can't say that it has been part of my experience. I do hunger and thirst for this but I'm sure I'll be shocked by what the reality actually looks and feels like.

I'm personally captivated by Paul's words in Phillipians 3:10-14. This was written in a time of personal crisis and yet Paul is fixated on knowing Jesus more. That doesn't mean less community but more and deeper because it is through each other that we are able to enter into a deeper knowing of Jesus.

Anonymous said...

Jesus' parables don't present us with moral imperatives, rather, they inform us about who God is, what He's like, and the nature of what to us looks like an upside-down Kingdom.