What follows is the first of a series of posts on the parables of the gospels, an attempt on my part to approach these incredibly well-known and well-worn remnants of the Savior’s ministry in something of a new light. I plan to include commentary on such classics as the Mustard Seed, the Vineyard, the Unmerciful Servant, the Talents, and (today) perhaps the most famous and taken-for-granted of all, the Good Samaritan.
In general, I think contemporary Christian and LDS readings of the parables tend to run somewhat afoul on two grounds. First, we read them as simple morality tales. Such a reading imagines Jesus telling His disciples stories, providing object lessons, to make points that really don’t require making, to convey as “morals” to His fables the kind of motivational-speaking, fortune-cookie wisdom that would be obvious to anyone listening:
“Be nice, even when it’s inconvenient.”
“Make the most of what you’ve got.”
“Have faith and hope for great things.”
“Don’t be a jerk.”
“Share and share alike.”
You get the idea… Among other things, this is the commonest kind of reading for the parable under discussion below. My dissatisfaction with such an approach is not based on the presumption that the parables convey no moral or ethical concerns. Indeed, I will argue that they are positively saturated with such concerns, but that accessing the ethical imperatives of Christ’s spoken parables entails a more careful reading than one that merely views the Good Samaritan as an object lesson in charity (as if we really need convincing that what he did was laudable or righteous).
The second tendency we have that limits our reading of the parables is the assumption that parable = allegory. That is, Jesus was speaking in some kind of code — saying something cryptically that He could just have easily have spoken plainly and straightforwardly were He so inclined — and that learning the code is the only requirement for getting at the meaning of the parable. Of recent note, frequent BCC visitor and commenter Jack Welch published an in-depth commentary on (perhaps ironically) today’s selection, the parable of the Good Samaritan. Drawing on early Christian sources and iconography, Jack proffers an “allegorical reading” of the parable, a “Type and Shadow of the Plan of Salvation,” including a chart outlining the relevant symbols in the story and their corresponding referents in the unfolding of God’s plan (the most important of which is the identification of Jesus with the Samaritan). Of course I assume that Jack’s rich exegesis is not meant to be definitive or as an end to further discussion of the parable’s meaning. Indeed, his treatment in some ways exemplifies both approaches outlined here — the symbolic and morality-tale — since he concludes his allegorical reading with an emphasis on the “Eternal Moral Imperative” of the parable: the need to be merciful to friends and enemies, to be neighborly according to the example of the Samaritan (Savior). Still, I believe there are certain shortcomings to such an approach.
For one thing, it presupposes Jesus speaking coded riddles to hearers, few if any of which — including his apostles — would have recognized any of the symbolism encoded in the sayings. Further, the parable, with all its indecipherable nuances, needed to survive circulation as an oral tradition until such time as someone decided to select and edit from such traditions and string them together in written form as what we now know as the Gospel of Luke (part 1 of a 2-part letter, the second of which is found in the book of Acts), preserving in the process those relevant details that could be looked upon retrospectively (Jack’s sources begin with Irenaeus and Clement, a century or so after the parable would have been spoken by Jesus) as emblems of a christological narrative. Perhaps more significantly, such a reading pushes to the margins the likely experience the people who heard the Savior teach, their understandings of a parable whose fabric was drawn from their own day-to-day lives, and, by implication, the meanings likely intended by the Master for His hearers.
The analytic I use here to reconstruct such possible hearings and understandings is drawn, in part, from the work of three important scholars of the gospel parables: John Dominic Crossan, William Herzog II, and (going back another generation to the granddaddy of parables scholarship, a major influence on the other two) Joachim Jeremias. Two keys underlie the approach taken here.
First, the importance of real-world context. Here I presume that Jesus chose stories and characters from the familiar world of the lives of His hearers, not just to lend timeless tales an intimate context, but because the characters, actions, and social processes would themselves carry meanings not lost on the ears of those “with ears to hear.” What it meant to be a day laborer or a vineyard owner in a commercializing, monetizing, and increasingly stratified agrarian economy is not, I argue, irrelevant to the larger meaning of the parables. My readings presume that some basic understanding of the social actors and politico-economic processes referred to in the parables — understandings taken for granted by Jesus’ first hearers — is necessary for getting at the core meaning and purpose of this powerful pedagogical style.
Second, I assume (and here in particular I follow Herzog’s analysis) that part of the purpose of deploying language and stories that drew so liberally from the life world of the mostly impoverished peasants and laborers that constituted Jesus’ Galilean audience was that these salient, memorable speech events enabled those hearers to see that world in a different light, calling forth into full conscious awareness the ruling ideologies unconsciously imbibed by those thereby oppressed, enabling them to be articulated, questioned, and overturned in an effort to establish a kingdom whose governing imperatives and modalities of power are antithetical to those manifested in the world we now live in.
To the parable (at last!):
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it (Matthew 13:44-46).
Okay, I know — that’s not even the right parable! But these two brief parables of the kingdom illustrate what I consider to be central to any proper understanding of strategy behind parabling in Jesus’ ministry. Among other things, a major purpose of Jesus’ earthly mission is to proclaim the kingdom and its advent, heralded by His presence in the midst of His followers.
In both parables, an item of untold value is found, “all” the actor’s existing property is sold, and the means for acquiring the item are purchased. This is the pattern, find-sell-buy, underlined by the main verbs of both stories. In each case, writes Crossan, the actors’ “past-present-future is rudely but happily shattered,” as the advent of something utterly new and the imperative of acquiring it reverses pasts, dominates presents, and redirects futures, dictating the time and history of its acquirer. This is the conversion spoken of in scripture, entrance into the kingdom, the space and time of God’s sovereign rule. Those who would arrogate to themselves the prerogative of sovereign control over their own time, plans, projects, or lives will find such strategies, no matter how well-intentioned, to be idolatrous challenges to the ultimate, free, and utterly unpredictable Sovereignty of God.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is not a morality tale. Jesus is not telling us to be “good Samaritans.” Of course that seems like the simplest reading, but the parable itself has imbued the word “Samaritan” with such positive, altruistic, mythic overtones that it has concealed from modern Christian readers how utterly shocking it likely was to 1st-century Jewish-Palestinian ears. It was simply not shocking (or even remotely original) to be told the importance of being nice, even to enemies. Indeed, if the imperative of merciful action even to those whom we are disinclined to serve, and even when otherwise pious men find justification for not serving, were the purpose of the parable, a Jew aiding a Samaritan who fell among the thieves would have made a far more effective object lesson. This is not to say that the Samaritan’s actions are not admirable or worthy of emulation. They are. But to identify such an obvious conclusion as the primary purpose of the parable is to reduce the Master Teacher to a rather uninspired and uncreative preacher of run-of-the-mill, lowest-common-denominator ethics, a trader in trite, self-evident platitudes with nothing more original to say than “helping people who need help is the right thing to do.”
This parable was a way of shattering the paradigms of its Jewish hearers, holding up their view of the world with all its assumptions and smashing it before their eyes. Think of the worst stereotyped epithet imaginable. Now, imagine a Teacher speaking as one having authority telling you a plausible narrative in an easily conceivable setting that forces you, linguistically and conceptually to speak the unspeakable, think the unthinkable — to string together two words that simply do not belong together: “good” and “[insert epithet of choice].” If we want to understand how the Savior’s words invaded and overthrew the paradigmatic universes of those who heard them, we might imagine Him telling General Conference attendees the parable of the Good Temple-Square-Megaphone-Preacher; telling a group of Christian soldiers in Baghdad the parable of the Good Insurgent; telling DKL the parable of the Good Obama Supporter (you get the picture).
Jesus likens the speaking and hearing of this parable to the Kingdom, to its incursion into the lives of His disciples, to the advent of God’s Sovereignty on earth. If we really seek truth and value revelation as a source of it, we must be prepared to be told things that we can’t even imagine, things that fundamentally challenge all our assumptions about who the good guys and bad guys are, about the way the world works. By speaking this parable with authority, Jesus actually gave His hearers the experience of the Kingdom, of God making His divine presence felt in the world, of something utterly not of this world.
This is the approach I plan to take with my analysis of parables in this series — to suggest at once plausible and defensible yet unconventional and even mildly shocking readings of familiar texts, in hope of revisiting them with fresh eyes, prepared, as we explore heretofore unexplored possibilities and understandings, to hear in the process the voice of God and experiencing His sovereignty in our lives.