De-Sanitizing the Parables: The Parable of the Soils, pt 1

This installment of the De-Sanitizing the Parables series will explore the Parable of the Soil found in Matthew 13. However, before I explore the parable itself, I’d like to give some background on the nature of the parables found in Scripture. To do this, we will listen to two different scholars who give us some crucial background on the nature and use of parables in the New Testament, and a pastor who will help us better understand Jesus’ use of them as story. As such, I have decided to break down my post into two parts. First, an introduction to the nature of parables and second and exploration of the parable of the soils.

Craig Keener has written several books but in this particular case I will depend upon his massive Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Keener notes a couple of important aspects of the parables in the New Testament. First, he writes: “Rabbis commonly taught in parables, sermon illustrations, to communicate their main point or points. This Palestinian Jewish teaching form appears in the New Testament only in the teaching of Jesus, and thus cannot be attributed to composition by the later church outside Jewish Palestine.” (81-82)

This speaks to the authenticity of parables and their direct link to the mouth of Jesus. Especially helpful here is the idea that these are not mere distortions of Jesus’ ‘true’ teachings by later preachers. As we will see too the parables are directly linked to the Old Testament prophets and are seen, to a large extent, as fulfillment of the prophets’ words. There are parables in the Old Testament as well. Nathan told David a parable when he confronted David (2 Samuel 12), for example, and Isaiah used a parable in Isaiah 5 to talk about God’s relationship to Israel.

Second, Keener notes the general character of the population of Jesus’ day, that is, his audience: “Most of the Roman Empire’s inhabitants were rural peasant farmers or herders. The literate elite often ignored this large population, but Jesus’ illustrations show that he ministered frequently among this class. Although Galilee was heavily populated with villages and boasted two major cities (Sepphoris and Tiberias), most of its inhabitants were rural, agrarian peasants.”

So you might say that, in a sense, we have to transport ourselves into their mode of thinking of the world; put ourselves in their shoes; listen to Jesus as if we were farmers, prodigal sons, poor widows, or terminated business managers. Jesus spoke to their point of view and used illustrations that they could understand and relate to and listen to in context. What would make better sense to farmers than an illustration from the farm or to a poor widow than the constant threat of losing a coin or to a shepherd than losing a sheep? If you are a shepherd and understand not just losing a sheep but the effort involved in searching for the lost sheep then perhaps you can understand, more deeply, the rejoicing in heaven when one sinner repents. (See Luke 15)

Jesus spoke to people in language they could understand. He didn’t, as some assume, speak down to them; he spoke in their language. If anything, Jesus, in using their words, their experiences, their context, elevated their words, experiences, and contexts. Parables keep our feet grounded by requiring us to think outside of our comfort zones about God, kingdom, Son of Man, and our everydayness. Part of the problem with interpreting parables is discussed by our next scholar, Robert Farrar Capon. In his book The Parables of the Kingdom, Capon notes that people can easily and often misunderstand the parables by too quickly assuming that they already know what the parables mean:

“Most people, on reading the Gospels’ assertion that ‘Jesus spoke in parables,’ assume they know exactly what he meant. ‘Oh, yes,’ they say, ‘and a wonderful teaching device it was too. All those unforgettable stories we’re so fond of, like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.’ Yet their enthusiasm is narrowly based. Jesus’ use of the parabolic method can hardly be limited to the mere handful of instances they remember as entertaining, agreeable, simple, and clear. Some of his parables are not stories; many are not agreeable; most are complex; and a good percentage of them produce more confusion than understanding.” (1)

This immediately puts the reader on the defensive: It is not likely we will understand the parables and we need to listen to them anew, listen to them afresh, and work our way through them again and again. After all, these stories were preserved for us, the Church. Yet, they were spoken to people who were not yet the church in any completely modern sense. Only too often do we allow what we ‘already know’ to get in the way of what is really there. We must admit that it is always difficult to avoid the biases that we carry to the text. Capon illustrates his point by directing our attention to the rejection of Jesus by his contemporaries:

“So too with Scripture. Often when people try to say what the Bible is about, they let their own mindset ride roughshod over what actually lies on the pages…Jesus, for example, was rejected by his contemporaries not because he claimed to be Messiah but because, in their view, he didn’t make a suitably messianic claim. ‘Too bad for God,’ they seemed to say. ‘He may want a dying Christ, but we happen to know that Christs don’t die.’” (4)

His warning, it seems to me, is not that we should be afraid of parables or interpreting them, but that we should be cautious and listen well. Peterson, whom I reference below, notes that “Inconspicuously, even surreptitiously, a parable involves the hearer…A parable is not ordinarily used to tell us something new but to get us to notice something that we have overlooked although it has been right there before us for years” (Tell It Slant, 19). It does us well to work our way through the parables often, and to be and become those whose eyes and ears are open to the Word of Christ. We need to continually visit them, read them, participate in their action. Capon goes on:

“It should be only after long study and repeated readings that I would dare to conclude what any particular passage meant, let alone what the entire thrust of his writing was. With such a wildly various collection, there would always be a temptation to let my own sense of what he was up to get in the way of what he himself really had in mind” (3).

Capon also draws our attention to the fact that the parables, if they are about God, happen to turn on their heads our popular conceptions of who God is and the way God does things:

“In the Bible, as a matter of fact, God does so many ungodly things—like not remembering our sins, erasing the quite correct handwriting against us, and becoming sin for us—that the only safe course is to come to Scripture with as few stipulations as possible. God used his own style manual, not ours, in the promulgation of his word. Openness, therefore, is the major requirement for approaching the Scriptures. And nowhere in the Bible is an un-made-up mind more called for than when reading the parables of Jesus.” (5)

Indeed. The parables turn our conceptions inside out and outside in as he further observes for us:

“For example, some of the parables are little more than one-liners, brief comparisons stating that the kingdom of God is like things no one ever dreamed of comparing it to: yeast, mustard see, buried treasure secured by craftiness, fabulous jewelry purchased by mortgaging everything…Once again, they set forth comparisons that tend to make mincemeat of people’s religious expectations. Bad people are rewarded (the Publican, the Prodigal, the Unjust Steward); good people are scolded (The Pharisee, the Elder Brother, the Diligent Workers); God’s response to prayer is likened to a man getting rid of a nuisance (the Friend at Midnight); and in general, everybody’s idea of who ought to be first or last is liberally doused with cold water (the Wedding Feast, the Great Judgment, Lazarus and Dives, the Narrow Door).” (10)

Finally, there is a pastor, Eugene Peterson whose book, Tell It Slant, is a masterpiece in Peterson’s ‘conversation in spiritual theology.’ In the book, he takes on a journey with Jesus through Samaritan country as he explores Luke 9:51-19:27 and the parables contained therein. I wish there were space and time enough to note more, but I’d like for the time being to pick up on just a particular aspect of Peterson’s work. He begins by reminding us of the rather mundane, earthy subject matter of the parables:

“The subject matter is usually without apparent religious significance. They are stories about farmers and judges and victims, about coins and sheep and prodigal sons, about wedding banquets, building barns and towers and going to war, a friend who wakes you in the middle of the night to ask for a loaf of bread, the courtesies of hospitality, crooks and beggars, fig trees and manure. The conversations that Jesus had as he walked on the Samaritan roads were with people who had a different idea of God than what Jesus was revealing, or maybe not much of an idea at all. This was either hostile or neutral country. Parables were Jesus’ primary language of choice to converse with these people, stories that didn’t use the name of God, stories that didn’t seem to be ‘religious’” (20-21).

For all the ‘high’ talk we use in churches, talk about sanctification, redemption, propitiation and suchlike (all great and useful words!), talk that make us sound far more knowledgeable than we truly are, we stand in contrast with Jesus who didn’t. Jesus seems to have delighted in ‘low talk.’

This prompts Peterson to ask, “Why in the world is Jesus telling unpretentious stories about crooks and manure? Why isn’t he preaching the clear word of God, calling the Samaritans to repentance, offering them the gift of salvation in plain language?” (21) Peterson observes that Jesus’ choice of language is increasingly relaxed and conversational as he nears the day (he is speaking of the context of Luke 9:51-19:27). And Jesus doesn’t apologize for doing so.

Why? Well, Peterson believes that this keeps the conversation going by continually involving the listeners. As Jesus neared the crucifixion, knowing he would not see these Samaritan people again, his language became less direct. He told them stories they would remember, chew on, think about and be involved in forever. We are keen to remember a good story, to hear a good story, to tell a good story. Even now, the popular culture is fond of ‘Good Samaritans’ and ‘Prodigals.’ But church folk forget this simple aspect of life and in our attempts and efforts to be important, we fail to capitalize on such an idea. We forget how to be children. I remember when my eldest son, now nearly 16, was but a toddler. He could listen to the the same stories over and over and over; memorized them too. Why do we forget this as adults? This is what stories are for in the first place. Not merely to entertain even if they do entertain. We remember stories. I couldn’t tell you the financial reports of last month’s board meeting. I can tell you stories from every church I have ever had the pleasure or displeasure of knowing.

“It is common among many of us when we become more aware of what is involved in following Jesus and the urgencies that this involves, especially when we find ourselves in Samaritan territory, that we become more intense about our language. Because it is so much more clear and focused we use the language learned from sermons and teachings to tell others what is eternally important. But the very intensity of the language can very well reduce our attentiveness to the people whom we are speaking—he or she is no longer a person, but a cause. Impatient to get our message out, we depersonalize what we have to say into rote phrases or programmatic formula without regard to the person we are meeting. As the urgency to speak God’s word increases, listening relationships diminish. We end up with a bone pile of fleshless words—godtalk” (21).

So, why? I think this has something to do with keeping people involved in the conversation by requiring their participation. “A parable is not an explanation. A parable is not an illustration. We cannot look at a parable as a spectator and expect to get it. A parable does not make a thing easier; it makes it harder by requiring participation, by entering the story…” (59-60).

Parables require effort. Parables require eyes of faith to see and ears of faith to hear. We have to listen and participate.

What I have laid out for you is three important aspects of the parables. First, Keener teaches that parable teaching is a common feature of teachers and rabbis of that day. This is not a later invention of the church. Second, as Capon noted, the parables turn our conceptions of God, Kingdom, Son of Man upside down and undo all our pretension. Third, as Peterson draws our attention to, parables keep us involved in the conversation by bringing us back to earth. “Why do you stand there staring at the sky?” the angel asked the disciples. Indeed, the answers are not found ‘out there’ or ‘up there.’ Jesus said, “Behold! Look around! You will see the Kingdom of God, indeed God himself, at work in places you never would have thought, under the spell of your own knowledge and wisdom, imaginable.”

Jesus told parables. He told stories that had meaning and connection to the everyday lives of the people who heard those stories. We do well, when we interpret the parables, to first listen to the parables. We do well to pay attention to the context of the parables. We do well to hear first the story of earth before we presume to know and attach meaning of heaven to the word of God. These are not earthly stories with heavenly meanings. They are carefully told earthy stories designed to capture our attention, involve us in a conversation with Jesus, and seek him and his kingdom first. In part two of this post, I will explore the parable itself and de-sanitize it.

De-Sanitizing the Parables: The Good Catholic

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