The Next Faithful Step
Parables of Jesus—ipsissima vox. Compare OT, Judaism, Hellenism.
The parables of Jesus hold their own place in the history of literature. His frequent use of a brief story to prompt thinking or sharpen the point of a question has no apparent parallel in his first-century culture, or any other culture. Joachim Jeremias, in his catalog of “the characteristics of Jesus’ speech for which there is no analogy in contemporary literature,” gave pride of place to the parables.1 But this small creative triumph in a society that thrived on the telling of stories, actually pales in light of the triumph of the parables themselves: their simplicity, their clarity, and their enduring challenge. In a remarkable way, the parables themselves were impressively suited to presenting the challenge of the kingdom of God. Familiar values were being trumped by Jesus and his new message.2Jeremias is right to discern in the parables “the very voice of Jesus,” preaching an unprecedented message in a manner creatively suited to its content.
The OT contains a handful of similar stories, though perhaps only one that compares closely: Nathan’s story of the ewe lamb, which he spun in order to make David realize the extent of his sin against Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam. 12:1-15). Hellenistic parallels such as the fables of Aesop, in which talking animals propound wooden morals (“slow and steady wins the race”), and similar stories recorded later by the rabbis, are clumsy and wooden by comparison. They highlight by their contrasts the realism of Jesus’ parables, their anchor in daily life, and the flexibility of their application.3
There is a complex history of the assessment and interpretation of Jesus’ parables.4 A contemporary consensus probably would understand a parable as a brief story, anchored recognizably in daily life, which nevertheless provides something unexpected that demands some evaluation or response of the listeners. The juxtaposition of these elements, the recognizable and the unexpected, is employed strategically to “disarm and persuade;”5 the parable can create conditions for looking at personal responsibility in a new way. Since a major element of Jesus’ ministry was to prompt fresh thinking in Israel about God and God’s requirements, pressing the message of the kingdom of God upon his audience through the parables was a perfect strategy.
Jesus’ own assessment of the value of parables is available to us in the NT tradition. All three Synoptic Gospels record that Jesus’ disciples asked him directly about his practice of teaching in parables. The question comes on the heels of accounts of the rising hostility of the religious authorities to Jesus (Matt. 12-13; Mark 3-4; Luke 7-8), and in so far as an original setting in Jesus’ ministry can be posited, we can hear in their question a frustration about the relative ineffectiveness of their rabbi Jesus.6 Why doesn’t Jesus explain himself as clearly to his opponents as he does to his followers? Jesus answers by alluding to the call of Isaiah to prophetic ministry, in which Isaiah is warned of the deep frustrations of his calling, since Israel “will listen but never understand, see but never perceive” (Mark 4:8; Luke 8:10; Matthew gives the fullest reference in 13:13-15). While his own disciples are among those who “see and understand” (Matt. 13:16), there are those in his audience who never will. There seems to be a double message here: the preaching of God’s word will always engender opposition; and an indirect style of teaching is somehow appropriate to that challenge.
We find this interchange between Jesus and the disciples about the nature of parables in the 13th chapter of Matthew, which also presents numerous examples of parables. It is possible to consider the ways in which some of these same parables speak to the nature of the parables themselves. For instance, the parable of the sower (which encloses the interchange, vv. 10-17, between the telling of the parable, vv. 1-9, and its interpretation, vv. 18-23) expands on the fruitful and unfruitful “hearing” of the word; the receptivity of the “soil” is crucial. The parable of the seeds and tares (13:24-30; 36-43) points to the tolerance of good and evil side by side until the final judgment, as Jesus must tolerate a context of disbelief in his ministry. The parables of the treasure hidden in a field, and of the pearl of great price (13:44-46), feature the need to seek diligently the not-so-obvious blessings of the kingdom of heaven. Part of what these parables do, then, is to explore the ways parables function to prompt and guide response to the things of God in a hostile environment.
A number of important points may be made.
First, if this reconstruction has validity, we glimpse Jesus here doing his own reflecting on the opposition he is encountering in Israel, and finding some solace, or at least a recognizable pattern, in the example of the OT prophets, and in Isaiah in particular. Isaiah 6:8-13 is not a public oracle, but one that Yahweh addresses to the prophet himself about the hardships of the task. Jesus has identified with this message, and furthermore is imparting some of its solace to his disciples—who must certainly also feel the brunt of the social, religious, and political opposition their master is attracting.
Second, the need for parables then has to do with the nature of the opposition as something deriving from sinful rebellion. A parable is not simply a story that imparts a complex idea in an effective and memorable way.7 Jesus uses a relatively clear example to challenge thinking about the nature of God and God’s claims. The twin parables of the treasure found hidden in the field, and the pearl of great price, underline the full personal commitment (“he went and sold all he had”) that the news of the kingdom of God should elicit. But they accomplish this not as a direct command to commit, but in a way that prompts the question, “How much to I value the gospel of God?”
Third, The parables speak not only to hearing/not hearing, but to a certain range of possibilities in between. John Goldingay notes in his commentary on Isaiah that God’s harsh words to Isaiah should be heard with a measure of irony, since the ultimate goal of the prophetic ministry is to prompt repentance and understanding.8 So too Jesus can admit the fierceness of the opposition against him, while still reaching out in real ways to those who are in process of “hearing.” Even the disciples, who have in some sense “heard” Jesus (Matt. 13:16), are still challenged by Jesus to “hear” his meaning (13:18), and asked later on if they have “understood” (13:51). When they nod their heads with an eager “yes!” Jesus responds by challenging them with still another parable, one whose interpretation has by no means achieved any clear agreement in the Church (13:52). The parables are suitable for challenging a variegated audience on various levels at the same time.