Narratives from Nazareth:
Jesus put what he had to say into stories. As Alan T Dale wrote in his Portrait of Jesus, he must always have have loved telling stories, even in his boyhood:
Evening meals in Nazareth must have been hilarious times, and people must often have dropped into the builder’s yard for more than wood! Jesus was a born story-teller; he used the story as his chief way of making clear to his fellow country-men his convictions about God and his vision of God’s world. … We mustn’t imagine that Jesus made these up on the spur of the moment to illustrate something he wanted to say. His stories were not illustrations – of anything. They were the way he himself thought and reached his conclusions. What he had to say is in the story – that was the only way he could say it.
Jesus didn’t just see a farmer out sowing a field or building a barn, and, there and then, use him as a picture or illustration of what he wanted to say. A farmer was, of course, a familiar sight; but Jesus’ stories about him were not just ‘thrown off’ in a moment. They went back to a day in his childhood or youth when, walking along a country road or looking down on fields of crops from a rooftop, the sight of a farmer striding over his fields, or building a new barn, seized his imagination, just as Robert Burns was inspired by the scenes he saw in rural Ayrshire, like the destruction of the habitat of a fieldmouse at harvest time, which prompted him to write about how the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft aglay. Jesus’ visions of the Palestinian countryside stayed with him over the years, perhaps even haunted his mind, until they became the stories he told and the gospel writers collected and recorded. Here are two of his stories about farmers, translated into contemporary English by Alan T Dale:
The farmlands of a rich father were bearing wonderful crops.
‘What on earth shall I do?’ the farmer kept thinking. ‘There’s no room in the old barn for these grand harvests. ‘I know,’ he went on, ‘I’ll tear down my old barns and build bigger ones, big enough to hold all my wheat and wealth. “You’ve wealth enough for many years. Take it easy mate,” I’ll say to myself. “Have a good time. Eat and drink as much as you want.” ‘
That night he died. What happened to his wheat and wealth?(Luke 12: 16-20)
A farmer lived on a farm with his two sons.
‘Tom’, he said to the first boy, ‘give me a hand on the farm today.’
‘All right, Dad’ he said, but he didn’t go. The farmer said exactly the same to his second son, Bill.
‘Not I!’ said Bill. But later he changed his mind, and went to give his father a hand on the farm.
Did Tom, or Bill, do what his father wanted?(Matthew 21: 28-31)
They became, as we still read and re-tell them today, not just simple tales of rural life, but profound narratives of God’s world in the making. That is why we call them ‘parables’ and read them again and again to ourselves and to each other, finding them fresh and new every time. As a young teacher, I took part in a school production of Stephen Schwartz’s ‘Godspell’, the words and music for which were largely, if loosely based on the parables in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels. Jesus was both a poet and a story-teller. Modern poets and writers have told us that the origins of their poems and stories lie far back in their memories of childhood. Dylan Thomas’ short stories are a good example of this, especially his well-known A Child’s Christmas in Wales, which begins:
One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six. … It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers. But there were cats. Patient, cold and callous, our hands wrapped in socks, we waited to snowball the cats. Sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered, spitting and snarling, they would slink and sidle over the white back-garden walls, and the lynx-eyed hunters, Jim and I, fur-capped and moccasined trappers from Hudson Bay, off Mumbles Road, would hurl our deadly snowballs at the green of their eyes.
Just as Thomas’ stories (as well as many of his poems such as Fern Hill) are drawn from his childhood experiences in south Wales, Jesus’ stories seem, at first hearing, to be stories of everyday Galilean life, about the sorts of things that went on among ordinary country folk. Even in the context of modern urban life, we’ve all encountered the kind of people and events described in them. We all know about family rows and rivalries and quarrels between neighbours. In recent family history, if not in the present, we know that landlords and managers of estates could be idle, ruthless or untrustworthy. In the Galilee of Jesus’ day, bandits and bad weather could make travel very difficult. His ‘tales of Galilee’ paint a vivid picture of the people he knew and the scenes, everday events and places he described in them – its farms, its dangerous roads, the ‘slaves’ on the great estates, seed-time and harvest, moneylenders, travellers, bandits, thieves, farm-labourers, merchants and gatekeepers – the whole of human life was in reach for the gifted story-teller. Jesus also drew the subjects of his stories from incidents in the public life of his nation that were the burning topics of conversation in the villages. In addition, he quoted or echoed stories and poems from the Old Testament, from his people’s history, putting them to his own original use. In his story we normally refer to, mistakenly, as ‘The Prodigal Son’, for example, he seems to retell and recast the story of Cain, Abel and their father. Similarly, his story of ‘The Good Samaritan’ echoes an old story of an incident in a war between the Northern and Southern kingdoms from the days of the Hebrew kings.
Why, though, did Jesus begin his ministry in Galilee? Although, of course, it was home territory for him, it was a strange decision for anyone who claimed to stand in the prophetic tradition. We can understand the fascination for the Jordan Valley and the desert beyond, as chosen by John, with its symbolic harking-back to the desert traditions of the Hebrew people and the story of their founding father, Moses. To Jesus, with his forward-looking mind, Jerusalem, the heart of the the nation, would surely seem to be the one place where the ‘Good News’ should be proclaimed, and it was to the capital that he came at the age of twelve, lingering to have discourse with the chief priests, and where he came to make his final proclamation to his people. Why Galilee, then? It was the ‘foreign province’, suspect in the eyes of the more orthodox south, only recently (a hundred or so years before) reoccupied by the Jews: ‘Are you a Galilean, too?’ the Sanhedrin asked Nicodemus in rebuke of his support for Jesus, ‘study the scriptures and you will find that prophets do not come from Galilee’ (John 7: 52). The answer may well well lie in the freshness, originality and imagination with which Jesus had thought out the strategy of his ministry. Galilee was, of course, a countryside he knew well, understood and loved, his precise observations of them giving him the imagery for his parables and poems. It was the independence and vitality of the people there, their unorthodoxy and eccenticities, that made him feel that here was the opportunity, which the orthodox rigidity of Judaea forbade, of his really being listened to. He was a northener, and the north, which comes out so badly in the southern histories of the OT, had stubbornly held that there, rather than in the compromising south, the real religious traditions of the covenant had been maintained.
But if the subject material of Jesus’s stories seems to be derived mainly from the Galilee of his day, their theme or common ‘narrative’ is that of ‘God’s Way’, ‘God’s Kingdom’. Jesus often makes this plain by beginning with the words ‘the Kingdom of God is like this…’ or ‘God’s way is …’ in modern paraphrase. His stories don’t set out directly the nature of the Kingdom, or the Way; they talk of it in indirect terms, so that we have to think very carefully about them before their meanings begin to come home to us, as we have to with many stories and poems. They are told to make us think, not to lead us to jump to conclusions. All this ‘narrative’ sometimes so confused his friends that the gospel-writer tells us that once they actually asked him if he could explain his meaning in plain language! What they wanted him to do, in common with his ‘enemies’, was to give them simple, tidy answers to their questions which they could learn by rote and repeat without actually thinking them through for themselves. That method, the ‘rabbi’ knew, could not lead to a deep, heart-felt and genuine understanding what God is doing in the mixed-up world in which we are living. He quoted some lines from an Old Testament poem to emphasise this:
Listen, you foolish and thoughtless people:
You have eyes, but will not look;
You have ears, but will not listen.Mk 8: 18
Jesus did sometimes give explanations of his stories, however. He told them exactly who and what the vineyards and the farms stood for in one of his stories, probably because these were more easily recognised as familiar ‘tropes’ by his Jewish listeners. They had been used by OT writers to describe the Hebrew people; his Galilean audience would know he was not just telling another interesting tale of Harvest time, but speaking about the time envisioned by the Hebrew poets and prophets when God would bring history to an end and judge all the peoples of the earth. Wild birds had also been used in the Hebrew Scriptures to refer to the foreign nations. The Jewish leaders soon began to realise that these stories, as they began to be re-told by village storytellers, were not as simple as they sounded. They realised that Jesus was discussing great matters of religion and politics, the controversial issues of the day, and the business of governance and state security. These ‘narratives’ were dangerous and subversive, and their source must be prevented from spreading them before they led to insurrection and the destruction of the Jewish state.
Jesus did not tell his stories to give answers to these questions, however, but to provoke them, to awaken people to new possibilities. He chose his close friends from those who reflected on his stories and came back to ask him what he was driving at. He didn’t want ‘yes-men’ as followers, or people who were not prepared to put in the hard thinking that was required to follow him. So neither should we ask too quickly, ‘what does this story mean?’ As Dale puts it, it may have many meanings, as a great painting or a good poem has. We must first let each and every story, not just the most well-known, capture our imaginations, and not immediately ask, ‘What does it illustrate?’ Rather than attempting to ‘de-cypher’ the elements and parts, as many of his contemporaries sought to do, we need to listen and comprehend the story as a whole. Looking at the stories of Jesus in these ways, we can begin to understand his method in throwing them into the supper-table conversations, or using them in the village market-places and among the hills. He wanted them to stick in people’s memories and to ‘bump against’ one another.
The Place of the Parables in the Gospels:
The pattern of Matthew’s Gospel is unlike that of Mark because although it uses Mark’s narrative, with some slight alterations in order, as an overall narrative framework, it intersperses collections of largely non-Marcan material in the form of discourses on themes. The ‘negative’ effect of this is that Matthew’s Gospel lacks the vigorous momentum of Mark’s, so that sometimes the narrative of Jesus’ ministry almost stands stationary, as in 8: 1- 9: 34, where most of the miracles are gathered together and strung out in succession, and in 13: 1-52, where the parables receive similar treatment. On the positive side, what stands out and gives this gospel its unique character are the five collections of teaching, each rounded off with the formula, ‘It came to pass when Jesus had finished… ‘ The overall effect is to make Matthew’s Gospel easier to analyse, as in general it has a clearer, more rigorous structure than that of Mark. There is very little of the latter which has not been carried over into Matthew, who adds a few incidents as well as a large amount of parable material. In the Galilean ministry (3: 1-20: 16), Mark provides the narrative framework as well some of the material. Matthew also uses various sources to expand the Marcan section of parables by adding a number of parables on the nature of the kingdom of heaven (11: 2 – 13-52). Matthew’s re-telling of Mark’s account of the entry into Jerusalem and the ‘last week’ of his ministry there leads to an expansion of Mark’s eschatological discourse (Mark 13) and to the addition of the parables of judgment (19: 1 – 25: 46).
The Gospel according to Luke is constructed to a considerable degree from the same or the same kind of material as Mark and Matthew, but the result is different from either. Luke is dependent upon Mark, but in a different way from Matthew. Some scholars hold that if all that he derives from Mark is taken out of Luke’s gospel, what is left still makes a continuous narrative of events from John the Baptist to the resurrection, and they conclude that this was Luke’s first version of his Gospel which he later filled out with blocks inserted from Mark, as a secondary source. Others have argued that Mark supplies the basic framework of the Galilean ministry and the passion narrative, but that Luke used it and edited it more freely. There is no clearly pronounced pattern is in Matthew, but the narrative is more flowing than in Mark. Luke tells Theophilus that he intends to write ‘in a orderly manner’ (1: 3), by which he appears to have meant the treatment of one theme or subject at a time. The fact that some of his special material, including the parables of ‘the Good Samaritan’, ‘Prodigal Son’, and ‘Dives and Lazarus’, have a highly graphic character, gives his gospel a special appeal. Luke’s account of the Galilean ministry is largely Marcan, but Jesus is depicted in Luke, more than in Mark, as one who is on a journey.
The task of separating the original message of Jesus from later additions and interpretations is difficult and often uncertain. Biblical scholars frequently disagree and an element of personal judgment is inevitable. In his recent book (2019), John Barton has written that while there are numerous places in the Gospel texts where Matthew and Luke were both appearing to following Mark, they both differ from Mark in the same way. For example, Mark 4: 30-32 has the parable of the mustard seed:
And he was saying, “How shall (we see) the kingdom of God, or in what parable shall we put it? Like a grain of mustard seed, which when it is sown upon the earth is the smallest of all seeds on the earth and when it is sown, it grows and becomes the greatest of all vegetables, and it produces great branches, so that the birds of heaven are able to rest under its shade.
Both Matthew and Luke reproduce this parable (Matthew 13: 31-32; Luke 13: 18-19), but both say ‘which a person having taken it sowed in his field/garden’; ‘it becomes a tree‘; and ‘in its branches‘ instead of ‘under its shade’. How is this to be explained, if Luke and Matthew were independent of each other? Perhaps, it has been suggested, both Matthew and Luke knew a version of Mark which was different from the one we now have, but that piles conjecture on conjecture, according to Barton. The simplest solution is that either Luke knew Matthew or Matthew knew Luke. This dispute shows how complicated Synoptic relationships are, and that all hypotheses are fragile. The widely-accepted theory that both Matthew and Luke copied material from Mark independently of each other, and also added material from an unknown second common source, known as ‘Q’, also leaves loose ends as far as the parables are concerned, since some material is only in Matthew (e.g. the parable of ‘the Labourers in the Vineyard’; Matthew 20: 1-16) or only in Luke (such as the parables of ‘the Prodigal Son’; 15: 11-32, and ‘the Good Samaritan’; 10: 29-37). Critics used to attribute these to ‘M’ and ‘L’ as two further sources, but for all we know, they could be free compositions by Matthew and Luke themselves.
For Barton, as well as for those using these parables as supposedly authentic stories told by Jesus, this raises an important point. Though there are good reasons for accepting ‘Q’ hypothesis, it may sometimes serve a conservative religious agenda. To say that Matthew and Luke derive their shared but non-Marcan material from an earlier source is an implicit denial that they made any of it up themselves. The ‘M’ and ‘L’ hypotheses work in the same way, reassuring us that the material we value in Matthew and Luke is genuinely older than these Gospels themselves, and hinting that it may go back to Jesus himself. We might wish to believe that, but Gospel criticism cannot prove it. Modern approaches have tended to increasingly to stress the typically ‘Matthaean’/’Lucan’ character of their versions of Jesus, and especially the passages that occur only in one of these two Gospels. This tends to reduce the case for thinking that they are real reminiscenses of Jesus himself. If Jesus says things that go against the drift of a Gospel, we may be more confident that they authentic, since the evangelist would not have made them up (the principle of ‘dissimilarity’, as it is known); but if they are typical of the evangelist’s interests and emphases, we have to remain undecided about whether or not they go back beyond the evangelist to the authentic Jesus. Luke’s parables are long and complex stories with complicated points to make. In the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32), there is not only the pardoning of the ‘bad’ son but also the rebuke, accompanied by the blessing, to the ‘good son’, very different from the much shorter and simpler parables in Mark and Matthew. Here is Alan T Dale’s rendering of Luke’s best-known parable:
A man and his two sons were farmers.The younger son came one day to his father. “Dad,” he said, “it’s time you handed over the farm to the two of us. Give me my share.“
That’s what the father did. He divided up the farm between his two sons and handed it over. The younger son quickly packed his things and went abroad. There he threw his money away having ‘a good time’.
At last his pockets were empty. Then the harvest failed all over the land. There he was – no money and no food. He took a job with a farmer there, and the farmer sent him off to feed the pigs in the fields. He felt like swallowing the pigs’ food himself. Nobody lifted a hand to help him.
Then he knew what a fool he’d been: “How many of the labourers on my father’s farm have more food than they want?” he thought, “and here I am starving to death! I’m going home to my father. I’ve wronged God, and I’ve wronged my father. I’ll tell him so. And I’ll tell him, too, that I don’t deserve to be called a son of his; he can take me on as a labourer.”
He got up and went home. When he was still quite a long way from his father’s farm, his father saw him coming. He felt very sorry for him; and he ran out to meet him, threw his arms around his neck and kissed him.
“Dad,” the boy began to say, “I’ve wronged God and I’ve wronged you. I don’t deserve to be called a son of yours …”
“Quick!” his father called to the servants, “go and get his best clothes out. Get a ring and sandals and dress him properly. And kill the calf we’ve fattened. We’ll have a feast and a grand time tonight. My boy was dead and lost; and here he is alive and back home again!”
Now the older son had been out on the farm. He was coming home and and had almost reached the house when he heard the sound of bagpipes and dancing. He called one of the farmhands out, and asked him what was going on.
“Your brother’s back,” said the man. “Your father’s killed the calf because he’s safe home again.” The older son was furious, and he wouldn’t even go inside the house. His father came out and begged him to come inside.
“Look”, he answered back, “I’ve slaved for you all these years. I did everything you told me to do. But what do I get? Not even a kid to have a good time with my friends. This son of yours can throw his money away on girls, if he likes, and come home again – and you go and kill the calf for him!”
“My dear boy,” said his father. “We’re always together. All the farm is yours – you know that. We had to celebrate tonight. It’s your brother who was dead and lost; it’s your brother who’s alive and back home again!”
The story seems to go to the heart of what Jesus had to say, but its telling as we have it recorded in his Gospel, is so peculiar to Luke’s style, that we could well doubt whether it goes back beyond him to Jesus. The characters are not stylised but there is a depth of characterisation; more than one point is made, since the story concerns both the father’s forgiveness of the prodigal son and the elder brother’s resentment. Yet overall its message is that of Jesus, that God is still at work in his world, still bringing it to be the kind of world which is a real family, in which everyone who wants to be is included and nobody is left out. Men and women are born in God’s image, and are free to choose evil, and they are free to change their minds. They can be sorry for the wrong things they have done, and they can be forgiven by God their Father. True, the parable as it appears in Luke lacks the formulaic aspect of some of the parables in Mark and Matthew, so that we feel that the three characters are real people, not ciphers.
By contrast, there many instances where it is quite easy to see the ‘evangelists’ using ‘the preacher’s technique’. They begin with an incident, a saying, a parable, and then expound it to meet the needs of their audience. This process can often be detected where a parable is told in more than one Gospel. For instance, the parable of the the parable of ‘the Good Shepherd’ in Luke 15: 3-7 ends by declaring that when one sinner repents there is a rejoicing in heaven. God is the Shepherd (a frequent OT metaphor) who searches out the lost sheep from his flock. In the Gospel of Matthew (18: 12-14), the same parable is told in slightly different language. Then at v. 15 the parable is used to a point out a Christian’s duty towards an offending, rather than simply wayward, fellow Christian. As the shepherd searches for the lost sheep, so ‘if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother …’ (vv 15-18). Another example is the parable of ‘the Empty House’ told by Luke and Matthew in almost identical language. Here is Luke’s version:
When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest; and finding none he says, ‘I will return from my house from which I came.’ And when he comes he finds it swept and put in order. Then he goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.Luke 11: 24-26.
Here the parable stands by itself, though it is preceded by the saying, ‘If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you’ and by the parable of ‘the Captured Castle’. The New Testament scholar, Robert C. Walton in his article published in 1970, argued that, since the story is about ‘evil spirits’ we might say that it is an acute psychological analysis of the state of mind of people who, cured of mental hallucinations, slip back into their neurotic state because they can find nothing positive to live for. We could sharpen the interpretation by saying that Jesus himself must fill the house of life, if a man is to be creative and happy. The Gospel of Matthew adds its own interpretation: ‘… so shall it be also with this evil generation …’ (Matt. 12: 45). The opponents of Jesus, the Pharisees and lawyers, are the houses inhabited by eight evil spirits, seven of whom are worse than the original occupier. Walton concludes from these examples that our task is to try to see, however imperfectly, to understand the message of Jesus the teacher.
The Originality of Jesus:
In a previous article in Walton’s volume, Alan T Dale wrote that the parables of Jesus, about sixty in his estimation, in whole or in fragments, are ‘crowded with people’. What marks them out from being ‘pious moral homilies’ is the breadth of their sympathy – there are ‘villains’ as well as ‘heroes’ – and their profound insights into human nature. They are real people whom we meet in real situations. The stories are, Dale attests, are explorations of the meaning of love as the working principle of human action. Jesus expected ordinary men and women to see the point he was making as the only way in which human conflicts and situations could be resolved and transformed. He used stories to put his point in such a way that even hard-headed people could comprehend and be in no doubt what he was driving at. He was revealing the way in which things things actually work within ‘the Kingdom’ and human situations develop. His view of the people of his time was that they were like ‘children sitting in the market-place and shouting to one another’ (Luke 7:32), not grown-ups. Love, to him, was not simply a childish affection, it was a way of maturity. Some of the parables were told and recorded in poetic form, like the following translation by Dale of ‘the Two Builders’:
Everybody who listens to me
and then does something about it
is like a sensible builder.
He builds his house –
and he builds it on rock.
Then winter comes.
The rain pours down,
the mountain torrents come tumbling down the hillside,
the great winds blow
and batter the house.
But it stands up to it all –
underneath it is rock.
Everybody who listens to me
but doesn’t do anything about it
is like a stupid builder.
He builds his house –
but he builds it on earth.
Then winter comes.
The rain pours down,
the mountain torrents come tumbling down the hillside,
the great winds blow
and hurl themselves against his house.
Down it comes
with a tremendous crash!Matt. 7: 24f.
To remember that Jesus was a poet with a poet’s inward vision and a gift for handling words, using vivid images from everyday life, not abstract arguments, helps us in various ways to get to the heart of the his teaching. For instance, it is often a clue to those passages of the Gospels where someone has added an explanation of the words of Jesus. The parable of ‘the Sower’ (Mark 4: 3-9, Matt. 13: 1-9) ends with the words, ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear’, or as we might say, ‘Now work out the meaning for yourself.’ Then both Gospels follow on with a long and tedious explanation of the meaning of the parable (vv. 10-20 in Mark; 10-23 in Matthew). Scholars give their own reasons for saying that this is a later edition, but really this is a matter of common-sense. They read like the sort of thing Christian preachers said later to ‘explain’ the stories, rather than the sort of thing Jesus himself would have said. Poets do not explain their own poems. They offer us their vision and leave us to discover the meaning. Neither do poets create logical systems of thought in which each part fits into the whole. They speak or write about what catches their imaginations and stirs their soul. The message of Jesus has no tidy outward shape, but it does have an inner unity centred upon the proclamation of the Kingdom of God. He put what the stories were ‘really about’ into brief poems. These poems, like his stories, sound simple, but they are not as simple as they sound. Like other poets, before and since, he could breathe fresh life into what seem at first to be commonplace or trite phrases. The great OT prophets like Amos and Jeremiah, put their sayings into poems, and Jesus followed this pattern. His short parable-poem, ‘the Lamp’, shows his sense of humour as well as his ability to put powerful thoughts into very simple language:
What do you light a lamp for?
To put it out?
To put it under the bed?
Or to put it on a stand
to light the whole house
and all who live in it?(Mk 4: 21; Mt. 5: 15)
The lamp he is describing is the lamp used in a small Palestinian one-roomed house. There were no windows and you could easily stumble in the half-darkness. The room itself was divided into two parts. One part, with beds, chests, cooking utensils, was raised above the rest of the floor (you had to step up on to it). The other part could be used for work – or even to house the animals! To do anything in such a house, you needed to light a lamp whatever the time of day or night. The subject of Jesus’ short poem was the three ways in which an ordinary lamp might be used in such a windowless house. At one level, it’s a simple poem conveying a simple message. The lamp should be put in a position to light the whole house so that people in its light can do whatever they are about. Light doesn’t tell you what to do; it simply enables you to see whatever it is that you are doing. But it was spoken, we remember, in an occupied country with an active resistance movement. In this context, there were some among his countrymen who wanted to put the light out almost as soon as it was lit, and there were others who wanted to keep the light in their own small corner, rather than sharing it with the rest of their ‘household’ (the world). What would the words ‘the whole house’ suggest to people who, like Jesus’ friends, had listened to his stories, heard him talk and argued with him? They would remember, too, how often, in their Bible, ‘light’ is a description of what God is like: ‘God is my light’ and ‘Let us walk in God’s light’. Suddenly, an apparently simple poem opens up deep and far-reaching questions, questions that his poems and stories provoked and illuminated. For Dale, the background of the poems in the stories; and the point of the stories is put in the poems. To be able to put things simply yet profoundly is one of the marks of Jesus, but there are depths to his sayings which the greatest modern minds find it hard to plumb.
The Origins of the Parables:
In his 1970 article, Robert C Walton suggested that it is in the parables more than anywhere else in the Gospels that we realise the originality of Jesus. That did not mean, he added, that they were unique. The use of parables was a method used by Jewish Rabbis in general, and especially by the Pharisees of whom, of course, Paul (as Saul) was one, and he continued to use them, as is evidenced in his letters. But no other parables are comparable to those of Jesus in their terseness, wit, sharp observance of human behaviour and in their extraordinary power of conveying profound truth throughout a well-told story. The characters include farmers, fishermen, housewives and merchants; kings, landowners and judges; a woman searching for a lost silver piece; squabbling children, guests at a wedding and a family whose house had been burgled. Along with the parables are brief metaphors or similies which have no story line but which appeal, as ‘poems’, to our imaginations and our sense of humour: If one blind man guides another, they will both fall into a ditch (Matt. 15: 14, NEB); It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10: 25); Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye, with never a thought for the great plank in your own? (Matt 7: 3)
It is sometimes possible to identify or at least to detect a specific local event or recent occurrence as the likely inspiration for of the parable. For instance, in the parable of ‘the burglar’ (Matt. 24: 43; Luke 12: 39), the use of past tenses in the Greek suggest some recent spate of burglaries in the villages of Galilee, which was a common topic of conversation: ‘If the householder had known at what time of night the burglar was coming, he would have kept awake and not have let his house be broken into.’ Another example of reference to ‘local news’ may be found in Luke’s version of ‘the parable of the Talents’ (19. 11-27) which unlike Matthew’s version (25: 14-30) has, it seems, a double plot. The main part of the story, as in Matthew, tells how three servants were entrusted with differing sums of money while their master went on a journey. The sub-plot begins at Luke 19: 12: “A nobleman went into a far country to receive kingly power and then return.” It reappears at v. 27: “But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them before me.”
This sub-plot appears to be the beginning and ending of an entirely different story which became intermingled with that of ‘the Talents’ in the source used by Luke. It illustrates, however, how an event may have prompted a story, this time a national one. In the spring of 4 BC, Herod the Great died in Jericho. By his will his kingdom was split into three, each part ruled over by one of his three sons. Archelaus, the eldest and a young man of eighteen, was given Judaea and Samaria. However, Herod’s will had to be ratified in Rome by the Emperor Augustus, and Archelaus left Palestine for Rome taking with him all the necessary documents and his father’s signet ring. Hence the line, “a nobleman went into a far country… ” If Archelaus is the man of noble birth it would throw light upon the closing verse, since Archelaus proved himself to be a stupid, cruel vain-glorious ruler who in 6 AD achieved the unique and ‘dubious distinction’ of uniting Jews and Samaritans in a joint denunciation to Augustus. The outcome of this was that Archelaus once again found himself summoned to Rome, this time never to return.
For many centuries and even into modern times the church turned the parables into allegories in which every detail was given a moral or theological meaning. The beginnings of this process can be seen in the use made of them by the early church. The additions to the original parable of ‘the Sower’ in Mark 4: 10-20 show clearly how this happened. The seed sown by the farmer becomes ‘the word’; the birds that ate the seed falling on the foot-path become ‘Satan’; the young corn which had no proper roots is allegorised into those Christians who easily fall back from their faith, whereas the seed which yields the abundant harvest represents the faithful, stalwart Christians. Later interpretations carried this kind of interpretation to more extravagent lengths. For instance, in the parable of ‘the Labourers in the Vineyard’ (Matt. 20: 1-16 – see the text in the appendix below), the landowner at harvest time goes to the market place on five separate occasions in the course of one day to hire labourers. Christian theologians in the second and third centuries saw great significance in these five summonses to work. For one of them, Irenaeus, they symbolised the periods in the history of the redemption from Adam onwards. For Origen they held a different meaning. The five summonses to work represented the different stages of human life at which men become Christians. These fanciful interpretations are still heard in sermons but biblical scholars have long since been abandoned and they should never be used in the classroom.
One more modern meaning often imposed on the parable can also be swiftly dismissed. The story is not a blue-print for management in twentieth-century industry. Any employer of labour on a large scale who acted as the owner of the vineyard would quickly find himself in trouble with the trade unions. The parable is really about the generosity of God: God who “makes his sun to rise on the good and the bad alike and sends his rain upon the honest and the dishonest” (Matt. 5: 45 NEB); God who gives us not what we deserve, but what we need. The labourers who have hung around the market place from early morning to late afternoon need a full day’s wage (the Roman denairus – ‘a pound a day’) if they and their families are not to go hungry. The owner of the vineyard knows this and pays his men according to their need. The nearest earthly parallel to this action of God is the way loving parents treat their children justly, but with special consideration and generosity towards any member of the family in special need.
The parables, then, are vivid short stories rooted in everyday life. They are stories with meaning and many of the central themes of the message of Jesus are embodied in them. They are attractive material for telling to children of any culture and religious tradition, but often the parables chosen are a few firm favourites – ‘the Sower’, ‘the Good Shepherd’, ‘the Prodigal Son’, and ‘the Good Samaritan’. Over-repetition in primary schools can easily exhaust the interest of children, whatever the cultural or linguistic setting. In using the parables in the ‘top junior’ years, it is important to make clear that they were originally spoken by a poet, and that their background and immediate reference is first-century Palestine. Yet, like all great art and literature, they have a timeless, inter-cultural quality, and can be used to illustrate modern global issues. Dale quotes Vincent van Gogh’s statement that Jesus was ‘the greatest Artist of us all’, painting his pictures with words. With this in view, Walton made suggestions for the use of less well-known parables, with useful notes on each. I have included two others, making ten in all, in an appendix below.
The Urgency of Jesus’ Message:
There is a strong sense of urgency in the way in which Jesus spoke. He believed that he and the whole world stood at a turning point in history and that the end of the world as we know it was near when God would bring in a new age. For centuries, the Jews had been talking about two ages: the present age which is evil and corrupt; and the ‘age to come’ or ‘new age’, when the present evil age will have disappeared, and the ‘new age’ ruled over by God would appear. Jesus shared this way of talking but changed its meaning. His sense of urgency did not spring just from his belief that the existing order of things was near its end, but from his belief that God was present among men in the here and now, his here and now. If God is present in human history, every moment is of vast consequence and its possibilities are undreamed of, as he expressed in the shorter parables mentioned above: Trust in God – even though it as small as a mustard seed – can move mountains or pull up a mulberry bush with its long roots. The urgency of Jesus is heard both in his shorter sayings and in his longer stories, like that of ‘the Good Samaritan’ (Luke 10: 30-36), here rendered again in Alan T Dale’s modern translation:
“When shall we really see people living in God’s Way?” a Jewish Leader once asked Jesus.
… Jesus answered:
A man was going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of bandits. They tore of his clothes and beat him up. Then off they went, and left him lying half-dead on the road.
Quite by accident, a priest was going down the same road. He saw the man lying there, but he didn’t stop. He went on past him – on the other side of the road. It was just the same with the Temple caretaker. He, too, came to the spot and saw the man lying there; he, too, didn’t stop – he went on past him on the other side of the road.
Then a foreigner, who was on a journey across the country, came upon the man. He saw him lying there, and felt very sorry for him. He went across to him, put ointment on his wounds and bandaged them up. He lifted him up on to the horse he had been riding, and brought him to an inn and looked after him.
Next morning, he took a pound out of his purse and gave it to the innkeeper. “Look after him,” he said. “If it costs more than a pound, I’ll put it right with you on my way back!”
Jesus looked the world he lived in straight in the face and found it wanting. Living in the lively border province of Galilee, he knew what kind of world it was and had no illusions. The story of ‘the Good Samaritan’ was down-to-earth and realistic. It was others who were in worlds of their own and could not see the urgency of what was really happening. In telling his stories, he had the whole story of his people to draw upon and to guide him, what those who came before him had discovered about God. The prophets were inspired by the story of how God delivered a handful of tribesmen – the lowest of the low – from Egyptian slavery through Moses. Prophets like Amos and Jeremiah had the insight that God was not a remote god who took no notice, but a God who cared, not just for the Hebrews but for everybody everywhere. There were no boundaries to his love. Jesus took this insight and showed how it might transform people’s whole view of the world. For him, his people’s story was a guide to making sense of what God was doing. That was the point of the story of ‘the Good Samaritan’, told in answer to ‘a teacher of the Law’ who tried to trap him. By telling his story, he was pointing out that it was the hypocritical scribes and pharisees who stood outside the genuine Hebrew tradition. After his ‘acted parable’ of turning the traders and money-changers out of the Foreigners’ Court in the Temple, Jesus was met by members of the Jewish Council (the ‘Sanhedrin’) who also tried to trap him into ‘blaspheming’. Again, he answered their question by telling a story:
Once upon a time a man cleared the ground and made a farm. He let it out to farmers and went off abroad. At harvest-time he sent a slave for his share of the harvest, but the farmers beat the slave and sent him off with empty hands. He sent another slave, but the farmers hit him on the head and insulted him.
The landowner had an only son; he sent him to the farm. “They will respect my son”, he said. When the farmers saw him, they said to one another: “This is a the son himself. Come on, let’s kill him and the farm will be ours!”
They got hold of him, killed him, and threw his body outside the farm. What will the landowner do? He will come himself of course, and destroy those farmers and give the farm to others.
We are told that the Jewish leaders then made up their minds to get hold of Jesus, because they knew that the story was aimed at them. But they were frightened of the crowd; so they left Jesus and went away. On this occasion, he didn’t simply answer a question with a question, but told a story which they would recognise as coming from Isaiah, one of their greatest prophets. They would also recognise immediately what he was doing and also see that the farm was a picture of the Jewish people and that he was directly criticising them. The farmers in the story had wanted to take over the farm and exploit it for themselves; the Jewish leaders were now making the Temple their temple, not God’s. The weren’t asking what God really wanted them to do. No wonder that, there and then, they made up their minds that they weren’t having any more radical talk like that. It wasn’t only that they disagreed with him. They were frightened lest the common people took him seriously. If they did, then from their viewpoint, the whole Jewish way of life and hopes, could vanish, or be changed into something they would barely recognise. They saw more clearly than Jesus’ own friends what his intentions were.
Jesus’ friends were often slow to grasp what he was talking about and what he was trying to do. He didn’t expect them to grasp it all at once. He knew only too well how strong the popular ideas about ‘being God’s People’, and what a break with them his friends would have to make. He put it in these words:
You don’t sew a patch of new cloth on an old dress.
If you do, the new patch pulls at the old dress.
Then you’ve got a worse tear.
You don’t put new wine into old wine-skins.
If you do, the wine burst the skins
and the wine and skins are lost.
New wine-skins for new wine!(Mark 2: 21-22; Mk. 10: 45)
As Alan T Dale pointed out, Jesus had called his friends not just to be his individual ‘companions’, to ‘break bread’ with him. He had called them to become a new kind of community, one which would not be founded on force but a caring community whose members were ready to be servants of men and women because they were God’s servants. In this, of course, Jesus led them by example, especially in his ‘acted parables’, like his washing of their feet at the ‘Last Supper’. Yet he possessed a ‘strange authority’ which came from the truth for which he stood, not any claim he made for himself, nor was he, as one scholar put it, in the least interested in his own security, unlike other contemporary leaders. It was the truth that ought to be plain to everybody, as plain as the changes in the weather. It was not ‘true’ because he said it – its truth was to be seen in the fruits of his work and the effect of what he was doing:
No healthy tree
grows rotten fruit;
no rotten tree
grows healthy fruit.
You can tell every tree by its fruit:
from a thorn-bush you don’t get figs;
from a bramble-bush you don’t get grapes.
The good man out of the richness of a good heart
the evil man out of an evil heart
grows evil.(Luke 6: 43-45)
In telling his stories and reciting his poems and sayings, Jesus was seeking to challenge the whole way in which his fellow countrymen thought about God, his ‘kingdom’ and the world humans occupy, to get them to think about what makes it ‘tick’ and who they really are, to take a fresh look at their identities with their own eyes and ears. But he was, of course, much more than just a gifted story-teller and teacher. What was most significant was what he did when somebody came back to him and asked, ‘What were you getting at in that story?’ That was the power of the story… in action. The best guide to what Jesus was ‘driving at’, what really mattered to him, was the way he lived and acted. For this, we need to look at the different kind of stories people told about him, from the popular stories told about him in the villages of Galilee to those his friends told to one another and used in their preaching in Palestine and throughout the Roman world. Most of the stories we have about Jesus come from his friends. How these stories came to be remembered and written down we do’nt exactly know; it is generally agreed among scholars that Mark was the first evangelist to use them. But these stories speak for themselves in showing how Jesus captured the imagination of the common people. It is to these stories about Jesus that I want to turn next in this series.
Appendix: Ten ‘Forgotten’ Parables
The Wheat and the Weeds (Matt. 13: 47-50):
“God’s Way is like this: One November, after the early rains, a farmer sowed his fields with corn; and he sowed good seed. A neighbour of his had a grudge against him. One night, when everybody was asleep, he and his men came over, and sowed weeds all over the newly sown fields; and off they went. Nobody noticed anything. The first green shoots of corn and weed all looked alike. But when the corn began to grow tall, everybody could see what had happened – everywhere weeds were growing among the corn.
“‘Sir,’ said the farmer’s slaves, ‘the seed we sowed was good seed, wasn’t it? Where have all the weeds come from?’ ‘I think I know,’ said the farmer, ‘somebody has got a grudge against me; this is his work.’ ‘What do you want us to do then?’ they asked, ‘go out and pull all the weeds up?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘we won’t do that. We might pull up the corn as well. I’ll tell the harvesters, and tie up the weeds in bundles; we’ll use them for the winter fires.’ “ (Dale)
The Drag-net (Matt. 13: 47-50):
“Also, the Kingdom of heaven is like this. Some fishermen throw their net out in the lake and catch all kinds of fish. When the net is full, they pull it to shore and sit down to divide the fish: the good ones go into the buckets, the worthless ones are thrown away. It will be like this at the end of the age: the angels will go out and gather up the evil from among the good and will throw them into the fiery furnace, where they will cry and gnash their teeth.” (NEB)
Notes: These two parables make the same point. Jesus says that at the time when he is speaking it is impossible to tell who is, and who is not, a member of God’s kingdom. The ‘weeds’ are ‘darnel’, a poisonous plant closely related to ‘bearded wheat’ which, in the early stages of growth is difficult to distinguish from it. It cannot be rooted up until harvest time. Fishing with a ‘seine’ or drag-net, usually slung between two boats, was normally done at night, and you cannot sort good fish from bad in the dark. It is only when the net has been dragged ashore at dawn that the catch can be sorted. There is a time when you cannot tell wheat from weeds; good fish from bad, and in the same way you cannot tell who is inside and who is outside God’s kingdom.
The Labourers in the Vineyard (Matt. 20: 1-15):
“God’s Way is like this: It was harvest time, and a farmer went out to the market square to hire workmen for his vineyard. He settled with them for the proper wage for the day – a pound – and sent them out to work. About nine o’ clock he went out again. Men were hanging about the square with nothing to do. ‘You too can go work in the vineyard,’ he said, ‘and I’ll pay you the proper wage.’ Off they went to work. At noon and at three o’ clock in the afternoon he went out to the market square again, and the same thing happened. About five o’ clock he went out again to the square. Men were still hanging about. ‘Why are you hanging about all day doing nothing?’ he asked. ‘Nobody has taken us on,’ they said. ‘You can go into the vineyard with the others’ he told them.
“By now it was evening. The farmer spoke to the foreman. ‘Call the workmen in,’ he said, ‘and pay them their wages. And start with the last ones we took on.’ Those who started work at five o’ clock in the afternoon got a full day’s wage – a pound. Then those who had started work at six o’ clock in the morning came up, and they expected to get more than that. They, too, got a full day’s wage – a pound. They began to go for the farmer. ‘These fellows who started work last have have only done one hour’s work!’ ‘And you’re treating them like us… And we’ve had the scorching sun to put up with as well!’ The farmer tackled their leader. ‘My dear man!’ he said, ‘I’m not treating you badly. Didn’t you settle with me for a proper day’s wage? Take your money and get out! I’m going to give these fellows who started at five o’ clock the same wage I’m giving you. Can’t I use my own money as I want to? Does my generosity make you jealous?” (Dale)
(The commentary on this parable is in the text of the article.)
The Mustard Seed (Mark 4: 30-32):
“God’s way is like this: When a mustard seed is sown in the soil, it’s the smallest seed in the world. But it grows up and becomes the largest plant in the world. Its branches are so big that (you remember what the Bible says?):
” ‘In the shelter of the its branches the wild birds roost.’ “
The Yeast in the Bread (Matt. 13: 33):
“God’s way is like this: A woman took some yeast and mixed it into a lot of flour; and all the flour rose.”
Note:You cannot make a loaf of yeast, but you can’t make a loaf without it.To this image, Jesus also added ‘salt’ and ‘daylight’. in two other short parables or ‘sayings’. You cannot make a dinner out of salt, but salt makes food worth eating. Daylight doesn’t tell you which way to go; it enables you to walk without stumbling and to see where you are going.
The Sower (Mark 4: 3-9):
“Look! A Farmer went out sowing. As he sowed his seed, some fell on the path and the birds came and gobbled it up. Some fell on rocky ground where it had little soil; it grew up quickly because the soil was thin. When the sun was high up in the sky it was burned up; because it had no roots it withered away. Some seed fell among thorn bushes which grew up and choked it; it never ripened. Some seed fell into good soil and ripened and grew big. When harvest came, some seeds bore up to thirty seeds, some up to sixty seeds, some up to a hundred seeds.”
The Patient Farmer (Mark 4: 26-29):
“God’s way is like this: A farmer went out sowing. He scattered the seed on the earth, and then didn’t bother about it any more. Every day he got up and the seeds sprouted and grew tall. The farmer didn’t know how it had happened, but he knew what the soil itself could do: first there would be the green shoot, then the ear, then the ripe corn. But when the crop was ready (you remember what the Bible says?) – ‘He puts in the sickle – harvest time’s here.’ “
Notes: These four parables are all, in differing ways, ‘parables of assurance’ by teaching us to have confidence in God. In each of them the kingdom of God is compared to what happens at the end of the process; the full-grown mustard seed which grows to a height of eight to ten feet by the shores of Lake Galilee; the tiny pinch of yeast which makes the bread rise; the abundant harvest. For Galileans, the miracle of growth is that from a seemingly dead seed comes the harvest; from a pinch of yeast their daily bread. It is a miracle of resurrection; life springing out of death. From the same miraculous process of faith, a small band of disciples grows into the kingdom of God. In ‘the Patient Farmer’, Jesus is also dealing with his people’s story and the decision they must now make. What he had to say is clearer in…
The Parable of the Fig Tree (Luke 13: 6-9):
(In the OT, the ‘fig tree’ serves as a picture of the Jewish people):
” A farmer had planted a fig tree in his vineyard. One day he went to look for figs on it: there were none. One day he looked for the figs on it; there were none. ‘Look,’ he said to his gardener. ‘I’ve been coming home, looking for figs on this tree for three years; I haven’t found a single one. Why should it waste good ground? ‘Sir,’ said the gardener, ‘let it alone for another year. I’ll dig the earth around it and put manure on it. If there are figs on the tree next year, that will be fine. If not, you can cut it down.’ “
The Pearl Merchant (Matt. 13: 45):
“Also, the Kingdom of heaven is like this. A man is looking for fine pearls, and when he finds one which is unusually fine, he goes out and sells everything he has, and buys that pearl.” (NEB)
Notes: In this story, a merchant with a fine collection of pearls, his joy and delight, searches for one pearl of matchless beauty and, having found it, he sells all that he possesses to buy the one pearl of great price. The emphasis is on the great joy which the merchant experiences when he’s made his choice, sold all his possessions, finally committed himself and become the owner of the supremely lovely pearl. Such is the joy of the man who enters the kingdom of God. A similar parable is that of ‘The Hidden Treasure’, which precedes it.
The Unforgving Servant (Matt. 18: 23-35):
” … because the Kingdom of heaven is like this: Once there was a king who decided to check on his servants’ accounts. He had just begun to do so when one of them was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. The servant did not have enough to pay his debt, so the king ordered him to be sold as a slave, with his wife and children and all that he had, in order to pay the debt. The servant fell on his knees before the king. ‘Be patient wth me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay you everything!’ The king felt sorry for him, so he forgave him the debt and let him go.
“Then the man went out and met one of his fellow servants who owed him a few dollars. He grabbed him and started choking him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he said. His fellow servant fell down before him and begged him, ‘Be patient with me and I will pay you back!’ But he refused; instead, he had him thrown into jail until he should pay the debt. ” When the other servants saw what had happened, they were very upset and went to the king and told him everything. So he called the servant in. ‘You worthless slave!’ he said, ‘I forgave you the whole amount you owed me, just because you asked me to. You should have had mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy upon you.’ The king was very angry, and he sent the servant to jail and punished him for the whole amount.” (NEB)
Notes: The ‘lesson’ of this parable is apparent from its title, but there is much else of significance to ‘draw out’ from its elements and details, including Peter’s question and Jesus’ answer which prefaces it (vv. 21-22). The sum owed by the king’s servant is enormous; ten thousand talents is roughly equivalent to two and a half million pounds in 1970. Clearly the servant is not a simple bailiff on a private estate but the governor of a province; a pro-consul or procurator like Pontius Pilate. One of the main responsibilties of so important an official was tocollect the taxes and transmit them to the royal treasury. The pro-consul had evidently been feathering his own nest on a tremendous scale. Even so, the vast sum of the debt is probably exaggerated for effect. The Jewish historian Josephus records that in 4 BC the annual taxes imposed upon the districts of Galilee and Peraea amounted to only two hundred talents, a fiftieth of the sum owed by the pro-consul in the story. There are other details which show that Jesus gave a Gentile setting to this parable. Under Jewish law, the sale of a wife (v 25) was forbidden. And although torture was sometimes used upon a defaulting governor of a district or province to compel him to disclose where he had ‘hidden the money’, it was forbidden under Jewish law. The parable ends with the phrase, ‘forgive your brother from the heart’, since this is the only kind of human forgiveness which is genuine in the sight of God. To say, ‘I forgive you but I never want to see you again’ is forgiveness only with the lips.
John Barton (2019), A History of the Bible: The Book and its Faiths. London: Allen Lane.
Alan T Dale (1979), Portrait of Jesus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Robert C Walton (1970, ’82), A Source Book of the Bible for Teachers. London: SCM Press.