Thinking about Parables

In part of the promotion of it’s miniseries The Passion, the BBC have invited film consultant Mark Goodacre (Duke University, Department of Religion) to explain what are ‘parables’ on their website. He gives a great introduction to them that I am going to file away in my ‘resources for Disciple Bible Study course’ folder. In the article, he gives an overview what Jesus is trying to accomplish when he uses them:

They often begin with the words, “The kingdom of God is like…” and end with some kind of declaration of the unusual nature of God’s reign. The parables press home the idea that in God’s kingdom, things work differently. They subvert people’s expectations.

While this definition will likely not be helpful in children’s Sunday School, it’s better than the definition of parables I was given growing up and still hear used in adult Sunday School: ‘an earthly message with a heavenly meaning’. I understand what that definition is trying to say, and there may be some truth in it, but I don’t think it captures the ‘world-changing’ character of the parable. Parables aren’t trying to give us some information about some timeless truths, but forcing us to confront ourselves and the world as it is and then completely change our thinking. Bishop Will Willimon says this about the whole bible, but could be used to describe parables as well:

Thus when we read Scripture, we’re not simply to ask, “Does this make sense to me?” or “How can I use this to make my life less miserable?” but rather we are to ask in Wesleyan fashion, “How would I have to be changed in order to make this Scripture work?” Every text is a potential invitation to conversion, transformation, and growth in grace. And, as we have noted earlier, we Wesleyans love to get born again, and again. Scripture is God’s appointed and most frequently used means for getting to us and getting at us and thereby changing us in the encounter.

I think with the ‘earthly message, heavenly meaning’ definition, you get the idea that Jesus would tell a parable and his disciples would think, ‘Hey, I didn’t know that before…and now I do.’ We then extract some sentimental meaning from it and then have a good feeling. We read the lost sheep or the lost coin or the prodigal son and think, ‘Aw, that Jesus. He goes looking for every one,’ and then sit back and enjoy the knowledge that Jesus would even come looking for us. Now, I’m not saying that’s altogether false, but flowing from Goodacre (and Willimon), you start to see why the Pharisees got so angry. Sometimes, the Pharisees knew only too well what Jesus was talking about. The parable of the lost sheep and coin and son were directed at them when they were mumbling about who Jesus was eating with and he has them stood by the door in the unenviable place of the older brother who refuses to join the party. A parable can force us to see ourselves not as the coin, sheep, or prodigal son, but force us to see ourselves as one of the Pharisees. It challenges us to look at who Jesus chose to play main parts (a shepherd or a woman) and look at how we often view the world in a hierarchical fashion and who we try to put on the bottom of the pile (shepherds and women would not have been high on the Pharisees list). In it’s attempt to change worldviews, each of the gospels has it’s own take on the parables, and Goodacre gives a good, short summary of the gospels and how they use even the same parables differently.

Goodacre tells us in the article that The Passion will begin with the retelling of the parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard. It will be interesting to see how they interpret it, especially as they lead off with it, assuming film makers want us to see the events of the week through the lens of this parable.


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