This month's synchroblog is on parables, specifically Jesus' parables as recorded in the Gospels.
Reflecting on these various stories, I noticed how they differed from stories in most present-day sermons and homilies. These sermons might start out with a joke or a personal story of something that happened to the priest or minister, which then ties into a broader theme of "sacrifice" or "unconditional love." The joke comes fully formed with a punchline; the personal story happens as it happens and then must have connections drawn to the topic at hand by the speaker. They are not created from scratch; they are included for illustration of a broad idea.
This is not the role Jesus' parables took, however. Jesus used familiar elements from the lives of his listeners (e.g., seeds, sheep, coins), but he created brand-new stories out of them. His parables were used as analogies to explain very difficult concepts. He spoke much more in the style of a classroom teacher, one trying to convey a difficult mathematical or scientific concept through the use of a story, where the different players in the story represent the interacting pieces of a concept or model.
This contrast, between Jesus' parables and the stories in today's sermons, tells us a number of things.
One, these ideas were new to Jesus' audience. Priests are taking well-worn ideas from the Bible that they themselves will never fully understand and trying to find new ways to shed light on them, new ways to think about them. They know that we've all heard the story of the prodigal son before, and so they crack a joke that may be only tangentially related to get our attention before revisiting an old theme about God's unconditional love.
But for those Jesus was speaking to, this idea of God was novel enough that Jesus had to weave a whole new story about a father and two sons in order to attempt to explain it. He was trying to use a new, surprising story to explain something as broad and abstract as God's relationship to us. Whereas we've probably had every parable dissected for us in one sermon or another, these stories were brand-new to Jesus' listeners.
Two, Jesus spoke with authority. We hear this about Jesus from the writers of the Gospels, but we can see what is meant through the parables. He does not speak as someone who's right there with us trying to puzzle things out, nor as a tutor trying to reframe familiar material in a new way. He speaks as a teacher, one who has the degree and the teacher's manual and is trying to come up with an analogy that will explain this broad and unwieldy concept he already understands deeply to students who he knows will find it difficult to grasp.
Finally, Jesus wanted his listeners to understand specifics. Jesus spends a lot of time trying to explain the "kingdom of God" or the "kingdom of heaven." As many scholars have suggested, I don't think he was talking about some place we go when we die, but a vision for what can be created on earth in this life. After all, why spend so much time and use so many different parables simply to give his listeners a glimpse of the afterlife? No, he wanted to make sure people understood their marching orders: This is how you are to treat each other. This is the relationship God wants with you here and now.
It would be a mistake to see Jesus' sermons as just like today's sermons, and his parables as the same as the stories that illustrate those sermons. He was sharing brand-new ideas that only he understood, trying to use familiar concepts and language to explain them so that people would see what they needed to do. This means that no matter how often they're unpacked for us in church, it's worth revisiting them from the perspective of those first listeners to see how amazing and radical they really were.
Check out the other contributors to this month's synchroblog:
- Jesus' Parables Are Confusing? Good! by Jeremy Myers
- Parabolic Living by Tim Nichols
- Seed Parables: Sowing Seeds of the Kingdom by Carol Kuniholm
- Parables: Be Like the Ant or the Grasshopper by Paul W. Meier
- Penelope and the Crutch by Glenn Hager
- Changing Hearts Rather Than Minds by Liz Dyer
- Parables and the Insult of Grace by Rachel
- Young Son, Old Son, a Father on the Run by Jerry Wirtley