Jesus and parables...

© Revd Rex A E Hunt

September 2009.

The third of three presentations during the launch of the Lay Forum, a progressive lay movement within the Queensland Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia



The year 1985 was a good year for Christian biblical studies.  For it was in that year American New Testament scholar Robert Funk established the Westar Institute and called together a group of 30 progressive biblical scholars and invited them to begin a new journey of discovery - a ‘new quest’ for the historical Jesus.  Thus began the ‘Jesus Seminar’.

While there had been some work done in the past on one form of Jesus’ public discourse - parables - this study was to start with a ‘sayings’ data base to see if they could discover a Jesus ‘voice print’ amid the recorded subject matter of his speeches and public conversation.

Funk, a well know parables scholar himself, was convinced it was in the parables, the aphorisms and the sayings of Jesus, that one could catch sight of bits and pieces of the Jesus vision of that something Jesus called God’s kingdom or realm or empire.

Yet from these fragments of insight “we can begin to piece together some sense of the whole.  Together those fragments provide us with glimpses of the historical figure... indeed, a glimpse of a glimpse” (Funk 2002:9).

So it is from this perspective, and in spite of comments from some Uniting Church theological college lecturers and moderators, that I now invite you to share in some progressive biblical criticism around Jesus and the parables.

Robert Funk and The Jesus Seminar

Robert Funk claimed the task was to discover the Jesus ‘voice print’ as distinctive discourse and as it stood out in contrast to both ordinary speech as well as from the speech of other sages and speakers of his day.  To discover the distinctive or original voice in the Galilean crowd, the forgotten Jesus.

While we in the 21st century generally have a ‘silent print’ mentality to biblical studies - now being challenged by ‘electronic’ culture - this was not the case in 1st century Galilee.

Therefore, I take as my underlying premise that Jesus was a travelling secular sage who conversed with those around him, orally.  Our religious tradition portrays him as one who speaks rather than as one who writes.  There is a fundamental contrast between oral culture (Jesus’ time) and print culture (our time).

The primary form of communication in an oral-aural culture was the human voice.  The word is something that happens.  Where the sounded word is received by the listener there is always community - it “takes two to sound!” (Jensen 1993:19).  So the imprint of orality is shaped by:

• short sentences,

• provocative and memorable words,

• oft-repeated phrases,

• situational rather than abstract,

• stories often stitched together.

So where to begin?  Funk and his associates claimed Jesus develops a consistent rhetorical strategy that matches the content of his message.  According to them the Jesus strategy was:

(i) language is concrete and specific,

(ii) uses typifications,

(iii) does not cite or interpret scripture,

(iv) does not make personal confessions;

(v) language is indirect and highly figurative or metaphorical,

(vi) exaggerates;

(vii) frustrates ordinary expectations, and

(viii) makes free use of parody.

The Jesus Seminar findings on the distinctiveness of Jesus’ sayings has some serious implications for biblical studies and Sunday sermons!

1. The parables of Jesus are immediately recognisable:

• short stories which begin with a realistic scene,

• transformed into metaphors by a surprising ‘twist’,

• invite the hearers to act on the basis of this new, but not fully defined, vision of reality.

2. In order to fathom their metaphors, each parable must be viewed as a whole rather than allegorising their parts.

3. Jesus ‘style’ was descriptive rather than prescriptive, indirect rather than direct.

4. Jesus social mission or ‘revolt’ was less through social action and more through parables of new possibilities and potentials.  He “affected the lives of people, but he was not a social organiser or activist” (Scott 2002:38).

These four suggestions sum up the importance of the Jesus Seminar in my understanding of progressive, critical biblical studies.

The oral tradition

Fundamentalists and other conservatives often claim that what is ascribed to Jesus in the books or ‘canon’ of the New Testament, is what Jesus said.  However, both serious progressive biblical scholars long ago abandoned “this historically untenable and theologically naive view” (Scott 1988:1), as well as did scholars of oral tradition.

The cultures and communities in which the Jesus movement arose were essentially oral.  Spoken.  Performed.  There was no print in antiquity! (Horsley 2008:6).  Therefore, tradition is not a fixed thing as it is in cultures shaped by writing or print.  It is very fluid, passed on as talk, from generation to generation.

Oral storytellers do not ordinarily remember exact wording.  Knowledge is shaped by memory.  But not memory mindlessly regurgitated, but memory rethought (Boomershine 1988).  As biblical scholar Bernard Scott says: “in oral communities purveyors of the tradition freely omitted, invented, modified, enlarged” (Scott 1988:3) their stories, layering and stitching them together to conserve tradition in an episodic manner.

And Scott goes on to say:

“The question for scholars is how to distinguish these levels of talk, and especially, how to isolate Jesus’ talk about the kingdom from other levels of talk in the written records, which is all we now have” (Scott 1988:4).

Jesus was a Galilean peasant who wrote nothing.  He spoke Aramaic and very possibly some Greek.  But we don’t know if he could speak Hebrew.  His words have been preserved only in the Greek.  He taught those who were interested, orally.

Jesus constructed fictional stories and brief comparisons:

“there are some 65 parables in the Synoptic Gospels – to illuminate metaphorically the Kingdom of God” (McGaughy 2007:11).

The world of Jesus’ parables is the fabric of daily life - Monday to Friday - in a Galilean village or family rather than an urban setting (Scott 1989).  The subjects of his parables were robbery on an isolated road, coins, a vineyard, day labourers, sheep and wayward children.  His parables do not speak about God, neither does he develop a doctrine of God, proclaim his messiahship, predict his passion and death, depict a last judgment, commission the disciples to establish a church, or picture supernatural beings or miracles (Funk 1994:105).

These stories and proverbs do expounded a particular, though not original (Geering 2002:123) point of view: the kingdom or realm of God, in the tradition of the sages.  No sphere of life is “outside God’s realm: the political, social, economic, ecclesial, and theological are all intertwined” (Reid 2001:7).

Meanwhile Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine says:

“Centuries of Christian reading have taken the punch out of the parables, so that they become nice, if banal, stories about good Samaritans who help people on the highway, prodigal sons who are welcomed home, sowers who sow, women who bake…  To recover the punch of Jesus’ parables, one must hear them with first century Jewish ears” (Levine 2006:36).

Parables.  Stories with a fang!

The history of interpretation of parables has been a long and winding gravel road. The respected British scholar, C H Dodd, was breaking new ground when in the early 1960s he wrote:

“In the traditional teaching of the Church for centuries (parables) were treated as allegories, in which each term stood as a cryptogram for an idea, so that the whole had to be de-coded term by term” (Dodd 1961:13).

To treat a parable as an allegory would be, for example, to take the story of the so-called ‘Good Samaritan’ and interpret it thus:

A man - Adam

Jerusalem - the heavenly city

Jericho - moon, and our mortality

robbers - the devil and his angels

To counter this Augustinian style of interpretation Dodd offered his own suggestion:

“At its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought” (Dodd 1961:16).

However, along with a select few 19th century scholars, Dodd restricted

“the meaning of parables to a single point…  In the past three decades a new line of parable interpretation has emerged…  This line views the parables as open-ended language events or, more precisely, as extended metaphors” (McGaughy 2007:8-9).

From within the spectrum of narrative or story, two opposites are often compared: myth and parable.  In everyday talk a myth suggests a story which is “false, pre-scientific, outdated or... incredible” (Tilley 1985:40).  Another way is to see it is as a story which sets up a way of thinking about the world.  Such as: all Australians are bronzed Anzacs who live in the outback!  Such as: all boat people or asylum seekers are queue jumpers!  Myth is also often called everyday wisdom.

On the other hand a parable is a story set within the common sense everyday world of explaining things, but which upsets that way of thinking.  Parables reveal the unexpected, subvert the normal, and cast out certainty to make room for hope.  They are “always about persons in relation to their world... radically concrete” (TeSelle 1975:2).

Therefore, they are stories with a ‘twist in the tail’ or ‘with a fang’!  They go beyond the ‘nice story’ or ‘domesticated’ categories that much past theological or sermon interpretation has offered.

To test this theory we will look at three parables using progressive, contemporary critical theology:

• the parable of a Man on the road to Jericho

• the parable of the Sower who went out, and

• the parable of a Whistleblower.

(i) The parable of a Man on the road to Jericho  (Luke 10:30-35)

The Jesus Seminar voted this parable ‘red’ - Jesus most likely said something like this.

Traditionally this story has been called “The good Samaritan” where ‘good’ means ‘go and do the same’.  Four people make up this story: two religious, a Judean traveller, a Samaritan traveller - probably a merchant trader.

A man travels a lonely road and is robbed and beaten up, left to die.  The Jericho road is a dangerous, lonely road, and one shouldn’t take unnecessary chances.  The man in the ditch could be you or me!  The listeners nod in agreement.  So given this man’s situation: robbed, abandoned and probably dying, in the ditch, “the hearer is clued in as to the story’s type.  We await the arrival of the hero with whom we can identify” (Scott 2001:59).

A priest and a Levite, members of the religious profession, people who ought to have shown concern, arrive on the scene, pass by the injured - or was he a dead - person, without offering any help.  The religious in the audience want to argue their good reasons: one can not be too careful as a servant of God!  But peasants also know that religious professionals can be callous and indifferent to the needs of others!  The audience now begins to be divided. 

Then a Samaritan, the ‘enemy’, regarded by the Judeans as not much better than a dog, took the trouble to stop and offer what help he could.  And then went the extra mile by taking the injured traveller to a hotel and paying for his care himself.  This is unexpected. No more nodding in agreement here.  Suddenly those listeners - religious and peasants - all agree.  This can’t be so!  You’ve got to be joking!

That’s our story.

The Samaritan is absolutely essential to the story.  If the main thrust of the story was simply about good blokes verses a bad bloke, or as an illustration of love of neighbour, or even a diatribe against heartless religious leaders, the offer of aid by a Judean lay person would have been sufficient.  And then it could probably be an example story of something good rather than a parable which turns our world view upside down.

So why is this a story with a fang?  This story challenges the hearers’ understanding of God, of whom God approves and whether anyone else “would have acted differently from the priest or Levite” (Bessler-Northcutt 2004:57).  It shatters a narrow interpretation of the law and unmasks the hatreds and divisions which often become institutionalised by religious strife.

But How?  And this is where the fang strikes deep, because it is here that I reckon the storyteller called Luke has missed the radical force of this story.

Luke sets this story within the context of a question: who is my neighbour?  It is also the most commonly asked question by those who hear the story.  But there is another more fundamental question of this story: with whom is the listener to identify?

For the record, it was Robert Funk who asked this question.  His answer: “not with the Samaritan, but with the man who was lying in the ditch” (Beardslee 1991:53).  So the context which storyteller Luke should have set this story to be able to feel its fang, is not ‘who is my neighbour?’ but ‘whom will I allow to be my neighbour?’

Our honest answer to that question, just might really surprise us.  Megan McKenna’s comment is very suggestive:

“If we were in the ditch in that condition, who is the last person we 

would want to be indebted to for the rest of our lives, especially if acknowledging the debt would cause us to be outcast and associated with that group by everyone in our current world?  Is there anyone or any group that we feel that way about?  Would we rather die than face the fact that this person or these people are our neighbours?” (McKenna 1994:149).

(ii) The parable of a Sower who went out to sow  (Matthew 13:1-9)

The Jesus Seminar voted this parable ‘pink’ - Jesus may have said something like this.

Matthew, our storyteller, and Mark before him, shapes the story into three sub themes:

The act of sowing.

What happens to the seed.

The resulting crop.

So let me now place this parable back then...  And let us try to imagine those who are hearing this story.  Who would more than likely be in the audience when this story was being told?

Around the time of Jesus, Galilee’s rural areas, especially in the lake area with its abundant supply of fresh water and crops of wheat, barley, olives, grapes and vegetables, were being taken over by the big city ‘NN Street’ farmers.

Mounting debt, payable to both Roman officials and priestly aristocracy, meant the crisis of debt and dispossession grew deeper.  Small farm owners were losing their land and farmer labourers were being forced onto the unemployment line.

Farm land was being eaten up by a big city development.  And a new Roman taxation system was extracting nearly every last cent.  Penalties for non-payment could be severe.  The atmosphere was explosive.

Let’s imagine some more...  If the audience was made up of peasant, landless farmers, and if the sower was pictured as one of their landlords, their bosses

“they might react with disdain toward the sloppy and wasteful manner of sowing” (Reid 2001:80).

What a waste!  What was wrong with this bloke?  When seed is precious, what sane farmer would allow some of it to fall among rocks or on a well worn, probably limestone, footpath?

If the audience was made up of peasant, landless farmers, and if the sower was pictured as one of them, a tenant farmer or day labourer

“their reaction would be sympathetic.  They would know all too well the amount of seed and effort that is expended that never bears fruit because of the difficult conditions” (Reid 2001:81).

And they listened some more.  It is here the story takes a major shift.  Away from the sower and his practices, to the seeds and their fate.

Some fell on a well-worn pathway.

Some fell on rock.

Some fell among thorns and weeds.

Some fell on productive soil.

That’s our story.  So where’s the ‘fang’?  In the movement from failure to success!

Some commentators claimed Matthew’s ‘point’ was: the harvest was a superabundance.  Others, examining what they have been able to find out from other sources, claimed: four hundred fold was incredible, one hundred fold was very good (Scott/357).

So, with the ascending scale of 30, 60 and 100, I reckon we can say the yield was an average-to-quite-good harvest.  A modest success.  Within the bounds of everyday expectations.

Many of those same commentators reckon we need to hear this as a story about the growing and coming kingdom of God in all its wonder and glory and splendour - even if at the end time.  That is, in spite of everything, the harvest will be plentiful. God has made a beginning. Failure is pushed aside.

But I want to offer another suggestion which I reckon is more in line with the story itself.

This is not an ordinary, common garden variety, story.  It is a parable.  And a parable does not teach us something.  It just gestures toward.  And it does it’s best work when it turns our world our expectations, our assumptions, our conclusions, upside down.

So how is our world, our conclusions turned upside down in this parable?  By acknowledging that in the kingdom or realm of God failure and miracle and normality are present.  “In failure and everydayness lies the miracle of God’s activity”  (Scott 1989:362).

That’s the surprise, the twist in the tail of this parable.  That’s the re-imagining suggested or hoped for, rather than the ‘point’ of this parable.

(iii) The parable of a Whistleblower  (Matthew 25:14-30)

The Jesus Seminar voted this parable ‘pink’ - Jesus may have said something like this.

The story of ‘The talents’ as this parable is traditionally known, is a very powerful story.  It is one of those stories that has left its mark on our language and culture in a big way.  So much has it become part of our everyday vocabulary, we tend to miss the ‘fang’ or ‘twist’ hidden within.

First, much of our traditional interpretations or thinking about the parable sees two servants being made heroes.  And they are rewarded by the owner because they have faithfully engaged in various activities, such as collecting tolls, interest, and other charges, that have made the owner a profit.

Such interpretations have often turned this parable into an example story.  Go and do likewise.  Grow your gifts.  Or even more problematic: God will grow your gifts!  But all blunt the sharp edge of this parable.

There is another way of hearing this parable, which I reckon, is closer to the parable itself...  And it is the view which says it is the third servant and not the other two, who is the hero.

Second, in a society organised along the lines of a patron-client ‘pyramid’ system, the ultimate patron was at the pointy end - the emperor or Caesar, Son of God.  And power worked its way downward from him.

His clients became patrons for other clients who became patrons for...  “And their fleas have fleas!” (Scott 1989).  And so on.  Such an arranged social order guaranteed that:

• no one was equal, and

• every social engagement or offer of work, was a contest to determine one’s place in the hierarchy.

And by golly, you worked darn hard to preserve your position, or to knock someone out off theirs, if it meant you could climb a rung or two.

Briefly… the parable is a dramatic one where the dialogue between all the players is important.  The situation.  The players.  The return.  The reckoning.  The rewarding1.  The rewarding2.  The punishment.

Other points to notice are:

• the main character seems to be the absentee landlord

• the distribution of property to the three servants/slaves is unequal

• the plot gives the third servant/slave as much space or attention as the other two servants/slaves put together

• the harsh treatment dealt to the third servant/slave offends our sensibilities.

While there is a similar story in Luke, there are important differences between the two stories. Eg: Matthew only: What the servants/slaves did with the property.

So what is the story’s ‘fang’ which makes it a parable?

The third servant/slave is the real hero, because he challenges the system rather than accepting the system.  He does not go along with the money-raising, greed, and exploitation of both the owner and the other two servants.

Now part of our problem is, when we hear this parable, we tend hear it through ‘capitalist’ ears, which views wealth as something that can be increased by hard work or investment.  But in the social world of the parable, both in its original oral telling and in its later written form by storyteller Matthew, it is thought there is only so much wealth.  And an increase to one person takes away from another.

Let me share some of what Barbara Reid says on this:

“From this perspective, the man who expects his money to be increased is the wicked one, who is unfettered in his greed...

“The third servant, then, is not wicked (or incompetent), except in the eyes of those who are greedy acquisitors or those who are co-opted by them, as are the first two servants.  The third [servant] is the one who acted honorably by blowing the whistle on the wickedness of the (owner)...

“The parable is a warning to the rich to stop exploiting the poor and is one that encourages poor people to take measures that expose such greed for the sin that it is” (Reid 2001:207-208).

The owner is a tough, ruthless, seemingly all-powerful businessman.  He doesn’t care how he gets his profit so long as he gets it - more often than not from the poor, the unemployed, or the landless.  The other two servants follow in this accepted pattern.

But the third names this as exploitation and will not participate in it.  He is a whistleblower on greed and corruption against the abuse of power over the powerless - the poor.  And like most, if not all, whistleblowers, having spoken the truth he is totally vulnerable.  Vilified.  Shamed.  Humiliated.  From reward to exposing.  From self interest to another’s interest.

Interestingly enough, Matthew’s Jesus seems to be saying it is when we have the courage to name exploitation for what it is, rather than to seek the reward, we are re-imagining the world, as is the realm of God imagined.  Hearing the story this way can make the powerful angry and defensive, and the powerless empowered!

Justice was at the centre of Jesus’ spirituality.  Period.  And he did this by inviting people to re-imagine the world to regain control over their lives and their livelihoods.  It is a conceit of conservative Western middle-class christianity and politics “that Jesus... limited himself to spiritual matters” (Herzog 1994:264).

An unending conversation

The parable of a Man on the Road to Jericho.

The parable of the Sower who went out to sow.

The parable of a Whistleblower.

Three parables.

Three stories which turn our common ‘garden-variety’ world upside down.

Three stories from a rebel who “revolts in parable” (Scott 2003:138).

Three stories without conclusions, because parables “do not teach something, but gestures toward” (Beutner 1994:x).

Taken as simple teaching devises or example stories or allegories, the parables end up being domesticated and homogenised and the parable teller becomes an icon rather than an iconoclast (Funk 1996:44-45).

Human beings are storytellers.  The parables of Jesus as we can hear them in the fragments we have, were open-ended stories meant to initiate active conversation, not supply answers.  They were indeed “discussion starters, whose purpose was to raise questions and pose dilemmas for their hearers” (Herzog 1995:259).  As listener, one either entered the world of the parable on faith

“and conducts all his or her activities in light of this new horizon, or one is offended and retains his or her old way of viewing the world” (McGaughy 2007:13).

“The Jesus most relevant to us”, suggests Lloyd Geering,

“is he who provided no ready-made answers but by his tantalising stories prompted people to work out their own most appropriate answers to the problems of life” (Geering 2002:145).

But equally important for us is the un-stated proposition from this brief study of parables: can we have faith with Jesus in the re-imagined world of the parables?  It remains to be seen if the 21st century church, especially its laity, can develop such a 21st century response.


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