Of Parables and Paradigms: Encountering the Unexpected
Posted by Danielle DuRant on April 28, 2010Topic: FaithTopic: Just Thinking MagazineTopic: MeaningTopic: New Testament StudiesTopic: Practical Theology
Nearly one-third of Jesus’s teaching recorded in the Gospels is expressed through parables—stories crafted in such a way as to set its audience in the action in order to reveal one’s true motives and emotions. Jesus’s parables compel us to reexamine our paradigms of goodness, justice, and love by inviting us first to examine our hearts. You’ve probably seen the commercial. A businessman sits at a child-size table across from two young girls. He offers one girl a pony and she is excited when he presents her with a plastic one from his pocket. He offers the other girl a pony too—and from across the room marches in a live pony. “Wow!” the young recipient exclaims as she pets her beautiful, extravagant gift. The first girl is stunned. Finally, she remarks demurely, “Well, you didn’t say I could have a real one.” “Well, you didn’t ask,” comes the businessman’s terse reply. The commercial obviously intends to provoke a response in its viewers and it succeeds. We feel sadness and loss on behalf of the little girl who only received a plastic pony, and like her, we are equally astounded and befuddled by the businessman’s action. We feel indignation at this begrudging man who flaunts favoritism and tells the first girl that she didn’t receive a real pony because she didn’t ask when the second girl didn’t ask for one either. Most of us are drawn into this scene without even questioning whose perspective we share— after all, we would probably say that we aim to be compassionate human beings and feel indignant when we witness such blatant injustice! Furthermore, we expect those around us to share similar values; when they don’t, we are often surprised and even angered. But what if we stop to listen to the girl who received the real pony? Perhaps she might say in her childlike naiveté and amazement, “I don’t understand why you’re so upset. I got what I always wanted: a real pony!” Notice, then, that our emotions and response will depend on which character we identify with and whose perspective we share. Clever as the advertisement is I would suggest to you that its storyline is borrowed right from the Bible, from the common literary form known as a parable. The Greek word parabole means “comparison.” In his parables, Jesus often uses the simile “the kingdom of God (or heaven) is like,” comparing God’s rule to a mustard seed, treasure, pearl, or some visible object. Yet a parable is more than a comparison or a memorable illustration. Rather, it is a story crafted in such a way as to set its audience in the action in order to reveal one’s true motives and emotions. Indeed, Jesus empathetically states in Mark 4:9-12 that its purpose is revelation and judgment: “He who has ears, let him hear,” while those outside God’s kingdom are “ever hearing but never understanding.” One biblical scholar comments, “[Jesus’s] parables are designed to test rather than illuminate, and to test, not the intelligence, but the spiritual responsiveness of his hearers.” (1) James echoes this perspective and Jesus’s words when he writes, “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (James 1:23-24). We witness the psalmist David coming face to face with this mirror in 2 Samuel 12. In the previous chapter we read of David’s sin with Bathsheba and his order to have her husband, Uriah, killed in battle. Then chapter 12 ominously begins, “The LORD sent Nathan to David” (verse 1). Nathan is appointed to confront David, but how does he do this? Surely, all he needed to do was to quote the sixth and seventh commandments, “You shall not murder” and “You shall not commit adultery,” and David would stand accused. David does, after all, know God’s law, for as king it is his responsibility to rule according to it. Yet instead, Nathan tells him a parable: a rich man owned a large number of livestock while a poor man had only one lamb that “was like a daughter to him” (verse 3). When a traveler came to visit, the rich man took the poor man’s ewe and killed it instead of one of the many that he owned. David is caught up in this story and becomes indignant, telling Nathan that this man must be sentenced to death. The shepherd so completely identifies with the deep emotions and plight of the poor man with his only ewe that he is quick to share his pain and pronounce judgment on the guilty. Not until Nathan declares, “You are the man!” (verse 7) does David realize that he is actually the one being accused of taking and killing. David does not expect such an outcome—he believes he could never do what the rich man did—but the story subtly invites him to consider this despicable character and his own selfish actions. His mind may be able to compartmentalize God’s commandments but his heart is unable to keep this story at a safe distance. The parable unveils David’s emotions and motives: his shepherdworthy sense of compassion and protective instincts, as well his impulsive surrender to lust, betrayal, and murderous deceit.
A Disquiet Spirit
Nearly one-third of Jesus’s teaching recorded in the Gospels is expressed through parables. Certainly this focus is significant, for Jesus “knew what was in a man,” who was “ever seeing but never perceiving.” (2) Though we may know God’s law, we are quick to see the speck in another’s eyes before the log in our own. (3) Jesus’s parables compel us to reexamine our paradigms of goodness, justice, and love by inviting us first to examine our hearts. They bid us to sit with their characters and consider their perspectives so that, in time, we might also recognize our own hidden motives and difficult emotions. Yet like the older brother seething at the welcome of the prodigal that he cannot receive his father’s love, we may be so caught up in one perspective that we are unable to comprehend God’s. Recently, a friend was going through a difficult time, so I prayed for God to reveal his love and faithfulness to her in a tangible way. And in the course of a week or so, some of the things I prayed for came to be. I was humbled and thankful for God’s gracious response but strangely, my spirit became restless and uneasy. Soon I found myself growing angry. I mused, I’ve labored for years in prayer about this request that I’ve not seen an answer to, and God, I pray for my friend—and in one week you give it to her! I recalled the commercial with the two girls and the pony, and suddenly I thought I knew what the first girl must have felt. As the hours passed I went outside to mow the lawn and slowly, beneath the din of the mower and my disquiet, came another sense of déjà vu: of a parable I hadn’t read in months. It is the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20. Jesus has just told his disciples that “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (19:30). Then he says, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard” (20:1-2). You may recall the story. The landowner goes out again in the third hour and “saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right’” (verses 3-4). If the landowner is a just man, the laborers would assume that their pay would be a day’s wage (a denarius) minus three hours. The landowner then went out about the sixth hour, the ninth hour, and finally the eleventh hour “and found still others standing around,” so he brought them in to work for him. At the end of the day each worker is paid, Jesus says, “beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first. The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day’” (verses 9-12). Notice that the landowner could have avoided conflict with the first laborers if he had paid them first or each group in secret. Yet, seemingly like the businessman who flaunts favoritism in the commercial, he allows each worker to observe what the other receives. Understandably, the first workers are angry, for as the parable says, “they expected to receive more” (verse 10, emphasis added). They had worked hard all day, yet seemingly all for naught if some could show up at the last hour and receive the same wage. Who of us has not shared such emotions, whether in a similar workplace scenario or with a friend who receives what we want and still await? Of course, under different circumstances, we may readily identify with the joy and gratitude of the eleventh-hour laborers who receive far more than they could ever expect. When we reflect upon our great salvation, God’s intervention in a difficult time, his many gifts, or his tender mercy and presence, we may marvel at our place in his kingdom. So again, our emotions and response to this parable depend on which worker’s perspective we share. Yet what about the landowner? Unless we are one or know one, we may be apt to view him from the different laborers’ points of view—unfair, gracious, or extremely generous—without really examining his character. But at one level, we must first ask, does he fit the paradigm of a wise businessman? After all, he overpays most of the laborers he hires when it would be expected that he pay them only for the hours worked. (If he were unjust, as many were with much power and few laws at this time, the laborers would hope at least to receive something.) Additionally, he himself goes out to seek laborers for his vineyard— and not once, but on five separate occasions and even in the heat of the day. (4) The landowner has a foreman; clearly, he could send him out to contract this work. And when the first laborers accuse him of unfairness, a man of his stature could have easily dismissed or punished them. Instead, he listens to their complaint and then encourages them to reconsider their perspective: “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? … I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (verses 13-15). So though perhaps at first glance he appears to be like the businessman in the commercial who lacks regard for some, the landowner’s curious actions invite us to study his character further.
A Stunning Invitation
Biblical scholar Kenneth E. Bailey, who spent forty years teaching in the Middle East, compares a parable to “a house in which the reader/listener is invited to take up residence.” (5) Building upon this analogy, I would suggest that Jesus’s parables bid us to step deeper into the house and become acquainted with its many rooms—until we encounter the unexpected. Yes, we may know the anger of the first hour laborers or again, of the older brother of the prodigal son, and be tempted to stew with them in their workshop. Certainly, we may want to rejoice with the late laborers and the prodigal welcomed by his father and feast in their kitchen. But if we turn our gaze from them and open our ears, we may realize that we are actually being beckoned by another into a grander room. Look! Listen! Could it be the landowner himself, who against all expectations of his position, comes out to seek us? The one so moved with compassion to go out at the eleventh hour to find the few who persisted in standing all day, even as each passing hour diminished their hopes of finding work? Could it be the master of the house, the father himself, inviting us to join him at his table? Who is he? For, “He does not simply offer more than can be reasonably expected from someone who has been offended; no, he completely gives himself away without reserve…. This is not the picture of a remarkable father. This is the portrayal of God, whose goodness, love, forgiveness, care, joy, and compassion have no limits at all.” (6) So the writer concludes, “Jesus presents God’s generosity by using all the imagery that his culture provides, while constantly transforming it.” (7) In an interview for his book Has Christianity Failed You?, Ravi Zacharias suggests, “Sometimes we try to force God to fit our mold for him, to fit our idea of how he should act, and then when he doesn’t meet these expectations, we blame him for not meeting our expectations.” Yet as we take up residence in his word and take time to sit with him, we may discover that we have no paradigms to explain such a great God—and find ourselves welcomed in a room we may not have noticed before.
Danielle DuRant is director of research and writing at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.
(1) R. Alan Cole, Mark: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, repr. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 148.
(3) See Matthew 7:3.
(4) I am indebted to Kenneth E. Bailey for this insight. See his Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 358-359.
(5) Bailey, 280.
(6) Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, Ltd., 1994), 130-131.
(7) Nouwen, 131.