THE CHANGING SPRING
Jesus and the Message of his Parables
By Melitta Muller-Hansen
[This essay published in: Sonntagsblatt 10/10/2010 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.sonntagsblatt-bayern.de/news/aktuell/2010_30_20_01.htm
Jesus’ proclamation is often filled with parables. A third of Jesus’ words have this form. Jesus makes everyday things like seed and harvest or baking bread into pictures of the incomparable reality of God’s reign.
“A man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho was attacked by robbers…” “A father had two sons and the younger said to the father: give me the share of the inheritance due me…” “The kingdom of God is like a farmer casting seed on the ground…” One need not be a great expert on Holy Scripture to know these stories. The one who missed the joy of story-telling in the children’s service, religious instruction or from the pulpit can be drawn in their spell with the first sentence. A sound rings that – after 2000 years – makes something vibrate in the hearer and concerns us unconditionally.
In the parables the itinerant preacher Jesus meets us as an ingenious storyteller. Here he brings God near people. This is an entirely undogmatic way of speaking of God that follows the motto: one must tell stories where speaking is impossible. Narrating creates an emotional bond between the narrator and the hearer. Together people focus on something greater and escape the authoritarian trap that a lecturer always sets for the hearer.
Parables focus on the earthly that we know and point narratively to the divine that we do not know. They are a special way of making ethical proposals or issuing instructions to people without making reproaches or accusing anyone directly. The truth is held out to the hearer in a story. He has time to accept and form his own judgment (Jorg Zink).
Jesus tells parables but did not invent them. He hearkens back to a form that was very widespread in his time. In the time after Jesus, rabbinic Judaism also spoke of God that way. He did not only tell of God’s goodness and mercy. Rabbinic parables also do that. He does not outstrip the other Torah teachers in unsurpassed mastery, as Christian interpreters have untiringly claimed. Jesus tells parables like other Torah teachers. Still we hear his very own message when he tells of God’s reign in countless facets and God’s nearness bringing about change, revolution and an end of all violence.
EVERYDAY SITUATIONS BECOME TRANSPARENT FOR GOD
Everyday situations and pictures of the world become transparent for God. That is the core of parabolic speech. Jesus tells his stories on the shore of Lake Genesereth, in Oriental feasts in a village or in the middle of the road. Occasionally someone asks him a question – one of his disciples or a scribe who grapples with the mysteries of the Torah as in the parable of the Good Samaritan. He answers narratively, leads the hearer into a scene that plays differently and leaves them to recognize themselves and God in the stories.
“Weeds also grow on your fields, not only barley and wheat. When the wheat grows to its height, the weeds should not be pulled up amid the grain. You wait until the harvest and then gather. The judgment of good and evil occurs in the harvest at the end of time, not now” [paraphrase of Matthew 12, 24-30 by J. Zink, Call to Freedom ("Ruf in die Freiheit,” p.139].
“A woman who had ten drachmas lost one. Will she not turn her wh8ole house upside down and search every corner until she finds it? Then she has a party with her neighbors and says: Rejoice with me! “Behold, the joy will be as great as with the angels when a person finds the way to God” (Luke 15, 5-7).
“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and mixed with dough until it was completely leavened” (Matthew 13, 33).
THE PARABLES ENCOURAGE A NEW VIEW OF LIFE
Here we encounter the rural world of Galilee, the world of poor oppressed people at the time of the Roman Empire. Jesus tells stories of the life they know so they see with new eyes and discover God’s promise and God’s nearness. Whoever has ten drachmas leads the life of a day-laborer who earns a denarius a day. A woman has to work at least two days to buy food for two days. Survival is at stake.
These people who must work to gain food is the theme, their failures and successes and the wonders of creation: the leaven leavens all the dough. People should see and be astonished not at the laws of nature but at God working in all things, in the leaven and in the mustard seed that becomes the great shrub. Bread is never a foregone conclusion for people who struggle with hunger. A woman baking bread is a comforting picture for the soul of not being forgotten by God.
The parable of the barren fig tree in Luke 13 leads into the heart of the political situation. People come to Jesus with devastating news. In the middle of the temple district of Jerusalem, Pilate murdered a group of Galileans at prayer while they brought their sacrificial gifts to the altar. Pilate’s actions against persons whom he stylized as rebels, agitators and insurgents are documented outside the Bible. Jesus was underway to Jerusalem with his friends. He could ask God to spare him and his people and to escape. He sees all the people in danger. He probably sees the threatening war in 70 A.D. and tells a parable of conversion and hope. Pilate is secondary or incidental; God is important! A fig tree grows in a vineyard that bore no fruit any more year after year. This is an image of people who threaten to break under the burden of oppression or under the death of a dear person whom Pilate had taken from them.
Jesus shows his hearers two possibilities for dealing with this tree. One could act like the vineyard owner, cut off the branches now and then in searching for fruit, profit and success, as an owner is entitled. This tree had a period of grace for three years. That was enough. It brought nothing; away with it. Or one could act like the winegrower who lived daily with this tree. One could look downwards away from the fruits to the earth where the nutrients for the tree originate. “Master, leave it alone this year until I dig up the soil and add fertilizer. Then it could still bring fruit in the future.” The winegrower contradicts the vineyard owner. The violence of an imperial war power is contrasted here with hope in a people who have the strength to turn around to God. Love and affection happen. What is dried up can be enlivened. What is buried can be brought to light and a little new nutrient-rich earth added from elsewhere. The winegrower knows this can happen often, a fallow time in life, and he knows what to do then.
“Like the changing spring” (Luzia Sutter Rehmann), Jesus draws through the half-starved and subjugated Palestine and shows no ruler or power of this world controls the life and fate of people. There is always a window in time that is open for God.
The word “compare” is crucial for our understanding of parables. This word appears in all reign of God parables. Does it mean “equate,” “identify” or “put on the same level”? That is the Christian interpretation tradition and has consequences. As soon as a king, a vineyard owner or a father is named, this was interpreted as a picture for God. Only patriarchal pictures stand for God. God suddenly becomes a ruler, head of the household with slaves or an employer with day-laborers. What is fatal in such interpretations is that all the actions of this person in the parable suddenly illustrate God’s actions. How can the vineyard owner from the parable of the wicked winegrower (Matthew 21, 33-46) depict God and the son whom he hands over to the murderous tenants at the end be Christ? Escalating violence is identified with divine actions.
Or the king who sends out invitations to the wedding of his son and at the end throws out those with the wrong garment (Matthew 22, 1-14) – a cruel sadistic God with uninspired allegorization. Thus compare does not mean equate but is a call to critical comparing. The theologian Luise Schottroff speaks of antithetic parables because they portray a counterpart to God. This is also clear in the slave parables in the Gospel of Luke. The slave-owner was always identified with God. Intentionally or unintentionally, the suffering of slaves was justified: the law of the whip, arbitrariness and serfdom. In the opposite, Jesus teaches what it means to be God’s slave. He joins the relation to God described in the Old Testament with the term “God’s servant/handmaid.” This means respected by God and not subjugated by any person. God raises the humiliated and gives them the great commission to hear and do God’s word (Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning… God has entrusted great things in you, Luke 12, 35; 48b).
The anti-Jewish interpretation is another fatal consequence in that individual parts of the parable are interpreted as established metaphors – like the Pharisee, the Levite and the foreign Samaritan. Then the Pharisee becomes the prototype of a self-righteous Jew proud of his moral superiority and faithfulness to the law who appears in pure whiteness and stands out from the tax collector, literally Christians who trust completely in God’s grace. “This reading of the parables gained political significance for centuries with its comparison of good and evil and the equation of good with “we.” It did not only legitimate “church dominance” but helps legitimate violence in today’s western world” (Luise Schottroff).
How can one read and hear a Biblical parable today?
1. Take a close look at everyday experience and identify the structures of society, violence and injustice.
2. The whole story tells about God’s explicit, hidden or antithetic works, not individual pictures and persons. Sometimes the proverbial gives information about this at the end of the parable.
3. Whether metaphors, parables and exemplary narratives should be distinguished is contested today. The parable of the Good Samaritan ends with the instruction “Go and do likewise.” But isn’t the text reduced to the assumption that it is simple to do likewise? The story tells of the failures of those who did not want to fail (the priest and Levite passed by the wounded). All parables become windows through which the new creation becomes visible. Their ending is open. We the hearers must answer with our lives.
Margot Kassmann, “Believing without Seeing,” sermon 2003 http://portland.indymedia.org/en/2003/12/277205.shtml
Margot Kassmann, “Lilies of the Field,” sermon 2002 http://portland.indymedia.org/en/2002/12/39182.shtml