Tricky Jesus 2 - Why Parables?
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant---
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind---
The Gospels tell us that Jesus spoke mostly to the crowd in parables. 'Indeed', says Matthew, 'he would never speak to them except in parables. This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet: I will speak to you in parables, unfold what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.'
The parables are sometimes very short, as short as a single comparison “the kingdom of heaven is like treasure in a field,” or “the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that is cast in the sea.” Others of Jesus' parables are longer stories, such as the one of the prodigal son, or the forgiving father, that we explored last week, or the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, or the tenants in the vineyard.
Literally, the word parable means “a placing beside” - one thing that sits alongside another – a comparison of images or ideas that illuminates by juxtaposition. We have to be careful with parables not to reduce them to 'just' allegories, where this equals that, where this character exclusively stands for God, and this character for the Jews and this character for the Pharisees and so on. These kinds of connections can often be made, but it's usually the internal logic and impact of the story or the image as a whole, that is the real effect of the parable, not the 'propositional meaning' that can be extracted from it. The parables are not pithy sayings that can be reduced down to 'and the moral of the story is...x' They are vignettes and images that are intended to say something that couldn't and shouldn't be said in plain language, because the meaning is in our identification with the characters, in our reaction to the surprise or offence in the punchline.
The parables of Jesus work, like the Emily Dickinson poem, by way of 'superb surprise': a moment of recognition. It's at the point in the parable where we go 'huh?' that the truth of Jesus message slides in and opens our eyes to a whole new way of seeing.
Because essentially, what Jesus is trying to do with his parables is to illuminate a way of being and seeing that is around us all the time, but that we can't see with our ordinary eyes. Because of how we have been shaped by our upbringing, our culture, our religion, our fear-based psychological strategies, we can only see the world the way it is presented to us by other people who have been shaped by the same set of influences.
But the kingdom of heaven operates on completely other principles to life as we know it – even though it is in our midst, and always very close to us. To enter into life as Jesus experienced it, we have to undergo a re-wiring of our entire systems – not just our beliefs, but our reactions, our fears, our survival strategies. And to make this paradigm shift requires getting to see and experience, just for a moment, what life looks and feels like from within this other place, this other perspective. But it needs to creep up on us by surprise, because we're so habituated to label and reject all that is not safe, or that doesn't confirm what we already think and feel. Jesus' parables then, are kind of like hologram images that change as you walk past them, like the animal/human images on the toilets at the zoo or optical illusions like this one:
or this one:
The idea is that for a surprising and unexpected moment you get a glimpse of life from a different angle, and that this glimpse is enough to put you on the path of wanting to find that place again and to live there more and more of the time.
Unfortunately, in Jesus' day, and in ours, people were only too willing to mis-hear, and to condemn all that they heard before they had even made sure that they had really heard it. Hence the hard words that Jesus says about his reasons for talking in parables. In chapter 12 of Matthew's gospel, the Pharisees and religious leaders had been giving Jesus and his disciples a nasty time, trying to trick him, accusing him of law-breaking, looking for reasons to charge him and put him out of action. And Jesus went on picking corn and healing people on the Sabbath. And the Pharisees accused him of healing people by the spirit of Beelzebul.
This dynamic is very like the religious landscape we have in our own day, particularly in the United States, where there is such entrenched division and scaremongering that mild and generous men like Brian McLaren get hate mail and are accused of serving Satan, all because they suggest some ways of thinking about God that don't fit with a certain religious ideology. When religious views get entrenched like that, all people are doing when they listen to each other is looking out for particular key words that will help them to assign a label and put them in the category of 'with us' or 'against us.'
And so in chapter 13, immediately following these discourses with the Pharisees, we have Jesus saying words that I've always found a bit difficult.
The disciples went up to him and asked, 'Why do you talk to them in parables?' In answer, he said, 'Because to you is granted to understand the mysteries of the kingdom of Heaven, but to them it is not granted. Anyone who has will be given more and will have more than enough; but anyone who has not will be deprived even of what he has. The reason I talk to them in parables is that they look without seeing and listen without hearing or understanding. So in their case what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah is being fulfilled:
Listen and listen, but never understand!
Look and look, but never perceive!
This people's heart has grown coarse,
their ears dulled, they have shut their eyes tight
to avoid using their eyes to see, their ears to hear,
their heart to understand,
changing their ways and being healed by me.
But blessed are your eyes because they see, your ears because they hear!
The reason I have sometimes struggled with this passage is that it seems to imply that Jesus, rather than trying to help the listeners to hear and understand or to look and really see, seems content to confirm them in that space and to speak in such a way that blocks them out even further from the truth of life, so that those who have little will have even what they do have taken away.
But when I put this explanation into context by looking at the behaviour of the Pharisees in the previous chapter, and when I think about the ways supposedly religious people talk to and about each other in our own time, it all starts to make a bit more sense. There is simply no way to talk to someone who is firmly predisposed not to hear what you are saying. If everything in them is protecting their cherished ideas, or their status, or their livelihoods, or the mental paradigm that makes them safe in the world, they will simply not hear or see anything outside that. It's a self-defeating cycle. So when Jesus is saying that 'those who have much will be given more, and those who have little will lose what little they have', he's not being mean and unfair. He's talking about insight, or receptivity. And it is just simply the way things go that when you're open, and have the capacity for recognition, your insight and understanding will grow, and change, and increase. But if you're closed, and hostile to new insight, then whatever you do believe already will ossify, and no longer serve your needs in a changing world, and you will be left clinging on to dust.
What all that that means is that before people can receive the information that might help them to change, their ability to receive has to be transformed first, by some means that doesn't involve listening to someone talk discursively, no matter how persuasive they are. You cannot argue somebody into a vision of God's economy. It's a cycle that has to start with a circuit breaker, not by way of what is seen or heard in the ordinary way of things, but by way of some in-breaking moment, a crisis, a catastrophe – something that creates a big enough chink in the armour to let some real light in.
And until that happens, it is better to share your viewpoint in hidden, paradoxical or creative ways that don't buy into rational argument, that can't be so easily distorted or condemned, and that may have some chance of provoking an unexpected reversal of viewpoint. Jesus' way of doing this was by speaking in parables, which is reflected in his favourite phrase, 'let those with ears to hear, listen.' The implication being, 'and if you don't, you won't, and I'm not going to sweat it.' Again, when Jesus says 'don't cast your pearls before swine' I used to think he was being unnecessarily offensive. But now I realise that he was protecting his disciples against the ways that people behave when their certainties are challenged, and in the knowledge that no amount of gentle discourse will change that reality...only a particular kind of life experience or unusual spiritual intervention can do that. I find this quite relaxing – it frees me from any obligation to try and make everyone understand me and accept what I say. It frees me from the delusion that I can use my words, no matter how good the words might be, to change things, fix things, or 'get someone to see it my way.' It frees me from an attachment to wanting a particular communication event to result in the outcome that I desire.
But what of those of us who do feel that we are open and receptive to what Jesus has to say to us, how might the parables function in our lives? I recently came across a useful metaphor shift for understanding the idea of 'life in the Spirit' – again from my 'book of the moment' Simon P Walker's The Undefended Life. Walker questions the idea that living 'in the Spirit' is a kind of mystical state that has to do with being 'filled', like a vessel with a liquid inside, where we can have more or less of God in us filling us and flowing out from us. He suggests that instead of seeking to be 'more filled with the love of God', which can cause us to feel frustrated and guilty when we feel depleted, life in the Spirit is best expressed with a spatial metaphor: 'to live more fully in the life of God.'
He contends that most of us live in the fear narrative, the deepest inner story we tell ourselves is that life is fearful, the world and God and other people are essentially hostile and our job is to make ourselves safe in whatever ways we find to work for us. This fear narrative works like a whole environment, a 'headspace' if you like, in which we live and move and have our being. But conversion, entering into 'eternal life' is about changing the narrative we live within, putting on a different mind, and choosing moment by moment to live in a world where God is 'for us' and where all the fullness of love and grace are abundantly flowing towards us. All we have to do is adopt a posture of receptivity. This world, says Simon Walker, is 'within our reach...a reality that is simply veiled to us...it exists alongside this world of the flesh...inviting us into [it].' And he likens those moments when we do step into it as being like stepping through the surface of a mirror into a space where we breathe new air and we are free and at peace.
In my mind, the parables and teachings of Jesus are like portals to this world, wardrobes into Narnia if you like. When we enter into the mental space of the parable, we are breathing the air of God's kingdom just for a moment. The values and customs of this space are topsy turvy, kind of like a mirror world, and when we grasp them, we look back at our fear-driven world and ask how we could have gotten things so upside down. In the world of the parable, the last are first and the first are last, small is valuable and influential and big is unimportant, the rich suffer and the poor eat at God's banquet. In the world of the parables God is all about bountiful provision, and notions of deserving, fairness and reciprocal tit-for-tat behaviour are either irrelevant or outright rejected.
And this is something we can't be told, really. We have to live it, like opening our eyes underwater and discovering a whole world under the surface. Walker says 'we know when we have been there; we feel it like electricity.' When we open ourselves up to the impact of one of Jesus' parables, it's like having a taste of life in God's kingdom, life 'on the other side' of a veil that is always there, but always permeable. It's very different from what we might experience in affecting worship because it's experienced while in the midst of normal life. Which isn't to knock the value of worship that momentarily transforms our hearts and perceptions, just to say that what really counts is the shift that goes with us into the ordinariness and stresses of our daily existence.
We are going to take a short moment now to reflect on those moments in our journey with God where we have breathed the air of the realm of the Spirit in the midst of our life here in normal-land.
I invite you to ponder:
when have you experienced a glimpse of living in this alternative inner landscape?
What was the texture and feeling of this experience...taste, colour, emotional resonance?
What took you there – what was the cause of you suddenly being in this new realm?
What could you see, what did you know, while you were under the influence of the air of heaven?
How long did it last, and what caused you to return to your habitual ways of being and seeing?
I contend that it is Jesus' intent that we should live most of our lives from the other side of the veil, which is not to say abstracted from real life or somehow muted or detached, but actually more fully present and alive because we're not distracted by all our habits of self-protection. We will go on exploring what this might look like, and the practices that might support it, over the coming weeks and months.