God Knows We Love A Good Story – Jesus and the Parables

God knows we love a good story. Freely translated, our Bible’s first chapter begins, “Once upon a time, God created the heavens and the earth…” Now that's a story. I think one of the defining characteristics of human beings is that we tell stories. Dogs bark, bears growl, tigers snarl. Only human beings tell stories. The story is the basic form of human communication. 

For most of us some of our earliest memories are our parents reading stories to us. For me, I'll never forget my mother reading to me as a little boy. I remember sitting on the front steps of our Massachusetts farm house, at my mother's knee, while she read me Jack and Jill magazine from cover to cover. I especially liked the stories of Baba Yaga, the Russian witch who lived in a house that stood on chicken legs. These stories gave me a love of reading and of stories all my life. I'm sure in Paleolithic times families sat around a fire telling stories of the hunt, the gossip of the day or the scary things in the night. God knows we love stories.

William Shakespeare is one of the greatest story tellers of all time. Harold Bloom, a noted Humanities professor at Yale, called Shakespeare the inventor of the human. As silly as this sounds, there is a reason. Shakespeare's stories didn’t just allow the reader to view the plot from a distance, as earlier literary forms did.  Shakespeare wrote brilliantly evocative stories about other humans which drew the reader out of himself and into the thoughts and perspectives of other people. He created empathy with the struggles and pain of other people. Empathy with other humans is a necessary first step to charity, or caring for others. Shakespeare was actually the second person to do this through stories. The first was Jesus, the real inventor of the human.

But before we look at Jesus’ stories, let’s take a look at the four main ancient story forms. The classic forms are; the Epic, the Fable, The Allegory and the Parable. The oldest is the Epic. Epics are long tales, done in a sort of third person factual account, like a fictional newspaper story. Epics are centered on the adventures of a hero and the gods. In the epic, actions and motivations of the pagan gods were served up as explanations for much of what happens to people on Earth. The oldest story in this form we know is the Gilgamesh Epic. The Gilgamesh story centers on the punishment of Gilgamesh, the half-human, half-god king of Ur, for his arrogant leadership. It was written about 4,000 years ago, at the time of Abraham – give or take a few hundred years. Interestingly, the Gilgamesh Epic is centered in Ur, the cradle of civilization and Abraham’s original hometown.

Most of us are more familiar with another form, the fable. Fables are a popular form of story dating from around 600 BC. In particular, we read the stories of Isope, the Greek-speaking Ethiopian slave whom we know today as Aesop.

Aesop’s Fables are short stories in which human motivations and characteristics, including speech, are bestowed on animals and plants. Much like children today project human characteristics onto animals, plants and even furniture, the pagan world of Aesop's fables projected human characteristics into nature as well as the gods. Aesop’s Fables each have a teaching point; the moral of the story. The fables entertain but also teach through clever redirection of human flaws and failings into animals.

Remember back to your childhood, the Fox and the Grapes, the Ant and the Grasshopper, the Frog and the Ox. You remember how the fox looked up and seeing a bunch of grapes, said, “Aha, just the thing to quench my thirst.”  He tried again and again, but no matter how high he leaped, couldn’t quite snatch the luscious grapes hanging just out of reach. Finally, nose in the air, he turned his back and said, “They were sour anyway.” Aesop’s moral; It’s easy to despise what you cannot get.

Mediaeval Fairy Tales, like the Grimm brothers’ stories, are a form of extended fable where humans get into the act.

Now the allegory. Parables are often confused with allegory. But allegory is quite different. In allegory, an abstract principle is personified in a character. Think of the statue of Justice blindfolded. Or, Pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress. Allegories are generally “heavy” tales with no real attempt to develop the characters. Allegories are intended to illustrate virtue or vice and are usually read from a safe and remote “third person distance,” as if viewing caricatures of actors on a screen. The moral is meant to be straight-forward and easily grasped. Allegories can be tedious.

Now parables. Parables are very special. The essential difference between parables and fables is God. Parables use stock characters we can easily identify with; king, servant, steward, shepherd, farmer, housewife, neighbor, son, prince. But, parables are sophisticated literary teaching devices which point towards God. Parables are a form of analogy – not allegory. Parables usually begin, not “Once upon a time…” but begin “It is as if…”

Jesus was not the first to use parables. The Old Testament itself has parables embedded in it. In Second Samuel after David seduced Bathsheba and sent Uriah her husband to a sure death in battle, Nathan the Prophet came to King David and told him this parable: There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”

David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”   Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!”

An Old Testament parable. And, the story of Jonah ends in a parable of Jonah's vine and God's city.
Along with Old Testament parables, The Jewish rabbis of Jesus' time also used parables to help teach the relationship of man to God. The Jewish parables illustrated the relationship of Man to God by appealing to our intuition rather than laying out a precept or rule. Typically, Jewish parables urged the hearer or reader to make a decision to follow the Torah teachings, and thus please God. They were subtle, but straightforward. Here’s an example of the type of parable Jesus might have heard; The Object of Value.

Rabbi Johanan ben Zachai’s son died. His disciples came to comfort him. One, Rabbi Eleazar, entered and sat before him. Eleazar said, “I will tell you a parable: To what may the matter be compared? To a man with whom the king deposited an object of value. Every day the man would weep and cry, saying: ‘Woe is me! When will I be free of this responsibility of trust in peace?’ You too, master, you had a son? He studied Torah, the Prophets, the Holy Writings. He studied and he departed from the world without sin. And you should be comforted now that you have returned your trust unimpaired.” Rabbi Johanan said to him: “Rabbi Eleazar, my son, you have comforted me the way men should give comfort.”

Subtle, theological, as parables should be, but straightforward. A better way to comfort than citing examples of others who have lost children. Instead, this parable gives comfort as it illustrates the meaning of life and divine purpose.

Remind you of something? It is like Jesus’ brief but subtle parable in Matthew, Pearl of Great Price. A merchant searching for pearls came across a pearl of great value. The merchant then went away and sold everything he had and bought the pearl. Jesus took the parable to a new, extraordinary level. What does this parable mean? Is it an investment strategy? If so, it runs counter to investment strategy we teach today. We teach diversification. In a sense it is an investment strategy. There is one thing worth more than everything, and for which we should be willing to part with everything else. But it is not spelled out. It is for us to wrestle with.

While Jesus was very likely exposed to the teaching method of parables in his youth, Jesus did something unique with his parables. With apologies to the Yale professor, he did this long before William Shakespeare lived. Jesus drew the listener into the story and made the hearer think and struggle with the meaning, with the implications for himself, the hearer. Jesus parables were not designed to comfort. When we hear Jesus’ parables today we are also often uncomfortable. Jesus parables were not about the life hereafter, grand theology or fine points of end time prediction. They were practical dramas about everyday life in Judea, often in the form of hilarious or ironic sit-coms. Jesus was not a theologian. Plenty of those came later. Jesus' parables were not allegories or meant only for the inner circle. Jesus parables are plain for every person. But they are difficult. Why difficult? Because they designed to pull you out of your comfort zone, and cause you to look at yourself from outside of yourself. And then make a decision to take action.

Jesus used humor. He used irony. Listening to his parables was as if a great story teller were leading you to a conclusion, and suddenly pulled an unexpected punch line that made you rethink the point of the story.
 We read in Luke: “There was a rich man whose steward was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’
“The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’
“So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ “‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. “The steward told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’ “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’ “‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied. “He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’
“The master commended the dishonest steward because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the sons of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
 “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?
Then Jesus follows up this parable with an odd "moral." “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
Let’s think about this: Maybe the steward had not been mismanaging the estate at all, but had been cleverly skimming profits by over-inflating his commissions from the tenant farmers. Maybe the story was not about the conniving steward, but was about the estate owner, who won points all around by appearing to his people as a generous and merciful man, and to his tenant farmers as a man who lowered rather than raised their tax rent of oil and wheat. Reducing the bill might have seemed like generosity on the part of both the steward and the owner. Certainly word of the owner’s beneficence would be gossiped about. The master praises the steward for his good judgment in the end, in making friends with the debtors.

Like each of Jesus' parables, the moral is not simple and the punch line is unexpected. We are forced to rethink the story from the perspective of each of the actors in the drama. The owner commends the steward for reversing his earlier actions. Isn’t this a lesson in God’s merciful forgiveness? In a final double twist, Jesus pays off the parable by the odd statement, "You cannot serve both God and money." This last statement throws clear light.  Jesus is teaching about stewardship of faith, not funds.

We’re all familiar with the parable of The Prodigal Son. Again, Jesus draws us into each character and challenges us. Who was the real prodigal? Think of the older brother who went along with the cruel idea of distributing the estate before the father’s death. Why didn’t he talk his younger brother out of this legal but insulting scheme. Aha, the eldest brother gets a double portion as the eldest son, and he gets the cash portion now. Think of the father, knowing the implication of this distribution was both his sons were treating him as a banker rather than a father, that they would prefer him dead as soon as possible. Think of the father knowing this and continuing to love both sons unconditionally. Think of the venality of the elder brother in begrudging the father the joy of his returned lost son, his whining and complaining rather than celebrating. And the father’s shame at his son’s selfish behavior in front of all the farmhands, yet his continuing love and deference to his elder son. Maybe the eldest son was especially bitter at his younger brother’s return because it forced him to face up to his complicity in going along with the early inheritance scheme and insulting his father. Yes, it is a story of the lost son returning. Yes, it is a story of the projection, bitterness and venality of the elder brother. Yes, it is a story of the unconditional extension of love and grace by the father in the face of unruly, stiff-necked and stupid children. And, yes, it is a story of the grace and mercy of God which endures forever. Subtle, yet down to earth. Easy to understand on the surface, but there's more...and more...and more.

This story, like all the parables, is not just information. It is a call to action. Once into the mind of the prodigal younger son, can you, personally, forgive him? Now that you understand the complex and dark motivations of the older son, can you forgive him? Or now that we know more about these boys, do we put ourselves above them, do we know that we are better than them, and we would never, never do the terrible things they did? Or do we recognize these tendencies - maybe even things we've done ourselves? Can we not only forgive both sons, can we love them both - as the Father loves both. Unconditionally. Jesus' parables teach us, challenge us and direct us to examine ourselves.

Enough now for our brief time together. I just wanted to give you a couple of examples to help you open your ears as you listen and hear the powerful stories Jesus tells. God loves a good story. He uses good stories to help us, teach us, to examine ourselves, for our good. Freely translated, the Bible opens with, "Once upon a time God created the heavens and the earth." And, the last book of the Bible ends with, "The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life."

Or, to freely translate, "And they lived happily ever after."

Q & A __________

For the next talk:

Some have asked, “Is the Bible a true story or is it a parable. I have come to understand the Bible is both true and a parable. A parable is a story which illustrates and throws light on truth. Every parable is either true or at least drawn from truth. I believe the Bible is true, and the actions, events and reflections written in the Bible are true. They are selected, however. The Bible is not a complete history of the world from 6,000 BC to the first century AD. Most “history” books hardly even mention Israel and the Jews. History is written by the conquerors, all of whom are short-lived and replaced by other conquerors and their histories.

The Bible is a great and true and never-to-be-replaced parable, instructing all of humanity by analogy, using the course of one tiny, yet significant People; the People of God. Humans are analog creatures. The Bible, through parable, teaches us the nature of Creation and how to operate within it to find peace and happiness. Pleasing God is not the goal; rather, in the course of pleasing God, you will create the conditions which bring you and others to the true goal of life - peace and happiness. The matter is as if the Bible were a physics book teaching about the nature of matter: yet, it is a book of eternal life, teaching about the nature of Creation, of eternity and of eternal life itself.