My sermon yesterday, on the parable of the mustard seed, evoked a similar reaction in almost everyone who spoke to me after the service. It was not the reaction I anticipated (funny how often that happens), but it seems I struck a chord nonetheless.
What truly seemed to stick with most people was my brief introduction about what a parable is. So I thought I’d use my blog this week to expand upon a little analysis of the parable. To give credit where credit is due, I took a course my final semester of seminary on the parables of Jesus. A lot of what I’m about to say I learned in that course, from the wonderful Dr. Frederick Borsch, who managed to keep me engaged and interested a mere two weeks from graduation.
In the sermon, I contrasted parables with the familiar form of the fable. A fable is something that tells a simple truth through a straightforward story; there is usually only one way to interpret a fable. Think of “The Tortoise and the Hare” or “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” It’s pretty hard to come away with anything but the moralistic truth the author intended.
There’s nothing wrong with that, it certainly has its uses—but it’s just not the way that parables work. Parables take a more circuitous route to the truth they contain. And that truth is almost never as simple as “slow and steady wins the race.” My professor made the suggestion that parables “tell it slant” a reference to Emily Dickenson’s poem:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Parables invite us into the stories—to take sides, to ask questions, to consider the implications. They use the everyday situation of life (or at least of life in first century Palestine) as a means of experiencing the Kingdom of God, rather than simply learning about it. After all, don’t we get more out of imagining the feelings of the dinner guest asked to move to a place of honor than simply being told that the last will be first?
Parables invite us to experience the story, and to come to truth through our own discovery. They set the stage for us to see the light, but do not blind us by revealing it too quickly. They tell the truth slant. Some of this is surely because if they told the truth straight out, it would be too much to believe—the parables include all kinds of disorienting insights into life in God’s Kingdom.
There are, of course, many parables. Depending on how you count, you can find between 33 and 60 parables in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And as Mark reports, there are “many things in parables” (Mark 4:2). My class spent three hours every week for a whole semester, with a lot of reading besides, and still there were parables we barely touched on.
So, instead of trying to cram too much in, I thought I would leave the choice to my readers: what parable do you want to hear about? Maybe it’s your favorite, or maybe it’s one that has always upset you for some reason. Let me know in the comments. I’m going to try and write on one parable day for the remainder of the week (maybe longer if there are a lot of responses), so please let me know what you want to read!
Here are a few better and lesser known stories—but don’t hesitate to go off this list!
- The Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)
- The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)
- The “Lost” Parables (Matthew 18:2-4; Luke 15:4-10)
- The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)
- The Ten Maidens (Matthew 25:1-13)
- The Unjust Judge (Luke 18:7-10)
- The Great Banquet (Matthew 22:1-14; Luke 14:16-24)
- The Treasure and the Pearl (Matthew 13:44-46)
- The Friend at Midnight (Luke 11:5-8)