Jesus often used parables as a means of indirect communication to critique and dismantle his listener’s views of the world in order to show them the true nature of God’s Kingdom. In this episode, Tim and Jon talk about the role of the parables in persuading listeners through subversive critique.
The parables sneak in through the back window. They’re little stories that, if you ponder them, actually embody a totally different way of seeing the world. But you maybe don’t know that at first.
In part one (5:25–25:00), Tim and Jon open the conversation by reviewing the first two episodes. Jesus told parables as a form of indirect communication to communicate how he was bringing the Kingdom of God to ancient Israel. These parables didn’t make sense to those who were unwilling to listen, but for those who had “ears to hear,” the parables revealed the Kingdom of God. These parables were a subtle commentary on what Jesus himself was doing in the moment. They helped the listeners make sense of what Jesus was doing.
And what was Jesus doing? Jesus was bringing about the culmination of the story of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. Many of his parables draw from imagery and themes from the Hebrew prophets. These parables were repeated often, with subtle variation for each audience.
In this conversation, Tim and Jon take a deeper look at the cryptic nature of the parables—that Jesus often communicated indirectly about the things which were most important to him. Tim quotes from Klyne Snodgrass.
“Direct communication is important for conveying information, but learning is more than information intake, especially if the learner is someone who already thinks they understand. People entrenched in their current understanding set their defenses against direct communication, and end up conforming the message into the channels of their current understanding of reality. But indirect communication finds a way in through the back window to confront a person's view of reality… A parable’s ultimate aim is to draw in the listener to awaken insight, to stimulate the conscience, and move to action. Jesus’ parables...are prophetic instruments...used to get God’s people to stop, reconsider their way of viewing reality, and to change their behavior.”
– Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 8-9.
The parables are small stories that, when pondered, change the way you see the world.
In part two (25:00–43:00), Tim reads next from 2 Samuel 12, when the prophet Nathan confronts King David for his wrong.
2 Samuel 12:1-7
Then the Lord sent Nathan to David. And he came to him and said, “There were two men in one city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a great many flocks and herds. But the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb which he bought and nourished; and it grew up together with him and his children. It would eat of his bread and drink of his cup and lie in his bosom, and was like a daughter to him. Now a traveler came to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take from his own flock or his own herd, to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him; rather he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”
Then David’s anger burned greatly against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, surely the man who has done this deserves to die. He must make restitution for the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing and had no compassion.”
Nathan then said to David, “You are the man!
Tim then shares a parable from Jesus in the Gospel according to Luke.
Luke 14:1, 7, 15-24
And it happened that Jesus [on his way to Jerusalem] was invited into the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees on the Sabbath, to eat bread, and they were watching him closely…He noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table…
When one of those who were reclining at the table with him heard this, he said to Him, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God!”
But he said to him, “A man was giving a big dinner, and he invited many; and at the dinner hour he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first one said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land and I need to go out and look at it; please consider me excused.’ Another one said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please consider me excused.’ Another one said, ‘I have married a wife, and for that reason I cannot come.’
“And the slave came back and reported this to his master. Then the head of the household became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the city and bring in here the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ And the slave said, ‘Master, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ And the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the highways and along the hedges, and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste of my dinner.’ ”
Tim and Jon unpack this parable. In the ancient world, for a public feast to be declined by all guests would be a mark of shame. Jesus notes this while sitting at a banquet. Then the king in the parable invites the lowest people in the culture, and then everyone indiscriminately. What matters is whether the guests show up.
Jesus challenges his listeners’ assumption about what the Kingdom of God will be like, but he doesn’t do it directly.
Tim shares an adapted quote from Robert Farrar Capon.
“For Jesus, the parables were not used to explain things to people’s satisfaction, but to call into question all of their previous explanations and understandings… Far from being illustrations that illuminate what people haven’t yet figured out, the parables are designed to pop every circuit breaker in the mind… Mention “messiah,” and the disciples pictured an armed king on horseback; mention “forgiveness” and they start setting up rules about when it should run out. From Jesus’ point of view, the sooner their misguided minds had the props knocked from under them, the better. After all their yammer about how God should or shouldn’t run his own operation, getting them to just stand there with their eyes popped open and their mouths shut would be a giant step forward.”
– Adapted from Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment in the Parables of Jesus, 5-7.
In order to show us what the Kingdom of God is really like, some parables need to dismantle our previously held beliefs first. This subtle way of reshaping our thinking is what much of the Hebrew Scriptures does as Jewish meditation literature.
In part three (43:00–end), Jon unpacks the parable of the dinner further. The preexisting views about status prevent them from going to the party. The real party is what Jesus is doing through his ministry and the people he’s inviting to be part of a new family.
This inversion of value systems as told through the parables is a key feature of Jesus’ parables. It’s similar in some regards to sarcasm, which is a simple modern form of indirect communication.
Tim then shares the first of three basic buckets from the parables.
Jesus shares parables that are meant to invite people into the surprising nature of God’s Kingdom as revealed in Jesus. The parable of the four soils comes after two chapters of people wrestling with Jesus’ claims. These parables challenged people’s views about how the Kingdom of God would show up. These parables include the parable of the four soils, the parable of the seed growing, the parable of the wheat and the weeds, and the parables of the mustard seed and hidden leaven.
Jon shares a question from the Gospel of Thomas. This book uses many said sayings of Jesus to communicate a worldview altogether different than the Hebrew Scriptures. However, some of the parables can still show us the surprising nature of God’s Kingdom. Jon shares from Gospel of Thomas 97, "The kingdom of the father is like a certain woman who was carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking on the road, still some distance from home, the handle of the jar broke and the meal emptied out behind her on the road. She did not realize it; she had noticed no accident. When she reached her house, she set the jar down and found it empty."
While not debating the veracity of this parable, Tim and Jon ponder it to consider how many of Jesus’ listeners would have pondered parables about the Kingdom they were hearing for the first time.
Produced by Dan Gummel
Parables E3 Final
Parables as Subversive Critique
Podcast Date: March 30, 2020
Speakers in the audio file:
Tim: Hey, everybody. This is Tim at the BibleProject, and this is a quick additional note before we jump into the podcast episode for this week. Like you, I'm being inundated with news, updates, and conversations about this novel Coronavirus pandemic. And it's really important that we all stay informed so that we know what to do. But at the same time, probably like many of you, I have crossed my own mental threshold for the amount of news that I should be consuming. And I kind of go crazy. I can feel my blood pressure and anxiety go up. What I need to do is also remember that I also still have a life and can and should think about other things. And that's probably true for you, too.
And so we just wanted to say this out loud. I don't know if we needed to say it, but we wanted to. We're going to continue with the podcast just to go on with our series on the parables of Jesus. There'll be a different series after that coming in a month and a half or so. Not because we don't think this crisis is important to think about and really think about deeply. But really, it's that Jon and I aren't the people to create that resource. There's so many good resources and podcasts out there.
What we want to offer is a chance to continue to deepen and become more wise and how we read the Bible. And we believe that can give us really important shifts of perspective and new ways to think about this whole crisis and the choices we're making as we go through it. So that's one thing.
One other quick thing, a reminder, Jon said this a couple weeks ago, for those of you who are a part of a local church community, we'd really want to encourage you to stay connected to your local church online during this time. That way they have the ability to put our resources, to participate in that, and stay connected. Let's all remember to stay financially committed to our local churches during this time. This is going to be devastating for many church communities financially. And so let's remember our commitment to keep giving to our church. Even though we can't be there physically with the people of our church, we can online, and we can financially help keep them supported.
At the BibleProject, we are putting out a weekly resource that's just something additional. If you already have some resources from your church, have things to do, but we wanted to produce one more just called Church at Home. It's a weekly email that takes one of our videos and then we are giving some scriptural readings and some personal and discussion questions to help you kind of reflect. You could take 10 minutes or half an hour to do it by yourself, with your family, or with some other people like in a Google Hangout or something like that.
If you're not on our email newsletter list, there's a simple way to get it. If you want to get our newsletter or the Church at Home resources that come weekly. You can go to the bibleproject.com, our website. Just scroll down to the very bottom and you'll see a simple way to give your email and join our newsletter circle. And there you go, you'll be on the team. So thanks so much for listening. May God's blessing and peace be with you. May God give us courage to trust Him this week and to love our neighbor as ourselves. All right. Let's dove into the episode for this week.
[recording playing 00:03:19]
Jon: Can you get to the points, cut to the chase, what is the bottom line? The facts, ma'am, only the facts. We live in a world of elevator pitches, 10 step articles, tweets, and memes. These are all direct forms of communication meant to be efficient. But sometimes it doesn't pay off to be direct.
Tim: Direct communication is important for conveying information, but learning is more than information intake. But indirect communication finds a way in through the back window to confront a person's view of reality. The parables' ultimate aim is to draw in the listener, to awaken insight, to stimulate the conscience and to move to action. Jesus' parables are prophetic instruments used to get God's people to stop, reconsider their way of viewing reality, and change their behavior.
Jon: I'm Jon Collins and this is the BibleProject podcast. Today, Tim and I continue our conversation about how to read the parables of Jesus. Jesus' parables weren't just nice moralistic tales. They were meant to help us understand how he viewed God's universe and how he viewed himself as the culmination of the story of the Bible. And this is no easy feat, especially when you're talking with people who were very stuck in a familiar way of how to view the world.
Tim: To introduce the new thing that the kingdom of God actually is, some parables actually have to dismantle what you already think you know. Jesus wasn't giving a lecture on the kingdom of God. He wasn't teaching, and "Oh, here's an illustration." The parable serves as a means of subversive, indirect critique.
Jon: In today's episode, we talk about Jesus the indirect communicator. Thanks for joining us. Here we go.
Tim: We are continuing our conversation about the parables of Jesus found in the gospel accounts of the New Testament,.
Jon: How to read them.
Tim: How to read them wisely so that we understand from them what we're supposed to understand. What did Jesus intend to do with these famous short stories of his? Well, they're famous after the fact. I guess he didn't necessarily know if they'd be famous when he told them.
Jon: They drew crowds, right?
Tim: That's true. But he told them in front of the crowds intentionally to throw a lot of people off actually. On purpose as per last episode of our conversation.
Jon: Right. A feature of the parables is that they allowed people who really cared and had a heart towards wanting to join in this Jesus movement that they would be able to hear these parables and get excited and stoked and participate. But then if you didn't want to, the parables had a feature which was that they encouraged you to stay away.
Tim: They reinforced what you already think about Jesus, which if you think he's crazy and he's talking pie in the sky and he's a kook, then the parables will just sound like this crazy guy talking about seed and bread. But if you are open-minded, have a soft heart, and are curious about Jesus, then they will draw you in. You could say that they both conceal and reveal the kingdom of God depending on the quality of the soil that the seed falls upon.
Jon: Which was one of his parables.
Tim: Which was the meta parable.
Jon: The meta parable. That's right.
Tim: The parable about why he taught in parables.
Jon: That's right. You mentioned that and that didn't land for me in the last discussion. That parable about how his teachings land for people. And it really depends on the quality of your soil.
Tim: As he says at the end if you have ears, listen. Jon: Is that a Hebrew idiom - if you have ears? Tim: Yeah. It's something that Jesus said often. Jon: Everyone has ears.
Tim: Yeah, that's right. In a way it's a little parable, isn't it? Because then you go, "But everybody has ears."
Jon: They have ears.
Tim: But do they? Everybody has literal ears. Do they have metaphorical ears?
Jon: My big takeaway on top of that...
Tim: We had a night to sleep on this from the last conversations now.
Jon: ...is that while many teachers throughout the ages have used techniques to help you learn things, stories and anecdotes and parables, and...what's the big parable? The allegory.
Tim: Okay. Got it. I understand.
Jon: Anyways, these are common techniques. But what's unique about Jesus is that the thing that you got to keep in mind is he's not just a teacher trying to communicate ideas through these communication means. These parables serve a very specific purpose, which was to explain what he was doing and how he saw himself as central to what God was doing in the world through Israel. And that's really important. It helps me a lot. Most of these parables are about the kingdom of God, if not all of them?
Tim: I think you can make the case if Jesus' whole mission was to bring and announced the kingdom of God, then the parables, all of them in some way express some facet of it. And that's actually what we'll talk about in this conversation.
Tim: But I was actually I was riding my bike to work today and thinking about this conversation. It became clear at least even a visual in my mind, not to say that we should use in the video, but it was helping me. That the parables are often you think of Jesus as a teacher - a teacher of moral and religious truth. And so in that little drawing, you have Jesus like a stick figure, and you have the people he's teaching to. And the thing that he's teaching about, however, is above them. Just general ideas about God, about how we relate to God, about the kind of person you should be in the world because God approves certain kinds of behavior and disapproves of others. But it's outside. It's like a realm of ideas.
Jon: A type of philosophy.
Tim: Yeah, that's right. And the parables illustrate those ideas.
Jon: Kind of like when Socrates or is it Plato with like his story of a cave and the fire in the cave, in the shadows, he's using an allegory to communicate something about the world.
Tim: That's right. The shift you just described is you have a little scene of Jesus as a stick figure, pretend I'm drawing on a whiteboard and you have the people, but what the parables are commenting on is the actual scene happening right there. The parables aren't commenting on some other set of ideas.
Jon: Some abstractive set of ideas.
Tim: They're commenting on what Jesus is doing in that very moment as he brings the kingdom of God. And through his whole mission. So his healings, his exorcisms, the fictive kinship groups, the new families he created, and teaching through the parables. That's a simple way that we could do that. He's not teaching about some other thing. He's teaching about what's happening in the moment. Anyway.
Jon: I like that.
Tim: And what was he doing in the moment? He was bringing the kingdom of God near.
Jon: It's kind of like if you went to school and you had a teacher who liked to tell stories to help you understand the content. That would be kind of a typical teacher method. But let's say you went to a school and the teacher said, "All right, guys, we're going on a field trip. Get in the buses, we're going." And you have no idea what's going on, and he starts saying like this field trip is going to be the most important thing in this whole school year and you're going to become a man on this field, whatever. He just saying things, and you're like trying to understand what he means. And so he starts telling stories to help you understand what...
Tim: The thing that you're doing in the moment.
Jon: The thing that you're going to be doing. You're on this bus, you're maybe stopping to have meals at places or going to a farm, whatever it is, and you're trying to figure out what's the significance of all this. And he's telling you stories.
Tim: And maybe then in this parable the stories that the teacher's telling are about children setting out on a great adventure to learn new skills so they can overcome the dragon or something. But the point is, is your mind is being filled with stories that help you make sense of the moment that you are...
Jon: What is happening around you.
Tim: Correct. That's right. That's the function of the parables. That was the first kind of step we took.
The second step we took is, well, what is the moment that Jesus thinks he is in in trying to communicate about? It's the culmination moment of the story of God and Israel and the world, which is told in the Hebrew scriptures, which is why his parables draw heavily, sometimes explicitly, as we'll see some from the examples we'll talk about in this part of our conversation. But often on this real subtle level, as we saw with parables about see God's word, the word about the kingdom of God coming is like a seed that will grow. Plants that are people. And anybody who grew up on the Book of Isaiah, which was Jesus, and most of the people that he was around would pick up the signal.
Jon: And the rest of the Hebrew scripture.
Tim: And the rest of the Hebrew Bible. That's right. Not just Isaiah. But that was the one of the examples we looked at. The parables draw heavily from the Hebrew Bible on the level of their language and imagery as part of the way he's communicating the point that we're in the moment of the story that the prophets anticipated. That was the second step of the conversation.
Jon: Cool. I was thinking about you used the term Jesus was an itinerant teacher or prophet or...
Tim: I think prophet is how people would have perceived him and did perceive him.
Jon: An itinerant means?
Tim: Oh, traveling around. He's constantly traveling around with your message.
Jon: So it's interesting to think about Jesus as crafting his message. You know, like if you were a comedian or a speaker that went on the road, you learn what lands with the crowd, what doesn't land, you begin to adapt the stories, and then eventually you've got it nailed.
Tim: They get to a fixed form.
Tim: They get to a fixed form. So when you go to the next town and do your show - you're like a comedian or something - it's got a form. And they usually record it and then they move on and they craft another one. And it's interesting to think about Jesus thinking about these parables and crafting them and deciding like, "Oh, man, you know, if I tell it this way, then it will actually help more to get the right people interested." Thinking of Jesus as this communicator.
Tim: Actually, what you just explored imaginatively helps make sense of parables that seem very similar across Matthew, Mark, Luke, but they differ in details.
Tim: So some parables will be about a household owner who has two slaves and he comes back and one's, you know, been responsible, the other one is responsible. But the other parables is about a master with just one slave. And so almost certainly Jesus told these same types of stories over and over and over and over and over again. You can say he's testing it out.
Jon: Testing it out.
Tim: Trying new variations.
Jon: And a good communicator will actually change their material depending on the crowd.
Jon: So he's in a certain town, you might actually tell the story a little bit different so that it lands in the right way.
Tim: That helps as part of an explanation why you often have very similar parables, but that differs in details across the three synoptic gospels. In this conversation, I want to take another kind of two steps that just reinforce and look at more examples of what we've been doing. But one is just to pause and register this moment again. We looked at the last conversation at the cryptic nature of the parables that they conceal and reveal at the same time depending on the listener.
I just want to back up and reflect for a moment on just the fact Jesus, when you try to communicate about the things that were most important to him, he did it in an indirect way. We reflected on it a little bit in the last conversation, but what I want to do with the rest of this conversation is go through main themes that unite different groups of parables that is helpful for me. And I didn't make up these themes Other people have pointed this stuff out to me.
I'll just read a quote from Klyne Snodgrass, a New Testament scholar. He's written perhaps the largest book on the parables of Jesus that's ever been written.
Jon: A large book on short stories.
Tim: It's almost 900 pages.
Tim: It's actually not a book you're meant to read through beginning to end. It's a comprehensive guide. It has a wonderful introduction. Hundred ages to the history of parables and Jewish literature in the Hebrew Bible, in the literature, Jewish literature after Jesus. And then he goes through every single parable in Matthew, Mark, Luke. It's about like 40.
And for every single one, he will boil it down to here's the main issues that all the interpreters throughout the history of this parable have focused on. Here's the background or hyperlinks from the Hebrew Bible. It's really helpful. Here's other Jewish literature from the time of Jesus that has similar themes, language or ideas. Here's other Greek and Roman writings that touched on similar themes. It's just exhaustive. Cultural background information that Jesus assumes you know, about weddings or debts and household owners and this kind of thing. And then he begins to just work through all the issues, and he gives you his take at the end, and then a bibliography.
Jon: Nine hundred pages isn't enough. Here's some more book.
Tim: Anyway, it's very helpful. It's called "Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus". A part of that introduction, there's a whole discussion of Jesus as an indirect communicator. He puts it this way. He says, "Direct communication is important for conveying information, but learning is more than information intake, especially if the learner is someone who already thinks they understand. People entrenched in their current understanding set their defenses against direct communication and end up conforming the message into the channels of their current understanding of reality. But indirect communication finds a way in through the back window to confront a person's view of reality. A parable's ultimate aim is to draw in the listener, to awaken insight, to stimulate the conscience, and to move to action. Jesus' parables are prophetic instruments used to get God's people to stop, reconsider their way of viewing reality, and change their behavior." You tell me what strikes you.
Jon: I think people call this like a paradigm shift. And it's very difficult to change our kind of framework for reality. If we begin to see everything through that framework, how do you then change the framework? So everything either reinforces the framework or you discard it. I think there's actually been studies that talk about how when you show someone evidence of something that contradicts their framework, it actually makes them reinforced their framework, not the opposite. But you wouldn't expect it. So how do you get someone to reassess their mental framework?
Tim: You can both see there's a psychological element of our brains adopt paradigms, explanations that make sense of whatever is in front of me with the information that I have at the time. And my brain will only adopt a new paradigm when there's enough information that just doesn't fit anymore. But apparently, we can accommodate a whole lot of information that doesn't fit and make it fit or just let it sit outside.
Jon: In fact, I wonder if that's when a paradigm shift happens, is when there's a stockpile of information that doesn't fit.
Tim: Tipping point.
Jon: It seems like that isn't the case. It seems like something else has to happen.
Tim: That's a good point. Then I think the next, cause we're just talking about an individual and how the brain works, add the social dynamic. When you have a whole community of people who adopt a certain framework. This was a couple of years ago, we talked about Peter Berger, a famous sociologist. He calls these plausibility structures.
When you inhabit a community that sees the world a certain way and that structures their life accordingly, that surrounding community actually makes that belief or true conviction more plausible to you. But once you remove an individual human from that, it becomes less believable and you start to be more open to...This is very similar to like the famous like kids go off to college and they're in a different social environment where they're exposed to lots of new ideas. And so it's often a time of disorientation, new paradigms get formed.
Tim: Yeah, that's right. And so the question is, how do you create new paradigms within a community...? If any, what is Jesus' culture? It's like a community entrenched in certain ways of seeing the world.
Jon: The role of a really good communicator is the ability to do that in a way that is effective. I think, you know, that's why people love stories so much because stories kind of have that ability to kind of embed themselves in the framework and then kind of change it from the inside. It's a slower process, but you don't change someone's framework quick with like a sharp reason. And I love that Snodglas this really well. I think it's like things I've thought about but he just like puts it really, really well.
Tim: Yeah. Parable sneak in through the back window. They are little stories that if you ponder them enough, they actually embody a totally different way of seeing the world. But you maybe don't know that first. You just think they're...
Jon: They seem gentle.
Tim: Yeah. It's a little story about seed growing slowly.
Jon: And suddenly it's reshaping. It makes me think of David and Samuel. Is it Samuel?
Tim: Actually, I have that here.
Jon: Oh, you have it here?
Tim: Yeah. Let's read that story. 2 Samuel 12. This is right after David...
Jon: He sleeps with Bathsheba and then he kills Bathsheba's husband.
Tim: Have him assassinated, and she gets pregnant.
Jon: He sees her and takes her.
Tim: He sees her, takes her for himself.
Jon: And then gets her pregnant. And Samuel the prophet wants to get inside of his head and help him see the situation in a new way.
Tim: That's right. The social dynamic is that he is a prophet of, you know, good standing in the royal court but he has to confront the king.
Jon: Not an easy task
Tim: He's more powerful than you. So you have to try and win over an audience...
Jon: And really convinced that what he did was fine probably.
Tim: That's right. That's the challenge here. And so he tells a parable and it does exactly what Jesus is doing with his parables. It's a great example.
Tim: "The Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said, "You know, there were two guys that lived in one city. One was rich, the other poor. And the rich man had lots of flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing. Well, except for one little lamb which he bought, he nourished it, he grew it up together with him and his children. It ate his own bread, it drank from his cup and lay in his bosom. It was like a daughter to him." The Hebrew word for "daughter" is "bat", which is the first part of Bathsheba's name. Batsheva. Almost certainly there's a little pun here.
Jon: Little play there.
Tim: It was like a bath to him. "Now a traveler came from out of town to the rich man and while the rich man didn't want to take from his own flock or herd to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. So instead he went and took the poor man's lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him." He doesn't even get to finish his story. Go ahead.
Jon: Well, actually, he doesn't say it's a parable.
Tim: Well, it's true.
Jon: Because, David, his reaction makes it sound like he thinks like this happened down the street.
Tim: That's correct. Yeah, that's right. So David falls for it instantly because this is the kind of thing people reporting to the king, injustice is done in his kingdom. So David's anger grew hot greatly against this man. He said to Nathan, "As Yahweh lives, surely that man who did this deserves to die. He must make restitution for that lamb four times over because he did this thing and had no compassion." And then famously, Nathan says to David, "You are the man."
Jon: So this is Nathan and not Samuel but it's in Samuel.
Tim: It's in the book of Samuel but Nathan.
Jon: "You are the man."
Tim: "You're the man." This is like an iconic moment of both prophetic parables. This sets the mold that Jesus sees himself operating within.
Jon: If you want to change someone and help them see something differently, this is a great example.
Tim: You want the listener to adopt a point of view and make them feel like it's their idea and their conviction. But you want to word the story in such a way that they don't fully understand what they are agreeing to or agreeing with.
Jon: That's a tricky.
Jon: I guess it really depends. I mean, if you're confronting a king who has the power, you're going to be really careful. If you're talking with a friend or your kids, you don't have to be so trickster about it. It just depends.
Jon: You might need to...
Tim: Here, let's look at an analog to this in Jesus' teaching. This is in the travel section of Luke 14 and Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem - on the long trip to Jerusalem. It takes him like a third of the book of Luke to get from Galilee to Jerusalem. And on the way, at the beginning of Luke 14, we hear that Jesus was invited into the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees and ate Shabbat. It's the Shabbat meal. You're going to eat bread. And they were watching him closely." He's already ticked them off multiple times. And Jesus noticed as everybody was sitting down - little detail - he noticed everybody is seating themselves according to their social rank, but they're actually trying to like get one or two seats up.
Jon: So pecking order.
Tim: That's right. He notices this in the room. Everybody's jockeying for position as a public display of their honor. Then, vs. 15, one of those sitting at the table are reclining - they're all laying down at a table - said to him, "how blessed are all of those who eat bread in the kingdom of God?" It's the Shabbat meal.
Jon: He's like, "Welcome, this is awesome."
Tim: This is the kingdom of God. What is Shabbat except a time when we remember that this day and all time does not actually belong to us? This is God's day. We rest. We imitate him. We accept his rule over us. The Shabbat, this is whole...the seventh day rest conversation...
Jon: Will have been out.
Tim: Will have been out when this comes out. We're anticipating the age to come here. The rest that is to come. However, Jesus looks around this room...
Jon: And they're missing it.
Tim: ...and he thinks the thing that happened when you all tried to sit down and jockey for position is the opposite of what the true banquet in the kingdom of God will be. Just like Nathan confronted David, he's got to convince him of something that is very unpleasant to think about. He's about to basically say this party sucks and you all should be ashamed of yourselves. Right?
Jon: oh, my goodness. It's a delicate conversation.
Tim: So what he does is tell a story. I'll let you read it. Starts in vs. 15.
Jon: "Jesus said to this guy," - He just launches into a story - "A man was giving a big dinner, and he invited many; and at the dinner hour he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, 'Come; for everything is ready now.' But they all alike began to make excuses. The first one said to him, 'I have bought a piece of land and I need to go out and look at it; please consider me excused.' Another one said, 'I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please consider me excused.' Another one said, 'I have married a wife, and for that reason, I cannot come.' And the slave came back and reported this to his master.
Then the head of the household became angry and said to his slave, 'Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the city and bring in here the poor and crippled and blind and lame.' And the slave said, 'Master, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.' And the master said to the slave, 'Go out into the highways and along the hedges, and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste of my dinner.'" You want to make sure there's no room for them?
Tim: That's a good point. So those jerks might try and come after all. Multiple levels. There's so much depth here. Always takes me so many readings to see what's going on. On one level, you get immediately to the takeaway. The last line kind of shows the take away of the story.
Jon: If you don't want to come to the party, then you don't get to come to the party.
Tim: That's one. Again, in an honor/shame culture, when you throw a big feast, you invite guests of honor. This is all status scams when you throw big parties in the ancient world. And still today. Still today. Even the gesture of inviting someone like this a friend or a family over to your house, that's a statement. It's a social statement. But then throwing public banquets.
Jon: Who's on the guest list!
Tim: Exactly. So for someone to throw a big dinner party and have all of their honored guests decline, this is an act of shame. It's devaluing. Your dinner party isn't worth.
Jon: You're not important enough.
Tim: Basically, you aren't a status enough for me to attend. And status is the thing that Jesus noticed going on in the room. Some overlap there it's on a deeper level about the way we think of who are the real honored ones. Notice then the people that he doesn't invite.
Jon: The outcasts.
Tim: The people of the lowest social status, namely the poor or the disabled.
Jon: People who aren't going to be able to kind of respond in kind.
Tim: That's right. Their attendance won't increase the status of the one throwing the dinner according to their value system.
Jon: According to their value system, it actually will decrease your status.
Tim: Yeah, that's right. But apparently, Jesus thinks that's part of the whole point, is this type of dinner party actually shatters the values set. And then not only that. Then he says there's still room. And then he just says, "Anybody. Like indiscriminately, go invite anybody." So it's as if the people of low social status challenges the system. But then he just treats the whole system of status as irrelevant. "Just invite everybody."
Jon: That's a good point. I didn't really think about that.
Tim: Actually, as you read it, it was occurring to me were these two groups. First as the people of low social status and the next group is anyway anyone.
Jon: I just imagined them still low social status, but just a larger geography to go find them. But it's not. It's just go out and whoever you could find, bring them in.
Tim: And so what the people of low social status regardless of that whole social value system. The point is that this party has no regard for human- created systems of status.
Jon: It all seems like the thing that matters is if you show up to the party.
Tim: That's right. And to receive the gift of the party.
Jon: To receive the gift to the party.
Tim: We're into this radical gift theme that runs through Jesus' teaching. Radical gift that scrambles our value systems.
Jon: So if you didn't get this little commentary beforehand or this little setting of like Jesus noticed some jockeying for position, then you wouldn't read this parable through the lens of status purely.
Jon: I would start to think, "Oh, okay. Is this about how you get to heaven? And what does he mean none of these men who are invited to taste my dinner? I'm trying to figure out how you get uninvited and those kinds of thing."
Tim: Yeah, sure. A good example of taking this out of context and plugging it into some other story - a general theological set of questions or topics about God, His gracious invitation, what happens to me after I die, how should I respond.
Jon: And not every parable has context like this to help set you up for it.
Tim: Most do but not everyone.
Jon: You kind of have to rely on the context of just Jesus, what he was up to in the Hebrew scriptures, and what they were up to. Okay. Just landing that again for me.
Tim: This whole parable, remember it's a response to a guy who says, "Look at this room. This is what the kingdom of God will be like."
Jon: He's like, "Not quite."
Tim: And for Jesus, this room represents the opposite of the kingdom of God.
Jon: And if you just said that, if you're like, "Hey, guys actually got it wrong, this is not what the kingdom of God is like," everyone's defenses will go up. They won't listen to you. They'll get frustrated and mad, and it's over. But he tells a story, and they go, "Huh." It's really a provocative story and it sticks with them. And maybe it'll start to change them.
Tim: That's right. He's critiquing the assumption underneath this guy's statement of this meal is like the kingdom of God. And his whole point is it's not. And not only is it not the king of God, it's the opposite. And so, yeah, he indirectly lands it. I have underneath this a quote from a wonderful and funny book on the parables by a Catholic scholar. I think, Robert Farrar Capon. His last name is Capon. I mean, it just makes you think of the Chicago gangs. It's called "Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment in the Parables of Jesus."
He says "For Jesus, the parables were not used to explain things to people's satisfaction, but rather to call into question all of their previous explanations and understandings. Far from being illustrations that illuminate what people haven't yet figured out, the parables are designed to pop every circuit breaker in the mind. If you mentioned Messiah, then the disciples picture an armed king on horseback. If you mention forgiveness, then they start setting up rules about when it should run out." He's referring to that when Jesus talks about forgiveness and Peter says, "But how many times should I forgive?" And then he tells a parable about the two debtors.
Capon goes on. "From Jesus' point of view, the sooner their misguided minds had the props knocked out from under them, the better. After all, they're yammering about how God should or should not run his own operation. Getting people to just stand there with their eyes popped open and their mouths shut would be a giant step forward." That's so good. But think about that room in Luke 14. That's what Jesus is trying to do. He's not trying to explain to them in like an idea. Like, "Let me help you understand something." He's actually trying to call into question their assumptions about the kingdom of God. Because in their mind, the kingdom of God is just a projection of their own distorted value system up on to the skies.
The kingdom of God, surely like this male high-status room. And what Jesus wants to do, he pops every circuit breaker. And what's he say? Have the props...
Jon: Keep the props underneath?
Tim: Yeah. So this is the element that the parables also have these twists and surprises and subversions of people's assumptions. And that's a big part of what they're doing, which is why the end of the parables often have little twists or surprises or shockers.
Jon: So when you say it isn't to explain something, what you mean by that statement, it isn't just to help you understand something or?
Tim: I think he's being a little hyperbolic rhetorically here. It does explain and reveal something new to you. But to do that, to introduce the new thing that the kingdom of God actually is, some parables actually have to dismantle what you already think you know. And this is a good example of one of them. Jesus wasn't giving a lecture on the kingdom of God. He wasn't teaching. "And oh, here's an illustration." The parable serves as a means of subversive indirect critique so that he can actually help them imagine what the actual kingdom of God might be like.
Jon: In a way, I feel like that's the quality that the Hebrew scriptures have had through our discussions.
Tim: That's a good point.
Jon: And reading the story is that, I mean, you grew up on these stories and they can just filter through a framework in my mind and they can just be these gentle stories that are just mean what...I think they mean. And then there's something about then kind of diving into them and seeing some of the themes that they're developing. And subtly, all of a sudden, I see myself thinking about the world differently and thinking about myself differently. And then when you look back at it, there's been a radical shift in many of the ways that I operate in the world, and my mind works because of that.
Tim: Totally. Totally. I feel the same way. That's right. In many ways, Jesus is like the embodiment of the Hebrew Bible. The word becomes flesh. I agree, the parables, the longer I sat with them, the more they feel like just the natural outgrowth of the Hebrew prophets. The Torah and the Prophets.
The role that Jesus is having to the Israel of his day, he explicitly sets an analogy to the role that Isaiah had to the Israel of his day, and Jeremiah had. It's that God's people consistently receive this calling and gift and then begin to build up social structures around that story. But something about human nature, we just inevitably distort it. So the prophets have this role of critique and dismantling, but not just for the fun of deconstruction, but so that we can actually build the right thing.
Jon: Kick the props in. Roll the circuit breakers in your mind. Tim: That's right.
Tim: Let's put that in place. Let's just consider what I have found to be three basic kind of buckets for the parables. In other words, when you're reading the parables, you're just kind of like, "Okay, which theme am I in? They're all about the kingdom of God arriving Jesus at baseline. But then within that, he can kind of riff on different themes about the kingdom of God through the parables.
Jon: Can I ask one more question about this last one?
Tim: Oh, yeah.
Jon: So they're going for positions of power or status at the party. The guy says, "Isn't this great we're eating in the kingdom of God?" And Jesus is like, "No, not right here." So he tells a story about someone who throws a party. It's different fundamentally because the parties that everyone showed up. In this party, they all decided not to come.
Tim: Oh sure. Sure.
Jon: That to me, it threw me off because I'm like, "Oh, so this isn't about what he's experiencing." But then it comes around and he paints this picture of all these outcasts and low social status people filling the room. But what's the connection between these people jockeying for status at this party and the people who don't want to come to the party?
Tim: In other words, because in the parable, people have a preexisting view of what's valuable, what's really important, their preexisting views about status prevent them from going to the party.
Jon: To the actual party.
Tim: The actual party.
Jon: Because they're all about status. Like my new land, mt new ox, or my new wife. Yeah. That's a status thing?
Tim: Yes. Oh, yeah. How you marry, who you marry.
Jon: I see. So their preoccupation with status kept them from the actual party.
Jon: Oh, my goodness.
Tim: I think it's a way of Jesus saying this is not the kingdom of God.
Jon: This is not the party.
Jon: I showed up to something else.
Tim: That's right. You think you're in the kingdom...
Jon: You said no to the actual party. The actual party is full of people who you think are low status. And if you try to get in the door they wouldn't even let you in.
Tim: Totally. That's totally correct. And notice that list. The poor and the crippled, the blind, and the lame, Who are the people that Jesus has just brought into these communities of meals - the celebration meals? It's the people on this list. The real party is the thing that I'm doing when I'm not at your house for a screwed up Sabbath. That's a great observation, Jon.
Jon: Very helpful.
Tim: It's an inversion. They're at a party, someone says, "Look at us here at the party in the kingdom of God." And Jesus says, "No, actually, you're like the people who aren't at the real party. Oh, that's good. Good job. No, good job, Jon. That's a great way to highlight what Jesus is doing here. It's an inversion. Subversion. The real parties elsewhere with people that you would never want to associate with.
Jon: Cool. I mean, that's the baller. You know, it's funny that the thought I've been having, and you mentioned this last dialog, I wonder if it would become annoying to be around this sometimes. I think it really depends on who it is. Because what it's doing is it's assuming my paradigm of reality is better than yours and I need to convince you of it subtly and slowly, which if you're wrong you're just going to come across...
Tim: Yeah, that's right. Very presumptuous.
Jon: Very presumptuous. But if it's right and it's done in love, then you're going to bum people out. But overall, you would want to be around this person.
Tim: The general trajectory is positive even if there's detractors.
Jon: And the other thing I was thinking is that I think sarcasm is an attempt at this. Like a lazy attempt at this.
Tim: Sarcasm is a form of indirect communication.
Jon: It's a form of indirect communication?
Tim: Oh, it totally is.
Jon: I think people fall into sarcasm because they know indirect communication is more effective, but it's the easiest, laziest form of direct communication.
Tim: That's a good point. That's right.
Jon: And it's not as effective. And now we're all onto it, and now it's just annoying.
Tim: It's surprising when we come across indirect communication that really is making an effort to persuade you and bring you into a different point of view. We're not prepared for that in our culture or it's not very common. You're right, sarcasm is the lazy man's...
Jon: A lazy man's parable?
Tim: That's a good one.
Jon: You do it and you try to shake the person up and it makes them feel like, "Oh wait, do I really think t