The Point of Parables

The Point of Parables

From Mark 4: Again he began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3“Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. 6And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. 7Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” 9And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

10When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12in order that

‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,  and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”

13And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?

Near the end of the chapter Mark tells us: 33With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it;

There are several parables in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Mark. Sowers, seeds, and lamps all make appearances. Some count as many as 46 parables in Jesus’ teachings, others count 33 and yet others stretch the number to sixty. As I just read, when trying to understand the parables we need to recall that Jesus actually comments that part of the reason behind parables is to confuse people, to block people from understanding. Yet when Jesus realizes that even his disciples don’t get the parables he explains them. The disciples get let inside because Jesus calls them. As God calls other people, we too are let inside. The parables require our active engagement. And more importantly, they require God. And that’s the point.

I’ve heard people argue that parables have only one point to make. However, on closer scrutiny we learn that those sources have been greatly influenced by Aristotelian Greek that limit such stories to “pure comparison” leaving only a single point. Parables pre-date Jesus. We find them in places like Proverbs, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and II Samuel. Hebrew literature, Jesus’ home turf, is full of similitude and allegorical tales.  According to C. H. Dodd, at its simplest a parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness,  and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application  to tease it into active thought.” If I assume I know what Jesus is talking about, I’m probably missing the main point; if I’m too familiar with the story (having heard it and read it so often before), I might not think carefully enough about its real meaning. “Wait a minute!”  You might say. “That’s not how farmers do their work! That’s not what kings usually do! That’s not what normally happens in nature!” And the strange element in the parable should cause use to think! Parables do not define things precisely, but rather use comparisons to describe some aspect of how God acts or interacts with us so we’ve got to be careful as we try to interpret or apply a parable. It’s actually comforting if not reassuring that in Mark, even Jesus’ disciples have a hard time understanding, despite receiving private instructions!

Centuries of study have taught us that understanding Jesus’ parables takes active listening. What Jesus has to say isn’t just simple and easy. Parables need an interpreter. They need more than just any interpreter, they need Christ as the interpreter. We need to be listening to God to have the parables make sense. And often the parables have multiple roles or vantage points, so as we grow, change, and move, the parables speak differently to us and interpreted differently for us.

Actually one way to help make all of scripture meaningful is to approach it as parable, stories that on the surface seem simple or mythological or mysterious and beyond our understanding, especially the stories that seem truly simple? Biblical understanding requires active listening. It also requires an interpreter, not just any old interpreter will do, the needed interpreter is Christ’s Spirit.

This notion is particularly important as a part of the foundation of Quakerism. Unlike some, for Quakers the word of God isn’t ink on the page, it is the word Christ speaks in our hearts as the words of the page get illuminated, expounded, interpreted. It’s as early in salvation history as the creative Word with which God spoke creation into existence.  It is the principle issue that separates Quakers from those who are able to sign the doctrinal statement of the National Association of Evangelicals. It’s our understanding of continuing and immediate revelation. It’s our understanding or what’s called realized eschatology, Christ has come to teach his people himself.

Henry Cadbury wrote that the scriptures were for George Fox a confirmation rather than the source of truth. After citing scores of examples from the Old Testament and the New Fox concludes, ” And if there were no Scriptures for our men’s and women’s meetings, Christ is sufficient, who restores man and woman up into the image of God, to be helps meet in righteousness and holiness…” For Fox Christ is the key to the Scripture. Of course this wasn’t new with early Friends. This approach to the Bible is far removed from a literal adoption or theologically analyzing of a passage of scripture. It is viewing it with Christ to hear the meaning. Origen reports on this approach to scripture in the third century. St. Benedict established the practice among monks of his following in the 6th century.

In the 12th century a monk named Guigo formalized the four stages of Lectio Divina.  He said we first read the scripture slowly, allowing it to sink in, but the passage shouldn’t be too long. Second, we reflect on the passage. Not in any hurry, we ruminate on the text, we think about it.  The third thing is to leave thinking aside and simply let our hearts speak to God about it. And finally, letting go of all our ideas, plans, words and thoughts resting in the Word of God, listening at the deepest level, allowing Christ’s still small voice to gradually transform us.  That’s pretty astonishing that this, as a spiritual practice, was described so long ago and yet it seems as fresh as today.

Wess Daniels writes in his recent thesis, “The future of the Friends Church relies on its ability to draw on the distinctives of its tradition while continuing to contextualize those distinctives within today’s participatory culture. Simply put, if Quakers wish to remain Quaker the way forward includes reaching back; tradition is the only grounds for innovation. Only a revitalization that includes the mission and practices of the Quaker tradition will give reason for hope.”  A major piece of that tradition is immersing ourselves in the Scriptures as did Fox and other early Friends. It means making the effort, setting time aside, making it a discipline to spend time letting the Bible read us. Some Quakers will say that “Holy books abound.” And, I for one agree with that. I sincerely believe that God can use other media to address us as well.

But, if Daniels is right studying the scripture is a major piece of our tradition that needs our full embrace. In  1816 Quaker leaders were involved in the formation of the American Bible Society. In 1825 Levi Coffin began Bible Study classes in what was then the Deep River meeting house. I’ve sat on the surviving foundation stones of that meeting house. First day schools spread widely across Quakerism. Of course Levi,  soon there after, immigrated from North Carolina due to Friends there unwilling to abandon slavery to become the ‘Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad’ in Fountain City, Indiana. His commitment to the Bible certainly didn’t denigrate his social conscience.



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