On 3/18, Wes, Mark, and Lawrence Ware discussed Jesus's Parables. Listen to the episode now.
To read the versions of the Parables that we read, follow the links from the Wikipedia entry on the Parables. These entries generally give the traditional interpretations for each parable and include historic depictions of them in artworks, so that's pretty cool.
If you're not familiar with the Parables, they were Jesus's main teaching tool: instead of just giving a sermon, tell a story, and especially if the intended interpretation of the story is not clear, then you can smuggle in points that might otherwise be politically controversial. These stories present a feast for hermeneutics, and this episode would best be listened to after #111 and #112, and our recent episode and bonus discussion on Jaspers would be helpful here too. How can we best read these stories? ...Given that we are not the original intended audience, we don't know (in most cases at least) what interpretation Jesus intended, and moreover, the text is a third-hand account that went through a few layers of oral tradition and redaction before it found its way into the Synoptic Gospels. So we're likely looking at a collaborative work, where the text as originally spoken is combined with the interpretations of various 1st century communities and given to us by writers whose identities we do not know (the names "Matthew," "Mark," etc. were added after the fact).
We assigned ourselves the task of reading all 41 (or so) parables, but ended up covering in our conversation The Sower, Hidden Treasure/Pearl, Two Debtors, Good Samaritan, Tenants (aka Wicked Husbandmen), Mustard Seed, Talents, 10 Virgins (aka Wise & Foolish Virgins), and Lost Sheep. We got too tired before we could get to the Prodigal Son, so you'll have to learn about that one through the many many other places that one's been talked about.
Speaking of sources, we tried to enrich our reading of these by looking at some secondary sources; our excellent Facebook group provided me with a very long list, most of which I tried to glance at. Here are the main ones that came into the conversation, including some that were recommended and some I stumbled across online.
The Power of Parable, chiefly chapter 3, but also drawing a bit on chapters 1 and 5 (2012). You can buy it here, or get much of ch. 3 online through the Amazon preview. Crossan is entertaining, you can hear him on many podcasts (like this one) and might make a fun guest for us for a future episode. He wrote the fairly impenetrable but widely purchased The Historical Jesus (1992) and worked with The Jesus Seminar, a group of historians that looked into this topic.
In the first half of The Power of Parable, he gives us a categorization of potential parable types: First, riddle parables are ones where the whole point is to figure out the answer, i.e. what the parable is representing. Second, exemplar parables just use the story to given a dramatic example of following some moral precept to inspire us to do the same. Third, challenge parables are designed to get us to question something about the social/religious/ethical status quo. Crossan argues that virtually all the authentic parables are challenge parables.
A significant digression before I explain Crossan's point: "Authentic" as used above includes most of them; the Jesus Seminar scholars generally consider the Parables to have been in some form from Jesus himself and not added later... scroll down to p. 102 in the Amazon preview of this book by Robert Walter Funk and you'll see a table reporting the results of Jesus Seminar voting re. each parable, e.g. the Good Samaritan (from Luke) has 89% of participants voting that it's almost definitely or probably authentic, while only 11% voted that it's unlikely or definitely not a later addition, and most of the other parables we discussed come out over 50% positive votes. Of course, even if they're later additions, they're still part of the text and still present intrinsic and historical interest, but Crossan, at least, finds it helpful to be able to separate out what were most likely the stories actually circulating around from Jesus and what commentary and such were added later: it's his hypothesis (shared by many in the Jesus Seminar), that early believers only had collections of sayings (e.g. in "Q," a hypothesized source document for some of the Gospels and in Thomas, a document discovered buried in Egypt in 1945). So we're really in much the same position as we are with Heraclitus, where we've got a bunch of disconnected sayings and want to reconstruct an overall philosophy (likely using the help of the Gospel writers, but understanding that those are secondary sources), which may or may not be there in a particularly developed form given that Jesus was not a scholar and was only preaching for a couple of years before he was executed, unlike Socrates.
If the above is surprising or disturbing to you, I'd like to invite you to join the Not School group I've proposed for April covering Stanford's "Historical Jesus" lectures by Thomas Sheehan. Here's the group (if you're not a Citizen and want in, just pay the damn $5 already!) and here's the lecture series. Alright, enough said about that here.
Back to Crossan on parables: For instance, the writer of the Gospel of Mark presents The Sowerintentional, and screw those guys! (I'm paraphrasing here.)
Crossan argues that this is not the single correct interpretation of the Parable, and that its most overt message is more like "sometimes the seeds you throw out will sprout, and sometimes they won't, so keep trying" (which is a theme found in other parables such as "Friend at Night," which we didn't discuss).
Re. the Good Samaritan, Crossan presents Augustine's famously allegorical interpretation (where every single element of the parable is given a meaning, including, e.g. the innkeeper who the near-dead guy is brought to is St. Paul, which would be a funny meaning for Jesus to have had in mind) as the riddle take on that parable, and points out that in another work, Augustine presents the same parable as moral exemplar: act like the Samaritan did. But for Crossan, the important point is that the Samaritan who helped the near-dead guy was a Samaritan, i.e. was of an ethnic group that his immediate audience would regard as vile, like if in a current story we had a Nazi or terrorist performing a good deed that ones we would expect to be virtuous did not. Jesus, according to Crossan, was trying to subvert the social order through his gentile art of storytelling, trying to shake up some the strict observances (such as the purity laws that would keep a priest from wanting to risk touching the dead, a possible reason why in the Samaritan story the other guys didn't help out) and also the influence of Rome in favor of something else: a new way of being and organizing ourselves based on radical generosity, removal of social divisions, forgiveness, and compassion.
We also read "Listening to the Parables of Jesus," by Paul Ricoeur (1973). Read it online or buy it as part of this collection. This essay was supposed to help us flesh out how Ricoeur actually wants us to hemeneutically approach the Bible through by reading it as symbolic, but his directives are still very brief and confusing. For example, he analyzes the Hidden Treasure parable (guy finds a treasure in a field... presumably one he's working on, that doesn't belong to him... and then sells all that he has to buy it) as representing our experience of time: we have the Encounter (finding), which is the big Event, which could be any big thing that happens in our lives, and then the it changes us, i.e. the Reversal stage, where our whole life turns around (selling everything in the story), and only then, after that Conversion process, is there the Decision or Action (buying the land). My excessive capitalization here should indicate how unhelpful in a typically Continental way I find this, but the other guys were more sympathetic, and I encourage you to read the essay, particularly given how short it is.
We also looked at The New Being, chapter 1: "To Whom Much Is Forgiven..." (1955), by Paul Tillich, which you can read online or buy the whole book here. Tillich considered the topic of forgiveness, largely through the Two Debtors parable: One will me more grateful when one is forgiven more. Tillich maintains that "No one can accept himself who does not feel that he is accepted by the power of acceptance which is greater than he, greater than his friends and counselors and psychological helpers." This is supposed to be a phenomenological/psychological claim, and is pretty astute the way he presents it, but does acknowledging it necessarily entail accepting a theological interpretation of this? It adds an interesting dimension to an ethical system to both insist both that the virtuous/sinner distinction is real, but yet that forgiveness trumps it in an important way, that the sinner's experience in fact provides a richness, with the capacity to love, that a more virtuous person is not driven to develop.
Two other online sources that Wes and I looked at as general introductions on how to read the Parables, including the schools of parable interpreation, are "Introduction to the Parables" from Brian Purfield's Mount Street Jesuit Adult Faith Formation class, and "Guidelines for Interpreting Jesus' Parables", Mark L. Bailey (1988).
Finally, for some comedy, go search "Jesus's Parables" on YouTube for horrific dramatic reenactments (and cartoons!) of the parables. My favorite is this one where "surfer Jesus" (as one YouTube commenter refers to him) tells the story of the talents, which is one of the weirdest ones, not just for the number of times that the funny word "talents" is uttered, but for the fact that it seems to to depict God (if God represents the master, which Crossan for one denies) as a self-admitted bastard who insists on the taking of interest contra Jewish law. And the audience is show just rapt, not questioning this weird story at all, where Crossan explains (and I think Ricoeur agrees, though he doesn't use this term) that the whole point is participatory pedagogy, that they're supposed to make the audience think, and respond, and argue, and change, not just sit there like reverent lumps:
Watch on YouTube.