Saturday, August 23, 2008

Wright on the Parables

A few years ago I read through Wright's The Challenge of Jesus. This particular excerpt (pp. 40-42) has stuck in my mind more than any other section. For me, it was paradigm shifting:
The Challenge of JesusJesus' parables were not simply shrewd stories about human life and motivation. Nor were they simply childish illustrations, earthly stories with heavenly meanings. Again and again they are rooted in the Jewish Scriptures, in the Jewish narratives that were told and retold officially and unofficially. We could look at these at great length, but there is only space here to glance at two of the best known and suggest dimensions to them that may be unfamiliar.

I begin with the parable of the sower in Mark 4:1-20 and its parallels. This parable is not simply a wry comment on the way in which many hear the gospel message and fail to respond to it appropriately. Nor is it merely a homely illustration taken from the farming practices of Galilee. It is a typically Jewish story about the way in which the kingdom of God was coming. It has two roots in particular, which help to explain what Jesus was about.

First, it is rooted in the prophetic language of return from exile. Jeremiah and other prophets spoke of God's sowing his people again in their own land. The Psalms, at the very point where they are both celebrating the return from exile and praying for it to be completed, sang of those who sowed in tears reaping with shouts of joy. But above all the book of Isaiah used the image of sowing and reaping as a controlling metaphor for the great work of new creation that God would accomplish after exile. "The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand for ever." "As the rain and snow water the earth, so shall my word be. It shall not return empty, but it will accomplish my purpose." New plants, new shrubs, will spring up before you as you return from exile. All this goes back to the story of Isaiah's call in chapter 6, where the prophet sees Israel like a tree being cut down in judgment, and then the stump being burnt; but the holy seed is the stump, and from that stump there shall come forth new shoots.

It is that passage - Isaiah 6:9-10 - that Jesus quotes in Matthew 13:14-15, Mark 4:12 and Luke 8:10 by way of explanation of the parable of the Sower. The parable is about what God was doing in Jesus' own ministry. God was not simply reinforcing Israel as she stood. He was not underwriting her national ambitions, her ethnic pride. He was doing what the prophets always warned: he was judging Israel for her idolatry and was simultaneously calling into being a new people, a renewed Israel, a returned-from-exile people of God.

The second Old Testament root of the parable of the sower is the tradition of apocalyptic storytelling we find in, for instance, the book of Daniel. In Daniel 2, Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a great statue composed of four different metals, with gold at the top and a mixture of iron and clay at the bottom. The statue is demolished, the feet of clay is being crushed by stone, cut out of a mountain, which in turn becomes a mountain that fills the whole earth. So too, in Daniel 7 the four beasts make war on the human figure, one like a son of man, until God takes his seat and the son of man is exalted over beasts. Even so, says Jesus, the story of God's people is being encapsulated, recapitulated in his own work. Some seed falls on the path; some on the rock; some among thorns. But some seed falls on good soil and bears fruit, thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold. The kingdom of God, the return from exile, the great climax of Israel's history, is here, Jesus is saying, though it does not look like you thought it would. The parable itself is a parable about parables and their effect: this is the only way that the spectacular truth can be told, and it is bound to have the effect that some will look and look and never see, while others find the mystery suddenly unveiled, and they see what God is doing.

The second parable that opens a dramatic window on the kingdom of God is the one we call the Prodigal Son, in Luke 15. Among the dozens of things people regularly and often rightly say about this parable, one thing is missed by virtually everybody, though I submit that it would be blindingly obvious to most first-century Jewish listeners. A story about a scoundrel young son who goes off into a far pagan country and is then astonishingly welcomed back home is - of course! - the story of exile and restoration. It was the story Jesus' contemporaries wanted to hear. And Jesus told the story to make the point that the return from exile was happening in and through his own work. The parable was not a general illustration of the timeless truth of God's forgiveness for the sinner, though of course it can be translated into that. It was a sharp-edged, context-specific message about what was happening through Jesus' welcome of outcasts, his eating with sinners.

This story, too, has a dark side to it. The older brother in the story represents those who are opposed to the return from exile as it is actually happening: in this case, the Pharisees and lawyers who see what Jesus is doing and think it scandalous. Jesus' claim is that in and through his own ministry the long-awaited return is actually happening, even though it does not look like what people imagined. The return is happening under the noses of the self-appointed guardians of Israel's ancestral traditions, and they remain blind to it because it doesn't conform to their expectations.

In these two parables and in dozens of other ways Jesus was announcing, cryptically, that the long-awaited moment had arrived. This was the good news, the euangelion. We should not be surprised that Jesus in announcing it kept on the move, going from village to village and, so far as we can tell, staying away from Sepphoris and Tiberias, the two largest cities in Galilee. He was not so much a wandering preacher preaching sermon, or a wandering philosopher offering maxims, as like a politician gathering support for a new and highly risky movement. That is why he chose to explain his actions in the quotations from Isaiah: some must look and look and never see, otherwise the secret police will be alerted. Again, we should not imagine that politics here could be split off from theology. Jesus was doing what he was doing in the belief that in this way Israel's God was indeed becoming king. [source]