There has been a major shift in the interpretation of the parables of Jesus in recent years. In simplest terms, several Biblical scholars believe that it is no longer helpful to interpret the parables at all. Why could this be so? While earlier New Testament scholars believed that each parable had a point or a lesson to apply, others have found it more helpful and more true to the force and place of the parable in Jesus’ teaching and presence to concentrate on the experience of the parable, itself. In other words, our task is not to apply the parables to our lives, but to experience the world revealed in the parable, itself.
Discovering the generosity of the owner of the vineyard in the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard may move us to emulate that generosity, but our worlds are untouched. We know from our life in the world that good advice and good examples, while salutary, do not change our basic orientation in the world. One of the things that we do know about the parables of Jesus is that they represent a basic shift in our orientation to the world. In this parable (Matthew 20:1-15) it is when we are involved emotionally and spiritually in the struggle between the workers who were first recruited and worked all day and those who were hired last and worked only an hour for the same wage that we begin to understand the shift in orientation. It is, I believe, when we also become involved in the conflict with others in the parable, with members of Jesus’ party, and with casual on-lookers that we move even deeper into what Bernard Brandon Scott refers to as the re-imagined world of Jesus.[i]
This shift from interpretation to re-experiencing is crucial. To conclude that God intends to treat all people with generosity and in ways that do not necessarily reflect our own cultural notions of fairness and justice is one thing. To live, even in one’s imagination, within this world of shifted priorities and ethics is quite another.
I began to understand this shift when working several years ago with a clown group composed of people with various disabilities. One of the middle-aged clowns was a woman named Maureen, who had been paralyzed for decades by a phobia about being close to men. She had been given reassurance upon reassurance and had been told in counseling that she could find men with whom she could trust herself. No amount of good advice or insight seemed to help at all. However, when Maureen donned her clown suit and went into the community to clown, she found it easy to joke with men, to chuck them under the chin in fun and even to sit in their laps flirting with them in the safety of her clown character. She was in another world, or in what for her must have felt like a parallel universe.
It took less than two years for her let go of the phobia and have relatively intimate relationships with men outside her clowning, because she had experienced another world. She made the switch from one world to another, from one kingdom to another. And so is the hope God holds out for us, in our attachments and orientation to the world the parables opposed. What is important to know is that the parables cannot be reduced to lessons about life or exhortations to live with different values. Gabriel Marcel wrote that life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived: so it is with the world disclosed in and through the parables of Jesus.
Two illustrations of this come to mind. The first is the notion of Jesus as the “Word.” Jesus cannot be reduced to words or images or descriptions: it is his life, his story, his presence which are the “word.” It is all of that which God meant to say. The earthly Jesus and the response of the faithful to him and the experience of the church of the risen Christ is “what God meant to say.” That is the word. Any work with the words and world of the parables ought to take place within the context of the Word.
The second illustration comes from the arts. The great dancer, Pavlova, was once asked what she meant by one of her dances. She replied, simply, “If I could have said it, I certainly would not have danced it.” So, too, with the parables of Jesus. Were the message of the parables possible to list in a series of aphorisms or guides to successful, fruitful or spiritually enhanced lives, Jesus might well have provided such a list. But this is about living in a whole other world or environment altogether – one you cannot understand from the outside. In that way it is like falling in love, living in the circus or even learning how to ride a bike! You know what it’s like when you get there, but you can’t get there without just being there.
The heart of what follows is a series of entry points into the world of the parables of Jesus. Each entry point is suitable for a congregation either at worship or in a retreat setting. With most of the parables, I have stressed the humor inherent in the parable or in its telling or re-enactment. I have done this, in part to honor the humor or comic spirit in the parable and, in part, to allow the different sensibility found in the parables to sneak into our consciousness. Most of the parables are deeply comic – and others do well, I believe, when dressed in comedy’s clothing.
I have introduced each of the parables with an “Outline of the Parable,” in which I have described the parable’s setting, its probable use by Jesus, and an overview of its meanings. Following the introduction, I have provided suggestions for staging or exploring the parable and a sample script for introducing the parable verbally to those in attendance. I have also included “Closing Lines” for use after the performance of the parable, as a way of bringing some closure to the experience. The “Reflections” are further thoughts about the parable and represent my experience within the life of the parable.
[i] Scott, Bernard Brandon, Re-Imagine the World: An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus, Polebridge Press, Santa Rosa, California 2001.