Parables and Subversiveness
Collin’s last post talks about how Jesus challenged his audiences to engage mentally with his words by speaking in parables. It is no doubt true that the parable gains rhetorical effectiveness because it requires the audience to be more actively engaged as listeners. But the parable is not unique as rhetoric in this regard. Before Jesus, Socrates was famous for challenging his audience with questions, creating a “Socratic dialogue” that with his audience. Many practicing lawyers got their first taste of law through Socratic dialogue.
Beyond engaging the audience mentally, when a person speaks in parables, she has the advantage of being able to imply politically or culturally divisive points without giving her audience literal proof of her saying or thinking the same. Some people who read the gospels (and even the disciples) get frustrated with Jesus for speaking in parables. Why can’t he just make his point? What they have forgotten is that the message Jesus brought to people was incredibly subversive to the political authorities in his society. Roman magistrates were wary of the rumors that he was the Messiah. Sadducees and Pharisees were wary of his direct claims to authority from God. Both had reasons to subdue or eliminate Jesus’ threat to their authority, which they did for three days.
For example, imagine if instead of telling the parable of the sower, Jesus got up in front of his audience and said: “Some people hear God’s words, but are incapable of understanding them. Some people understand God’s words, but refuse to follow all of them. Some people understand and follow God’s words until they have enough money or power to feel comfortable ignoring them.” If there were Sadducees or Pharisees present, they would have assumed that Jesus was talking about them. Which he was!
It’s worth pointing out that since Jesus, the basic strategy of making politically subversive points in figurative language has been carried on in high style, spawning whole literary genres of satire and allegory. In the late 17th Century in England, we have Jonathan Swift’s Tale of a Tub, a rather thinly disguised indictment of church corruption. In 20th Century Soviet Russia, we have Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, an early manuscript of which was burned to avoid punishment by Soviet authorities.
In day to day life, I believe that most of us are constantly engaged in a process of conflict avoidance reasoning. Many of us (myself included) are often afraid of reprisal for what we think and say about powerful people or groups. We should remember Jesus’ example. Although he did not shy away from speaking truth to power, he demonstrated how the same point could be made more safely by implication.