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.

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4 Comments on “Parables and Subversiveness”

  1. chris Says:

    Interesting connection to conflict avoidance. I’m not sure that is how I would describe Jesus’ use of parables — though I must admit that he does avoid making his identity and claim known too early, lest he be killed too soon. (We have to wonder what would have happened had he died prematurely!)
    I would describe Jesus’ uses parables in two opposite ways. First, Jesus uses parables to conceal the meaning of his teaching (as he explains in Mt. 13:10-17 ). Jesus is deliberately being unclear, it seems, so that those without ears to hear will be judged. We must conclude that as our sin blinds us, it also deafens us to the truth. Second, Jesus uses parables as the instruments of a master teacher, to give emotive power to his teaching (as he does in Mt. 18:21-35). Here it is no secret what he is saying, neither is it directed against a group, but Peter!


  2. I’m not disputing at all that Jesus was willing and able to engage in conflict. Pacifists have a tough time with “not peace, but a sword,” &c.

    But I want to push back a little at that explanation that Jesus was deliberately unclear to prevent certain people from being judged. That’s never quite made sense to me. Why should somebody who is incapable of understanding be less subject to judgment than one who is? I suspect that this explanation is reached for because it suggests Jesus’ compassion (which is obvious in these passages), and because at various times in church history the idea that Jesus was subversive politically was beyond the grasp of believers (for example, during the middle ages when the church was at its apex as a political authority).

    On the second point, I’ll just point out that it’s often the case when one speaks in parables that one seeks to send a message to different groups simultaneously with the same words. So I don’t see a contradiction in saying that Jesus was speaking both to Peter and to the Pharisees and Saducees. And remember that Peter’s successors have been known to be a bit Phariseical themselves. So the message can have different meanings at different times.

    This last point — that the same parable has facets that reflect light differently at different times — is interesting because if we consider Jesus and God to be masters of time in a way that nobody else on earth is, then it would help explain why so much of his sayings in the NT seem “timeless.”

  3. chrisbjames Says:

    I’m enjoying this reflection – but I’m a bit puzzled at your statement: “Why should somebody who is incapable of understanding be less subject to judgment than one who is?” Perhaps I wasn’t clear. I believe the veiled nature of Jesus’ teaching in parables does not shield those who fail to understand from judgment. To the contrary, the fact they do not understand indicts them as being blinded by their sin or idolatrous loyalties. Jesus was not unclear to spare people from judgment, but because failure to understand was itself ‘judgment’.

    Speaking of judgment. I had the opportunity this weekend to explain to a small group of people not well acquainted with Christianity that biblically speaking judgment is not a decision of the divine so much as a divine unveiling of the truth. In a sense, God does not so much judge but expose. This is the nature of the mysterious parables — inability to grasp them exposes the self-righteous blindness of the Pharisees by which they are judged.

  4. Collin Says:

    >>> not a decision of the divine so much as a divine unveiling of the truth. <<<

    Oooh, I like that! Though it brings up a question I’ve sometimes wondered about: Is what makes something good and true the fact that God says so? Or is the something good and true, and that’s why God would say so? (that sound you heard was the lid coming off a can of worms)


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