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The Parables: Understanding Jesus' Strange Good News

02/24/2011 10:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Jesus said lots of wacky stuff, it seems.

I made a point like this once to a man I had just met, and it didn't go well. As part of a group-building exercise, a speaker asked each of us in the audience to discuss a passage from the Bible with our neighbor. Early in the course of my conversation with this stranger, I offhandedly noted how Jesus appeals to absurdities to make a point when he warns about salt losing its taste or someone sticking a burning lamp underneath a basket -- which are comments from his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:13-17).

"There's nothing absurd about it," my conversation partner snapped. "Jesus didn't deal in absurdities."

Clearly we were no longer discussing specific details of the biblical passage. He thought I was being flippant or not taking Jesus as a serious authority. I had offended his piety and he felt a need to defend either Jesus or the Bible. It's kind of an occupational hazard for people in my line of work.

Still, I couldn't help but wonder, "Does this guy really think Jesus is all about giving it to us straight? Has he even read the Gospels?" If you can't appreciate absurdity, and the positive effects it can have, then how will you understand all the parables?

Jesus has his moments when he speaks plainly, but much of what the Gospels convey is a lot more elusive. That's what makes his teachings so evocative, and sometimes offensive, and sometimes restorative. This is particularly true with his parables.

Parables were hardly uncommon in the ancient world. Thinkers and writers from various cultures in time before Jesus used them to teach. They're illustrations, comparisons.

The fun thing about Jesus' parables is he rarely bothers to offer explanations of them. Usually he just tells the story and leaves his hearers to contend with it for themselves. Gospel readers know this doesn't always work so well, especially if we've wrongly assumed that parables are supposed to make us feel good about everything. Mark's Gospel even proposes that Jesus' parables are meant to keep "outsiders" unaware of the truth and unable to find forgiveness (Mark 4:11-12) -- a deeply disturbing claim whose offense gets mitigated in Matthew 13 and Luke 8, which make adjustments to the wording.

When I was a kid, a well meaning teacher told me parables are "earthly stories with heavenly meanings." Unfortunately, that's not very helpful. It implies that parables somehow orient us away from this world, or that we can't quite participate in their real meaning from "down here." It suggests a greater divide than the Bible itself depicts between "heavenly" stuff and its visibility or accessibility in human experience.

I think Jesus spoke in parables because he wanted to describe a state of affairs he could imagine, but one still utterly foreign to business-as-usual, as the rest of us understand it. He describes a manifestation of God's presence -- a "kingdom" or "reign" of God. It's a state of affairs that remains very "earthly," in that it's expressible in real-life things: ordinary terms, familiar images, intimate relationships, common injustices, and refreshing acts of mercy. Yet it's different.

This is where absurdity comes into play. Most of Jesus' parables include a preposterous element or two. Someone apparently unaware of cost-benefit analysis leaves 99 sheep alone and vulnerable in the wilderness to look for one that got away. The reign of God grows from a tiny seed not into a magnificent cedar but into a mustard shrub, an invasive plant -- certain to stick around but a serious nuisance to our carefully planned landscaping priorities. A father whose son has utterly disgraced him not only welcomes the loser home but spots him from a distance and runs to embrace him. (Dignified men did not run in antiquity. At least, not unless they were in athletic contests. Or something was chasing them.)

That is, there's always something a little off in these parables. The parables are not mere moralisms, exhorting people to tidy up their lives. They are ways for Jesus to announce realities about life with God that are at once familiar (his listeners knew well how it goes with losing sheep) and radically different (absurd, from the perspective offered by conventional wisdom). Those are the places for our imaginations to linger and consider what kinds of comparisons the parables encourage us to draw between our status quo and the desires of God.

A shepherd who walks away from 99 sheep in the wilderness to locate one is irresponsible, a fool. Could it be that God's commitment to humanity is so all-encompassing that it appears recklessly obsessive, utterly frustrating to our typical methods of moral and religious calculation?

A parent eager to forgive a wayward child is a welcome sight if you're the one who's returning home, but the neighbors will grumble about the dangerous consequences stemming from authority figures who behave so indulgently. Could it be that God's willingness to forgive and restore is so overwhelming that God will risk the chance of being made to look like a chump?

Jesus' parables are supposed to be weird. Their atypical elements are supposed to rattle us -- not simply because strangeness possesses motivational shock-value, but because what Jesus announces is genuinely unsettling.

The parables, like a poem wielding a poignant metaphor, rouse our creativity from the patterns imposed by normal expectations, especially religious ones. Jesus' parables make us consider life and our place in it differently. They make us dream of outcasts getting seats at lavish banquets, and the trouble this can cause.

Their point isn't to summon us to the heights of a single, otherworldly meaning. In lively and even uncontrollable ways, Jesus' parables prompt us to imagine how God, in the here and now, surprises and even subverts our regular perspectives and convictions about what's possible.

And all this usually strikes people as rather absurd.