1-11 Unanswered Questions In The Parables
We have seen only one theme in the parables- the elements of unreality
which there are in them all. But there are others which can be discovered.
The parables, especially those which Luke records, appear to end
leaving us with unanswered questions. Does the wounded traveller
survive and get better? When does the Samaritan return? How much
does it cost him? Was the beaten man happy to see the Samaritan
when he returned? Who inherits the property of the rich fool? Does
the barren fig tree produce a crop in the end? Does the elder brother
finally join in the party? Does the unjust steward succeed in getting
himself out of his problems after his dismissal? What happens to
the rich man’s five brothers, seeing Lazarus isn’t allowed to go
and warn them? Do they hear Moses and the prophets? Do the riff
raff come in from the lanes to the Great Supper? Does the unjust
judge actually resolve the widow’s complaints? How does the rich
merchant survive, after having sold all he has for the one pearl,
thus discarding his entire past, his life’s work…? And what does
he do with the pearl? He, presumably, sits and treasures it, but
can do nothing with it in order to prosper materially… And yet we
are left to reflect upon this. Or the man who sells all to buy the
field containing the treasure (Mt. 13:44)- what does he do
with his newly found wealth? The question, of course, buds us reflect
what we have done with the wealth of the Gospel which we have found.
These open-ended parables with unanswered questions are left
hanging because the point is, it all depends upon our response as
to how they end in our cases! The parables are thus not just cosy
stories. They challenge our response. Our tidy images of reality
are shattered by the open endings and elements of unreality in the
parables. Our minds are arrested and teased by them, as they lead
us to self-realization, self-knowledge, at times even healthy self-condemnation.
For example, does the man with 10,000 men faced with the oncoming
army of God with 20,000 men just recklessly go ahead, or does he
seek reconciliation? There was surely an intended connection within
the Lord's teaching concerning how the loving Father saw the prodigal
son "afar off" in his sin and separation; and how the
King [God] coming against man with 20,000 men in battle needs to
be reconciled with whilst He is still "afar off" (Lk.
14:32; 15:20). God is both coming towards us in judgment; and yet
also sees us 'from afar' in untold grace and desire to save. It
is this wondrous paradox which makes the ultimate meeting of God
and man so intense and wonderful. The 'harder side of God', the
King coming in overpowering judgment against sinful man, is what
gives power and poignancy to His final meeting with man as the Father
meets the prodigal.
One of the most telling examples of an unfinished ending is to
be found in the parable of the unjust steward. This is perhaps the
hardest parable to interpret; but I suggest the thought is along
the following lines (1). The steward has done wrong; but the element
of unreality is that he isn't jailed or even scolded, it's just
left as obvious that he can't do the job of steward any longer.
The usual response of a master would be to jail servants for running
up debts (Mt. 8:23-25). But the Master is unusually gracious. The
steward now faces poverty, and so he takes a huge gamble. Before
news of his fall is common knowledge, he urgently runs around to
those in his master's debt and tells them that their debts are forgiven.
His haste is reflected in the way he says "Write quickly...
and you... ". He has to write off their debts before his master
finds out, and before the debtors know that he now has no right
to be forgiving them their debts. His gamble is that his master
is indeed such a generous and gracious guy that he will actually
uphold these forgivenesses or reductions of debt, and that therefore
those who have received this forgiveness will be grateful to the
steward, and be generous to him later, maybe giving him employment.
The story reflects a theme of the other parables- how the servant
knows and understands his master extremely well, and can guess his
response. The way the servant invites the beggars to the feast even
before his master has told him to do so is an example. But the power
of the parable is in the unended story. Does the gracious Master
indeed forgive those in his debt? And seeing he is impressed by
how the steward has acted, does he in fact re-instate him, impressed
as he obviously is by this sinful steward's perception of his grace?
From the other parables we are led to believe that yes, the Lord
and Master is indeed this gracious. And of course we are to see
ourselves in the desperate position of the steward, staking our
whole existences upon His grace and love beyond all reason. For
me, this approach to the parable is the only one which can make
any sense of the master dismissing the steward for fraud, and then
praising him for his apparently 'dishonest' behaviour in forgiving
the debtors (Lk. 16:2,8).
In all this we see the brilliance of the Lord Jesus. The parables
of Lk. 7 and 14 were told during a meal- perhaps many of the others
were, too. The Lord would have been a brilliant conversationalist,
drawing out unexpected challenges and lessons from what appeared
to be everyday facts. The implications of the parables are not pleasant-
they would have soured some of His table conversations if they were
properly perceived. And likewise with us as we read them in this
age; these stories are indeed profoundly disturbing if understood
properly and allowed to take their effect upon us. Yet for all their
challenge, the parables of Jesus reveal how deeply familiar He was
with human life in all its daily issues and complexities. He artlessly
revealed how He had meditated deeply upon the issues involved in
farming, the problem of weeds, how much poor men were paid for a
day’s work, the desperation of the beggar Lazarus, problems faced
by builders when laying foundations…He was and is truly sensitive
and understanding of the everyday issues of our lives, and yet draws
out of them something deeply challenging and radical. In this was
and is His surpassing, magnetic brilliance. But the unanswered questions
in the parables aren't all there is to them.
On top, or underneath, of all we have here spoken about His parables,
there's yet something else. Much homework awaits someone to work
out all the times when the Lord was speaking to Himself
in the parables, through the elements of unreality. Perhaps He saw
Himself tempted to be like the elder brother in the Prodigal parable,
who was “always” in the Father’s house (as Jesus per Jn. 8:35) and
‘everything the father has is his’ is the very wording of Jn. 17:10.
Or is it co-incidence that the only time the Greek word translated
" choked" is used outside the sower parable, it's about
the crowds 'thronging' Jesus (Lk. 8:14,42- note how they're in the
same chapter and section of the Lord's life)? Was the Lord not aware
of how the pressure of the crowds, whom He carefully tried to avoid,
could choke His own spiritual growth? Was it for this reason that
He begged those He cured not to generate big crowds to throng Him?
And thus yet another layer of the Lord's mind and thinking will
be revealed to us.
(1) My thinking here has been heavily influenced by the background
material in K.E. Bailey, Poet And Peasant (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1990) pp. 98,99.