1-1 Elements Of Unreality
There were times when the Lord used shock tactics to get His message
over. He did and said things which purposefully turned accepted wisdom
and understanding on its head. Thus He touched the leper, spoke of drinking
His blood...and used leaven, the usual symbol for sin, as a symbol of
the quiet influence of His Gospel. And His parables feature the same element.
Because the parables are so familiar to us, we can overlook the fact that
their true character is intended to be shocking and disturbing- they are
most definitely not just comfortable, cosy, moralistic tales. Consider
the way He chooses to take a lesson from a crook who fiddles the books.
The 'hero' of the story was a bad guy, not a good guy. Yet the point of
the story was that we must realize how critical is our situation before
God, and do literally anything in order to forgive others. We can't let
things drift- disaster is at the door unless we forgive others right
now. Everything is at stake in our lives unless we forgive others.
The parables didn’t give simple teaching to those who first heard them.
He used that form of teaching so that men would not understand
Him; and even His disciples had to come to Him in order to receive the
interpretations. Although they have the appearance of simple stories,
their essential meaning is only granted to the reflective and spiritually
minded reader. Close analysis of the parables reveal that they often contain
something in them that is arrestingly unreal; and in this is very often
the crux of the message. Surface level reading and listening give the
impression that they are simple, homely stories, obvious in their meaning.
But they are not; otherwise all men would have understood them, and the
Lord would not have spoken them so that Israel would hear but
not perceive. The true meaning depends upon perceiving that there is an
element of startling unreality within the story line, that flags attention
to the real message. The parables therefore challenge our stereotypes
and force us to re-examine cherished suppositions. The reflections upon
actual parables later in this study are a few of many possible examples.
Perhaps the most obvious signpost to this feature of elements
of unreality in the parables is in that of the lost sheep: “What man of
you…” would leave ninety and nine sheep in the wilderness and go searching
for the one lost one? Answer: none of you would do that. And perhaps likewise,
“What woman…” having lost just one piece of silver would be so obsessive
about finding it, and so ecstatic with joy upon finding it (Lk. 15:4,8)?
Perhaps the answer is also meant to be: “Not one of you”. Yet this is
the Father’s passion for saving the lost, and rejoicing over them.
The parables reveal how the Lord was so sensitive to
us. He realized that his audience thought in pictures; and so He
turned concepts and ideas into imaginable pictures in a truly masterful
way. He wanted to radically change people; and He realized that
the way to do this was not by a catechism, not by pages or hours
of intellectual, abstract droning, but by helping them to relate
real, imaginable life to the things of His Kingdom. Truly did W.H.
Auden reflect: " You cannot tell people what to do, you can
only tell them parables; and that is what art really is, particular
stories of particular people and experiences"(1). The way the
Lord Jesus constructed and taught His parables was indeed an art
form, of exquisite beauty. He took ordinary, homely stories and
introduced into them the elements of unreality which we will explore
in this study. By being so normal, He created the possibility of
participation in the minds of His hearers; because they could relate
to the very normalcy of the stories. And so when the unreal elements
are perceived- e.g. the mustard seed becomes not just a bush but
a huge tree- there is an element of surprise and joy. Out of, and
indeed right within, the most ordinary things of life, there await
for the believer the surprise and joy of 'the Gospel of the
Kingdom' intersecting with their ordinary lives.
The Lonely Rich Man
The rich fool reasoned
that because he had had a big harvest, he would build bigger barns
and relax, because he had enough to last him “many years” (Lk. 12:18,19).
The unreal element here is that a harvest doesn’t last many years,
especially in a Middle Eastern climate with no way of effectively
preserving it. And the lesson, on reflection, is obvious. Riches
don’t last for ever, he who earns big wages puts them into a bag
with holes in… and yet there is the genuine conviction that they
will last much longer than they do. Another unreal element here
is that the rich man is described as speaking with himself.
It's hard for some cultures to appreciate how Middle Eastern culture
is a collective affair. Decisions are taken through much discussion
with other people. Likewise, the rich man plans out how to enjoy
his wealth alone. There is no speech to his family; he
invites himself to rejoice with himself. But all
these unreal elements about this man signpost to us the loneliness,
insulation and selfishness which is brought about by excess wealth
and the increase of investments. It's so relevant to the 21st century.
By the way, there's a word play going on here. The man whose land
brings forth many things (eu-phoreo) and therefore wants
to be merry (eu-phraino) is actually a fool- aphron-
an a-phron person, a person without those things. All those
things were "required" of him, as a loan is required.
They weren't really his. And as so often, the parable is left hanging,
with no actual response from the man. We have to imagine where the
man's mind turned, what he thought... and take the lesson.
Servants And Masters
between servants and master in the parables is also at times somewhat
unreal. It’s hard for us to imagine how slaves belonged to their
masters and had to do their will and not their own. Yet in the parable
of Lk. 13:7,8, the servant is commanded by his master to cut down
the fig tree. Not only does the servant take a lot of initiative
in saying that no, he will dig around it and try desperately to
get it to give fruit; but, he says, if even that fails, then you,
the Master, will have to cut it down… when he, the servant, had
been ordered to do it by his master! This servant [the Lord Jesus]
obviously has a most unusual relationship with the Master. He suggests
things on his own initiative, and even passes the job of cutting
off Israel back to God, as if He would rather not do it. And it’s
in a way the same with us. In the parable of Lk. 14:22, the servant
reports to the master that the invited guests wouldn’t come to the
supper [cp. God’s Kingdom]. The master tells the slave to go out
into the streets and invite the poor. And then we’re hit with an
incredible unreality, especially to 1st century ears:
“The servant said, Lord, it is done as thou hast commanded, and
yet there is room”. No slave would take it upon himself to draw
up the invitation list, or take the initiative to invite poor beggars
into his master’s supper. But this servant did! He
not only had the unusual relationship with his master that allowed
this huge exercise of his own initiative- but he somehow knew his
master so well that he guessed in advance what the master
would say, and he went and did it without being asked. In all this
we have a wonderful insight into the relationship possible between
us and our Lord, especially in the area of preaching / inviting
people to His supper. The initiative is in our hands, and as we
come to know Him better, we come to know His mind, and to sense
how He would react. We have His aims and desires as ours, and we
are in harmony with Him without having to be told things in so many
words. And of course for a master to serve his servants was unheard
of (Lk. 12:35-38). But this of course was the wonder of what the
Lord did for us, "as one who serves" (Lk. 22:27), defining
for us our attitude to each other at the memorial table and in all
aspects of our lives and relationships. Likewise the master makes
the servants "recline at table" (Lk. 12:35-38); they are
made to feel like the Master, by the Master Himself! This is what
it means to be "in Christ". There's a kind of out of scale
inappropriacy about the idea that if the Master comes and finds
the servants awake, then He will gird Himself and serve them. Of
course they ought to be awake! But it's as if He is so especially
impressed by this fact. And we who live awaiting His return need
to take note. And the idea of the master serving is of course the
idea behind the description of the cross in Phil. 2:6,7. We should
have the same awkward sense of wonder at the cross as we have when
we recline at the breaking of bread. This implies that those who
serve the emblems are in fact manifesting the Lord Jesus, and are
actually of far greater significance than the president or the speaker.
The Succesful Widow
First century Palestinian
peasant courts have been described in some detail (2). They involved
a mass of men shouting at the judge, who usually decided cases according
to who gave the largest bribe. Women never went to court. It was
a man's world there. This woman had no male in her extended family
to speak for her. She had no money to pay a bribe. But still she
went to court and sought to persuade the judge. In this element
of unreality we see the bravery of prayer, the height of the challenge;
that we who have nothing and no human chance of being heard, will
indeed be heard. It would've struck the initial peasant hearers
of the story as strange that above all the male shouting, somehow
this heroic woman was heard- and was heard repeatedly. Again, we
see an encouragement to prayer. And to liken powerful praying to
a woman was in itself unusual in that male dominated age. The Lord
did the same thing when He spoke of how the tax collector stood
far off from the other worshippers in the temple and beat on his
breast. Usually men prayed with hands crossed over their chest.
But men even at funerals don't usually beat upon their breast: "The
remarkable feature of this particular gesture is the fact that it
is characteristic of women, not men" (3). The man was quite
exceptionally upset and in grief- because of his sins. And personal
recognition of private sin wasn't a big feature of first century
life. The Lord's initial audience would've been amazed at the contrition
and grief which this man had because of his secret sins; and this
is the lesson for us. The times of prayer in the temple coincided
with the offering of the daily sacrifices. The man asks for God
to 'have mercy on me' (Lk. 18:13). But he uses a different word
to that in Lk. 18:38, where the same translation commonly occurs.
Hilastheti moi, he says; and the noun occurs only in Rom.
3:25; Heb. 9:5; 1 Jn. 2:2; 4:10 to describe the atonement sacrifice.
It seems the man was so extraordinarily moved by his own sin and
the sacrifice offered. No wonder the same phrase occurs in Lk. 23:48
about people likewise beating their breasts in repentance when they
saw the actual sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
The Poor Neighbour
The parable of the
friend at midnight uses an element of unreality, but in a reverse
way. The Lord paints the picture of a guest coming to a person who
has no bread, and so they go and disturb their neighbour at midnight,
asking for bread (Lk. 11:5-8). The Middle Eastern peasant who appreciated
the huge burden of responsibility to give food to a visitor would
say that no, he couldn't possibly imagine that the person who was
asked for food would say 'No'. He would not only give bread, but
whatever was needed. And so it is with God. It's unthinkable, as
unthinkable as it is in a Palestinian village to not be hospitable,
that our Father will not answer a prayer for resources with which
to help others. This has been my own experience time and again.
And further, the villager would respond not just because it is his
neighbour asking him, but because he realizes that the responsibility
to entertain the needy person actually falls upon the whole community.
And God too sees our requests for others as partly His personal
and communal responsibility. However let it be noted that the poor
neighbour asks only for bread- for the very bare minimum with which
to provide for the need of another. And the richer neighbour responds
with far more. Again, a pattern for our own prayers for resources
with which to help others. The poor neighbour asks with "importunity"
(Lk. 11:8)- with shamelessness. He is confident of being heard and
has no shame or hesitation to his request because he knows he really
does have nothing to give the visitor. This is of course the prerequisite
for prayer which will be heard. The Lord drives the point home that
whoever asks in this way, receives. And yet the Lord addresses this
comment to those who although "evil", knew how to give
gifts to their kids. Surely the Lord was speaking to the Pharisees
present, who prayed regularly. Perhaps He is saying that they had
never really prayed the prayer of earnest desire, motivated by others'
In addition to the elements of unreality in the parables, there are other
features which shout out for our attention. Often details are omitted
which we would expect to see merely as part of the story. For example,
the parable of the ten girls says nothing at all about the bride; the
bridegroom alone is focused upon, along with the bridesmaids. Where’s
the bride in the story? Surely the point is that in the story, the bridesmaids
are treated as the bride; this is the wonder of the whole thing, that
we as mere bridesmaids are in fact the bride herself. Another example
would be the way in which the sower’s presence is not really explained.
No reference is made to the importance of rain or ploughing in making
the seed grow. The preacher is unimportant; we are mere voices, as was
John the Baptist. But it is the type of ground we are which is so all
important; and the type of ground refers to the type of heart we have
(Mt. 13:19). The state of the human heart is what is so crucial. Yet another
example is in the way that there is no explanation for exactly why the
tenants of the vineyard so hate the owner and kill His Son. This teaches
of the irrational hatred the Jews had towards the Father and Son. And
why would the owner send His Son, when so clearly the other servants had
been abused? Why not just use force against them? Here again we see reflected
the inevitable grace of the Father in sending the Son to be the Saviour
of the Jewish world.
(1) Quoted in M.K. Spears,
The Poetry of W.H Auden (New York: Oxford University
Press,1963) p. 13.
(2) H.B. Tristram, Eastern Customs In Bible Lands (London:
Hodder & Stoughton, 1894) p. 228.
(3) Kenneth Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1980) p. 153.