Friday, February 11, 2022

The Parables of Jesus are Realistic Stories about Human Life

Most of the “parables” of Jesus portray common peasant folk engaged in average, down to earth activities. Even those parables featuring characters not of the peasant class portray them in actions true to their status in society.1 On the whole parables attributed to Jesus are not about kings and the trappings of royalty, but describe common folk caught in the act of being themselves. They are people in the local village, next door neighbors to Jesus’s first-century auditors. For example, the parables describe a peasant farmer sowing a field and the kinds of hazards any small farmer faces at every sowing season (Mark 4:3-8 and parallels); a woman sweeping her house searching for a lost coin (Luke 15:8-9); the behavior of a particular man (not everyman) who unexpectedly finds a lost treasure (two versions Matt 13:44 and Thomas 109); a shepherd searching for a lost sheep (three different versions: Matt 18:12; Luke 15:4-6; Thomas 107); a man hiring and paying day laborers (Matt 20:1-15); the haphazard planning and murder of a powerful man (Thomas 96); the murder of the son of an absentee landlord (Mark 12:1-11; Matt 21:33-43; Luke 20:9-18; Thomas 65); the questionable actions of a man fired from his job (Luke 16:1-7); two bumbling farmers worrying with a fig tree in a vineyard (Luke 13:6-9). To appreciate the commonness of the stories attributed to Jesus see the categories under which Brandon Scott discusses the parables (in the table of contents): family, village, city and beyond; masters and servants; home and farm.2 See also my own classification of the parables in terms of social, cultural, and economic facets of Palestinian society.3 In the stories that Jesus told, realism trumps theology. In the interpretations of the evangelists and the contemporary church, theology trumps realism, and has the final word.

            In the main the parables are thoroughly secular and realistic slices of life in Palestinian antiquity. When read for themselves, they give the impression that they are completely transparent. They are “about” what they present to the reader. Their qualities of secularism, realism, and transparency work against the idea that they are opaque, encoded, arcane, and allegorical. They make good sense when read as fictional stories, but poor sense if the object is to find theological or allegorical messages in them.4

            On their surface the parables of Jesus are secular. They do not moralize, and neither does the narrative voice of the parables either condemn or commend the behavior of the characters in the stories. When read for themselves, the stories reflect neither apocalyptic despair nor imminent cosmic destruction. They are patently a-religious—neither affirming nor criticizing the behavior of characters in the stories. The narrator of the parables expresses no opinions, is completely self-effacing, and is silent on matters of faith, morals, and religion. For example, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector (Luke 18:9-13) present two clearly contradictory courses of life in Palestinian Judaism, but the narrator neither takes sides nor criticizes either man. Such moral ambiguity, a distinguishing feature of Jesus’s stories, associates the parables in some respects with what the literary critic Northrup Fry calls the ironic mode, a style characterized by “complete objectivity and suppression of all explicit moral judgments.”5 It may seem odd to think of Jesus telling stories lacking moral sensibility, but when read without the interpretive comparative frames and concluding moral judgments supplied by the evangelists that is exactly what one finds.6 How do you find the stories of Jesus?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1There are exceptions where narratives shade over into unrealism, however. Especially where allegorical features have been introduced into the narrative during its transmission; for an example, see the parable of the Mustard Seed (Mark 4:31-32; Matt 13:31-32; Luke 13:19; Thomas 20).

2Brandon Scott, Hear Then the Parable. A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus (Fortress, 1989), viii-ix.

3Charles Hedrick, Parables as Poetic Fictions. The Creative Voice of Jesus (Wipf and Stock, reprint, 2005), 259-61.

4This part of the essay is excerpted and revised from Hedrick, Many Things in Parables. Jesus and his Modern Critics (Westminster John Knox, 2004), 39.

5Northrup Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957), 40.

6An excerpt revised from Hedrick, Many things in Parables, ix.


Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie, as you have time, please correct any misinterpretation of your approach to parables, as well as thoughts you may have about how my approach is unsatisfactory.

Parable definition (Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels, 546)
1. brief narrative, picture, metaphor, or simile
2. common life subject matter
3. arrests the hearer
4. leaves mind in doubt about its precise application

For classification clarity, Stecher limits the title of Parable to comparatives (metaphor and simile): for example, "the empire/kingdom/reign of God, Heaven, the Father is like ______"

Using sayings voted as authentic by the Jesus Seminar, here is an example of Stecher's common denominator approach: Goal Oriented Passion. (The same approach can be applied, for example, to teachings that have an inconspicuous beginning, hidden process, and fruitful end.)

(C) = a comparison to the kingdom of God

1.Admiring the urgency of the Baptist's language (Matt 3:1, 10-12)
2.Admiring the Baptist's strong self-presentation (Matt 11:7-8)
3.Other centered motives
a. fig tree-keeper's one year of patience (Luke 13:6-9)
b. the badgering intensity of friend at midnight (Luke 11:5-10)
c. the high-risk level of the shepherd's search (C, 1 of 3 sources) [Lk 15:4-6]
4.Primarily self-centered motives
a. persistence of a coin search at home (Luke 15:8-9)
b. the merchant's gives all for a pearl (C) [Matt 13:45-46]
c. The intensity of the self-castrator (C) [Matt 19:12]
5.Motivation that is morally or legally compromised
a. the desperation of the business manager (Luke 16:1-8)
b. treasure hunter's deceptive intensity (C) [Matt 13:44]
c. the widow's harassment of a judge (Luke 18:2-5)
d. an assassin tests his strength (C) [Thomas 98:1-3]
e. farmers willingness to murder in a land grab (Thomas 65:1-7)

I apply the description "Goal Oriented Passion" to each of these narratives.

I understand Charlie's approach as follows:

Parable definition: "By my count there is a residue of forty-three narratives, or stories, attributed to Jesus...A parable is a brief, freely invented, narrative fiction, comprised of beginning, middle, and end, dramatizing a common human experience or some incident from nature." (Hedrick, The Wisdom of Jesus, 121-122) My sense is that Hedrick does not differentiate between story, narrative, and parable.

Hedrick's "theme" interpretation of the above narratives (138-142):

Fig tree keeper: "problem solutions are not always immediately clear."
Midnight friend: (not found)
Shepherd's search: "Some values are more than about numerical count or the bottom line."
Home manager: "Diligence often produces happy results."
Merchant's pearl search: "Some things in life could exact a high cost."
Self-castration: (a teaching; not included among the stories/parables)
Business manager: "Desperate situations may call for risky solutions."
Treasure hunter: "Some discoveries produce significant change."
Widow and judge: "Justice may often be compromised."
The assassin: (not found)
The vineyard land grab: "Human cruelty and violence are often motivated by greed."


Strengths of Stecher's method:
1. Reasoning is holistic, cutting across stories, parables (comparatives), teachings, behavior.
2. The materials appeal to a single human dynamic (in this case: goal-oriented passion) rather than to a series of abstract general principles.
3. The materials reveal how Jesus views his own life and his invitation to the listener to join him in pursuing God's will (kingdom?).

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Charles Hedrick said...

HI Gene,
Thank you for your observations. In this medium I can only make a few remarks.
"Hedrick does not differentiate between story, narrative, and parable." You are correct. Story and Parable are narrative: see Hedrick, Jesus and his Modern Critics, pp 1-8, and the works cited there.
I think that the comparative frames (promythium) and the concluding morals (epimythium) are supplied by the evangelists in order to get something religious out of the stories/narratives. In other words they turn narrative into comparative narrative. See Hedrick, Jesus and his Modern Critics, pp. 21-22 and the sources cited there.

Anonymous said...

There is no meaningful difference between narrative and story. They both present a series of events. A parable is also generally in the form of very short story, a narrative using comparison in order for the audience to see connections that seem to be (or attempt to be) dissimilar. It is primarily used as an effective way to understand information, then and now. (Allegory also fits into that category as a largely symbolical story.)

If the comparison was a teaching tool it seems unlikely to me that the story survived an oral origin for long without the purpose, the “gist” of what the storyteller was teaching because they are using remote associations, many times nonliteral or abstract connections. It is precisely the “application” to one’s life that provides the cues and context essential for encoding and retention. One is not likely to remember what one can’t apply. Another way of putting it: The “moral lesson” is more likely to be remembered than the oral story, especially if the story doesn’t provide clues (like the moral of the story) essential for the organization memory requires.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Dennis,
One cannot control how auditors respond to stories. The morals searcher may not remember the story well or at all once she has her moral to chew on. But the story ponderer is more likely to remember the story once he sees that more than one moral can be gleaned from the story. And then there is always the auditor that that does not have time for such fluff and dismisses the story out of hand. Stories are like jokes.