Monday, July 10, 2023

Flawed Characters in the stories Jesus told

There is a subtle grittiness reflected in many of the stories Jesus told, that many readers of the parables seem to miss. Likely because most readers are searching for religious morals among the parables Jesus invented. For example, the story of the Samaritan (Luke 10:30b-35) occurs in the aftermath of a vicious assault and robbery on the Jericho Road that left the victim almost dead (10:30b). The first travelers on the scene after the mugging ignore the man lying in the ditch. The Violent Tenants (Mark 12:1b-8) is a story about some ruthless tenants who, in the course of the story, committed several murders, beatings, and multiple stonings of rent collectors; the story concludes with them murdering the son of the property owner. One story, The Killer (Gos. Thom 98), narrates the calculated planning and the cold-blooded murder of an important man.

            Other stories, while not as violent, feature characters seriously flawed by their less than ethical practices. For example, the story of The Manager Fired for Cause (Luke 16:1b-7) features a manager accused of wasting the owner’s goods. The owner summoned him and fired him on the spot. Before his firing became common knowledge, the ex-manager conspired with those in debt to the owner to pay less than they owed in hopes they would reward him in the future. The story is followed by three awkward attempts to find some religious value in the story (Luke 16:8-9). Another story features the blatantly unethical practice of paying day laborers the same amount of money for unequal amounts of work performed, and then taunting those who worked the longest number of hours by paying them last (Matt 20:1-15). Those paid first no doubt were delighted with their pay. Those paid last who worked the longest felt unfairly treated and their efforts unappreciated.

            In other stories the flaws of the protagonist are not immediately obvious. Consider the story Jesus told about a dysfunctional family (Luke 11b-32). The characters include a pampered younger son who wastes his inheritance in a distant land, an indulgent father who dotes on the younger son, and an elder brother, who is thoroughly piqued at being slighted by his father, after his years of faithful service to the family business. Another example is the striking lack of compassion by the protagonist over a small debt owed to him by another, when his own much larger debt, had just been forgiven (Matt 18:23-34). Luke 13:6-9 features a story about two bumbling and incompetent farmers, neither of whom knows nearly enough about the care of a fig tree planted in a vineyard. On the other hand, The Pharisee and Toll Collector (Luke 18:10-13) features two men praying in the temple. Both are counting on God’s forgiveness for different reasons. Both seem to know how God will respond to them: the Pharisee stands before God on his own merits, having fulfilled the law perfectly (he claims). The toll collector, with eyes cast downward, cries for God’s mercy for his sins, apparently with no intention of mending his ways.

            Sometimes the evangelist misreads certain characters in the stories and either commends or criticizes them. For example, Luke denigrates the personal character of the judge in Luke 18:1-5 by calling him “unjust” (Luke 18:6), when he appears to be a thoroughly honest judge who calls his cases based on how he sees the evidence (18:2, 4). The judge, however, considers compromising his integrity because of a perceived physical threat from a widow. The story ends before he renders his judgment, and the reader is left pondering how the story might have ended.1

            Why would a teacher of wisdom and religious values, who is touted as working miracles through the power of God, pepper his stories with such violent, unethical, and otherwise flawed behavior? The answer is: such appears to be the nature of the society in which Jesus lived. The stories of Jesus were realistic fictions and he invented his characters from the world around him. As John Kloppenborg aptly puts it:

The parable, in order to challenge or problematize prevailing values or beliefs, must be told in a realistic vein and evoke a world in which the audience is at home if it is to succeed in its rhetorical purpose of deconstructing or challenging that world.2

Ancient Palestine was a world in which banditry was commonplace suggesting that those on the bottom of the social scale, rural peasants and urban poor, were always at risk. Their world was not a safe place. There are few ancient sources describing their plight (the works of Josephus being the principal nonreligious source).3 The parables themselves are part of the evidence for the dangerous conditions of that world. The elements of these stories invented by Jesus are problematic: his characters are flawed, his settings are realistic, his plots are gritty, and there is no resolution to his complications. All of which leads a reader to ponder, and that is how the parables of Jesus work.

In that nexus (that is in the reader’s mind reflecting on the story within the parable’s world) readers find affirmation, challenge, or subversion to the constructs under which they live their own lives.4

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1See C. W. Hedrick, Parabolic Figures or Narrative Fictions? Seminal Essays on the Stories of Jesus (Cascade: 2016), 171.

2J. Kloppenborg, The Tenants in the Vineyard (WUNT 195; Mohr Siebeck, 2006), 107. For a discussion of parables as realistic fiction see pp. 106-109 and Hedrick, Parables as Poetic Fictions. The Creative Voice of Jesus (Hendrickson, 1994), 39-56, and idem, Many Things in Parables. Jesus and his Modern Critics (Westminster John Knox, 2004), 53-54.

3L. R. Lincoln, A Socio-Historical Analysis of Jewish Banditry in First Century Palestine: 6-70 CE. Masters Thesis, University of Stellenbosch, Nov. 2005:

4Hedrick, Many Things in Parables, 85.


bobinberea said...

This is wonderful! Thanks!
This falls in my lap at a propitious time. I'm considering doing a little class on the parables for my church, and this would serve nicely as a provocation at some point. May I have your permission to copy and share it?
Best wishes,
Bob Fowler

Anonymous said...

Good morning, Bob. You may indeed share it, and if you like let me know the reaction of the class.

bobinberea said...

Thanks, Charlie!