So here’s the plan: each week that the gospels are covered in Sunday School, I will post one question from my book along with a brief discussion of the issues that it raises.
The Question: One of the simple facts of parables is that at some point, the comparison between two different things breaks down. At what points does the Parable of the Sower break down? In what ways are people not like ground? Which elements of the parable should not be pressed for symbolic meaning?
(adapted from Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels)
I think we all realize that, when it comes to parables, we need to think about symbolism. That’s good. But I don’t know how often we think about the limits of symbolism. The word “parable” means something like “to throw alongside each other,” with the idea that you will compare the two items in question to learn more. But it should be obvious that, if we are talking about two things, they will not be identical (because then they’d be one thing). So we need to ask ourselves where the parable breaks down. This doesn’t mean the parable was somehow flawed; it’s just the nature of parables. Every time you study a parable, you should consider which parts of the parable do not line up with the topic to which it is compared.
Let me say a little more about parables. One of the hardest chapters of Mark to understand is Mark 4, where Jesus’ explanation for why he taught in parables is a little tough to follow from this distance. I want to suggest, without making any claim to being complete, one reason why he might have taught in parables. Remember that this is a society with a 2-3% literary rate and no mass media. Most people are going to hear the parable once (either as Jesus spoke, or from hearing one of the gospels read) but that’s probably it. How can you teach under such circumstances in a way that maximizes your audience’s ability to retain what they have heard, recall it later, and appreciate it as they (hopefully) mature spiritually? It’s a nearly insurmountable task. You can’t give a talk with a list of five abstract theological points and think people are just going to remember them twenty years later. But if you tell a story about sewing a new patch on old clothes, someone just might recall that when she picks up her needle a decade later. (And, incidentally, since sewing was women’s work, Jesus is using the world of women as the location of his teaching in that instance–acknowledging the realities of their lives and requiring the men in the audience to put themselves into the women’s, er, sandals.) There is something incredibly merciful about this teaching style in how it accommodates the realities of the audience.
Jesus is described in Mark as the son of a carpenter (in Greek, maybe not necessarily working with wood, but a builder, perhaps a stonemason). And yet his parables were not mostly about even table legs or square walls or whatever. They are mostly agricultural, with some others representing the daily experiences of peasants. Jesus didn’t teach what was familiar to him but rather to his audience. Similarly, almost all of his parables describe the world of peasants, not of the powerful. Jesus asks us to put ourselves into their frame of mind and he honors their lives and experiences when he does so.