What’s That Again?by Sr. Honora Werner, O.P.
Parables are stories that teach. Well, so are fables, legends and myths. What’s distinct about parables? Parables turn our worldview upside down. Parables make us question the truthfulness of our working assumptions. Parables play “Gotcha!”
Jesus’ parables do just that, but our problem is that we read and hear them centuries later, and in a culture very different from first century Galilee. The people who first heard these parables from Jesus’ lips had an advantage we lack. Twenty centuries later, we need help in order to feel their dramatic effect. Let’s look at some of Jesus’ parables to understand what they might say to us today.
Among the most favorite of stories told by Jesus are three we find alongside each other in Luke 15. All three are lightly linked together because they tell of something precious that has been lost. We can all relate to losing things of value. But the images of God portrayed by Jesus in these parables may be less familiar to us.
Lost and found
First, there is that shepherd who, discovering one sheep missing from the flock, goes off in search of the lost one. (Luke 15:4-7) But wait! He leaves the ninety-nine alone in the wilderness! What kind of shepherd would do a thing like that? He sounds terribly reckless, doesn’t he? Rather like a person who discovers a dollar missing from her wallet — and who leaves her wallet containing $99 on the counter in the store and goes out into the mall in search of the one dollar she lost. Surely no one we know would do that.
But Jesus goes on to say there is greater joy over the one who is found than over the ninety-nine who were not lost. What a crazy response! But wait, Jesus is talking to religious leaders who identify themselves as people who do not stray. Jesus knows better. His story says “Gotcha!” because we all need “finding.” The image of God is that of a shepherd who cares and risks the search for anyone who strays!
Jesus tells a second story, this time, about a woman who lost a coin. (Luke 15:8-10). She has nine others, but the ten coins may well be her dowry, her “social security” in case she is ever widowed. So, diligently she searches and finds that lost one. Like the shepherd who finds his lost sheep, the woman invites her friends and neighbors to rejoice that she found the coin. But is Jesus really imaging God as a woman? Women in those times were considered unreliable witnesses, persons in need of male protection from womb to tomb, certainly not as god-like as their brothers. Oh, Jesus, you’ve done it again! Gotcha!
The two sons
Then comes what is, perhaps, the most famous of the Lucan triad: the father who loses two sons (Luke 15: 11-32). One rebels openly and behaves scandalously in a foreign country. Then, full of fear for his own future, he comes back home at least to be fed and housed. But the loving father has been on the lookout for this fellow, runs to meet him, and welcomes him home with open arms and a huge party.
The other son’s rebellion is quieter, but just as real. His years of “obedience” were spent unwillingly. His resentment boils over to the point that he cannot call the younger man “brother” — only “that son of yours” and he cannot join in a family celebration. Yet his father stays with him, pleading for his return, declaring his love for him even as the elder son storms around in such disrespect.
To people in that ancient world with expectations that a family patriarch behave regally, powerfully, demanding reverence, deference, and obeisance, this father’s behavior would be shocking. And to image Almighty God in this way? No. God would surely punish severely the younger son, and those who heard the story from Jesus, themselves the “older sons” would be... oh dear. We are squirming in self-recognition. Note, too, Jesus does not tell us that the younger son remained at home, faithful to his family’s honor, nor that the older son ever joined the celebration. We can see ourselves in either or both sons, and then see our God as outrageously loving and forgiving.
The last ones hired
The parable of the vineyard workers is another one that makes us all uneasy each time we hear it (Matthew 20:1-15). The owner of a vineyard hires workers early in the day and after agreeing about their customary daily wage, sends them off to work. He goes out several more times throughout the day. When he finds more workers, he promises to give them a just wage. Finally when the heat of the day is past and with the sun heading towards the horizon, he hires the ones still available. But surprisingly, as he doles out the wages beginning with the last hired, he gives everyone the same amount, a full day’s pay! It is not surprising that we might feel irritated when we hear that. We might well agree with those hired first who complain, “Not fair, not fair.” The owner’s generosity offends our sense of justice.
But think for a moment. Who were the first hired? Most likely, the most able, the ones who met the owner’s expectations for a day’s worth of endurance on the sun-drenched hillsides. And the last hired? For whatever reason, their services were not sought today. Perhaps, they were not considered able-bodied enough. In this story we hear of a God who does not judge or reward people according to merely human standards of excellence. Rather, God gives all a chance, and rewards people according to divine standards of judgment! Our American “bootstrap” mentality about success and reward does not compute when one has no bootstraps... and God seems to understand!
What about that sower (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23) who scattered seed on good soil, on rocky soil, on thin soil and amid thorns? Is he blind? Is he careless? Or again, is he—according to Matthew, an image for God—fully aware of what’s happening and allowing for the seed to touch unlikely places? Perhaps God is more hopeful than we are. Or perhaps being fertile soil is a challenge to hearers. Think about how soil is made fertile: rain (tears), humus (difficulties), plowing (being broken), and so on. Either way, Jesus challenges our images both of “the good” human life and of God.
“Good Al-Qaeda member”
Finally, we hear one of the most popular parables of Jesus when a scholar of the Mosaic Law asks Jesus to define the meaning of one’s “neighbor” whom the faithful Jew should love as oneself (Luke 10:25-37). People who help strangers in need, and even hospitals, bear the name of “Good Samaritan.” But for Jesus’ hearers calling a Samaritan ‘good’ would be tantamount to our saying a “good Al-Qaeda member.” Jesus’ compatriots hated the Samaritans, so for him to make a Samaritan the hero of his story (over the official religious personnel, a Levite and a priest!!!) was outrageous. After creatively forcing the lawyer to admit that the Samaritan alone had demonstrated genuine neighborliness, Jesus went on to say, “Go and do likewise.” That means, go and treat your “enemy” with the same generosity and compassion as this Samaritan did.
Hearing the parables anew with “first-century ears” sometimes makes them less lovely, but may make them more effective in our lives today. Blessed are they who hear the Word of God and keep it!Sr. Honora Werner, O.P. is a member of the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell NJ. In addition to her responsibilities on the Province Team, she has served the American church for decades in the Dominican ministry of preaching, and a variety of educational endeavors from early childhood to major seminary.
Illustrations: John Everett Millais, wood engraving illustrating the Parable of the Lost Coin, c. 1864; Hieronymus Bosch, painting of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, c. 1490-1505; Renate Formanski, pottery tile in Alsenborn, 20th C.