Friday, November 11, 2011

Imperfection in Parables

In the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, after Jesus gave the parable about sowing seeds on different kinds of soil, He revealed that the reason that He spoke in parables was to keep people from understanding His words, to keep them from repenting, as it was (incorrectly) prophesied. That leads into a string of even more parables.

Imperfection in Parables
From Christian pulpits, there is a tendency to exalt Jesus' parables to a status of perfection. They marvel at how effectively and accurately Jesus was able to explain the Kingdom of God to people through the use of parables. However, as we just learned, the reason that Jesus spoke in parables was to prevent certain people from understanding. So half of that position is wrong. What about the other half? Were the parables perfectly accurate representations? The interpretations of unexplained parables vary based on the scholars you refer to, so that is some proof to the contrary right there. We can go a step further and easily find ways in which the parables fall apart, and maybe have a little fun in the process.

In Matthew 13:24-30 is the Parable of the Tares, which is unique to Matthew. It says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who sows wheat in a field, only to have an enemy come a sow tares in that field while the farmer is sleeping. The farmer instructs his servants to wait until harvest time to pull out the weeds to avoid uprooting the wheat. The weeds will be pulled out first, and burned, and then the wheat will be harvested.

In the explanation of the parable in Matthew 13:36-43, God (Jesus) is the farmer and Satan is the weed-sowing enemy. The way that the parable is worded would suggest that Satan had planted the weeds unknown to God. That is a problem if God is really omniscient. So to be more accurate, the parable would say that the farmer sat and watched His enemy sow weeds in the field and did nothing to stop him. And in that case, you really have to question the farmer!

Also interesting is that, according to the parable, the weeds are gathered first before gathering the “sons of the Kingdom.” This creates a problem for people expecting a Rapture event where the good guys will be called up to Heaven prior to God unleashing His wrath on the world.

Switching over to Mark, he follows the Parable of the Sower with the Parable of the Growing Seed in Mark 4:26-29; a parable unique to Mark. The Kingdom of God is like a farmer who sows some seed, observes the crop growing all on its own, but he does not know how it grows, and then harvests the crop when it is ready. Because there is no given explanation for this parable, interpretations vary. However, it seems to suggest that very little effort at all would be needed to spread the faith and thereby enlarge the Kingdom, which is quite a contrast to the reality, which is presently a multi-billion-dollar affair requiring tons of effort.

Matthew 13:31-32 and Mark 4:30-32 then converge with the Parable of the Mustard Seed, which Luke 13:18-19 also records after Jesus healing a cripple woman on the Sabbath. The Kingdom of Heaven/God is like a tiny mustard seed growing into a tall shrub. So you see that that Kingdom start tiny, but grow large, but it would not be the only plant around, nor the strongest, nor the biggest, nor the most useful, etc.

Matthew 13:33 and Luke 13:20-21 then give the short Parable of the Leaven, a.k.a. Yeast. The Kingdom of Heaven/God is like a woman who mixes yeast into a large quantity of dough. Yeast, a bacteria, converts sugar (the sweet stuff of life) into alcohol (which clouds judgement) and the waste gas of carbon dioxide. Oh, maybe that parable is perfect after all. ;-)

There is a brief interlude where Matthew 13:34-35 and Mark 4:33-34 say that Jesus never spoke to the crowds without a parable. Mark says Jesus only explained the parables to His disciples in private, while Matthew misquotes Psalm 78:2. If you look at Psalm 78, the author is trying to tell everything, not hide anything through parables, so that the next generation will put their trust in God (Psalm 78:6-7). What makes this reference even funnier is that this Psalm was obviously written in a time before the concept of the afterlife existed, as can be seen by Psalm 78:39, which is given as the reason for God restraining His anger at the recurrent rebellion of the Israelites:
[God] remembered that they were but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return. NIV
Matthew continues in parables alone from here. In Mathew 13:44 is the Parable of the Hidden Treasure, in which the Kingdom of Heaven is a treasure which a man finds in a field, hides it again, and then buys that field from its owner, who is presumably unaware of the treasure. In other words, do whatever you can to get the Kingdom, even through deceptive means.

In Matthew 13:45-46 is the Parable of the Pearl. A pearl merchant finds a pearl of great price, and so he sells everything he has to get that pearl. Presumably unwilling to part with it, the man probably dies naked and starving clutching that pearl. Sméagol loves the pearl, oh yes, my precious...

Finally, in Matthew 13:47-52 is the Parable of the Net. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a big fishing net which caught all kinds of fish. After hauling it in, the fishermen separated out the good from the bad. If the Kingdom of Heaven is the net, then clearly some people who do not belong are going to make it into the Kingdom of Heaven, and then get kicked out. So, how sure are you of your Salvation? It is also pretty strange that God would call people into the Kingdom of Heaven who do not belong there, given that only those drawn by God will go (John 6:44).

This was all really just a fun exercise, but I believe that it effectively illustrates that not only are these parables far from perfect, but also without the proper interpretation given to the people who heard these parables would have been clueless to the truth when coming up with their own interpretations, which is apparently exactly how Jesus wanted them to be.

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