25 March 2019

Bible Study on the Parables of Jesus Continues

gThe Bible study we began at my parish six or seven weeks ago (this week's sessions are the sixth of eight meetings) has been going well. My sense of the power of Jesus' parables has only been strengthened. In the past two sessions we spent 4 hours on just two parables in Matthew! (Ordinarily we break for 20-25 minutes to do individual lectio but for both of these parables folks were so engaged and the discussion so lively that we continued through the entire 2 hours; it was exhausting and exhilarating all at once.) What we were reading were, 1) Matt 18:23-34, the parable of the unmerciful or unforgiving servant (tomorrow's Gospel lection!), and 2) Matt 20:1-15, the parable of the workers in the vineyard. These particular stories of Jesus are often referred to as "antithetical" parables, that is, parables that say, "the Kingdom of God is NOT like this;" or "the Kingdom of God is opposed/antithetical to this."  In both of these I came to see the parable very differently than I once did and certainly came to a more profound sense of why it was Jesus' preaching could have gotten him crucified! Commentators who speak of such parables point out how Jesus' parables are examples of subversive speech, stories which undermine the dominant political, economic, and religious structures of the day. (cf William Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech, Jesus as Pedagogue to the Oppressed)

At the heart of the way Jesus' parables do this is the insight that sometimes we are so enmeshed in a situation that we can't even see ourselves as oppressed. When that is the case we need someone to hold a mirror up which reveals our own situation to us, which allows us to begin to think of ourselves in different terms, and which, when all goes well,  can challenge and empower us to change our society and our own lives to those of greater dignity and freedom. In the parable of the unmerciful servant the key question we must ask ourselves is, "Does the king in this parable represent God?" If the answer is yes, we will be led to say many things about divine justice, divine mercy, the actions taken by the servants, and the nature of the Kingdom of God which we would never say if we answered "No, the king in this parable does not represent God." Beyond this, the next questions we must ask ourselves are, "If the king represents (or does not represent) God, then for whom is this parable good news and why? For whom is it not and why not?"

The general opinion of both our morning and evening group was that the king was not a stand in for God in this parable. (A similar conclusion was shared by most --- but not all -- of us with regard to the Master of the Vineyard in the second parable.) The king did show the servant great mercy but this was sandwiched in between terrible harshness and merely served to demonstrate the tragic inconsistency and instability of a kingdom built around a human autocrat and despot. In the end we discussed the difference between human justice and the powerful and consistent mercy of God that does justice and how very difficult it is in our world to try to accept and live this mercy consistently. We simply do not trust it sufficiently, nor are our institutions structured to mediate this in a consistent or powerful way.

Sin is still at work in our world; it is present in everything we build or create and we are enmeshed in it in ways which make it almost impossible to see ourselves clearly or envision things differently. Jesus' parables -- and this is certainly true of the parable of the unmerciful servant -- give us a unique place to stand from which we can question everything we take for granted otherwise: our notions of justice and mercy, our sense that these complete one another, a sense that God's justice is the same as our own --- only writ very large, the sense that mercy is the weaker and exceptional element in the equation justice and mercy, the notion that if there is a heaven there must also be a hell where we are turned over to torturers as in the parable, and so forth.   If sin is at work, the parables are a place where grace reigns and can be encountered and allowed to embrace and change us. When we step into these unique stories, these sacred spaces where we meet the God Jesus knows intimately, we can begin to allow God to free us of the enmeshment that makes us so blind to the systemic evil that touches and tragically distorts everything we know. This is part of the power of Jesus' parables part of the way these often not-so-simple stories reveal a divine power which is made perfect in weakness.

Perhaps over time the mirror that Jesus holds up and the mercy he reveals (i.e., the mercy Jesus makes known and makes real in space and time) can lead those who are oppressed to a different world where God's mercy is sovereign, but in the meantime the questions these pose to his hearers include, "Can you believe that the God I reveal is not like this king only writ-infinitely-large? Can you believe that the God whose presence I mediate is not like this Vineyard owner only writ-large? Can you find it within yourselves to trust that the Kingdom I am proclaiming as being at-hand in my teaching and touching is vastly different from and even antithetical to the economic and political realms of this world --- and often to the religious ones as well? Can you trust that the way I assert my rights over this world, the way I do justice and set all things to rights, is through a greater mercy than you have ever known or even imagined? Can you trust that your own value, your own worth and dignity is infinite in my eyes, no matter the ways sin has degraded you?  Can you trust all this and build your lives on it? Will you do this?"

Jesus' parables can easily be domesticated; it takes little effort to turn them into quaint religious stories with some kind of comforting moral. When we do this they are neither truly good news for us or for anyone else except those who are comfortable in their current positions of power and privilege. But Jesus' stories are meant to turn things on their heads, they are meant to subvert the oppressive structures of this world and replace them with the Word of a God who frees and proclaims the dignity of the degraded, the anawim ("little ones") and marginalized of our world. Ash Wednesday found us marked with the cross and commissioned to "Repent and believe in the Gospel." As we move through our Lenten journey to the culmination of Jesus' life in death and resurrection we are asked to examine where we have placed our trust or found our true worth and dignity. If Jesus' parables, including his "antithetical parables" are genuinely Good News to us then perhaps they can empower us to make Jesus' prayer our own in ways that allow God's  "will (to) be done and (his) kingdom (to) come on earth as it is in heaven." I sincerely hope so!