Marr on the Parables

Excerpt from Andrew Marr’s Moving and Resting in God’s Desire: A Spirituality of Peace [St. Gregory’s Abbey, 2016], pages 108-14.


Jesus’ actions were teachings that we could say were parables in action. Many prophets acted out parables, such as Jeremiah walking about with a yoke over his shoulders to warn the people that they were about to fall under the yoke of Babylon. (Jer. 27:2) Such prophetic actions were like the guerrilla theater that was so popular in the Sixties. The spoken parables usually tell a story that has some action. The word “parable” literally means “something thrown or placed beside.” We would expect, then, that just as Jesus’ actions often had figurative meanings, that his parables would be stories with meanings below the surface. As Jesus’ actions challenge to us to see the truth of how we relate with one another and with him, we would expect that his spoken parables would also deal with the same complexities of relationships, and that is indeed what we find.

One brief parable Jesus told are about two brothers, asked by their father to work in the vineyard. One said he would go but he didn’t, the other said he wouldn’t go but then he did. Which did the will of the father? (Mt. 21:28-32) Jesus’ listeners took the bait and took sides, but I don’t think that is the way to respond. Short as this parable is, it suggests that the two brothers are embroiled in mimetic rivalry to the extent that they always say the opposite of what the other says and do the opposite as well. That is, they react to each other and not at all to the father. Both then, have failed to respond to the father and both are in need of forgiveness and mercy. When Jesus responds to his listeners by pointing out that tax collectors and prostitutes believed John the Baptist and they didn’t, he is hinting that the victims of their mimetic rivalry are entering the Kingdom ahead (and maybe instead) of them.

The Parable of the Sower is given prominence in Mark’s Gospel. (Mk. 4:1-20) I used to think the parable asked us what kind of soil we are, and that has some truth to it, but now I think that each type of soil represents not so much individuals as social environments. Thorns that choke the seed suggest social systems that aggressively engulf everybody and leave no room for anything but thorns begetting more thorns. A pathway is a social area where everything on it is trampled. Nothing can take root on a pathway that is only used to get from one place to another. The rocky soil suggests a hard-hearted environment. The more hard-hearted people there are in a social system, the more people will protect themselves through hard-heartedness. The good soil, of course, stands for a social climate receptive to the Word, where everybody nurtures everybody else so that fruit increases exponentially. Jesus’ explication of the parable also has social themes. On the pathway, Satan snatches the Word away, an indication of mimetic rivalry taking over. The rocky soil represents a persecutory society. The thorns represent an overwhelming acquisitiveness that chokes compulsive getters and spenders.

It is discouraging enough that three of the four kinds of soil are so inhospitable to the seed (the Word). It is even more discouraging when Jesus says he speaks in parables so that “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.” (Mk. 4:12) These words echo Yahweh’s words to Isaiah before sending the prophet out on his mission. (Isa. 6:10) It isn’t that Jesus wants to be rejected, but the social system is so strong and hard that words alone aren’t nearly enough. We all know from hard experience how difficult it is to convince a person who is going down the tubes through addiction or some other destructive behavior to try and turn things around. Mimetic rivalry itself acts as a kind of addiction that has a strong grasp on us. Telling rivals to stop fighting doesn’t often end well, but it is important to try. The encouraging thing to note is that the sower doesn’t just look for the promising soil and throw the seed there; the sower throws the seed everywhere, on the worst soil as well as the best. That is, God is planting the seeds of God’s Word in each of us, not giving up on any of us because of our thorniness, rootlessness, or hardness. Jesus shows us this generosity by calling people like Matthew or visiting people like Zacchaeus, neither of whom looked like good soil. Jesus’ Parable of the Lost Sheep also assures us that Jesus never considers anybody to be irrevocably lost.

Jesus’ Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds (Mt. 13:24-30) throws out the challenge to deal with the discomfort that comes from having to put up with people we don’t like. The end of the parable, however, and the explanation afterwards seem to give us the comfort of knowing that the people we don’t like will get it in the end. Or does it?

The image of a field densely filled with intertwined plants is easily seen as an image of our entanglement with the desires of other people. Each person who wants something we want that we don’t think can be shared is an enemy, a weed who should be pulled out and expelled from the garden. In such a situation, each of us is prone to consider ourselves one of the desirable plants and the others weeds. Of course, when we are preoccupied with how “weedy” everybody else is, we are totally wrapped up with them in our hostility. It is easy, then, to understand this parable as teaching us to mind our own business and not worry about everybody else. The trouble with this interpretation is that we are all in the thick of this garden, and we need to find a constructive way to live with everybody else in it. A deeper interpretation that is often offered, and one I have much sympathy with, is that we should commend everybody else to God and let God deal with them. To make this work, we have to commend ourselves to God as well. Otherwise, we are apt to think that we are commending those bad guys to God but we are good guys who can take care of ourselves.

If we give this parable a Christological interpretation, everything looks different. In being the stone rejected by the builders, Jesus was a weed. That’s the way Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, and Herod saw him. Jesus identified himself with a lot of “weeds” on the way to the cross, such as The Woman Who Was a Sinner who washed his feet at Simon’s house. Every planter knows that it can be difficult to tell an intended plant from a weed. This is why well-intentioned but uninformed “helpers” are the bane of gardeners. If we try to weed out the garden based on our own judgment, we are likely to weed out Jesus himself.

The explanation of the parable seems to be at cross-purposes with the parable itself. Many scholars absolve Jesus of having ever given it, relegating the explanation to a later redactor of the text. Or, we can argue that Jesus was giving us a parody of what an obtuse listener who lacks ears to hear takes away from the parable, as Paul Nuechterlein suggests on his site Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary. The trouble is, self-righteousness takes us to such extremes that it is impossible to parody. Let’s take a look at where the “explanation” takes us. First, we become preoccupied with weeding out the undesirable plants. Second, we identify with the angels who weed the garden. Third, we think we shine in righteousness, which blinds us to our self-righteousness. That is, we play the role of God. The end result is the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth for everybody and no harvest for anybody.

If we look forward to harvesting, as opposed to weeding, we get a totally different understanding that fits well with the parable itself. When it comes to harvesting, weeds just don’t matter. The only thing that does matter is picking the fruits and bringing them in so they can give sustenance to others. When it’s all about harvesting, things start to look a lot like the heavenly banquet that all of us can share without worrying about who is wheat and who is a weed.

There is a curious pair of parables, both of which have troublesome and troubling variants in a different Gospel. These are the Parable of the Wedding Feast and the Parable of the Talents. Luke’s version of the Parable of the Banquet (Lk. 14:16-24) works well with its traditional and attractive interpretation that God is throwing a great party and everybody is welcome, even, perhaps especially, the outcasts, Matthew’s version, which I will examine below, is so different that it could be considered a different parable that uses the image of a banquet. Here, the king acts much more like a tyrant than a gracious and generous host. In Matthew’s version of the Parable of the Talents, (Mt. 25:14-30) the traditional interpretation that God gives us talents, some greater than others, that we are expected to do something with, works reasonably well. Even here, the Master is harsh, but there is plenty of room for Raymund Schwager’s interpretation that the third servant is projecting a violent image on the Master that prevents him from seeing the generosity of the Gift-Giver. (Schwager 1999, 65) It won’t do to attribute these differences to the different emphases of Matthew and Luke (with Luke being “nicer”) because each has a violent variant and a kinder variant. Let us look at Matthew’s version of the Parable of the Wedding Banquet first. (Mt. 22:1-14)

Here, the king’s invitation is met with violence, which the king reciprocates with interest, and then he ejects a man who isn’t dressed properly and has him thrown out into outer darkness. The severe dissonance of these details inclines me to consider alternate interpretations of this parable from taking it as an allegory of the “heavenly banquet.” Marty Aiken has written a detailed paper arguing for just such an alternative understanding. He argues that Jesus’ listeners would have immediately thought of King Herod when they heard the parable. The king in the parable certainly acts like Herod. These listeners would have remembered Herod bringing an army to Jerusalem and asking the people to accept him as king. If the offer was accepted, Herod would have consummated the deal by marrying the granddaughter of the high priest Hyrcanus. There’s our wedding feast. The people of Jerusalem turned down the offer. Herod withdrew but then came back with his army and stormed the walls without stopping to negotiate. Antigonus, a descendant of the royal family, gave himself up to quell a violent situation. He was carried off in chains and beheaded by the Romans.

With this background in mind, we can see the guests who “made light of’ the invitation as representing those who went home when Herod came calling and hoped everything would blow over. The other invited guests represent those who resisted Herod with violence. Both groups of guests are met with violent reprisals from the king in the parable. The rounding up of guests to replace the first lot is not, then, an act of charity for the poor but a forced gathering of whoever the king’s slaves could find.

With this interpretation, the cryptic scene of the man without a proper wedding garment makes sense as being the second part of the same parable and not a separate parable tacked on to it. The king seems to be looking for a victim and he finds one handy, one who stands out by his attire. Like most kings, this one knows that the quickest way to unite a people is to focus on a victim. Moreover, this guest seems to be what we might call a nonviolent protestor, which is obviously threatening to the king. This guest’s eerie silence suggests Jesus’ silence before Pilate, which Matthew emphasizes. Aiken points out that grammatically, the king could have been the speechless one, which would refer to Isaiah 52:15, which says that kings will “shut their mouths” because of the Suffering Servant. The fate of this guest is the fate Jesus himself suffers and which had already been the fate of Antigonus. In this parable, the Kingdom of Heaven is not the banquet but the place of the victim who is cast out. Aiken recalls Jesus’ words in Mt. 11:12, that up to this time, the Kingdom has “suffered violence.” And so it does.

Along with Luke’s version of this parable, the real image of the Messianic Banquet in the Gospels is the feeding of the five thousand and four thousand in the wilderness. Here is a generous feeding to all comers with no reprisals for anybody who happened to stay away. No political force is exerted in the invitation. Nobody gets thrown out for being badly dressed. The poor are not afterthoughts, invited only to replace ungrateful aristocrats. The poor as well as the rich are all invited right from the start. The banquet offered by Jesus in the wilderness, away from the centers of worldly power, shows the king’s banquet in the parable for what it is. Instead of an offer we cannot refuse, Jesus gives us an offer that we do not wish to refuse.

Matthew’s version of this parable suggests a deep concern with the principalities and powers, much as his exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac does. Luke’s version of the Parable of the Talents (Lk. 19:11-26) suggests these same concerns. Here, “the Nobleman” is leaving to attempt to acquire a royal title, which suggests he could stand in for Herod (again) who made the same journey. The violent ending where the Nobleman orders that his enemies be cut in pieces sounds more like Herod than Jesus’ heavenly Abba. Here, like the guest without the wedding garment, the servant who does nothing with the talent is more like a resistor against the oppressive social system than someone too lazy to use what talent he has.

I am not interested in trying to figure out which variants of the parables are authentic because I have no reason to deny the authenticity of any of them. It seems just as likely that Jesus would throw out a parable and then see another way it can go and throw it out again in a way that points it in a different direction. This would be especially likely if Jesus were to see more deeply into the oppressiveness of the imperial system as time went on. If parables sometimes change in Jesus’ telling, it should not surprise us that they keep changing as we reflect on them.

This is an example of empire criticism that gives us a fresh look at many parables of Jesus. Empire criticism notes ways for how empire may have affected some parts of scripture. Given the power of the Roman Empire over the lives of Jews in Palestine, it should not be surprising if some of Jesus’ teaching should reflect this reality. The cryptic Parable of the Corrupt Steward also benefits from this approach. (Lk. 16: 1-9) The steward was given notice that his employment was coming to an end, so he decided to feather his nest by giving favorable financial terms to those who owed his master money. In an oral presentation, Brian McLaren noted that this steward, like many characters in Jesus’ parables, was a middle man in the power structure. In this respect, he was like Matthew and Zacchaeus, who had the job of extracting money from people below them and giving it to those above them. McLaren then suggested that those of us in such middle positions are being prompted to be generous to those poorer and weaker than themselves ourselves rather than strengthening the powerful. It takes this kind of clever trickster to sneak around the powers of empire.

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