Parables: The Power of What Is Not There

If the irony weren’t too heavy, I would  say that I love reading the work of scholars because it gives me a chance to ask really simpleminded questions. I think of “scholarship” as digging ever more deeply into the technical infrastructure.

I can do a little of that when the occasion demands, but for me, the payoff comes when a whole new view of the world appears once you have worked through the scholarship.

For instance, what parables did Jesus hear as he was growing up?

Think about it. My study of parables has always begun with the parables Jesus told. So far as my experience is concerned—and experience is all I have to go on because I had never thought about it—the first parable the world has ever heard is recorded in Mark, Chapter 4.[1]

Now you do a bunch of study, some of which has to do with the use of parables in the Second Temple Period, and you realize all of a sudden that Jesus grew up hearing parables. And then, right after you get over that embarrassment, the fun starts. All these things that you had presupposed without any real thought, come tumbling down like as papier mâché fort under siege.

Parables take the existing culture for granted. That is what enables them to meet all the cultural expectations…until the final moment when those expectations are discarded or defied. We look, as we should, at the unexpected changes, but let’s take just a moment to look at an example of what is expected.

This is Jimmy Smits playing the part of Matt Santos on The West Wing. Rep. Santos is addressing the Democratic National Convention. He has been told to withdraw from the race for the good of the party. A speech has been written for him doing exactly that.

If you know what you are looking at—my apologies for the poor quality of the.Teleprompter.jpegpicture—you know he is not going to do what he was asked to do. How do you know that? Because there is nothing on the teleprompter. What’s a teleprompter? Well…do you see how Santos’ face is (nearly) framed by a window. It is extremely significant that there is nothing on the window. To understand how important that is, you need to know what is supposed to be on the window. Santos’ speech withdrawing from the race is supposed to be there.

But if you don’t know that, how will you know that it is important that he is shown through a window with no writing on it?

That’s what parables are like. If you don’t know what was supposed to be there, you don’t understand how significant it is that nothing was there at all. Any modern person who had become accustomed to teleprompters will see right away what is not there. That’s true about biblical parables, too. Only you have to know what was supposed to be there.

The key to Ken Bailey’s analysis of the story that is ordinarily called “the prodigal son,” requires a missing line. [3] Bailey shows that the second half of the story is organized in what Bailey calls “inverted parallelism.” That means that the major elements of the story proceed in a very orderly way (A, B, C, D) and then recede in an inverted order (D’, C’, B’ A’). This is as clear to a teller of parables as the glass on Matt Santos’ teleprompter is to a Santos supporter who knows there is supposed to be a speech on it.

The powerful part of the Santos picture is that what everyone knows should be on the teleprompter is not there. The powerful thing about the inverted order of the parable is that A’ is not there. Everyone knows it ought to be there. Everyone expects it. And it is not there. And as with Santos, the meaning of the parable is that A’ is not there. It is not included in any document of Luke ever found and Bailey argues that it is not supposed to be there. The meaning of the parable is that it is not there.

parable 1You see, Jesus adapted the parables he told based on the conventions of parable-telling. He devised these conventions by listening to parables his whole childhood and early adulthood. He liked some and didn’t like others. He saw possibilities in some that others had not seen or had not used. He didn’t start off in Mark 4 by explaining what a parable was; he began by using an established form—a popular, rather than a scholarly form—to preach to the crowds.[3]

I have not emerged yet from this second round of complexity and perhaps I never will. I’m not really worried about it. I like the complexity. But always, as I work on complicated questions, I remember the possibility that I might emerge suddenly with a new and blindingly simple perspective. After all, I tell myself, it has happened before.

[1] Or Mark 2 if you think the analogy of the wine and the wineskins is a “parable.”
[2] This reflects the commonly held notion of the “three stages” of gospel development. The first is the actions and words of Jesus as witnessed by by-standers; the second is the development of those experiences and their adaptation to the various settings where the preachers offered them; the third is the stage of the written gospels. They are what we have to work with directly.
[3] Kenneth D. Bailey, Poet and Peasant

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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