Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Imagine a World 1

ImagineaWorld.jpgParables sometimes get a bum rap. For too many and for too long Christians have read the parables as illustrations of propositions found more clearly in other texts. So, it is argued, Jesus gives a parable about the pearl of great price — a parable that seemingly tells his followers to give it all up for the value of that pearl. The story, so it is understood, is almost cute and surely it is clever, but if you want the real stuff, go to Luke 9:57-62 where Jesus tells people point-blank to follow him regardless of the cost.

In other word, parables are “just” stories. Just illustrations. The real stuff can be found in more didactic passages.
Not so. Not so. And this approach to parables is a serious blunder. Jesus told parable after parable, and the parables are not just illustrations. Parables are fictional stories depicting an alternative world. The essence of his parables probe into this mindset he wants from his followers: Imagine a world like this. The story, the parable, takes you into its world where you will encounter a short or a little longer sketch of a reality, of a world, of what the world could be — if people were to live like this. The parable invites you into an imagined world.
How have parables been read in your context? What has helped your understand parables the most?
In other words, perhaps the propositional statements of Jesus, like Luke 9:57-62, are the bare  bones and the parables put flesh and bones and real world life on that outlined set of statements.
Hence a new series beginning today: Imagine a world (like this). If we have eyes to see and ears to hear and a mind to imagine, when we get into the world of Jesus’ individual parables, we will be challenged to live in a world that is only beginning to come into existence in this world. That world is called “kingdom of God.”

You know what it’s like to enter into the fictional world of a novel, say To Kill a Mockingbird or The Help. Two things happen: you are engrossed by that world and that world engrosses you. You enter, it changes the one who enters, and you re-enter the world a new person with a new vision of what life can be.

Who’s not had that happen by reading a novel or entering into the fictional world of a move or a song? 
That’s what happens in the parables of Jesus. We enter into the storied world of Jesus, we see the world through that story, and we come away with a new vision of what might be … and we begin to live it out.
The secret to Jesus’ “imagine a world” stories are that they are short and they do their work in a just a few lines. So we have to listen carefully and we have to imagine deeply. When we do, we come in touch with God’s kingdom. We come in touch with Jesus. We come away changed.

We will be reading through Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus

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John W Frye

posted July 26, 2010 at 7:53 am

The parables of Jesus suffer the Hollywood Oscar syndrome–only a few win the Oscar like “The Prodigal Son” and “the Good Samaritan.” As illustrations, they show us salvation at work and how to live a compassionate life. We want to make them fit our world rather than letting them lead us into the new world–the kingdom of God. What average Christian ponders this very short parable: Luke 6:39?

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posted July 26, 2010 at 8:39 am

Thanks for posting this. I grew up in the school of epistles over gospels, propositional over parable. Which basically meant that the systematic theologies fit the epistles better than the gospels.
But, one of the strengths of parables is their ability to keep their power and resist neat assimilation or muzzling by systematic schemes that try to turn them on their head or something similar. Parables are, ironically, stronger than straightforward didactic statements in that regard. For instance, Jesus can teach directly as he does about the centrality of showing mercy and forgiveness which we manage to overlook or bend easily enough to fit our systematics, but the parables always sounded a louder alarm in me and rang that bell longer when they didn’t fit in the systematics I had been taught. When they’re being blown off, they’re like a raspberry seed you just can’t get out of your teeth.

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Matt D.

posted July 26, 2010 at 9:13 am

Ha! The Oscar Hollywood syndrome! I think I can relate to that in my tradition.

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posted July 26, 2010 at 9:30 am

Jesus used the power of imagination to reach the soul in the deepest parts where only He can reach. By using parables, He fulfilled Scriptures of the prophets (Isa. 6: 9, 10). God had hardened Israel’s heart so that they couldn’t understand plain truth and when they did, they didn’t repent, but turned against Him and history shows the result of envy. Since the Kingdom of God is something intangable, Jesus had a way of bringing it to life in the minds and hearts of those who would hear and those who would see and those who would be willing to understand with their heart.
Good post. Your first paragraph captured my attention.

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Dr Mike

posted July 26, 2010 at 10:12 am

To answer your questions: I’m not sure what my “context” is but I can tell you my experience. And the first affects the second somewhat.
1. I grew up spiritually listening to Haddon Robinson preach the parables. Just hearing him helped me realize that these were not mere stories.
2. Haddon’s presence drew me to Denver and seminary in the ’80s, where I was “forced” to study hermeneutics. But, more than that, Snodgrass’ book has been extremely valuable in my approach and study of the parables. Looking forward to what insights you might have.

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Wyatt Roberts

posted July 26, 2010 at 10:40 am

The book I found most helpful in understanding the parables is The Secret Message of Jesus by Brian McLaren. While I have many disagreements with McLaren, this was the first book that really allowed me to see the parables within a historical, first century context (prior to that, I had always heard the parables taught as a loosely connected series of timeless truths). This book was revolutionary…not to mention that it led me to N.T. Wright.
I look forward to reading this blog series.

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Randy G.

posted July 26, 2010 at 11:53 am

Thank you Scot for this post.
T(2) I grew up in the world you describe, and when I began reading Madeliene L’Engle, Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and similar imaginative authors I chucked the Epistles for a few years. Thankfully a gifted pastor and N. T. Wright and others brought me back to the Epistles. I do recommend L’Engle, particularly her “Walking on Water: Thoughts on Faith and Art,” and any of Kenneth Bailey’s works.
I used to read thinking of two sorts of people. Some proceed like >, trying to narrow down truth to its exact statements, while others proceed like

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kevin s.

posted July 26, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Do churches really emphasize the didactic passages over the parables? In my experience, it is often the other way around. A famous parable is applied to a situation, with little understanding of the instructional framework, which often includes other parables.
John Frye mentioned Luke 6:39, which, of course, sets up 6:41. And yet, how often do we here the speck/plank passage quoted as though it teaches us not to offer any admonishment or discernment? How often are we told to withhold judgment on the basis of 6:37, a direction which ignores 38-41?

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posted July 26, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Kevin s.,
Well, you have two witnesses here saying that it happened in at least a couple of churches, and 3 if you add Scot’s intro. Maybe we’ve experienced a small minority, but I doubt it. I can add that I grew up going to mostly SBC churches and non-denom conservative evangelical schools, and the theology was pretty heavily built from the didactic passages, mostly Paul’s epistles. The Calvinist reformed or Lutheran branches tend strongly this way, IMO. Many of Jesus’ stories (or even direct teachings) just don’t fit those systematics really well, so they are minimized in one way or another.
I’m glad that’s not your experience though.

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posted July 26, 2010 at 2:18 pm

Kevin s:
Just to stack the deck a little more, my experience has also been that the didactic passages were much more stressed than parables or story.
In fact, I distinctly remember a young adult class in which the whole point was to discover the hidden nuggets of truth in each parable. The things that didn’t fit or that challenged the discovery were ignored. We covered the speck/plank passage, and I believe arrived at the wrong answer. This was years ago.
In any case, the church I now attend just outside of Minneapolis has a similar problem. I’ve been trying to stress reading scripture as a grand narrative, but have gotten some pushback because I don’t let passage X from Romans trump everything else.
I suppose I’m saying that the problem Scot is speaking to applies not only to parables, but to other Biblical writing as well.

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Michelle Van Loon

posted July 26, 2010 at 2:41 pm

William Barclay said “…parables are not carefully composed works of art, but sudden, lovely improvisations in the dust of heat and conflict.”
Ironic captcha: genteel of

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kevin s.

posted July 26, 2010 at 3:13 pm

So, for those churches which emphasize the didactic passages, which were emphasized?
It sounds as though your church was studying the parables, endeavoring to glean nuggets of truth. Isn’t that the approach this post is advocating?
There are wrong answers to the speck/plank passage. If there weren’t, then the argument that didactic teaching should be primary holds some weight.

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posted July 26, 2010 at 3:28 pm

I can very much identify with seeing the parables “within a historical, first century context” as being of extreme importance. Seeing them for the first time through that perspective opened up a new world for me and deepened my faith. Likewise for the writings of N.T. Wright, though I think discovering Wright led be in the direction of wanting to learn more about the historical, 1st century context of Jesus and the New Testament.
Brad Young’s “The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation” is another book that I found very helpful in my understanding the parables and in better understanding the tradition and world in which he was born. Very good book.

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Tim Stafford

posted July 26, 2010 at 4:04 pm

For me, it’s been helpful to realize that the OT word for proverb is frequently rendered “parable” in the LXX. I don’t find the idea of entering into a fictional world so helpful, because it seems to encourage people to invent detail, color and personality (such as we find in fiction) that are clearly purposely missing in the parable. To get a proverb requires living within its bare-bones puzzle until it makes sense and becomes part of your mental furniture. Grasping a parable is something like that too. You live with it. You let it speak to you.
Also note: some parables are very like stories (prodigal son) but more are like proverbs (the kingdom is like yeast).

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posted July 26, 2010 at 4:38 pm

Kevin s.:
To me, the following statement from Scot shapes the point of his post:
“For too many and for too long Christians have read the parables as illustrations of propositions found more clearly in other texts.”
I don’t know exactly where Scot is going with this topic, but we’ll see.
As for the class I was in, the parables were “just” illustrations, as Scot put it. For instance, the parable of the prodigal son was discussed in this class, and the didactic proposition was “God hates sin”. This is a good proposition, but I believe the parable in Luke (and the surrounding progression of parables) is a story about a God who gives up dignity to penetrate and redeem from sin, and a critique of those who want a God who would do otherwise.
I suppose that this is my problem with the “nuggets of truth” technique – it seems to encourage picking up a story to mine out propositions without careful consideration of why the story is being told. Like I said before, this happens in more than just the parables. (The Christmas story comes to mind, but that’s way off topic.)

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posted July 26, 2010 at 6:50 pm

Kevin s.,
I’m sure there’s some variance on which didactics got emphasis from church to church, but the more reformed-influenced camps that I grew up in focused on passages in Romans and Galatians, particularly as they concerned justification. I’m actually a little curious how many times I heard that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The Sermon on the mount popped up from time to time as a teaching to show how high and unreachable the glory of God really is. But Jesus’ teachings were much less common in my experience than Paul’s.

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Andy Holt

posted July 26, 2010 at 8:58 pm

I might be getting ahead of the conversation, but I want to know if any of you preachers have preached in parables, and if so, how that went over with your congregation.

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Drew Strait

posted July 27, 2010 at 8:56 am

Looking forward to this! I am preaching through the parables in Luke’s travel narrative this Fall.

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John W Frye

posted July 27, 2010 at 10:27 am

NT Wright has in his book *The Original Jesus* this little potent sentence: “Stories change the world.”

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