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The Parable and Me

Posted on: April 14, 2019

Category: Theology

The Parable and Me

Quest Thoughts: The Parable and Me

I am reading Bob Funk on parables, and one of the good comments he relays is that we do not interpret parables. Parables interpret us. Funk takes this comment from what was called the "new hermeneutic" or new interpretation. This method (new in the 1950s and '60s) sought to understand the cultural conditions out of which a text, like a parable, arose, and how the text is like an event (a cultural-linguistic event) that addresses human existential (or living) conditions. This may sound complicated, but at the heart of the matter is the question, How does one culture from times past address our culture today?

If we take the premise seriously, the premise that a parable from times past can speak to and interpret us today, then we have the beginnings of an existential question. The question is, How does the parable interpret me? It is interesting that many scholars, even Funk, avoid this question. Scholars will repeat that the parable opens a horizon to an unfinished world, that the parable pressed an alternative reality against our everyday expectations, and that the parable is, therefore, a metaphor, something that carries us over to a different field of life (a different jurisdiction of reality). These images and thoughts are fascinating, complex, and literary, but they do not answer the question that started the analysis, which is how does the parable interpret me?

The answer to that question lies in addressing what you or I may have noticed at first in the parable's telling. When I first heard the parable of the Good Samaritan, I was only a boy and had no clue that the Samaritan was, from the point of view of ancient Jews, an incredibly vile figure. At the time, I could only hear the story in my cultural setting and with the expectations that environment had placed upon me. So, like many people before and since, I heard the parable tell me to be good, compassionate, and considerate of others in their plight and pain. In hearing the parable that way, I was "interpreted" by the parable as a middle-class Canadian taught to be nice. As a boy, the parable could not challenge me; it could only reinforce me in the prejudices of my culture of birth.

It is clear that the "new hermeneutic" made a good point. It is only when thinking about our own culture and what the parable says to us in our own setting that a second and more important question can be asked. Has the parable said enough to me? In my personal case, the parable of the Good Samaritan did not say enough to me; time and cultural difference meant that it missed its mark. It's amazing, to a certain degree, given the distance of my culture from the culture of the historical Jesus, that the parable could have said anything at all. It is amazing it was able to convey compassion to me. Still, it did not alter my cultural prejudices.

So, the second question becomes the key question to anyone who takes seriously a religious quest. The first step is understanding what we hear when we are addressed with a story, a philosophy, or an insight of some kind. Honesty is needed to admit what we heard. But then the work starts. The second question is about what we did not hear. In order to be altered in a spiritual sense, it is necessary to hear what was not heard and to confess, in the unhearing, what needs to be heard. If I return to my own story, I needed to hear in the Samaritan parable that my enemy can be trusted. This means that the enemies I have created in my imagination and the enemies that my cultural setting has often named for me and taught me to fear do not really exist. Instead of allowing prejudices to rule my life I, and many with me, need to hear that prejudices create false views of the world and inhibit the growth and maturity of the self. A good parable does not just imagine an alternative world. That's only its first act. In the second act, a good parable imagines an alternative self.

There have been many great voices in history from people who have imagined an alternative world, but that world can only come about with alternative people. The personal work involved in admitting what we never heard or understood before, and what changes us consequently, is rarely undertaken in common life. Yet that is the challenge of a true religious quest. A true religious quest is about an alternative self who can live in an alternative world. When we ask ourselves whether we are really prepared to live in a world of fair taxation, equality of citizens, universal education and health care, and not having automatic privileges related to our skin colour or sexual identity, we are asking whether our spiritual journey is more than an alternative vision. We are asking whether our spiritual journey is also about an alternative self.

©By David Galston

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