Jesus' parables: Where do you read yourself in?

In preparation for a workshop at the New York Catholic Bible Summit, I have been exploring the ways in which Jesus' parables can be defamiliarized for seasoned Christians. The parables can lose some of their dramatic force through repetition over the years. How many times have you heard the Good Samaritan? When it comes up again in the lectionary next month, will your mind wander, since you know every word of the story by heart? How can we hear the parables anew?

One method for refreshing the parables is to experiment with where one "reads oneself in" to the story. Many of the parables speak to multiple audiences at the same time, as when the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16) brings comfort to the poor, while also rousing the rich from complacency. Parables about sin and mercy, such as that of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18), invite listeners to read themselves in to both characters at different moments in life. It's also among the most clever of the parables because once you imagine yourself as the tax collector ("I'm like the tax collector, a humble sinner, and definitely not like that pompous Pharisee"), then you automatically become more like the Pharisee. The oxymoronic pride in one's own humility springs the rhetorical trap of the story: most of us are both Pharisee and tax collector.

Even that most famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) can be revitalized through this exercise. Many readers read ourselves in as the Samaritan -- of course, the exhortation "Go and do likewise" commands us in this way. But many Christians around the world feel themselves to have more in common with the man in the ditch, as evidenced by research about biblical exegesis in poor communities. Indeed, the oldest extant artistic rendering of this parable (as far as I am aware) titles the parable, "Concerning the man who fell among thieves" (illumination 7 in the Rossano Gospels). Where we read ourselves in sometimes relates to the titles we give the stories (cf. the "prodigal son").

One of the best interpretations of the Good Samaritan develops by imagining oneself in to the characters of the priest and the Levite. Why didn't they stop? What was on their minds? Maybe they had perfectly good reasons -- the same kinds that we ourselves give when we pass by? I am referring to a middle section of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Mountaintop" speech (April 3, 1968). We all know the prophetic ending of that speech, but less known is the eloquent interpretation of this parable in the middle (audio starts about the 29:00 minute mark; text here). For King, this is a parable about two things: race and fear. But I don't want to steal King's thunder by summarizing his take, and it's worth a listen.

In our own society, then, where are our parables about race? What would Jesus tell today? Hard to say, but it's possible that he would have been making short viral videos. Yes, I'm serious. When I think of what medium affects me in the ways that Jesus' parables likely affected his audiences, I often think of the many excellent, short videos that circulate on the web. I'll leave you with one example, a kind of 21st-century parable about race. Granted, this one is not fiction, but a presentation of a social experiment. Nonetheless, it brings for me the same sense of discomfort and self-scrutiny that many of Jesus' parables also evoke.

Where do we read ourselves in to this story?

 

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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