Playing with Parables

This past weekend, a group of about 45 people from saint benedict’s table headed out to Camp Cedarwood (and don’t let the word “camp” fool you… the place is pretty comfortable!) to spend a few days engaged in play (to see a pictorial review of the weekend, just click here)We played a heroic game of broomball, endless rounds of cards and board games, air hockey and foosball…  but most significantly we “played” in the parables of Jesus; What follows in this post is some of the material that informed our approach, liberally citing the work of Robert Farrar Capon.


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want to begin this weekend with a quote from the theologian who has more informed my reading of parables than has anyone else… Robert Farrar Capon.  This is from The Parables of the Kingdom, which is the first in Robert’s trilogy on the parables, wherein he sets out why we should be playful in our approach both to the parables specifically and to the scriptures in general:

… in high seriousness and with equally high glee, we should play with Scripture.  The (treasure) of the kingdom is not something to be kept in the attic and dragged out only on Sundays for loan exhibitions in museums; nor is it something that people should stare at only when wearing solemn faces and three-piece suits.  We may be the (masters) of the treasure of God, but we were meant first of all to spend huge amounts of time in the attic just poring over it and trying all of it for size.  And we were meant, above all, to invite the world up into the attic to play dress-up with us.  We are supposed to be kids, you see:  ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and prudent, and revealed them to babes.’  You can’t get more encouragement than that for holy horsing around.” (p. 173)

So, this weekend we’ll be doing a bit of “holy horsing around,” with parables as our starting point.  But first, a few opening notes on the nature of parables.Etymologically speaking, a parable is basically a comparison, “a putting of one thing beside another to make a point” (p. 10).  We should be clear that while Jesus didn’t invent the parable form, he really was a master of it.  We should also be clear that it is actually a form that is a bit hard to neatly pin down, because the parables don’t all fit in the same box.  One thing, though, is very clear: parables are not the same thing as fables, which from their opening line point toward a ‘moral’ or a tidy resolution.  In fact, part of what parables often do is leave the reader or hearer with more questions, rather than with a self-evident answer.

Jesus’ use of the parabolic method can hardly be limited to the mere handful of instances (people) remember as entertaining, agreeable, simple, and clear.  Some of his parables are not stories; many are not agreeable; most are complex; and a good percentage of them produce more confusion than understanding. (Capon p.1)

The gospels according to Matthew and Luke are thick with parables, while Mark has less of the classic story-parables, and John has virtually none of what we think of as being parables. John has all of these things that he calls “signs”, which aren’t parables in the strictest sense, but to cite Robert Capon again,

Jesus not only spoke in parables; he thought in parables, acted in parables, and regularly insisted that what he was proclaiming could not be set forth in any way other than in parables. (p. 2)

And so you have him doing things like clearing out the temple, turning water to wine, and raising Lazarus from death to life, all of which in their own way are enacted parables.  And in fact, the whole final week of his life – from the entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey right through to his death on an executioner’s cross – can be read as an enacting of parabolic truth.  It is in that final week that Jesus places the peoples’ language of a messianic conquering king right alongside of his riding on a donkey, which set the stage for all that follows:  his crown is made of thorns; his royal court is a trial;  his throne is a cross; his grave a is borrowed tomb.

All of his “putting of one thing beside another to make a point” is marked by Jesus’ peculiar insistence on rattling any and every expectation of how to tell religious truth.  One more citation from Robert Capon:

Jesus’ parables “set forth comparisons that tend to make mincemeat of people’s religious expectations.  Bad people are rewarded (the Publican, the Prodigal, the Unjust Steward); good people are scolded (the Pharisee, the Elder Brother, the Diligent Workers); God’s response to prayer is likened to a man getting rid of a nuisance (the Friend at Midnight); and in general, everybody’s idea of who ought to be first or last is liberally doused with cold water (the Wedding Feast, the Great Judgment, Lazarus and Dives, the Narrow Door).” (p. 10)

Yet we can grow so accustomed to hearing many of these stories and sayings that we miss just how upsetting to the conventions of the day they were.  In fact, we miss how upsetting to the conventions of our day they still are.

And so maybe – just maybe – one of the ways to get around our ease with the parables is to unpack them through play.  And that is precisely what we’ll do here on this weekend.  There will be plenty of time to visit, to build community, and to just kick back and enjoy the break from the workaday world in which we all live.  But in the times when we gather for sessions to focus just a little more squarely on this faith that is ours, we will play in the parables.  And from that playful place, we’ll see if maybe we don’t all have something to learn by doing a bit of “holy horsing around.”  After all, when he said, that God has “hidden these things from the wise and prudent, and revealed them to babes” he apparently really meant it.  And there’s no better way to recover the wisdom of our child-likeness than to risk a bit of play.

Jamie Howison

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