Recently we have seen an influx of bad theological takes surrounding Jesus’ teachings, specifically His teachings done in the storytelling style, also known as Parables. When I say bad theological takes, I’m not talking full-on heresy, after all the ones presenting these views are not heretics but merely victims of bad theology themselves. But while the views may not be heretical in nature, they present another danger in the abusive theology that they uphold.
What is a Parable?
Jesus used multiple styles of communication throughout the Gospels, but the one that provides the most easy-to-use Sunday School material is in His storytelling, also known as Parables, & understandably so, as Webster’s Dictionary defines a Parable to be "a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle.” So Jesus wraps up important spiritual lessons into an easy-to-tell package. The problem though, is that these packages may be easy to tell, but they are oftentimes much harder to understand. Which leads us into the circumstances of the past few weeks.
Now misunderstanding Jesus is nothing new. Most of His parables end with everyone scratching their heads & trying to comprehend, however, we now have the benefit of 2000 years of teachings & the Holy Spirit to be able to understand what lesson He is trying to teach. But that doesn’t always stop the more creative, or even abusive of lessons from being formed.
For example, in the past few weeks, I have heard the parable of the talents used to defend Capitalism, Patriarchy, Violence, & Slavery. Each one of these “lessons” when presented had the storytelling correctly, but they didn’t listen to what Jesus was teaching. Why is it so easy for us to not hear what Jesus is telling us?
For One Thing... It’s Hard.
Throughout the gospels, we see similar situations play out after Jesus presents a parable or a teaching. People get up & leave either sad at the prospect of what Jesus is asking them to give up (Matthew 19, Luke 9) or because of the general difficulty in comprehending the teachings (John 6). Discipleship is not an easy call, it involves sacrifice & submission & allowing for our hearts, minds, & desires to be transformed & renewed in ways that make us uncomfortable.
Even now 2000 years later, the teachings do not get easier. So we have a choice we have to make in how we choose to approach these parables & the implications of Jesus’ teaching.
Paul helps us understand one of these approaches in Romans 12:1-3
1 Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God. 3 For by the grace given to me, I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he should think. Instead, think sensibly, as God has distributed a measure of faith to each one.
What better way to understand the teachings of Jesus, than to allow ourselves to read these stories through a mind that is humbled, in an act of worship, & renewed into the will of the God that gave us these stories in the first place? This approach starts with a humble sacrifice of our own desires to God. Then, after humbly submitting ourselves, we can allow the Spirit to prevent conforming to those former desires & instead transform & renew our minds towards the desires that God has for us. When this happens, gradually we begin to be able to understand the complexity of the stories, & eventually even begin to accept the further sacrifices needed to apply these teachings.
There is another approach though that many of us take, that of the man in Luke 10. Before Jesus began telling the story of the Good Samaritan, this expert of the law challenged Jesus by asking Him how to inherit eternal life. Jesus plays into the man’s ego & asks him what the law says, to which the man replies “Love God & Love Neighbor.” Jesus tells Him that he has his answer & that now he should go & do it. The response of this expert though leads us to what I have lately found to be the most quoted verse within our society.
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
The unfortunate reality is that many quote the second half of this verse, however today I want us to focus on the first half. But wanting to δικαιόω (dikaioó), which means to show to be righteous or morally right. This was the man's intention. He snapped back at Jesus to prove his ideals & his beliefs to be morally correct so that he would not have to make a change in his life. We all do this all the time, trying to justify our actions or thoughts, & most of the time we know we are doing it, & hopefully, with the help of the Spirit repent of these justifications & allow for the Spirit to continue renewing our minds. But what happens when we take these justifications into the way we understand the parables of Jesus?
Again looking at our definitions from earlier,
Parables: “a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle.”
dikaioó: to show to be righteous or morally right
We now have a much bigger issue than just hoping to justify our own selfish choices. When we go into Jesus’ moral teachings, with the desire to prove our own morality, we begin to craft Jesus into our own images. Suddenly, the Parable of the Talents is about a misogynistic Capitalist who violently exploits those in his care. And the lesson we are able to glean from this story is that that is what Jesus wants me to be as well. Which means I no longer have to change my desires for power, wealth, or control. I instead need to act on these impulses so that others can also become, morally right.
Why This Matters
These approaches are diametrically opposed to each other. One comes from a place of desire for learning & the other a desire for confirmation. One a place of sacrifice, the other from a place of promotion. The way we approach these stories, changes the way we read & apply them, not only for ourselves but how we approach other people. When we approach things from a place of self-justification & desire, we end up with the abusive theologies we have seen recently. We must get back to an approach of Christocentric humility.
As we go through this process of humble renewal & refocusing, we will be able to hear what Jesus was teaching & calling us toward. So that when others begin to say “This teaching is hard! Who can accept it?” we can respond as Peter did to Jesus “Lord, who will we go to? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that You are the Holy One of God!” (John 6)