On Parables: Give It To Me Slant

One of my favorite things about Jesus are his parables. Those of us who have grown up in, or at least around the church, know them well. The Good Shepherd, the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, The Workers in the Vineyard, the Mustard Seed, the Wedding Banquet, the Sheep and the Goats and the Lost Coin are only a few of the forty some parables of Jesus.

This summer those of us at Camas Friends have decided to work through a number of the parables of Jesus. The goal isn’t to “figure them out” so much as it is to enter into them in a way that we become participants in the story and allow them to expand our imaginations about the Kingdom of God. It seems to me that the (big ‘C’) Church suffers from a lack of imagination all too frequently. Not only are we happy to hear the interpretations of the Bible that were birthed in another historical period, but we often read our sacred text in a way that guards ourselves from being read into the challenges the text often offers. We would much rather identify with the protagonists, than turn a difficult parable of Jesus back onto ourselves.

But the meaning(s) of the parables is such that this is exactly what they were meant to do. They were meant to get lodged into the core of who we are and at an unsuspecting time explode our imaginations and understandings of God wide-open. Theologian James Allison suggests that there are two ways to read parables. The first way is to read them in a “dull-hearted” way, in which the reading reinforces the status quo, and does not help to move us along at all. Then there is a more subversive approach, in this way the parables are more like a time-bomb:

Parables a like little time-bombs, when [they] explode, they can cause change in the imaginative world. He does this because of the hostility of those he is working with and the dangerous territory of which he treads.

And again,

Jesus’ technique consists of “introducing a little subversion from within into the normal imagination in order to open out our horizons a little with respect to who God is and what are his ways.” (From Raising Abel).

This time-bomb approach to the parables, if we can read them in this way, resists trying to “figure them out” and instead lets them wash over our imaginations. In the words of Emily Dickinson we should come at truth “slant.”

So how do we do this?

There are many ways and the way we are doing it isn’t the only but I have tried to structure our Sunday morning times in three ways (following some of the ideas on Children’s spirituality I developed here).

First, we listen to the text read multiple times through the voices of different people in the meeting and often in different translations.

Second, we ask “wondering” questions and leave the space open for everyone and anyone to speak from their own experience in a worshipful manner. Here we use the basic questions from Godly Play.

I wonder:

  1. What part you liked best (what was your favorite part)
  2. What was most important
  3. Where you are/ what part is about you
  4. If there is any part we could leave out and still have all the story we need

Third, I have been giving a short amount of background information on areas that may help to “open up” meaning in the parables and then I read a short story or new rendering of the parable that might offer an perspective into the parable in an indirect or slanted way.

Finally, we move into open (or silent) worship.

It has been a lot of fun to learn together and discuss these parables with our meeting. The insights that people have on these stories is always profound and shows just how powerful these stories really are.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.