The scriptures present some situations where Christ appears to have been caught unawares and cornered as it were in a tight situation by his questioners/listeners who were anxious to “nail” him and get Him into some sort of trouble, either with the jewish authorities at that time or with the civil authorities, especially the hated romans.
Let me share a few instances and invite your reflection and comments;
The woman caught in adultery – Christ’s response is challenging. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. As you can imagine, no stones were cast. The inference on the state of cleanliness of the accusers of the woman is clear. ALL, repeat, ALL, have sinned, as Paul clearly points out to us in one of his letters. But beyond this, what is the key message here? Tolerance and pussy footing with adultery? Forgiveness based on the recognition of human frailty? A caution against hasty judgment and condemnation of others? A message against the tendency of seeing the speck in our neighbour’s eyes whilst being blind to the beam in ours? A caution against our feelings of self righteousness and our tendency to what I call pharisee-like behaviour? Or just the case of a social rebel anxious to challenge the severity of harsh laws that do not allow opportunities for repentance and reform? Could the message also be on the power of Jesus to forgive and redeem us? On His tender and loving compassion and His willingness to pick us up at our lowest moments when all have abandonned us and we come to Him with spirits broken? Could the message be that God does not want the death of the sinner but simply desires her/his repentance? And by the way, why the exlusive focus on the woman? It takes two to commit adultery, I am told! Does the story reflect gender relations as at the time of the writing of the scriptures?
Let us move along to another difficult one. The issues of taxes – This is a dicey situation. States collect taxes. Indeed taxes are one of the ways states increase their fiscal space from domestic sources. To refuse to pay tax is tantamount to challenging the authority of the state. It is rebellion. And yet some states are oppressive and use revenues from taxes to increase and sustain some of the state machinery for oppression. And in the context of Roman rule and occupation of Judea, this was case. And tax collectors were hated by the general populace as they were perceived as the associates of oppressive army of occupation. And so the question is asked – should we pay taxes? Can a crusader for social justice, moral freedom and spiritual liberation vote on the side of the hated romans? If He said a direct yes, His mission and moral stature would suffer some considerable dilution. If He said No, he would be providing fuel for a rebellion that was building up and which was in search a leader. He would also come head on against the Romans. So what to do? His response is a classic. Give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. Give to the temporal powers what is theirs and give to the spiritual power what is His! How do you read this? Providing justification for civil authorities? Justifying taxation? Playing the game of His interrogators – note that their intentions of his interrogators were also suspect – they wanted to trap him and He could read this. So intentions of your questioners do matter and can determine the answers you give? Leaving the choices open? or simply passing the buck?
And here is yet another one! Working on the sabbath? What is the message here? Challenging the validity of the jewish holy day? Making the case for an interpretative and flexible approach to the laws? A case against unreflecting legalism in scriptural interpretation? Challenging us to return to a consideration of the spirit of laws and not with a fixation on dehydrated and insensitive formalist attitudes? Placing man at the core of it all by the reminder that the sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath? a plea for anthropocentricism in responses to laws? A plea to give preeminence to the reality of human needs and to let these override any rigid and doctrinaire attitudes in religious matters?
Other difficult biblical stories include the treatment of the man who responded to the invitation to the wedding but was wrongly dressed (what was his fault? He was invited from the roadside and thus did not have any opportunity to go and get dressed up! what is the message here? Be ever ready? You could be called up any time and when it does happen, have with you or on you some of the basic things that would enable you to observe and conform the basics of formality?)
The equal day rate paid to workers, including those who started at a late hour (what is the key message here? God’s generosity and His right to dispense Grace as He sees fit, the fact that He is not tied to our worldly measures?, That God always keeps His promises to ALL HE calls and who respond to His call, and it does not matter at what hour one is called – what matters is the manner in which we respond? Is this a caution to those who would want to monopolize God’s favors and dispense them according to their wishes and according to the time you joined the church or parish council for example?)
The parable of the wicked servant who made gains with his master’s creditors by reducing their debt to his master and therefore gaining their favors for use and call up when he would have been laid off. His conduct is an extreme case of what in economics and public administration is called a principal agent problem. (What is the message here?) Is this an endorsement of shrewdness? Does this not run the risk of elevating to a norm and rewarding being cunning? And note that the scripture says that the master commended the dishonest servanrt because he had acted shrewdly – Now, that leaves me baffled!)
In all of these and other passages where I struggle with finding meanings , my attitude is this – God’s ways are not our ways and His wisdom surpasses men’s collective wisdom. Is your attitude the same? In my confusion, the words from 1 Corinthians console and guide me –
“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known”
What are your thoughts? Your views could help me achieve greater spiritual clarity. Can you share them? I thank you in advance and look forward to rewarding and spiritually elevating exchange and sharing.
Reflections on parables and communication
Reading the christian scriptures, especially, the New Testament, one comes across the parables and the generous use of parables to instruct and edify. Each one of us can remember at least one parable that has left a lasting impression on us. Here is just a quick pick from some of the parables in the New Testament – The good Samaritan, the parable of the sower, the parable of the wedding feast, the parable of the foolish virgins, the prodigal son, For me, two parables stand out and their central messages permanently etched in my soul. yes, you are correct – they are the parables of the Prodigal son and the parable of the good Samaritan. The former conveys the immensity of a father’s love, the contrition of someone who has done wrong and the reconciliation that follows, whilst the latter narrates genuine love expressed in genuine acts of love and sacrifice and stands in sharp contradistinction to the hollow religiosity and sham piety of uncaring persons of whatever persuasion and calling in life. Even after several years of reading a favorite parable, echoes of it and snippets of its key messages still keep on streaming through our minds and our subconscious and influencing our comments and our actions even without our knowing this. And so the question is this – why is that parables have the power? what is it in parable that makes them so endearing and their messages so perduring?
what follows below are some of my guesses why!
Parables reflect simplified and effective communication and usually involve using the concrete to convey to abstract. They simplify but they also create the “aha” effect
Parables use comparisons to instruct ….notice that some parables start with the construction “to what shall we compare”
They then use comparisons drawn from the world view of the listeners, and exploit comparisons/events based on the known to arouse curiosity, to encourage enquiry and incite reflection.
Notice also their use of a simple and unique story line to illustrate a complex point and in doing so, they deepen understanding, increase receptivity and open the minds to faith and to God. In doing all of this, the parables also invite the listener to reflect.
Parables involve dramatic use of symbols and imagery to convey, to call attention, to evoke either pity and compassion or strong distaste – wasting his money on riotous living and women, birds coming to pick up seeds, seeds falling on rocky soil , brigands setting on a traveller and dispossessing Him (sounds familiar?)
They also appeal to the experiences of the listeners……at that time of the writing of the scriptures, kingdoms, farming, wine growing and sheep rearing were key features of the society and the examples in parables exploit these realities as the stories are woven around kings, feast, vine, shepherd, sowing. In doing this, parables are exploiting points of interest, finding a good grip point to engage with the audience and using centres of interest as effective communication and interest arresting hooks/grips.
Notice one other special feature of parables – they are non threatening directly by their reference to events/peoples that are some distance removed (temporally and spatially) from the immediate listeners. This has the effect of engaging and retaining attention of the listeners till the killer punch is delivered! It is this ability of parables to use a specific to send a message that has both a specific audience and universal timeless application that represents their greatest beauty for me. It is indeed amazing – a specific story told to educate a specific audience but which still retains its potential for universal reference and use.
Most parables tend to have a central message and key theme – and it is this key message and the obviousness of meaning which provides the thread that bind all the events in the parable. By being simple and focusing on a key message and only the necessary and essential details, parables avoid information clutter and distractions which have potentials to impede the effective delivery of any message.
The other appeal of the parables is that though they convey a simple story, a close reading of some of the stories reveals their potential to communicate on multiple and hierarchical levels. Prima facie, they convey a direct message as I have said earlier, instructing us on a desirable virtue, in contradistinction to a related vice. They then rest their case, or so we think but we soon discover that the story does not end there because at the subconscious level, some aspects of the story continue to challenge us to reflect on their ramifications and invite us to ask to certain questions! And some of these questions can be very troubling, indeed agonizing as we reflect on the right and wrong of some aspects of the stories. As these questions arise, and they sure do arise. we begin to find that all is not so clear after all. And soon, we find ourselves being drawn outside our comfort zones as we begin a reflection which can be agonizing and lonely at times! We begin to ask questions. Suddenly we are worried because we begin to think that such questionings amount to doubts betray a lack of faith But this should not really be so. For to ask questions in search of deeper understanding is not synonymous with a loss of faith or incipient irreverence. Indeed such questions can lead to deepening of faith, for they ultimately and ever so often bring us face to face to situations where logic confronts faith and cedes gracefully to faith as a result of the acceptance of the limitations of logic. We also grow in religiosity and faith each time we are able to use a blend of rational and faith to understand the scriptures and are thus able to reconcile what appears to conflicts and contradictions in our spiritual journey on this earth.
Let me illustrate with a few examples of parables where the story line suddenly thrusts questions at us. Take the parable of the Good Samaritan, The Levite was headed to the Temple to officiate. If he were to stop and attend to the unfortunate wayfarer, he would be defiled and so not able to perform his Temple duties. Take the case of the son who stayed back and toiled with his father in the parable of the prodigal son. How fair is the denouement of the story to him? He and his friends do not get as much as a kid goat or small calf to party with but his rascal of a brother comes home to a grand reception, to what in igbo we call oriri na nkwari! So what is the point here here? Should we then all go live it up first, sow our wild oats, paint the town red and blue and then repent? And the Wedding Feast. Ordinary townsfolk were just going about their business and, all of a sudden, got invited to a banquet – obviously as an afterthought since the guests Mr. Rich had in mind failed to attend. They show up anyway, only for one of them to be cited for dress code violation and thrown into the dungeon. All parables reveal an uneasy dimension upon close scrutiny. Our challenge, is to reflect on them in an effort to arrive at a deeper truth. I have tried to resolve these conflicts and apparent contradictions by appeal to a message strategy which I will call over-riding dominant principle and core message focusing approach. This approach has the dramatic effect of either heightening the pathos in the event being narrated or increasing the salience and worth of the virtue in question or both! What then is the over riding dominanrt principle and core message focusing approach in each of these parables I have just mentioned? For the Good samaritan, it is the superiority of concrete and instant manifestation of love over a narrow focus on religious observances. For the prodigal son, it would appear to be a demonstration of the profundity and prodigality of a father’s love, in this case, God’s love for our world. The wedding feast – very troubling but less troubling when seen as an invitation to be ever ready to respond at any moment that God will choose to invite us to His royal banquet.
Seen in this way, these troubling instances in these parables become appraciated as narrative techniques that are employed to improve the efficacy of message flow and communication, among many other possible interpretations.
Experts on Effective Communication advise us to do the following when engaging in verbal communication
use variety, be credible, use a hook, attract attention, hold attention, keep attention, gauge response, and to start with the most exciting part. A close look at the parables shows that they contain all these aspects. The same experts on effective communication also point out to us the barriers to communication. These include
a) Language – speech and accent, dialect, non-specific meaning of words, double meaning jargon, technical language, woolly use of language, rambling, insufficient information given
b) psychological – emotive words, personality clashes, lack of interest; audience hostility
c) bias, prejudice and assumptions
d) content not suited to education, status and intelligence levels of your listeners
e) physical environment – noise and distraction from the environment
Again you will notice that the parables anticipate and avoid most if not all these barriers and succeed in delivering winning presentations
Our age is obsessed by the power point presentations, where illustrations and fly-in effects and the jazzing up the presentation often mask inadequacies in content, logic and flow, we would do well to read the parables and learn from them. In an age where verbose usage is often used to mask cognitive deficiencies, platitudes, the social irrelevance of the message or the lack of preparation of the speaker, we would do well to go to the parables and learn how to communicate…and to communicate with interest, focus and effect…and with economy, things which I know I will need to learn!