Is this God?

By Donald Schell

When church leaders argue about canons, covenants, and rubrics (as Episcopalians and global Anglicans seem to be doing more and more), I think of Jesus our teacher and I can’t imagine him worrying about any such thing. He teaches ‘with authority,’ that is, his teaching draws on the authority of people’s experience and then with his own authority, he interprets recognizable human experience without appealing to any external endorsement or ruling from those with arbitrary power.

The Gospels present Jesus as a teacher who mistrusts hierarchical power so much that when he begins a parable introducing someone who has such power, we can almost count on the story unfolding with that person using power to drive a wedge between people who lack power.

Talking with preaching colleagues and with lay people about the parables we’ve heard in church these past few months, I’ve noticed how hard it is to break our habit of interpreting rich landlords, slave owners, kings, and fathers in Jesus’ storytelling as stand-ins for God, even though these authority figures in the parables consistently act foolishly, arbitrarily, or dangerously toward people who are dependent on them for wellbeing. Some of Jesus’ parables even have power figures harm those they love best. This is not, as Jesus teaches it, the way of Abba, God.

Reading parables as allegory and wrapping them up with a tidy moral lesson at the end are two convenient ways to tame them. The Gospel writers and early preachers tried to tame them this way just as we do. We prefer the limited thrill of colorful zoo animals to Jesus’ offer of dangerous creatures in the wild. Like wild animals, untamed parables are dangerous enough that they demand our attention and keep us alert, confused sometimes, maybe a little anxious, and wondering.

Various Anglican bishops warn us that only a universally recognized church authority can bring peace and faithfulness to our communion. They say that in our ‘crisis of authority’ we need to submit to Bible, Council of Primates, Christian tradition, or an ‘all of the above’ combination. If we ignore the violence and foolishness of the powerful in Jesus’ parables and allegorize the parables’ power figures as God as stand-ins for God, we might think Jesus supported such a picture of God’s kingdom or the holy community that serves it. Stripped of allegorical distortion, if we hear Jesus’ parables from our actual experience, we stumble over an exact opposite answer.

If we don’t allegorize, how shall we interpret Jesus’ parables? Parables resonate in experience. When we’re angry or confused by them, we’ve started to notice the parables’ wild independence of our tidy interpretations of them. Our own experience and emotional response to these stories matter. Jesus crafted his parables to startle us, disturb us, and then settle uneasily or provocatively into our memory.

Parables aren’t lessons. They work more like puzzles, jokes or even ghost stories.

Many of Jesus’ parables flow like this

-A recognizable type, often someone with power, does something expressive of his character. (Could it be that these figures in the parables are always men because part of Jesus’ critique is about power men hold?)

– The authority’s action quickly becomes a set-up for a crisis.

– Ordinary people (and the authority figure who prompted the crisis) respond, some badly, some well.

Rather than inviting us to decode allegorically, seeing point by point how some group of people or series of events in a parable is ‘like the kingdom of God,’ or ‘like God,’ Jesus our teacher’s parables plunge us into hair-raisingly familiar chaos – political, workplace, economic, or family, and there they force us to wonder what choices or actions we or others who are not rulers or authorities can make in the presence of their arbitrary, destructive, or foolish actions. Like a puzzle, a joke, or a scary story, a parable opens into a crisis that rolls around in our mind when the telling is over. Choices that ordinary people make, people without rank hint at God’s kingdom breaking in. In some parables the painful absence of their choices or an unconscious, bad choice point to where the kingdom might have broken in if someone had acted differently.

Sequence and detail matter to each parable so we rehearse them in our minds to get all the pieces lined up properly so the crisis unfolds. And the set-up again and again has power drive a parable narrative straight toward conflict, often a dangerous conflict, and most typically one that stirs up our feelings and confuses us. The energy that parables derive from conflict makes them like plays in the theater, more powerful and fascinating because they simply won’t reduce to a simple meaning. And Jesus’ stories don’t end neatly; uncertainty and unfinished movement remain. Like ghost stories and jokes, his parables stay with us.

When preachers hear someone say after a sermon, “I still don’t get how the landlord (or king or father) is like God,” listeners are asking the right question.

Jesus’ listeners – day laborers, tax collectors, prostitutes, fishermen, and ordinary soldiers – already knew that top-down power let privileged people act in ways that hurt other people, and that privileged people, often enough, also blundered into hurting themselves and those they loved best. Jesus’ listeners had seen too many landlords, kings, employers, and rich people act in ways that made no sense at all to imagine that the powerful were like God.

Think of the parable of the vineyard owner who hired workers at different hours of the day and paid them all the same at day’s end. Keep saying, “This isn’t God,” and ask yourself what you’d think of an employer who said, ‘It’s my money, and I’ll do as I please with it’? The vineyard owner sounds more like Leona Helmsley than God. When we quit trying to pretend the landlord was God, we find ourselves in the crowd with Jesus’ listeners wondering how that landlord would ever hire another day’s workforce. We are so close to God’s kingdom. At day’s end, each day laborer has either earned or been given enough to feed his family – but the workers are bitterly divided by envy.

Jesus’ listeners understand envy all too well. Often Jesus’ parables create a circumstance where people with little power are provoked to envy, or even murderous envy by the cruel, arbitrary, or foolish acts of authority figures, like the tenants who kill the landlord’s son and heir (hoping they wouldn’t get caught) because the landlord has finally, stupidly sent his only heir. Local law said that if the landlord had no living heir, the tenants would finally own the land they’d sweated over for some many years. This painful parable of the father’s blunder that cost his son’s life sounds to me like Jesus may have been using a dark piece of local gossip or news.

Was Jesus an anarchist? “Anarchist” catches something of his critique of power, but the word also misses that Jesus seemed to think top-down power was ultimately irrelevant. In his parables the real choices that resonate with God’s bottom-up kingdom happen person to person. Jesus is not trying to overturn one authority to replace it with another – not even replacing rabbinical councils with apostolic councils. Instead Jesus lived from a deep clarity of purpose and evident humility while he confronted rulers and told scathing stories about rules.

Wherever a new kind of community, one based on forgiveness rather than envy or judgment appears, God’s kingdom shows up right in the midst of the tired, old kingdoms and religious structures. ‘Divine anarchy’ does seem closer to Jesus’ Gospel than any godly monarchy.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is Creative Director of All Saints Company. He wrote My Father, My Daughter: Pilgrims on the Road to Santiago.

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