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‘I will parable you a parable’

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The Sunday Gospel readings this July contain several of Jesus’ parables. In teaching with parables, Jesus is clearly using a technique from his Jewish background since these short narratives are found in the Old Testament and later rabbinic literature.

What is a parable? It is a brief story using something familiar to the reader/hearer to compare with an unfamiliar idea. It is meant to capture one’s attention, to engage one in active thought, pondering its meaning. When we think of Jesus as teacher, we remember that the parables were his favorite mode of teaching. Jesus was a storyteller, an alert observer of human life, one who loved and appreciated the foibles and patterns of human action. Through his parables Jesus brought home to his listeners the truth and beauty of God and God’s reign. 

An Old Testament parable is found in 2 Samuel 12:1-4, where the prophet Nathan told King David the story of a wealthy man stealing the only ewe lamb of a poor farmer. David reacted  negatively against the wealthy man, but through this parable David was led to see that he himself was guilty for raping and taking the wife of Uriah the Hittite.

Rabbinic literature has long been considered as a compendia of Jewish laws with little or no real life stories or spirituality. Yet many questions of God and God’s actions are responded to with a parable, mashal in Hebrew. The datings of the most often cited rabbinic texts, such as the Talmud, come from a time after the gospels. Still, it can be shown that these texts contain material from around the times of Jesus and the early Christians. The most common rabbinic parables are the “king parables,” 967 in all, wherein, the  king usually represents God.

During a course on rabbinic literature, I studied a rabbinic commentary on Ruth and found 12 king parables/meshalim. While most of my study concerned the manner in which each mashal fit into the argument of the sage, I also looked at what a mashal said about God/the king. Here are several of the results: God protects those who follow the Torah; God tests but strengthens the righteous person; God expects Israel’s leaders to protect the people, especially the “small ones”; and it is legitimate to lament before God in the face of suffering. All of this is found in Jesus’ teachings in the gospels also. Additionally, the engagement of the reader in this process allowed that person to actively participate in the search for knowledge of God; this involvement enabled the reader to own that same experience as her/his own. Thus, the sages communicated the abiding presence of God with the people.

My favorite rabbinic parable, however, is found in the Palestinian Talmud. For background, it is important to know that Rabbi Akiba was a student of Rabbi Eliezer who was to be honored by R. Akiba.

“R. Eliezer observed a fast but caused no rain to fall. R. Akiba observed a fast, and rain fell. He (R. Akiba) went in and spoke before the council of the elders, saying, ‘I will parable you a parable. Unto what is the matter like? It is like a king who had two daughters. One was brazen and one was proper. Whenever the brazen one wanted something and went in before him, he said: Give her what she wants so she will get out of here. But whenever the proper one wanted something and went in before him, he prolonged the conversation with her because her speaking so pleased him.’” 

Certainly timely understandings of God for us today.

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