James’s Blog: (Mis)Understanding Parables.

I don’t normally divulge the meaning behind the stories that I’ve written, partly because I don’t want to prejudice the reader and partly because I’m a contrary so-and-so, but let’s talk about the story ‘Border Control’. This one appears in The Second Listening Book and, as usual, I had something deliberate in mind when I wrote it. I believe that the Gospel changes our fundamental character – not tidies it up, or papers over it, but actually transforms it. We were sinners, we are now children of God. However, some Christian leaders undermine God’s grace by teaching that we should continue to define ourselves by our old nature – as though the Gospel is some kind of illusory magic trick that makes us look good to God but offers no real change. I tried to express my frustration with this bad theology through ‘Border Control’, a story set at an immigration station, where the guards funnel new arrivals into a holding camp and leave them thinking that being trapped behind barbed wire is the same as being a free citizen of their new country.

I wrote it before Brexit and President Trump made immigration into an even more divisive topic, but the story has only been available since those events. One reviewer took the parable at face value, assumed it was liberal political commentary on immigration and took me to task on my naivety. Now, I am naïve, but only because I’m consistently surprised when people don’t get what I’m really trying to say. You’d think I’d have learned by now.

Someone else once commented that they didn’t get one of my parables, and that this made it a bad parable, because the meaning of parables are supposed to be clear. Unsurprisingly, I disagree.  The disciples, who knew Jesus best, floundered repeatedly on this issue, scratching their heads and saying, “Tell us what this parable means…” once the crowds had dispersed. When they summoned up the courage to ask Jesus why he used parables in the first place, Jesus responds by quoting Isaiah: “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.”

I don’t mind people not understanding my stories and I don’t mind them getting something other than what I originally intended – that’s actually quite exciting. What I do mind though is people thinking that I’m a one-dimensional writer. It’s OK for me to get my ego bruised once in a while, but it’s also OK to come away from a parable confused, or encouraged, or feeling like you’ve been kicked in the gut.

Thanks to two thousand years of Sunday School, we think we ‘get’ parables, but let’s be honest. Had we been there when Jesus first spoke, we likely would have missed the point too. If Jesus turned up today in Hyde Park and told the Parable of the Prodigal Son for the first time I’m sure that there would be some Evangelicals lining up to lambaste him for being soft on sin. If he’d told the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard I’m sure that sections of the American Religious Right would have denounced him as a ‘dangerous socialist’.  It’s almost like Jesus was looking for trouble, using stories that arouse confusion and anger in equal measure.

Everyone these days knows that Samaritans are Good, but when Jesus first told that parable, Samaritans were anything but. ‘Samaritan’ was a crude swearword that a good Jew, a Jew like the one who asked Jesus the original question in Luke 10, couldn’t even bring himself to say. There are plenty of despised people groups at the moment. Think of the one group that makes you the most suspicious, the ones that you find it the easiest to hate and the hardest to love. Would you have followed Jesus if he’d recast one of them as the Samaritan in his parable?

The thing is, it was people like us – people with opinions – who wanted Jesus dead.

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