“The Setting of the Parables”Categories: Meditations
It is a warm November day in Palestine, sometime around 28 AD. The field on the upper hillside has been plowed, and a man with a basket is scattering seed. As he flings handfuls of grain across the field, some of the seeds bounce and come to rest around the margins of the field. This has been happening the same way in the same location for more than a thousand years.
On the lower hillside, stretching down toward the sea, a crowd has gathered. Many of them have come from a village around the next headland. A short way away from the shore, a small boat rocks in the water, and a man is standing in it. The crowd is watching him, and even the farmer on the hill above glances down occasionally.
The man says, “Listen! A farmer went out to plant some seed. . .”
The Bible is for all people in all times, but we should never underestimate the extent to which its language is bound up in a particular time. For us, the language of the parables is almost a kind of sacred code. When we talk about “sowing seed,” we are certainly not talking about planting a field by hand, which few (if any) of us have ever done. We’re talking about telling others about Jesus.
2000 years ago, though, this language wasn’t rich with symbolic significance. It was flatly descriptive of everyday life in Galilee. Indeed, my suspicion is that in many of the parables, Jesus isn’t merely describing a scene with which all of His audience is familiar. He is describing something that is happening right in front of them. The lilies of the field and the ravens aren’t hypothetical constructs. They are the weeds blooming at Jesus’ feet and the birds flying over His head, right as He is talking. The parables show that long before the invention of PowerPoint, Jesus was in the speech-with-visual-aid business.
This is important for us to recognize for two reasons. First, it shows us how difficult to follow Jesus’ teaching sometimes would have been. In our church-building auditoriums 2000 years later, it’s obvious that Jesus isn’t talking about a real farmer or real seed. 2000 years ago, when Jesus may well have been literally pointing to a real farmer with real seed, it would not have been at all obvious that He was doing anything more than offering an agriculture report. We often criticize the disciples for not understanding His teaching fully, but we ought to give them credit for recognizing when there was something more to understand.
Second, making the effort to visualize Jesus’ teaching in its original location can help us to understand why it got the reaction that it did. This is perhaps most important with the parable of the vineyard in Mark 12:1-12. We know from Mark 11:27 that Jesus is teaching on the grounds of the temple. As a result, we ought to read the parable in this way: “A man planted a vineyard [Jesus gestures to the temple precincts] and put a fence around it [Jesus gestures to the temple walls] and dug a pit for the winepress [Jesus gestures to the stairways down] and built a tower [Jesus gestures to the temple itself].”
There’s a reason why the chief priests, scribes, and elders had no trouble perceiving that Jesus had told the parable against them. The setting made it obvious. Jesus’ prediction that the temple elite would be destroyed was a threat too dangerous to ignore. The parable made it clear to them that He had to go.
The gospels are not a collection of myths. They are history, and history has a setting. The more we work at incorporating the setting, the better we will understand the message.