Echoes and riddles

Why did Jesus so often speak in mysterious, ambiguous parables? Why couldn’t he just come to the point and speak clearly? Even his closest followers were sometimes left scratching their heads, until Jesus condescended to explain himself: Okay, what I meant was… But such follow-up explanations were the exception rather than the rule. Even though the disciples were of the same time and culture as Jesus, they didn’t always understand what his parables meant.

Then we come to the text, centuries later, grounded in places that may be far removed from the land Jesus walked. How can we be any less confused?

With this post, I am launching a new and occasional series of reflections I’m calling “Explorations in Echo-Location.” The title draws upon a recent post about how Paul echoes Old Testament texts and images to push his readers to see beyond their present circumstances. His goal is to engage their imaginations, to help them locate themselves in the all-embracing story of God.

But I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. From June of 2020, in the midst of the global COVID pandemic, I began the daily practice of studying and journaling on the Psalms. Over and over, as I pondered a text, I was reminded of the words of Jesus in this sermon or that parable. The repeated experience brought to life something I already knew but had never quite fully grasped: the thought-world of Jesus, of his disciples, of Paul, of the New Testament writers, is first and foremost the thought-world of the Old Testament.

Look, for example, at the notes in the margins of any study bible. How many references are there to the books of Moses? To the Psalms and prophets? This shouldn’t surprise us, for what we know as the “Old” Testament — some today prefer the term “First” Testament — was their sacred scripture. It was as natural to them to refer to the Old Testament, directly or indirectly, as it is for Christians to refer to the New. And against the idea that the New Testament has superseded and replaced the Old, I believe that our understanding of the former is impoverished if we are unable to hear the echoes.

. . .

Let’s go back to the question with which we began: why did Jesus speak in parables and riddles? There are many possible answers here. But here’s what a neuroscientist might say: our brains are wired for story. We pay attention to story differently than we do to facts. Stories engage our imagination, our curiosity: we identify with the characters and their predicament; we crave knowing what happens next. And sometimes, when we’ve engaged a story, what’s possible for the characters becomes possible for us.

Therapists who use story as part of their work know this. Words of encouragement like “You can do this!” don’t land well when a client is stuck in what’s called a problem-saturated story, a doom-and-gloom scenario that’s come to define how they see themselves. But if a client can be led step by step into a different story, whole new worlds open before them.

One answer to the question above, then, is that Jesus wanted to do more than give his followers new information; he wanted to transform their imaginations, to shake them up, to help them see themselves and their world in a new way. We do the parables a disservice when we whittle them down to some essential “point,” after which we think we no longer need the story. Facts and ideas that are openly declared can be accepted or rejected without changing the way a person thinks. But stories get under our moral skin, even when we don’t like them.

That’s not to say, however, that the transformation of imagination is wholesale, as if one was plucked off planet Earth and transported to some distant galaxy. Even the most radical new insight is often based on what we already in some sense know, though that knowledge may have been forgotten or obscured. Thus, there is both continuity and discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New; what surprises is also familiar. When a parable sinks in, there is often the sense of both This is new and I should have known this all along.

Thus, as we continue to work our way through the series on Philippians and the occasional post on the Psalms, I will intersperse these exploratory musings on New Testament texts that in some fashion echo the Old. And of course, we’ll begin with one of the parables of Jesus. In the next post, let’s explore together the story of the persistent widow and the unjust judge.