Quibbling about Parables

Parable of the prodigal son.

I am having a spot of bother with parables – nothing serious, you understand; nothing to worry about. Some of them, however, do seem just a little dated.

There is that famous puzzle about the workers in the vineyard, for example – enough to spark a general strike. And what about the story of the lost sheep? I wonder why the shepherd didn’t return to find the rest of his flock scattered over the wilderness. I am also concerned about the humble guest at the banquet: what was the poor fellow supposed to do if all the lowest places were already taken?

The parable of the talents is likewise hardly fair-play and could have turned out very badly: in a less favourable economic climate the investor could have been very glad to find at least part of his capital still intact. Sorry, but I think the whole story simply demonstrates that life is a risky business. I’m not entirely sure about the unforgiving servant either: he was, after all, desperately anxious to pay off his own debt and was prepared to go to any length to do so.

Then there is that strange yarn about a king trying to arrange a wedding feast, only to find that the guests all had prior engagements. The king’s reaction was, to put it mildly, a bit excessive, especially towards the fellow who eventually turned up inappropriately dressed.

But enough of my silly quibbles. The parables, I suggest, were never intended as watertight arguments. I imagine they were throw-away anecdotes delivered off-the-cuff. They make their points brilliantly. I can pick no holes in the parable of the sower, or the prodigal son, or the good Samaritan, or the man who built his house upon a rock.

There are others also that clearly reveal an inspired man speaking plainly to the people of his own time. It is perhaps tempting to reflect on what imagery Jesus might use today if he were speaking to us, now that insurance has softened so many of the blows that life throws at us.

Some scholars, however, would have us believe that there is much more to it than that. The Parables go much deeper, they say, and every word is filled with holy meaning for all time and beyond. One such writer was the prolific 18th century visionary, Emanuel Swedenborg.

He reckoned that this life is some sort of spiritual training ground – nothing very original there! But he went on to say that once established in the next world, our abiding character, for good or evil, is fully formed and thereafter unchangeable. If so, it is surely sensible to make the most of any flexibility this world may have to offer. We need to ‘invest’ in spiritual values while we have the opportunity and not stubbornly nurse our prejudices.

Anyway, that is Swedenborg’s slant on the parable of the talents. Where evil predominates any remnants of goodness will fall away. (i.e. “are given to the one who has ten talents.”) So the parables might all be interpreted as profound psycho-spiritual cameos.

Over the centuries parables have perhaps become shrouded in stifling holiness, but they were certainly never meant to be taken literally at all. It is a neat idea.

Copyright 2010 G Roland Smith

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