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Must we take parables seriously?

By Elaine Bardwell - Posted on 13 November 2010

17 October 2010 - 10:00am
Dr Alison Salvesen

There are lots of places in the Gospels where Jesus is shown to be virtually a stand-up comedian. Many of the parables are meant to be very funny. Probably a lot of people went to hear Jesus not because they wanted theological discussion or a sermon, but because he told them amusing stories that had the effect of making them think. Some people were spiritually hungry - like the disciples and other regular followers. Others wanted healing, but still others no doubt just wanted entertainment, and got more than they bargained for. Humour makes something stick in our mind, and we remember it and repeat the joke to someone else (preaching by the back door?). Humour can have a serious purpose. Although stand-up comedy today is really popular, and comedians are high on the celebrity list, it doesn’t seem to change how we think, the way that political comedy in the 80s and 90s used to: does anyone remember Ben Elton? He made people laugh AND feel that they could try to change things. Sadly, political comedy nowadays tends to make us cynical and despairing of politicians. But humour can be used to change our perceptions and prejudices.
     In this bit of Luke in today’s gospel reading, Jesus presents a situation that was probably pretty familiar to the crowds who came to hear him: the man appointed to be a judge in the local town can’t be bothered to do the job properly: ‘there was this judge, and he wasn’t afraid of God and he didn’t worry about what people thought’. I expect the crowd thought, oh yes, we know just the sort.
     So there’s nothing that can make the man do his job properly: he’s not religious and he’s not worried about anyone else’s opinion of him. (There wasn’t any democratic process, so he couldn’t be voted out of office for being incompetent, and there wasn’t any media coverage to expose him.) Rich and powerful people could bribe this judge if they need something done, but this poor widow has no leverage at all: someone has probably taken over her house or land, and she has no male relatives to defend her. (This sort of thing still happens in many places in the world - we’re just luckier here.) So the widow resorts to nagging the judge: ‘give me justice against my opponent!’
     Then Jesus tells us what the bad judge is thinking, like a thought balloon in a cartoon: ‘even though I’m not afraid of God and I don’t worry about what people think, because this widow is giving me bother, I’m going to sort out her case.’ 

     The next bit is where most bible translations don’t seem to realize that this is meant to be comic. Everywhere else in Greek literature, the next verb (hupopiazo) is used of beating someone up, especially giving them a black eye! St Paul uses the same word to describe pummelling his body to get it under control. But because the subject here is the widow, and translators think of her as being a little old lady, and the judge is meant to be the absolute opposite of God, the verse gets translated as ‘(I will grant her justice) so she may not wear me out’. What it actually means, I think, is that the judge is afraid she will finally come and bop him on the nose if he doesn’t sort out her case: even if he isn’t worried about what people think of the way he runs his lawcourt, being physically attacked by a poor and maybe elderly lady would be pretty embarrassing. So a better translation might be:
‘even though I’m not afraid of God and I don’t worry about what people think, because this widow is hassling me, I’m going to sort out her case, so she doesn’t finally come round and beat me up!’ 
     Once Jesus has the crowds laughing he can bring in the serious point: if even this bad judge will eventually give way to persistent nagging and the threat of humiliation, we can expect God the ultimate, good judge to respond more quickly, because we are his chosen people - not constituents he can afford to ignore. Keep praying and God will respond, says the Gospel. But - when the Son of Man (Jesus) returns, will he find ‘faith on earth’ - meaning, will he find that people have trust in him, and persist in praying to him in their troubles?
     Part of the problem with understanding the tone of this parable is because in Luke it comes straight after Jesus’s prediction of a terrifying time of trial. So commentators connect the original context of the parable with the idea of God’s people crying out for justice against their enemies when the world is about to end and Jesus returns. This is a serious subject of course, so for them Jesus (or Luke) couldn’t have meant the parable about the judge to be funny. They say that when Jesus’s return didn’t happen during the time of the early church, Luke then gave the parable a different spin: he says that Jesus told it to show believers how they need to pray constantly and not give up. 
     But I don’t think the humour of the original parables was lost on Luke. The next parable he includes is another one with exaggerated characters. This is the one about the Pharisee and the tax collector, where we have an unexpected role reversal: The Pharisees were actually highly respected religious leaders in Jesus’s day, while the tax collectors were despised and hated for raking off a huge cut from the taxes they collected for the Roman government (which was also hated, of course). Like the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus changes people’s perceptions by reversing the normal roles: so a man people thought of as saintly is shown (hilariously) patting himself on the back about how wonderfully holy he is: ‘thanks, God, that I’m not like other people who are thieves, criminals, adulterers, and so on’. But the fraudster that everyone loathes is ashamed of himself and repents using the words of a psalm: ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner’. Maybe today Jesus would have used an archbishop and a drug dealer as his opposite types? 
     The topsy-turvy, paradoxical world of Jesus’s parables is meant to change the way we see the world and ourselves, but they are so well known now that often the stories have become too familiar and we think that  holy Scripture has to be serious and po-faced all the times. So we’ve lost the shock value that Jesus’s parables must have had in the first century.  That shock factor was what made people remember the parables and think about their deeper meaning for a long time afterwards. We need to rediscover the comedy of the Gospels when we read them, because that is the way to turn our own hearts upside down and change our perception of God, the world and ourselves.



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