The Power of Parable
John Dominic Crossan, Harper One
John Dominic Crossan’s ideas would probably have been held suspect in the conservative circles where I learnt theology due to his association with The Jesus Seminar. But when I discovered Crossan’s work later in my journey I found that there is little to fear ─ that is, if one honestly hungers to get to the very heart of Jesus and the message of the Kingdom.
Crossan’s (Professor Emeritus at DePaul University) scholarship is solid and his logic compelling. But there is a danger in reading his many books ─ the danger that many of your assumptions about the Biblical text will be challenged. You will hear the text differently and learn about the cultural environment that shaped it; you will encounter questions you never could have imagined before. You will be pushed and prodded. For me, this has opened up fresh discoveries about Jesus and his Kingdom agenda, and I have found Jesus more captivating and true, the Biblical text more richly complex.
Crossan’s most recent publication,The Power of Parable, explores parabolic method in the Biblical text. He addresses the Jesus parables, but he also investigates other Biblical parables like Ruth, Jonah and Job. He defines parable but also demonstrates various types of parables in operation in the ancient context as well as the Biblical text.
We most often assume parables are meant to demonstrate right behaviour ─ a classic example parable of “go and do likewise”. Sometimes they are riddle parables meant to tease our intelligence. But Crossan makes the case that Jesus most often employed challenge parables, a rhetorical device meant to up-end our assumptions and force us to think differently about our world. If repent means to “rethink”, then challenge parables were the perfect linguistic tool to invite people to rethink what they thought they knew about matters of faith and politics.
Crossan makes a case that challenge parables were also a highly participatory teaching method that required crowd engagement, so well suited to the collaborative eschatology that Jesus preached and practised. Parables, in old and new testaments, were meant to challenge and engage us.
The deeper challenge of the book comes in Part Two when Crossan moves into the discussion of the gospels as parabolic history about Jesus. One gospel at a time, he makes a comprehensive case that we can see the principles of parable at work in the crafting of each book. The gospel writers were men of their time, they wrote within a certain milieu and with their own pastoral agendas ─ what Walter Brueggemann would call the “vested interest” in each book of the Bible. Some gospels are written as challenge parables about the life of Jesus. Crossan even goes so far as to say a couple of the gospels were clearly attack parables, which was not a style Jesus himself embraced.
Crossan shows how Mark describes Jesus as always non-violent in His Kingdom campaign, even en route to Jerusalem and the cross. However, Matthew did not see (or perhaps want to accept) a non-violent Jesus in his day, so the Jesus we encounter in Matthew uses more violent rhetoric and even more forceful actions. The side-by-side comparison of these two gospels on this count was very illustrative and insightful.
Another interesting observation was that Mark showed a very raw and vulnerable Jesus during Passion Week, almost out of control of the events around him. Yet John portrays Jesus as the one in control of everything, right down to when he chose to surrender his spirit on the cross.
These contrasts, violent vs. non-violent and out of control vs. in complete control, are just small indicators of how each writer wrote Jesus differently. They each used parabolic method to craft gospels that would challenge (and even attack) their audiences both in their 1st century world, as well as now.
What becomes clearer as one reads this book is how deeply involved our humanity is with the text. God allows us to write his story with him, maybe even for him, and that means our fingerprints are all over the pages of the Bible. Our own vested interests, our political leanings, our words penned during various phases of history ranging from peace, exile, violent uprisings and amid non-violent campaigns are all braided into the text. God’s story as well as our story are found on each page. This is stark testament to how God desires to collaborate with us in the most intimate ways, even trusting God’s own self-revelation into our hands. Maybe for some this is highly disconcerting and threatens an understanding of Biblical authority, but for me it showcases how real the Bible is and how deeply God involves us in his relationship with the world.
John Dominic Crossan certainly takes us into new territory and opens new vistas. We can learn more about parables, about the Gospels and about how we are part of this on-going divine collaboration.