Political Parables – Can Systems Change?

In this mini-series, I am not going to look at all of the parables that Herzog covers in his aforementioned book “Parables as Subversive Speech” – it is a meaty and in depth study and is packed full of punches. Rather, I will focus on the ones which impacted me the most, which caused me to sit up and take notice and forced me to re-examine how I had read it up to this point. I love it when an author/teacher does that – forces you to see something you have never seen before….it’s so good! I hope that whatever your faith background there is some stuff to really engage with here……

As a backdrop, it is important to make three brief statements:

Firstly, Herzog does an incredible job in the early part of his book in peeling back the layers to reveal what was the sociological context of the parables. If we do not understand the nature of the oppressive systems both of the temple and of Rome, then we will miss what Jesus is addressing. Herzog calls this ‘codifying’, a term also credited to Freire in his work with the ‘peasant’ classes in Brasil. These are not twee stories to make us think about cute scenarios. These are hard hitting metaphors which strike at the heart of society and call it to account. Jesus wasn’t crucified because he simply decided to hand himself in, as if all along this was his plan. He was crucified because he challenged the powers head on and there was nowhere else for them to go but to kill him (more on this another time).

Secondly, Herzog asks us to really get to the issue that Jesus was speaking to, not how we choose to clumsily interpret it today nor even how Matthew or Luke emphasised a parable one way or another. He asks us to be faithful to the text by being faithful to the speaker…..

Thirdly, any interpretation of scripture, from my point of view, must begin with Jesus, it is what is called a Jesus hermeneutic. If one starts anywhere else, it is possible to end up with a very different version of God than the One Jesus reveals the Trinity to be. Therefore, when characters are given the role of ‘God’ in these stories, we must ask ourselves if this really represents a true understanding of what Jesus is telling us that God is like i.e. exactly like him.

So, here is the parable of the Unmerciful Servant:

Matthew 18:21-35English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.[a]

23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.[b] 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.[c] 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant[d] fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii,[e] and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers,[f]until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Footnotes:

  1. Matthew 18:22 Or seventy-seven times
  2. Matthew 18:23 Greek bondservants; also verses 2831
  3. Matthew 18:24 talent was a monetary unit worth about twenty years’ wages for a labourer
  4. Matthew 18:26 Greek bondservant; also verses 2728293233
  5. Matthew 18:28 denarius was a day’s wage for a labourer
  6. Matthew 18:34 Greek torturers
English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.

For a far better and in depth study and exegesis, you really are going to have to read the book! But here is my clumsy attempt to pull out some of the key challenges as I see them.

If it is true (and I believe it is) that Jesus is constantly speaking ‘good news for the poor’, causing people to see things they had not seen before and setting people free in the process, then we must ask what he is hitting on here.

The suggestion is this. The ‘ruler/king’ is not initially to be understood as God, but as representing the royal court of the day, which was hugely harsh on its ‘lords/managers’ and expected them to do exactly as ordered in dealing with the peasant classes so as to maintain the status quo. The first servant, who represents a manager type role has somehow got himself into a bit of a pickle and is unable to pay his debts. Jesus then invites the listeners to imagine the unimaginable. Imagine that instead of the usual, same old story of dismissing this servant, the ruler chooses to be unbelievably kind, cancel the servant’s debts and forgive him! WHAT? Totally unthinkable. That would NEVER happen in a Royal Court. There are so many others vying for the position of that manager. He would be out on his ear and the position filled by someone else who would be a more efficient bully (I wonder how many instances we find, of this latter more likely situation, in the NHS/education/MOD/businesses of various sorts….?).

Then, this same manager who receives a ‘get out of jail free’ card, goes out and finds someone who owes him a whole bunch less of a debt than he has just been forgiven. And instead of passing on the same grace and enacting a new way of being, he goes back to the same old bullying culture he has always known and been schooled in and kicks the guy whilst he is down to ensure he doesn’t lose face and his department can keep running smoothly.

The thing is, the manager is only acting in the way that he has always been taught. Top down, top dog-style leadership, running a tight ship, not taking any nonsense etc etc.

Jesus is hitting two things very hard. The first is a reality check. He is saying that it would be entirely possible for the Messiah/God himself to come and enact a whole new way of being, a modus operandi of forgiveness and mercy and for nothing to change, because we have grown so comfortable with the ways that things are that we don’t really want to change or know how to. 

Walter Brueggemann highlights something similar in his comparison of Moses and Solomon. Moses hits at and critiques the entire world system of the Pharaoh, challenging head on the numbing effects of Empire. But by the time we reach Solomon in Jerusalem, Pharaoh is back on the throne in a different guise. Solomon has become the antithesis of all that Moses was about. And so, when Jesus comes to challenge the perceived ‘wisdom of empire’ by revealing an entirely different kind of king and kingdom, the previous system is so well rehearsed and imbibed hook, line and sinker that it is highly possible nothing will change……..unless…….

Secondly, I believe Jesus is revealing the very reason why he didn’t come as the ‘Emperor of Rome’ or a ‘King of Judea’. Perhaps it is nigh on impossible to undo a system from the top down……unless…….

Political Parables – Education as a Revolution

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Paulo Freire

Paulo Freire was an educational revolutionary who saw that the poor, marginalised and oppressed in Brasil, took on the world view (or “social construct of reality”) of those who were their oppressors. More than this he described how the educational system was used like a “banking system” to deposit the world view of the dominant class, (with their wealth, power and privilege), into the hearts and minds of the lower social classes, therefore maintaining the status quo.

He spent loads of time with the “peasant classes”, (after a financial crisis in his own family left them very poor) and learnt that they were certainly not unintelligent and although illiterate, had an incredible language of their own. He went on to devise an educational program which enabled these “peasants” to learn rather than to be taught and in so doing released them to begin a revolution in which the powers were challenged, the presumed ‘ways of being’ were shaken and new freedom was found. Unfortunately, this was crushed by the military coup of 1964, but it left Freire never again to “underestimate the vested interest of political powers in controlling the production and distribution of knowledge through their system of schooling” (see amazing work on his by William R. Herzog II in Parables as Subversive Speech).

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William R. Herzog II

Herzog goes on to draw some extraordinary parallels between Paulo Freire and Jesus Christ, whom he asserts both hugely confront the power paradigms of the day and in so doing bring good news to the poor, freedom for those held captive to oppressive systems, sight for those who had been blinded by the worldview of the ‘mighty’ and light for those living in darkness.

Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann

Mitchell, in his book, “Church, Gospel and Empire’ demonstrates how Jesus directly challenges the Imperial System of Rome. Brueggemann (in “The Prophetic Imagination”) contends that Jesus (as a prophet and much more than just a prophet) is fulfilling the prophetic tradition of those who have gone before, criticising the oppressive systems and energising a fresh imagination of how radically different a future built on the foundations of (God’s) love could be.

I wonder how many teachers these days see it as their role to teach and train their pupils in the ‘national curriculum’ and the ‘social constructs of reality’ to which we all subscribe? And how many see their role as revolutionaries who dare to allow our children to believe that the world we live in can be radically different in the future; where instead of an economics of affluence, we have an economics of equity, instead of a politics of oppression, we have one of justice and compassion, and instead of a religion of immanence and law, we have one of true freedom (again, see Brueggemann) – I don’t know, but if you’re out there – please keep going!

Political Parables – A Mini Series

UnknownI love reading. For lent this year, my wife and I have switched off the TV and are giving our noses some more book time. There are two books I’ve read this past 12 months which have impacted me deeply: “Parables as Subversive Speech – Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed” by William R. Herzog II and “The Prophetic Imagination” by  Walter Brueggemann. I would seriously recommend them to you, whatever your faith or political background – they are challenging to the core. I want to blog a mini series on lUnknown-1essons I have learnt and thoughts that have provoked me as I have read.

One of the people whom I hugely admire is Mehdi Hassan. I admire his courage to speak his mind, to be unashamed about what he believes as a Muslim and his passion in debate. I have felt challenged by the way he puts his faith front and centre whilst engaging deeply in the political issues of our day. I make no secret of the fact that I am a man who loves and follows Jesus (not very good at it, but hey-ho!). The more I have discovered about Jesus, especially over the last few years, the more I have found I love him. My world view is shaped by his radical love for ‘the other’ and for ‘the enemy’, his prioritisation of women, children, the poor, the sick, the prisoner and those generally hated or ostracised by society. There is no-one in history who has ever brought such a sharp critique of Imperial Systems that commodify human life like fodder to feed an economic machine or challenged the status quo mindsets to the extent that he did. Nor did anyone else release such deep hope of a reimagined future.

And yet, those of us who claim to follow him have so often utterly missed his point and have been more caught up in creating a religion around him that he never intended anyone to build, partnering with empire in the process rather than criticising it and bringing transforming love and economic justice to all of the creation.

I hope this mini-series inspires some good conversation, either online or around some dinner tables about the world we live in and how we engage with it. For me, the parables of Jesus have as much dynamic power to shock us today as they did for his first listeners. Put aside any hang ups about ‘christianity’ or ‘politics’ and let the subversive stories make you think.