The Subversive Parables of Jesus

The Subversive Parables of Jesus

Glynn Cardy 30th July 2023

One of the tell-tale signs that a parable originates with the historical Jesus is its subversion of myth. 

My culture tends to have a low view of myth (also known as ‘make-believe’) and a high view of history (also known as ‘facts’).  Well a degree in history disabused me of the latter, and a degree in theology of the former.  Both myth and history are more complex, and nuanced, rather than simple categories of false and true.

Myths are tools to enable a culture to make sense of the world.  Some myths I heard growing up were: ‘work hard and you will get ahead,’ ‘be prepared’, and ‘a stitch in time saves nine’.  And around sayings like these we create, or appropriate, stories to reinforce them.

So, to give you an example: the story of the three little pigs and the big bad wolf is a mythic story with a moral about preparedness.  It’s a myth not because it’s a made-up (or ‘false’) story, but because of its moral (which my culture would say is self-evidently ‘true’) that preparedness is good.

Sometimes though, particularly in biblical stories, a later editor will attach their own moral to the end of the story.  So, the later editor hasn’t made up the story but has borrowed it (when acknowledging sources was not what one did), and then put their own interpretation on it often in a few lines at the end.

For example Luke and Matthew tell the Parable of the Banquet[i] (from whence we get the ‘I cannot come to the banquet…’ song).  This is very likely an authentic Jesus parable (pink rating from the Jesus Seminar).  But Luke and Matthew and have attached their own conclusions to it – namely a judgement upon those who refused the invitation to come.  We know this because firstly we have a version in the Gospel of Thomas without the judgement conclusion, and secondly, we know the idea of judging and even punishing people (like at the end of our gospel reading for today) reflects the agenda of some late first century Jesus groups and not Jesus himself.  And of course the parable itself is focused on welcoming to the table all those excluded in society – not creating a new class of excluded people who need punishing!

Now the myth behind the Parable of the Banquet is that successful people celebrate success by inviting friends and business associates, usually of the same class, to dinner.  And what Jesus was doing in his telling of this myth was subverting it by saying that in God’s empire successful people celebrate success by inviting all the marginal people, the misfits and miscreants, to their dinner tables.  And you can imagine the response of his audience: ‘You’ve gotta be kidding!  You mean we have to sit next to them!’

Myths are a means by how cultures make sense of the world.  But cultures, of course, aren’t uniform, and most have elites who get a big say in what myths predominate.  These myths in turn shape the culture, and shape it in a way that ultimately favours the elites.

But myths get subverted (thank God) by prophetic storytellers, agitators, and heretics, and sometimes even change.  Think of the race relations myth of my childhood “We are all one people”, to the new myth of today “We are one nation of many peoples”.

Let’s return to The Three Little Pigs.  In 1993 Eugene Trivizas wrote a subversion of it summarized in the title, “The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig.”  This amusing rendition not only challenged the categorizing of animals into good and bad, it also challenged what we think a secure house is, and how we deal with one whom we experience as threatening.  To spoil the ending for you the last house was one made of flowers, flowers that transformed the big bad pig from threat to friend.  (Well, it is about as realistic as a wolf climbing down your chimney!)

Let me tell you about another mythic story and the subversion of it.  This story was about a Jewish man lying beaten by the roadside.  Two members of religious Jewish elites walk by and didn’t stop to help.  But then an ordinary Jewish man did.  The moral of the story, as everyone knows (particularly everyone in rural Galilee), is that religious leaders from the Jerusalem Temple might preach mercy but don’t practice it. 

But then Jesus came along and told a subversion of this story where the hero wasn’t a Jew at all, but someone we Jews (the audience) despised: an outsider, a heretic, a Samaritan.  And you can imagine the response of his audience: ‘You’ve gotta be kidding!  Samaritans are bad and wicked and would never ever help a Jew!’

Jesus made the audience feel very uncomfortable.  So much so that when Luke wrote it down decades later, he changed the moral to being a compassionate neighbour to the beaten man.  (Which was the moral of the original myth not the moral of the Jesus subversion of that myth)[ii].

Now the gospel text today from Matthew 13:44-48 has three little parables: one about treasure and a field, one about a merchant and a pearl, and one about fish and a net.  They read at first glance as little nuggets of common-sense wisdom.  But then Matthew adds on vs 49-51 and makes these parables fit with his late first century goodies vs baddies agenda, with all the angels-and-fiery-furnaces judgement nonsense.

To begin with the fish and the net here’s the version from the Gospel of Thomas:

“The…wise fisherman… cast his net into the sea and drew it up from the sea full of small fish.  Among them the wise fisherman found a fine large fish.  He threw all the small fish back into the sea and chose the large fish…”[iii]

This is simply an old wisdom saying based on the common-sense of fisher folk motivated by need not greed, finding the large fish and putting the small fish back for future anglers.  In the Thomas tradition the wise fisherman is the enlightened person who discovers the true value of Jesus’ words among all the distractions of the ‘little fish’.  In the Matthew tradition the big fish is the truth of Jesus and the little fish are not only bad words and ideas they are bad people and need to be disposed of.

In terms of myth, neither Thomas nor Matthew, have a subversive element in this story that questions the mythic common-sense of catching fish, and therefore the consensus of scholars is that the parable likely did not originate with Jesus.  It gets a Jesus Seminar black rating.

This is not so for the parables of the treasure and field, and the merchant and pearl.  They have pink ratings.

“Heaven’s imperial rule is like treasure hidden in a field: when someone finds it, that person covers it up again, and out of sheer joy goes and sells every last possession and buys that field.”

The mythic framework causes no alarm.  There is no noxious mustard or unclean leaven here – just treasure hidden in a field (which was not an uncommon first century banking practice).  And the myth, as articulated in the Book of Proverbs[iv], is about diligently searching before being rewarded with a find.  Good common-sense wisdom, seek-and-ye-will-find stuff. 

But there is problem in this story that Matthew, and even some modern day commentators, choose to overlook or justify.  This is the problem of who owns the field, and therefore who owns the treasure.  The person who found the treasure did not own the field.  ‘Finders keepers’?  Poachers love that saying!   First century legal opinion said, ‘Find a coin on a public road… sure keep it.  But find coins on someone else’s land… No, that is not yours.’

The hidden treasure which, as in the myth, should be a reward for good deeds, seduces the finder in their euphoric joy into a course of action that has an illegal and immoral outcome – they steal someone else’s property.  

So it’s a parable subverting the seeking treasure myth.  And its message is a warning: be careful about what treasure you are seeking, and the means you are using to acquire it.  The acquiring of riches is not an ultimate good. 

The two little Anthony De Mello parables today are also on this theme of what is wealth.  The one-shoe man is grateful for finding his one shoe, while his companion imagined that he’s suffering the loss of a shoe.  Its message is about attitude and gratitude, and contentment.  Something the treasure hunter in our parable might have profited from.

The other De Mello parable is subversive of the myth about doing a good, thorough, and complete job and then receiving a reward for it.  Its message is that compassion and kindness are more important than either the monetary reward, or the approval of her father and employer.

The last Matthew parable today is also subversive of the treasure seeking myth.

Again the empire of God is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that they had and bought it.”

The myth behind the story is about total dedication or sacrifice to gain what you really want, ‘the pearl of great price’.  ‘Merchant’ was a class of the wealthy, and therefore he or she had to give up a lot.  And Matthew, Thomas, and many modern commentators concur with this myth and interpret the story as giving up false riches, false ideas, and ideologies in order to follow the truth of Jesus.

But, again, there is a problem here.  The merchant has sold ‘all’.  ‘All’ is not hyperbole.  So now he or she has no means to live.  They are broke.  And there is no government benefit.  If to buy the pearl they have sold off all their capital, they will again have to sell the pearl or else they will be destitute.  Thus the thing of value, the pearl, has no ultimate value.

So the message of this merchant and pearl parable is subversive.  It says that ultimately the empire of God is of no value.  What you give up all to possess has no monetary value.  And if you treat the whole parable as allegory about spiritual riches, the same holds true.  You gave up privileges and pastimes to gain a spiritual wealth that has no bargaining value.  It can’t be traded for spiritual rewards.  It can’t get you a favoured seat in an afterlife.  It won’t make you an ‘influencer’ with God.  And you can imagine the response of Jesus’ audience: ‘You’ve gotta be kidding!  You mean there’s nothing in it for me!’

The empire of God, the vision of Jesus, is about love – mercy, justice, compassion, hospitality.  And love is more about giving up than gaining, more about loss than profit, more about including the dubious, the immoral, the failures… and those who care for them. 

Matthew made Jesus’ vision into a myth of winners triumphing over losers.  But the historical Jesus didn’t fit into that myth.  His parables, when parted from the interpretative overlay (applied 50 years later by Matthew), subverted that winners vs losers myth, and instead made room for losers and changed the whole understanding of winning. 

[i] Luke 14:15-24

[ii] Luke 10:36-37

[iii] Gos. Tho. 8

[iv] Proverbs 2:1-5