Friday, May 15, 2009

The Parable of the Perplexed Reader

I happened to be reading “The Parable of the Persistent Widow” (Luke 18:1-8) the other day, and it struck me that something so simple would have to have a plain meaning. Would not have any semantic recalcitrance about it. And so I read it with this predisposition in mind. Here it is, for your reference.

“Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: ‘In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don't fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!’

“And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"

The writer tells us what to think about what Jesus says in this parable. So this should be a piece of cake, is what I’m thinking when I start it. He tells us that Jesus tells the parable “…to show them [his disciples] that they should always pray and not give up.” Fine, I’m thinking. Piece of cake, then.

Then I actually read the thing, and I’m thinking, Now let’s see. Where else in the Gospels does Jesus emphasize justice? Where else is justice in this life the important thing in Jesus’s teaching? Oh, sure. Justice on the last day. Justice when Jesus comes back. That’s clear. But does justice in this life figure importantly in his teaching?

I don’t seem to find that. No, what I find is an emphasis on love. Improbable love. Possibly impossible love. On loving one’s enemies, for example. On turning the other cheek, for example. On seeking the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of God. In the midst of suffering and oppression. I see him providing an example of what? An example of justice-seeking for himself? Does he demonstrate in his own life that God can be expected to provide justice to us here, in this life? Doesn’t he ask us, for example, to bear our own crosses?

Is bearing our cross the same as justice in this life? Should we expect “troubles” and to bear our cross in this life, or should we expect justice?

And what do you make of the sudden shift Jesus makes in the last sentence of the parable? Here, he’s talking about a widow and an unjust judge. He’s encouraging his disciples to expect justice of God, soon. After all, if an unjust judge will dispense justice, can’t God be expected to dispense justice when the time comes? But then he shifts the subject to something else entirely. Or does he? He talks about faith.

Here, he’s been talking about justice, justice, justice. And now he talks about faith. Why? Is he trying to suggest something about those who obsess about justice? Who seek justice above all things? Who grind their teeth concerning the injustices that are perpetrated on them every day? Who can think about little else?

What about faith? he asks. In the midst of all this justice-seeking, is there room for faith?
Or maybe what he does mean is that we should just keep praying for justice to be done. Maybe what he does mean is that seeking justice persistently is a sign of faith.

Is there a chance he could mean all of this? Is there a chance he does not present this story for simple decoding? Is there a chance he wants us to meditate on this story rather than decode it and move on quickly to the next one? Is there a chance that the function of the parable in Jesus’s curriculum is not proverbial? What is the chance that many of Jesus’s parables are actually more like koans than they are like proverbs?

So when I say that ambivalence, ambiguity, and paradox may be an inextricable part of things. Of language. Of the Bible. I’m thinking of some of these parables. Some of these Jesus stories. That seem to be more like koans than they are like explications.

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