Which is the Jesus figure in the story?
If you're smirking to yourself because you got it right, chill out. The question is remedial for a reason. I already know the answer. I made up the story. That's not why I ask. I ask because I'm interested in your process. How did you get to your answer? I suspect it depends on what kind of person you are. For simplicity's sake, let's say there are four types…
- …the reader who actually buys the narrator’s commentary and assumes that the “good, upstanding” folk are the Jesus figures. If this reader actually exists and, even less likely, has stumbled onto the Castle Church blog, all I can say is bless his simple and, no doubt, privileged heart.
- …the reader who says, “I would need more information to answer which one is the Jesus figure. What is each character’s moral history? Has the shoeshine been in and out of homelessness because of some self-inflicted drug or alcohol issue? Do the other three use their money and influence charitably?” While these might be important questions to ask in a certain context, this reader has clearly gone into self-justification mode. A little more savvy than reader 1, he has at least recognized where the parable is leading him, but he doesn’t like it. So now he is wasting our time by overcomplicating things and diverting attention away from the troubling folly of the parable itself.
- …the reader who, for one reason or another, most identifies with the shoeshine. This person is well aware of the story’s somewhat ham-fisted point. Her personal story has given her a firsthand look at the underbelly of conventional morality, the bad side of good, the good side of bad, etc. She knows well that grace and goodness are not necessarily what the elite class says they are. She may not romanticize the plight of a real life shoeshine, who she might assume, would do well to get clean, go back to school, or whatever, but her experience has made her a complex enough thinker to know that all of this is beside the point in the constructed world of the parable itself.
- …but if I know my audience, I assume most of you are probably in this last category with me. You understand Jesus well enough and can live in this parable-world long enough to know the obvious answer to the question. But you’re also aware that when this little exercise is over, you will trudge back into this other construct called the “real world,” and all of its conventional hierarchies and moralities will subtly sneak back into your worldview. You’re not proud of this. But you know yourself well enough to realize that, while toying with the topsy-turvy-ness of the Gospel worldview in a thought experiment is one thing, going back to work on Monday is quite another.
Parables like this one are frugal with their words for a reason. Jesus must have discovered this early on in his ministry, because he had mastered the art of saying a lot with very little. The less content the parables spoon feed to us the more we project our own content onto them. The more we project, the more the subject matter becomes our own stuff, as opposed to the parable itself. By the time we realize what’s going on, it’s too late. Our biases, insecurities, and irrational anxieties have all been exposed for what they are. We can’t pretend to be “in on it” because we already took the bait and identified with the wrong character, or anticipated a moral to the story that never came, or called a problem what Jesus calls a solution, or vice versa.
Parables catch us in a trap. They lure us into putting the assumptions of our world into a world where they don’t belong so we can look at them from the outside. Perhaps, we’ll argue all day long with the parable above about the importance of self-sufficiency, hard work, and other qualities that we’re inclined to project onto the three rather than the one. But the parable isn’t interested in our opinion on such things. It has posited a world where a down and out, probably alcoholic shoeshine is more admirable than a well-to-do family man. We can object and say that things aren’t actually like that in our universe. But we can’t argue that things aren’t actually like that in the universe of the parable. They just are.
And here is where things get even more audacious in the way that Jesus uses parables. He makes an absurd claim—a world-stained tax collector is in better standing with God than a principled religious leader (Luke 18:9-14); a sleaze-ball business manager is commended by the owner for cutting an under-the-table deal with clients at the owner’s own expense (Luke 16:1-8); a poor widow wins her case with a corrupt judge because, if she lacks the funds for a respectable bribe, she at least knows how to be a pain in the ass (Luke 18:1-8)—but not so absurd that it has no place at all in our world. Like a demogorgon messing with Winona Ryder's lights, he leaves little wormholes or vortexes where the logic of the parable creeps into the real.
And he doesn’t just tell his disciples a parable once every Sunday, give or take. He calls us into the wilderness with him where we are bombarded with these little riddles constantly. Just when we think it’s time to put the cute little thought experiment aside and get back after it, he lays another one on us, and then another, and another, until we begin to question whether the parable world is actually more real than the “real” one.
If anyone ever tries to explain or make sense of a parable, you can bet they’re being reader number 2. That’s the whole thing about parables, they’re absurd. The absurdity of the life of discipleship is that Jesus calls us to step out of the real world, which makes sense to us, into one that doesn't. Only that way does the latter ever become the former.
Peace and Cheers,
Jared Witt (Twitter: @prjwitt) is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.