Jesus the Artist
In another post, my colleague Mark Sprinkle drew a very helpful analogy between Jesus’ use of parables and the creative expressions of artists. There is one part of that post that I think is particularly important for BioLogos readers to grapple with, and I would like to expand on it below from the point of view of a biblical scholar.
[T]he purpose of Jesus’ “art” was to give verbal, visual, and dramatic forms to those complicated and confounding relationships and symmetries and harmonies between Himself (and the Father and Spirit) and the world, ourselves included in the latter. Such creative expressions did and do not make everything clear, but rather resist simple clarity, forcing their hearers to come at the whole complicated, opaque truth from a position of intellectual and spiritual humility.
Speaking in parables is indeed similar to an artist’s craft. Neither are systematic, logical arguments aimed at intellectual persuasion. Rather, they create impressions, whole new worlds of meaning intended to turn old worlds on their heads. Further, they do not always clarify, but actually can by design obscure a deeper reality. To apprehend that deeper reality, one must—like a patron facing a timeless painting—continue to seek, ponder, and meditate on what is being said.
Parables are radical pieces of communication meant to disorient the hearers and then reorient them to an entirely new way of thinking. The reason Jesus does so much story telling is because stories—not debate or other “proofs”—are best suited for such a whole scale reorientation. Jesus’ preaching, after all, was about the kingdom of heaven (or of God). This kingdom was not about where one goes after death, but a here-and-now transformation of how people thought about God and their relationship to him.
Jesus “explains” this new kingdom in several ways, one of which is the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), where Jesus lays out the types of behaviors that should now characterize the people of God. These new behaviors contrast again and again with the old and are fully at odds with what the religious leaders of the time were teaching the people. Jesus’ kingdom is counter-cultural.
But Jesus more often “shows” the people what this kingdom looks like by telling a good story, which regularly begins, “The kingdom of heaven is like….” Sometimes the best way to get an idea across is to paint a verbal picture, which is precisely what Jesus does in the parables.
Jesus’ stories are not like Aesop’s Fables (as interesting as they are), where there is a moral to the story. The parables are not about playing nice with each other. They actually plant you in a different world where things are running according to a wholly different set of rules of the kingdom of heaven.
We can see this by looking at one of Jesus’ favorite topics in the parables: how Jews related to Gentiles. Jewish identity was an extremely important and touchy issue in Jesus’ day. Even though the Jews had returned to their land after the exile (539 BC), they had been guests in their own land—first of the Persians, then Greeks, and now the Romans. How Jews could maintain their ethnic and religious identity in such a pressure cooker of pagan Greek and Roman ideas, not to mention the embarrassment of pagan rulers telling them what to do, was a sore point.
So, one can understand why Jewish attitudes towards tax collectors, for example, are a repeated concern in the Gospels. Tax collectors were fellow Jews who were traitors to their own people by collecting taxes for the Romans. They were even spoken of in the same breath as prostitutes (e.g., Matthew 21:31-32).
No “good Jew” committed to maintaining his or her identity amid a pagan world would lower themselves to work alongside the Romans. Yet, what does Jesus do? He associates with these (and other) “sinners” on a regular basis, and even calls a tax collector (Matthew) to be among his select group of followers. By his actions Jesus demonstrates that his kingdom operates by different, counter-intuitive, counter-cultural rules.
These types of concrete actions were supported again and again by Jesus’ parables. Such a radical change in how Jews viewed God, the world, and their place in it—where sinners and other outsiders were welcome—required a communication strategy that was up for the task.
Stories are that communication strategy. Parables were Jesus’ canvas for “painting” a new vision for what life in his kingdom should look like. And in Jesus’ kingdom, there was no longer any place for maintaining those fundamental ethnic and religious distinctions by which the Jews had been operating.
We can go to virtually any parable to make this point, but the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan works as well as any (Luke 10:30-37). We recall that what drove Jesus to tell this story was the question asked by the “expert in the law” (v. 25): “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ answer was this parable, and it carries a double punch.
First, the Jewish leaders step around the beaten man on the road—certainly a non-Jew—feeling no obligation to come to his aid. The point is that the leaders of Israel, of all people, should know enough of God’s character to stop and help him. They shouldn’t ask whether he is “one of us,” an insider. All one needs to know is that this human being needs help. In Jesus’ kingdom, carefully drawn lines of ethnic and religious separation are a thing of the past.
But second, on a deeper level, Jesus’ point is far more threatening. By calling upon a Samaritan as the “good guy” in this story—with all of the backdrop of cultural hostility—Jesus is making a more pressing point than “be good to everyone” (which is where the Sunday School lesson typically ends). The hated Samaritan sees the man lying there, and without asking questions about who he is—whether Jew, Samaritan, Greek, Roman, or anything else for that matter—helps him. The Samaritan, of all people, acts like a neighbor toward the man who needed help, the very thing the Jewish leaders failed to do.
By telling Jewish leaders that they have something to learn about their own God from, of all people, Samaritans, is not a suggestion to be more open-minded and tolerant. It is nothing less than a rewriting of the Jewish narrative or religious and ethnic identity. Jesus uses a story to paint a vivid mental and emotional picture for his hearers. No other medium would do.
It is sometimes thought that Jesus told stories because he wanted to persuade the masses, the common people who are not used to debating fine points of theology like the scribes and priests. This is partially true, but it is also true that the radical message of the kingdom of heaven required a means of communication that was best suited for it. Like any work of art, stories “create” new ways of seeing the world—and it is, after all, a new world that Jesus means to create.
Let me put this another way: Jesus himself communicated the deep mysteries of a new way of being through the use of such things as vivid imagery, symbolism, metaphors, and other devices common to artistic expression. In fact, the incarnation, God in human flesh, is not a debate or argument about the nature of God that appeals primarily to the intellect. It is a vivid—and true—demonstration, a portrait, of a radically new and mysterious way of thinking about God, the world, and our place in it.
If this is how God chooses to communicate at the incarnation—the very climax and epicenter of his story—we should not be surprised to see God painting vivid portraits elsewhere in Scripture. This is especially true of Genesis and creation. Something so fundamental to God’s story may need to be told in a way that transcends the limitations of purely intellectual engagement. Genesis may be written more to show us—by grabbing us with its images than laying out a timeline of cause and effect events—that God is the central figure on the biblical drama.
Originally posted February 1, 2011.