People Jesus spoke his parables to were living in “a horrifying wilderness of exclusion, silence, and humiliation . . . on the margins of the social order."
Like many churchgoers, I grew up with a steady diet of sermons about the parables of Jesus—stories about things like lost sheep, coins and sons; Good Samaritans and unforgiving servants; mustard seeds and persistent widows.
From them, I learned many important life lessons: Be kind, be generous, be compassionate. All good lessons, to be sure. But as my friend Gordon King reminds me, the parables are so much more.
For King, a Winnipegger and Resource Specialist with Canadian Baptist Ministries, the parables are more than just a collection of uplifting stories to help people live kinder lives and be better people.
Instead, he says, they are “narratives of resistance challenging audiences to participate in the personal and social transformation of God's kingdom.”
That’s the premise of his new book. Seed Falling on Good Soil: Rooting Our Lives in the Parables of Jesus, which he will launch on Tuesday, March 14, 7 PM at McNally Robinson Booksellers.
Palestine during the time of Jesus was filled with “intense conflict of ideological and religious ideas,” he says.
It was a time of Roman imperial oppression, autocratic rulers, cowed populations, tremendous disparity between the rich and the poor, a subservient and toadying religious establishment, ethnic and religious suspicion and separation—and growing signs of resistance and rebellion.
The people Jesus spoke his parables to, King says, were living in “a horrifying wilderness of exclusion, silence, and humiliation . . . on the margins of the social order. They were chronically food insecure, falling into debt and losing their land. Women were silenced in a patriarchal social setting.”
On the other side, “an elite minority lived in villas and had country estates,” living a life apart from the majority of their fellow citizens and collaborating with the occupiers.
Jesus’ parables, King says, addressed this reality.
The parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, isn’t just a simple lesson about being kind to neighbours. Instead, it’s a profound challenge to cross ethnic, religious and political walls to help those in need.
The parable of the great banquet isn’t just about going to heaven to enjoy a feast with God, but about “sharing a table with hungry people on the margins” here and now.
And the parable of the persistent widow isn’t just about sticking things out, but about “the marginalization of women in so many parts of the world,” he says. “The widow is a woman that cries out for justice in a world that does not care about her.”
The parables, “are about hunger, justice for women, ethnic hatred, and extreme poverty,” he says. “These are not light issues.”
King found inspiration for his book through his career in international relief and development, working with poor people in the developing world.
During his travels in places like Africa and Asia, he came to see that the parables especially resonated with people in those countries because they saw themselves in the “stories from the world of the poor in the first century.”
Through his work, he was able to meet people who were “poor, lame, blind and hungry. I met the widow, I saw the memorials to people killed because of ethnic hatred. I saw farmers facing crop failure. And I have seen people hoarding produce without compassion for hungry people around them.”
What does he hope readers will take away from the book?
“I hope Christians that read it will wrestle with the calling of disciples to move out of an individualized spirituality to take on the mission of being salt and light,” he says.
At a time when the gap between rich and poor is increasing, when over 800 million people in the world don’t have enough to eat, when political leaders are fostering fear of people outside our countries and boundaries, and—closer to home—when refugees are crossing the border between North Dakota and Manitoba seeking safety, the parables of Jesus, King says, “call us to participate in God’s new creation in ways that have both personal and social dimensions today.”
They may also be the kinds of things, he adds, that “get the attention of Canadian Christians in the age of Trump.”