If you are like me, then you grew up being told that the characters in the parables of Jesus are, first of all, a model for living. That the good characters were to be imitated, and the bad ones avoided.
This, for me, cemented the way I looked at Jesus’s parables. Whenever I came across a parable, I laboured to squeeze moral lessons out of it as if it were a divine orange meant to take away my moral thirst. That model was never helpful as I came to realise that I looked more like the characters I was supposed to avoid, and less like the ones I was supposed to imitate.
What exactly should we do with Jesus’s parables? What do these divine allegories teach us? The now-dead Episcopal priest Robert Capon, in his seminal work, Between Noon and Three, offers an alternative view on how we should approach Jesus’s parables.
Parables are told only because they are true, not because the actions of the characters in them can be recommended for imitation. Good Samaritans are regularly sued. Fathers who give parties for wayward sons are rightly rebuked. Employers who pay equal wages for unequal workers have labour-relation problems. And any shepherd who makes a practice of leaving ninety-nine sheep to chase after a lost one quickly goes out of the sheep-ranching business.
The parables are true only because they are like what God is like, not because they are models for us to copy. It is simply a fact that the one thing we dare not under any circumstances imitate is the only thing that can save us. The parables are, one and all, about the foolishness by which Grace raises the dead. They apply to no sensible process at all — only to the divine insanity that brings everything out of nothing.