The Art of Parables

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Print$27.96
Reinterpreting the Teaching Stories of Jesus in Word and Sculpture

Charles McCollough

256 PP | 7.25" x 9"
Paper, Includes CD
ISBN: 978-1-55145-563-1

Without question, the parables of Jesus are the most-loved and most-used texts in the entire New Testament - a blessing, opportunity, and challenge to preachers, study groups, and congregations alike.

They are the most-loved because as word pictures, they are immediately accessible. We can imagine the situations they describe and wonder how they apply to our own lives. The parables also bring us as near to Jesus as we can get. Biblical scholars agree that the parables are the most authentic words of Jesus available to us, and we value them for that reason.

At the same time, the parables present many challenges. The parables appear more than 30 times in the Revised Common Lectionary. Ministers are called to preach the parables over and over again. It¡¦s not easy to approach the parables in a fresh way, or to gain new insights from them when we hear or preach them so often.

Which is why The Art of Parables by Charles McCollough is such an indispensable resource. A theologian and artist, McCollough knows the parables intimately and offers a unique, two-pronged approach to each of the 33 parables contained in the New Testament:

First, McCollough interprets each of the parables through sculpture. Seeing and approaching the parables visually, through art/sculpture, opens up new levels of understanding.

Second, McCollough takes full account of the social, economic, and political context in which the parables were told, with often surprising and challenging results. For example, the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son parables have been used in endless ways to refer to compassionate care of the stranger and to forgiveness of wayward children. But are these the meanings Jesus intended? Not necessarily, says McCollough.

This illustrated book and the accompanying CD of images for projection will be an invaluable resource to anyone who wants to explore the ethical and social justice issues contained in the parables of Jesus, in a unique way that honours the contribution of the arts.

Unique features

  • Takes seriously the contribution art can make to our interpretation and understanding of scripture
  • Takes full account of the social, economic, and political context of the parables
  • Includes commentary on every parable contained in the New Testament
  • Is illustrated with photographs of each parable sculpture
  • Includes CD with images for projection (for use in sermon presentations and with study groups)

Charles McCollough, Author

After completing his Ph.D. in Theology, CHARLES McCOLLOUGH worked for the national staff of the United Church of Christ in the areas of adult education and social justice. At the same time, he pursued his love of art, studying sculpture at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Johnson Atelier, the Princeton Art Association, and Mercer College. He has taught art and social ethics, sculpted, and lectured on themes such as human rights, peace and justice. He is the author of six previous books: Morality of Power, Heads of Heaven/Feet of Clay, Lifestyles of Faithfulness, To Love the Earth, Resolving Conflict with Justice and Peace, and Faith Made Visible.

Parable Research

This is perhaps the best-known parable next to the Samaritan, and both are found only in Luke. It deals with basic family issues of inheritance, sibling rivalry, shame, and forgiveness.

The mother of this family is glaringly missing, although some artists, such as Rembrandt, have included her in spite of her absence from the text. The absence of the mother or of any females in this parable is curious but suggestive of the powerful paternalism of the period and indicative of the economic and political context, which was controlled by the male head of a household. One scholar, Bernard Brandon Scott, sees the ever-forgiving father as playing the role of both father and mother: “As father he is a failure, but as a mother he is a success” (122).

The failure of the father lies in the fact that he shamefully gives in to the younger son’s request for his inheritance. Worse than this “failure,” however, is the shame the son brings upon the family. In an honour/shame society, the prodigal son brings shame upon himself because he essentially treats his father as if he were dead, when he asks to cash in his part of the family estate. He then wastes it and ends up starving in a foreign land, where he serves a Gentile farmer by feeding pigs, another shameful act for a Jew. Then he shames himself even further by envying the pigs for their food, which he cannot have.

He realizes that his father’s servants eat better than he does, and that he can beg forgiveness and offer to work as a hired hand on his father’s estate. So he practises saying the right words as he heads back home.

When the father sees him coming, he runs to his son – a shameful act in that society, since elder men did not run. The father kisses him, puts a robe on him, and tells the servants to “kill the fatted calf” for a celebration. The son begins to recite the words he has practised, but the father overwhelms him and prevents the completion of the well-rehearsed confession. He even places a ring on the son’s finger, restoring him to his former rank as son.

Does the son then get a new inheritance? Does he return also to his mother? What happens to him next? We are left hanging, because the parable shifts at this point to the story of the older brother.

Many people leave the older brother out when they retell the story. Even the traditional name of the parable, The Prodigal Son, leaves out the older brother. But the story is about two sons and their father. And the older son has a good case against both his father and his younger brother by the social rules of the day.

The older son has followed the rules, supported the family and respected the father, but now he sees his younger brother shaming the family and getting rewarded for it. So he refuses to enter the party. Again the father comes out, this time to meet his older son, and to invite him to the celebration. The father even makes him a promise, saying, “all that is mine is yours” (v. 32). But again we are left hanging, because we do not learn whether or not the older son goes to the party, or what becomes of the relationship between the sons, the father, or the mother.

A traditional allegorical interpretation of this parable – rejected by scholars for the past 100 years – equates the older son with a Jewish legalist who strictly follows the law. God, represented by the father, favours the younger son, who is equated with a Christian. Favouring the younger son was not unusual in the Hebrew tradition – one needs only to recall the story of Jacob and Esau, and the preference given to Joseph over his older brothers, even though the law of primogeniture required favouring the older son. The point in this biased allegorical interpretation is that Christians are graced with this forgiveness while law-abiding Jews are caught in an old punishment-and-reward system. It’s long past time we reject such allegorical anti-Semitism.

As already mentioned, we need to approach the parable from within the social world of first-century Palestine, which was honour/shame based. In his book The God of Jesus, Stephen Patterson concludes his honour/shame analysis of this parable with the notion that the Empire of God does not operate according to the rules of an honour/shame society, but rather on the basis of love, care, and reconciliation. This is “the basis for real life together” (158). I find Patterson’s interpretation convincing.

Bernard Brandon Scott points out that both sons are chosen and rewarded:

The father is interested neither in morality nor in inheritance. He is concerned with the unity of his sons… The father does not reject. The metaphor for the Kingdom is the father’s coming out, both for the younger son and for the elder. Apart from him is division and failure… (125)

In the parable, the fate of this family, which we might anachronistically call “dysfunctional,” is left hanging. We never know what finally happens to them. But we do know that there are children who squander their parent’s property and who cause enormous wreckage in their wake. Yet Jesus taught that even the worst behaviour can be forgiven if true repentance happens. Though the father and son would be shamed by the rules of the honour/shame society, Jesus teaches the different rules of God’s Empire.

Questions for Discussion

  1. When have you ever experienced this kind of forgiveness in your life? Did you experience that forgiveness as coming from God, or from another person, or both?
  2. Have there been times when you have felt like the elder brother?
  3. Do you think the prodigal son really repents? Why?
  4. Imagine that you are the mother in this family. How do you think you would have responded?
  5. Have you experienced the kind of sibling rivalry described in this parable? What did it feel like to you?