Complex Simplicity

by Dr. Gerry Turcotte, President, St. Mary’s University

“And he told them many things in parables.” ~Matthew 13:3~

There are few people who would deny the importance of education. This week I had the pleasure of welcoming a record number of new students to the St. Mary’s orientation, and it was both a thrill to watch the excited faces in the crowd and to observe the educational styles of the many speakers who came forward to greet our students: from Campus Ministry to Student Advisor to the President of the Student Legislative Council.

What struck me most about our event was the range of rhetorical techniques the speakers used to communicate with our audience. Chief among these rhetorical tropes were hyperbole (This is the most exciting day of your life!), similes and metaphors (Today is like Christmas and you are all most welcomed presents!). For my own speech I found myself resorting to parables. By their very nature, parables provide stories about one thing that often serves to illuminate the truth about another. It was Christ’s principle way of communicating, and he was—not to put too fine a point on it—the greatest teacher the world has ever witnessed.

Parables are fascinating linguistic constructs because they appear simple, but convey deep complexity. Their meaning, however, may change over time as original contexts are lost. One of our Saint John’s Bible lecture series events here at St. Mary’s University featured the eminent Jewish scholar Dr. Amy-Jill Levine who specializes in the analysis of parables. Dr. Levine is a co-editor of the Jewish Annotated New Testament.

In a powerful study Dr. Levine reminds us that some of the most widely repeated parables—for example, the story of the Good Samaritan—were even more remarkably brave and impactful when used by Jesus to communicate with his Jewish audience. Today this parable is a popular morality tale urging us to do good. A Priest and a Levite spurn a severely injured Jewish man; a Samaritan stops to care for him. What was extraordinary about Jesus’ story, however, was that Samaritan-Jewish conflict was at its height when he told it, and His audience would have expected the Samaritan to harm, rather than help, the injured man.

Levine transposes the parable to modern times to illustrate just how radical Christ’s parable actually was. Imagine, she suggests, that the scene is the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, where a Jew has been beaten and robbed. Two people who should have helped him—a Jewish medic and a Christian relief worker—ignore him. However, a Palestinian Muslim does not. Recontextualized in these terms we suddenly understand the courage of Jesus’ teachings. Such was the example Christ provided to his listeners to invite divided communities to overcome their enmity and to listen to each other. It reminds us, too, that we need to be equally courageous in the examples we provide to motivate others and brave in analyzing our own prejudices and expectations. It is in this sense that education offers the greatest potential gift of understanding.