Friday, February 11

parabolas and parables

Hyperparabola, not hyperbole
Reading through a few of my regular blogs as well as the readings today, it has really struck me how pervasive and destructive the practice of scriptural literalism is.  Ignoring the use of metaphor, simile, proverb and parable for a moment, I'd like to focus on the simplest of things, word meaning.

Words today do not mean the same as they did 100, 300, 500, 1000 or 2000 years ago.  One of the readiest examples is the word 'aweful', which means "terribly bad, unpleasant" and occasionally it is used as an intensifying adverb (an awful cold day).

When the big push for the first english translations of scripture came about, aweful meant something very different.   It meant "full of awe", as in, full of wonder/reverence and dread, which is a different meaning for the word awe from 500 years before that.  Times change and so to words.

Now, let us consider metaphor, simile, proverb and parable.  All of these use something which is familiar to the listener to explain something which is not familiar to the listener.  There is an underlying assumption, however...that the listener is familiar with the first part so that they can make the leap to the second.  The parable of the Tares (Mat 13) comes to mind.  Even with Christ explaining it to the disciples in the text, it STILL doesn't make a lot of sense if you don't have a substantive agronomic background.  Where things get interesting is when you have stuff like today's gospel reading.  In Mark 7, Christ has left Galilee and is trying to keep a low profile (though that doesn't happen).  There is an exchange between Jesus and a Greek woman who wants her daughter to be exorcised by Christ.

He said to her, “Let the children be fed first. For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”
She replied and said to him, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.”
Then he said to her, “For saying this, you may go. The demon has gone out of your daughter.”

Though this isn't a parable, the exchange between them is filled with cultural subtext which is entirely lost on literalists.  The 'children' are the jews...the chosen of god.  A dog is an unclean animal, as are heathens like the greek woman and her daughter.  So, knowing those things, you can read the 'code'.  Of course, those who understand judaic culture (especially of that time period), would have known these things without them needing to be said.  Folks like the original authors, the people it was originally written for and the medieval devout whose lives were infused with the history, tradition and scriptures.

As for the geometry above, parabolas (and hyperparabolas) dance around the point, can highlight where 'the point' is.....but they never actually hit the mark themselves, leaving the examiner to figure out exactly what 'the point' is.  Parables (and the rest) are much in the same way.  They will highlight around 'the point', dance around it, etc....but it is still up to the reader to discern for themselves what is going on.

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