What if we read Jesus’ parables like Zen koans?

This week we’re away on holiday, so I’m posting some pieces that I’ve prewritten. One of my collaborators reckoned I should publish this one from a few years ago, so here it is. It’s a longer read that normal.


Last year I completed my Bachelor of Theology at Whitley College. One of the most rewarding units of study as part of my degree was spending a semester learning about Buddhism from Paul Beirne, a former Roman Catholic priest who’d ministered in Korea.

While I was learning about Buddhism, my church was also spending some time reflecting on the parables of Jesus. I wondered about how some Buddhist ideas might change the way that we read parables.

What first triggered this idea was the Zen Buddhist idea that the highest truth cannot be put into words. Instead, a Zen master will posit a koan (or ‘problem’) that is designed to trigger an experience of enlightenment. These koans tend to seem a lot like riddles and often have no adequate answer. In this way, Zen koans reminded me of the parables of Jesus, which seemed to confuse his closest disciples. In fact, when his followers ask Jesus why he speaks in parables, he is recorded to say,

To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that
     ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
          and may indeed listen, but not understand;
     so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’

I find this explanation as confusing as any Zen master’s koan. Jesus says that the disciples are in on the secret and that parables are used so that others may not understand, but it is the insider disciples who need the parable explained. I am confused about why Jesus would use a method of communication that he knows will not be understood, and is in fact misunderstood by his closest friends.


As part of my study of Buddhism, Paul Beirne suggested that I read Paul Knitter’s book Without Buddha I could not be a Christian. Knitter is a Roman Catholic who, in crossing over into Buddhism, has found resources that help him reconcile the difficulties he’s had with Christianity.

Knitter has found that the Buddhist emphasis on the interconnectedness of all things is a helpful remedy to the dualistic views that have come to dominate Christianity. He also says he has benefitted from the Buddhist understanding that suffering happens because of selfishness, which is caused by ignorance – ignorance of our interconnectedness. Rather than being a thing or a substance in itself (as sin or evil have often been understood by Christians) it is understood as a lack.

Knitter says he has appreciated the space Buddhists allow for mystery, as Christians have had a tendency to talk to much, trying to give explanations for everything. He says that Buddhists recognise that words are a means to an end, not the end in itself. Our words and ideas are not adequate to describe the end that we seek, so we must hold them loosely.

Knitter describes the practises of metta and tonglen, Buddhist techniques which may also help Christians develop compassion. He also says that he has been challenged by Buddhists to accept all things, even things he would like to identify as evil, and not to wish that they were different. It is understood that by doing this one can come to an understanding of why things are the way they are.


After reading Knitter’s exploration of Buddhism I decided to see how my reading of parables would be impacted by these Buddhist ideas and practises. Before and after reading a parable I decided I would try to practise metta. As I reflected on the parables I would keep in mind the Buddhist ideas Knitter had explored.


The Lost Parables of Luke 15

Before reading these parables I spent some time practising metta, which is basically directing love. You start off directing love toward yourself, then toward someone close to you, and then to someone who you have no significant connection with. After this you try directing love toward someone who you find difficult to love, maybe even someone who you’d say you hate. Lastly you take some time to direct love toward yourself again, in recognition that many of us find it most difficult to love ourselves.

As I began to read the ‘lost’ parables of Luke 15, I noticed that the setting for the telling of these parables has some tax collectors and sinners gravitating towards Jesus. The Pharisees and scribes are unhappy about this and, in contrast, they seem to want to disasociate themselves from Jesus. The gravitation fo the sinners and tax collectors toward Jesus might indicate a recognition of their interrelationship with himbut it is also leading the Pharisees and scribes to deny any interrelationship.

In the first parable Jesus tells them, the relationship the shepherd has with the one lost sheep is so strong that he will momentarily leave all the other sheep (distancing himself from them) to have all of his sheep back with him. I wonder whether there is a similarity between the shepherd risking leaving all of the other sheep in order to find the one stary and Jesus risking his relationship with the Pharisees and scribes in order to acknowledge his interconnection with the tax collectors and sinners?

It seems that one stray is noticed because its place in the group is missing. With just one missing, the flock is not whole and so all are diminished. This is why there is great rejoicing when the stray is returned. In the second parable th set of coins is also diminished because of the one missing coin.

In the third parable, the first son acts as an individual, separating himself from his family and their land. He suffers because of his selfishness and ignorance. He sells the land that he should have maintained connection with, wastes the money received from the sale and has nothing left when hard times hit. This happens because he is trying to operate as a separate and independent self. He is ignorant of the connection with his father and the love his father has for him. In the foreign land where the first son ends up, no-one will give him anything to eat, even though they are dependent on his labour.

When the son decides to return, he thinks his father will not be happy about his return, He doesn’t recognise the depth of relationship that is missing. He doesn’t realise how much his father just wants him back home. The father celebrates his son’s return. The loss of their relationship was such that his son was as good as dead. Now that he has returned to his family and (what remains of) their land it is as though he has been resurrected.

The second son’s suffering is caused by ignorance. Like his brother, he is thinking of himself as separate from the family. He is thinking about what he will get one day when his father dies. He thinks of his workd as slavery because he is ignorant of his father’s love and generosity. He thinks his father is going to try and keep everything for himself until he dies, which is why he is angry at the unexpected generosity shown to the other son. Because he is thinking of himself as an individual rather than part of a family he doesn’t recognise what has been missing while his brother was away or what will be missing if he chooses not to join the celebration.

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The Parable of the Unforgiving Slave

I practised metta again before reading this parable. As I read, what was most apparent to me was that I wanted it to be different. There are other unpleasant parables with nasty endings in the scripture, but here the author actually has Jesus saying that God may act like one of the nasty characters in the parable. However, since I’ve been challenged to accept things as they are rather than wishing they were different, I must try to accept this parable as it is, in order to underdtand why it is like this.

I wondered if perhaps I should practise metta, directing love toward all of the characters mentiuoned in this passage before I came back to it. I spent some time directing love towards the various characters: Peter, Jesus, the king, the first slave, the second slave, God, the author of the text, and myself the reader.

When Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive another member of the church, Jesus gives Peter a nonsense number, seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven times. This seems like a Zen koan, meant to confuse Peter and distract him from counting the times he has forgiven. Jesus follows on with a parable.

The parable starts with a king wanting to cash in on his loans. It appears that this king is thinking selfishly, as though he is not interconnected with the people around him. This is confirmed when he orders one of his slaves to be sold, along with his family and possessions, in order to pay a ten thousand talent debt. However, when this slave begs for patience, offering to pay back all he owes, the king cancels the debt. Perhaps the slave’s plea has called the king to compassion and reminded him of the interconnection between the two men?

It appears, however, that the slave is ignorant as to what has just happened. He does not realise that he has just been treated as though he is not a separate person. He continues acting as an individual. When he sees a fellow slave who owes him one hundred denarii, a much smaller sum, he demands that this man pay what he owes. When his debtor pleads for patience he does not recognise their interconnection, even though he was just recently in a similar situation. Unlike the king, he sends his debtor to prison until the debt is paid.

The other slaves know that the king cancelled the first slave’s debt. They know that the first slave then showed no mercy to his fellow slave. As I refelcted I wondered what significance this would ahve for the other slaves. Perhaps the king’s actions represented for them the possibility of a new way of relating to others, founded on compassion? Maybe they saw the first slave’s failure to follow this pattern as a threat to the possibility of compassionate relationships? Whether or not this is the reaosn for their distress, they tell the king about what has happened. As the slave has not followed the pattern of compassion and forgiveness, the king revokes his pardon.

Jesus explains that God will also treat people in this way if they do not forgive others. Does this mean that God will amke sure one is punished unless one learns to forgive? My hunch is that if Peter had asked this question Jesus might give ans answer aloing time lines of, ‘The question does not fit the case.’ This question is still coming from the kind of minset that asks, ‘How many times do I need to forgive.’ The point may be that if we do not maintain a pattern of compassion and forgiveness, even going beyond what seems reasonable, nobody else will either.


The Parable of the Great Dinner

Once again I spent time practising metta before reading this parable.

The setting for the telling of this parable is a dinner Jesus attended, whcih was hosted by a leader of the Pharisees. Jesus tells the person who invited him that when he invitesguests he should invite people who would be unable to returnt he favour. Normally I would presume that Jesus said this becasue it was the opposite of their practise. This time, howeve, I wondered they were not already trying to practise this kind of hospitality. If they were not already trying to practise this kind of hospitality I wonder if they would have invited Jesus, a man who was known to associate with tax collectors, sex workers and foreigners?

In the parable Jesus tells at the meal, a host invites many guests to a meal, but they all refuse. The intended guests have treated the host as though they have no significant relationship with him. This puts the dinner host in the place of those whose interconnectedness is routinely denied by others: the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame and the people fo the land. Since he has been treated like one of them, he recognises that he is interconnected with them. He has compassion for them, inviting them to the meal.

I felt uneasy about this parable because of the host’s declaration that none of the intended guests would taste his dinner. I found myself wishing the parable was not written like this. But as I menioned abwhile reflecting on the previous parable, I felt challenged to accept the parable as it was rather than wishing ti was different. When I sought to accept the parable as it was recorded I realised I felt uneasy because I was treating the story like an allegory where the dinner represents Heaven and the guests who were originally invited are understood to  end up in Hell. The text, however, does not say that this is a parable about the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. The parables does not say that anything bad will happen to the original guests or even that they will never be invited to another banquet.

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