That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables. … – Matthew 12:1-3 (NIV)

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In addressing the masses, Jesus often relied on parables – spiritual lessons based on real-life types of situations – in part, as commentators have noted, because he could reveal “truth to the spiritual and ready mind” while simultaneously concealing it from others. (For his own explanation, see Matthew 13:10-18.)

Much of the power of a parable resides in the reality that it can never fully be contained – there are always elusive elements in motion, just as there are in good metaphor (even for the spiritually and ready minded). You keep coming back to these mini-dramas for your own renewal and growth. You can never nail them down with an ultimate “moral” or “law” for action. In fact, they often contest the prevailing understanding or teaching.

The kind of open-ended reading they demand also challenges fundamentalists, who place the Bible in a position of dominant authority and extract a flat equation rather than wrestle with metaphor. Some, in fact, insist on the King James version, because even synonyms threaten their perceived purity.

But what if the texts we are translating are themselves corrupted? That is, if editors tampered with the Scriptures before passing them on? The early Bible authority St. Jerome, responding to intense probing by Augustine, suggested as much when he responded, asking him “not to challenge an old man … who asks only to remain silent.”

So we return to a parable as a story, one that can be told in many ways and many languages and still convey its central message as we repeatedly listen in wonder.

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Therefore the Spirit of Christ is the Rule of his Peoples Faith, and the Guide of their Life; yet doth not this detract from the Scriptures, nor the Estimation of this People (called Quakers concerning them) for I know they do believe, that whatsoever Things were written aforetime, were written for our Learning, that we through Patience and Comfort of the Scriptures might have Hope. (Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655?-1685)

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