Dr. Gerry Turcotte


September 22, 2014

"And he told them many things in parables."

Matthew 13.3

Few people 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.

It was a thrill both 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 the 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 speech, I resorted to parables. By their nature, parables provide stories about one thing that illuminate the truth about another. It was Christ's principal 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 College 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 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. 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 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.

When the story is recontextualized in this way, 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.

(Dr. Gerry Turcotte is president, St. Mary's University in Calgary.)