The parable, according to M.H. Abrams’ A Glossary of Literary Terms, “is a very short narrative about human beings presented so as to stress the tacit analogy, or parallel, with a general thesis or lesson that the narrator is trying to bring home to his audience” (8). Yet most creative literature-fiction, poetry, and drama-employ the metaphorical or the allegorical, albeit in longer forms, to deliver a message or narrative to its audience that stresses on moral or ethical dilemmas as a thesis or lesson about the human experience.
The parable, though, is differentiated by its dependence on an audience to puzzle through its metaphorical meaning. Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies can be enjoyed simply on their own terms without the audience having to critically analyze them. A parable, on the other hand, can only derive true significance from an understanding of its implied message. As Jesus says in the parable “The Sower and the Seed”: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear” (Scholes). The listener, the recipient of the message, is more than a passive follower of the tale, but an active character within the parable.
The interactivity between the messenger, the message, and the recipient of that message is a theme that runs parallel in two examples-the aforementioned “Sower and the Seed” and Franz Kafka’s “The Imperial Message.” Both examples provide contrasting views on the purpose of the parable, but are comparable in terms of structure and dramatic tension.
In “The Sower and the Seed” and “The Imperial Message,” Jesus and Kafka both employ the parable to deal with spirituality and matters of faith. In “The Sower and the Seed,” Jesus and his disciples address the masses with a parable:
“A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold (ibid.).”
The metaphorical implications within the parable puzzles even Jesus’s followers who ask for an explanation, to which Jesus replies: “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God; but to others in parables…(ibid.)” Here the implication of the parable becomes clear: the mysteries of God are puzzling to the hearer. Therefore, in order for Jesus to deliver his message, the parable, which forces the listener to derive meaning from its narrative, must be employed. The message is delivered through the analogy of the sower sowing his seed-something many of Jesus’s listeners could understand readily better than a God whose meanings and actions are often mysterious to them.
Jesus is the sower and the seed is the word. The parable itself also forewarns that the word of God will not always have a habitable place where it can “bear fruit.” The point of the parable is to drive home the fact that only those with “an honest and good heart” will receive the word. Jesus’s parable in this way instructs the listener on what is incumbent upon him to be truly faithful.
In Kafka’s “Imperial Message,” a similar structure is employed. A message is given and must be delivered to the masses. In this case, the message is given by a dying emperor and is delivered by a lowly courier. Like all parables, “The Imperial Message” is a conundrum. While not pointedly religious, Kafka’s mediation on faith and spirituality are apparent. Metaphorically speaking, the dying emperor is God and the courier is the deliverer of his word. This is noticeable in the qualities Kafka assigns to the emperor. The emperor is described as “the imperial sun,” the courier “an insignificant shadow” which he casts when in the presence of the emperor’s radiance. Since shadows are formed when light is cast on an object, the courier’s definition as a shadow reveals that he is the emperor’s creation. Therefore, the emperor has Godlike powers.
In the parable, the emperor gives the message to the courier on his deathbed.
The significance of the message is highlighted by the fact that the emperor makes the courier repeat it back to him to make certain he heard it correctly. The courier is thus sent out of the court to deliver the message, but the courier encounters many obstacles that prevent him from ever leaving the palace. The difficulty the courier encounters is similar to Jesus’s parable in which the sower’s seed falls on inhospitable ground or is plucked away by birds. Both parables highlight the impediments that separate the masses from God’s salvation. Yet Kafka goes further and suggests that a reconcilation between man and God is as fruitless as the seeds that sprout up from thorns in Jesus’s parable.
The courier pushes his way “through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he get to the end of them; and if he succeeded in that nothing would be gained…(ibid.)” Even if the word should ever reach ears beyond the palace walls, its receptivity will have little impact. God is so impossibly incomprehensible, Kafka suggests, that even those “who have ears to hear” will be unable to understand it.
The structure of his parable-the endless court chambers which impede the messenger-also serves as an analogy to the parable itself, which can be as equally convoluted and twisted, as Jesus’s parable proved even to his disciples. Here, both parables differ. Whereas Jesus’s parable is instructive to those who will listen, Kafka’s denotes the incomprehensibility of the parable itself. Perhaps the reason why each parable arrives at different conclusions has to do with the definitions each imply regarding word and deed. In Jesus’s parable, the word is the deed. Talking or storytelling are actions that require equal reactions.
Therefore, the listener in the case of the “The Sower and the Seed” is more than a passive receptor to Jesus’s parable, but an active agent in its fulfillment in deriving meaning from its message. In Kafka’s parable, the word is divorced from the act. Whereas the sower in Jesus’s parable commits an act-sowing seeds-that in turn causes a response, the courier’s act-ploughing through the palace’s many and convoluted chambers-has no impact outside the courier’s own actions. He could make his way through the palace for “thousands of years” to deliver a message from “a dead man,” but it will make little difference to the world beyond the palace walls.
In order to understand why these differences occur, it is important to point out that both Jesus and Kafka had differing responsibilities within their respective roles. Jesus’s task was to instruct and convert the hearts and minds of the masses to the word of God. This meant that he had to go out amongst the people and deliver his message, putting him in close contact with his listeners. Since the printing press was centuries in the waiting, the oral culture in which Jesus hailed also made the necessity of being in close proximity to his audience important.
Jesus was like a performance artist or griot, telling stories and parables to deliver his message, but also engaging in his audience, sparking reactions and debates. The purpose of the parable and its function as a means to open awareness, ask questions, and solve conundrums were much more defined within this oral culture than Kafka’s. Following the invention of the Gutenberg press, the written word became the means in which ideas were dispersed. Unlike public speaking, writing is a lonely affair, one that separates the messenger from those who receive the message. While literature makes it possible for words to be delivered even to the far-flung reaches of the world, it also separates the writer from his audience.
Whereas Jesus always had an immediate reaction from his audience, the reaction between Kafka and his readers (if he had many during his lifetime) was not as immediate. The chance for being misunderstood was even greater without that interaction. One can imagine Kafka sitting at his writing desk with a single candle to light his way, wondering whether his books would ever reach an audience or be understood or appreciated even if they did. In essence, the courier symbolizes the author himself and his fruitless effort to push through the great barriers that prevent him from reaching readers. One can therefore understand why Kafka could be ambivalent about the use of the parable even as he uses one to make that point.
And therein lies the tension that makes up the dramatic structure of both parables.
In order for the parable to have meaning, it must have an audience. While the audience in both parables are nameless and faceless, they are important actors within the drama. In “The Sower and the Seed,” the first actors to step into this drama are the people when they arrive to hear Jesus speak: “And when much people were gathered together, and were come to him out of every city…(ibid.)” The audience coming to Jesus to hear him speak (unlike the courier in “The Imperial Message” who must go to the people) makes receptivity easier. Yet, not everyone there will understand or, if they do, are still vulnerable to temptation. Only a few will be receptive to his message, will “bear fruit.” So the tension within the parable becomes whether the audience will connect to Jesus’s message in a meaningful way.
By contrast, the audience in “The Imperial Message” isn’t introduced until the very end of the parable. Whereas the tension in “The Sower and the Seed” is the struggle within the audience to receive the word, the tension in Kafka’s parable is the struggle of the word to reach an audience. Yet the audience in Kafka’s parable plays a significant role as well. The drama is derived from the fact that the courier is determined to reach the audience even when he is ambivalent about his efforts. His struggle continues fruitlessly for “thousands of years,” while “you,” the metaphorical audience, “sit at your window when evening falls and dream it to yourself (ibid.).” Again, the purpose of the parable is only relevant as long as there is an audience who can derive meaning from its message.
The message is never revealed in the parable because there is no audience to receive it yet. The fact that there is an audience-the metaphorical “you”-offers some hope within the bleakness of Kafka’s vision. The yearning of the messenger to reach his audience and the audience to receive his message, drives the dramatic tension in the short narrative. Therefore, desire and yearning form the thesis in Kafka’s parable, illuminating the struggle for spiritual connectedness in the human experience.
While parables have often been seen as instructive models on human interaction, they also reveal a depth of feeling and thought that place them alongside other forms of literature. All literature seeks to instruct, inform, and illuminate on the human experience, but parables have a pragmatism that are both philosophically and theologically challenging. “The Seed and the Sower” and “The Imperial Message” reveal a depth of intellectual thought on the relationship between the artist and his audience that goes far beyond the pragmatic. Both, like the palace chambers in Kafka’s story, reveal layers and layers of thought that support the belief that parables, like any literary form, are a challenging genre of creative works of art.