Our learning about each other draws on our experiences, our stories, our mythology with metaphor and allegory to convey meaning.
A beautiful example of metaphorical communication was when Captain Jean Luc Picard in the Star Trek: Next Generation television series met a Tamarian captain named Dathon, who spoke in metaphorical language. Dathon’s metaphors were grounded in whole allegorical story. In order for Picard to learn how to communicate, he had to have a lived reference point. Dathon realized this, made a unilateral executive decision, and had both of them transported down to the planet El-Aldrel that had a deadly beast wandering about.
Dathon says “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” and tosses Picard a dagger. Unsure if the gesture is a formal challenge to a duel, Picard tosses it back to Dathon. At night, Picard is clearly cold. Dathon shares his fire with the phrase “Temba, his arms wide.” After sunrise, Dathon approaches running. Picard realizes that a hostile predator is stalking both of them. Dathon recites one of the allegories and Picard sees the meaning underneath it: it is a direction to fight the beast on both sides of its flank. Things got complicated, and Dathon was fatally wounded.
While nursing Dathon’s wounds, Picard’s perceptual eyes opened in realization that the allegory was about Darmok and Jalad who were two warriors who met on an island called Tanagra, and were forced to cooperate when confronted by a dangerous beast dwelling there. Dathon had been hoping that their shared adversity would forge a friendship where words had failed. It succeeded. Picard recounts for Dathon the Epic of Gilgamesh, a human story that parallels the allegory of Darmok and Jalad. Dathon’s ears understood and his perceptual eyes appreciated the story. They become fast friends in that short time Dathon had left before dying.
Once back on the Enterprise D, Captain Picard was able to explain the situation to Dathon’s subordinates in the familiar Tamarian way. They appreciated the news and a friendship and alliance was forged between them.
A massive number of people had come to listen to Jesus teach. He got into a boat for a better vantage point to speak in parables (Matthew 13: 1-14).
Metaphor speaks loudly in the teachings of Jesus. A parable is the femine plural Greek noun παραβολή, a teaching aid using comparisons in parallel, which in turn elicite metaphorical allegories. Since parallelism is a Hebrew literary device, one should not be very surprised by this. His devoted students queried their rabbi after the parable of the sower, which examines the fate of the seed as it was strewn over the ground. Why speak in parables? they asked Jesus.
Let’s look at the fate of the seed:
Seed had been cast on the edge of the path, and the birds ate them up. Seed on patches of rock grew right away in the shallow soil and the rootless plants were burned up in the sun. Seed fell among thorns that grew strong enough to choke them. Finally, we discover that the seed that fell on rich soil was greatly productive. The pathway, rocks, thorns, and good soil were the various grounds of preparation for the seed (the message Jesus had been teaching all that day). He wasn’t naíve about his audience!
The good soil has productivity. The teachings of Jesus multiply. The ears hear and the eyes see, as Jean Luc Picard came to discover. His fruitfulness was manifest in his ability to finally communicate well wishes to the new-found friends through mutual understanding.
Some seed is vulnerable from the start, ending up as birdseed, never to know growth. There was no growth in reflection: there wasn’t enough time before a natural disaster occurred. Some people may not even take in the words of teaching at all, let alone understand it. Just white noise.
Then there were the rocks and thorns: one passively chokes the life out of the early days of germination; the other is aggressively overbearing in time.
Jesus covers ground on the way to Calvary. His being, his way of being, his message is the seed. What ground was Pontious Pilot? Did he have a guilty conscience? Regardless, Jesus persists on sewing the seed this Easter week as we hunker down to thwart COVID-19.
To be or not to be, that is the question!