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by J. Christian Andrews

January 25, 2016

On Parallels

The text for my sermon on Sunday, January 24, was Luke 4:16-30. This is the appointed text for the Third Sunday after Epiphany from the Revised Common Lectionary published by Sola Publishing with permission from Concordia Publishing House.

In the course of my sermon, I mentioned that back when I was teaching six grade English Language Arts, I was puzzled by the state standard that required I teach parallelism. I sort of kind of tried to explain it in the sermon but apparently not well enough. One of the couples in the congregation got me to sit next to them during our after service coffee time so I could explain better. I'm not sure I did.

I am not sure why, but maybe because I feel I didn't do a very good job of explaining I seem to think this will make an interesting blog post now; and I am hoping that by the end I will come to a meaningful conclusion.

The reason I thought it odd that the California State Standards for ELA should ask me to teach parallelism is that all I knew about parallelism at the time–not having studied grammar in any of my schooling levels and having learned to teach grammar as I went along–was from a Biblical studies and Hebrew poetry perspective. I'll get back to this in a bit. First, though, here is what I was supposed to be teaching.

It was quite a few years into teaching first six grade and then eighth grade ELA and while looking at some sample standardized test questions that I discovered what was meant by parallelism in English grammar and composition. The idea is that when a series of items is presented in a sentence, or I suppose when a list is made in a series of short sentences, each of the segments should have the same grammatical construction. For example, there is a list of three actions in this sentence: Our afternoon activities included going to the mall, to shop for new clothes, and going out to eat. The first activity is introduced with the present participle "going," the second activity is presented with the infinitive "to shop," and the third activity is introduced with the present participle "going." While oversimplified, this example shows a lack of parallel structure. All three activities in the series should have the same grammatical structure; either all three participial phrases or all three infinitive phrases but not a combination of both. A corrected sentence might be: Our afternoon activities included going to the mall, shopping for new clothes, and going out to eat.

And all this to get back to the Luke 4 text where there is a perfect example of parallelism, but not so much the English grammatical parallelism, though it is present also. The parallelism in Luke 4 is actually the Hebrew poetic structure that is common in the Psalms and in much of the prophetic writings and in this case the writings in Isaiah 61. Hebrew poetry is short on the English poetic sound element (rhyme and rhythm). In place of sound, Hebrew poetry uses parallelism: the repetition of ideas expressed in different words. Hebrew poetic parallelism is a powerful piece of Hebrew poetry as it draws the reader's attention to an idea and repeats that idea to drive the point home.

So it is we find in the Luke text the same idea repeated five times, each time with different words:

to preach the gospel to the poor
to proclaim release to the captives,
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the Favorable Year of the Lord (NASB).

And here, to be rather blatant, is my point. When Jesus sat down to discuss this reading, He announced that this Messianic prophecy had been on that day fulfilled. This act of grace, here repeated five times in different words so that we could have a fuller understanding of it, was what Jesus came to do. And we who hear this proclamation are the beneficiaries of this grace: the good news is preached to our impoverished souls; release is proclaimed to our moral captivity; recovery is proclaimed to our spiritual blindness; freedom is given from our deadly oppression; and God's favor, God's grace, is proclaimed to our enslavement by sin.

(See what I did there? I used English language grammatical parallelism to highlight God's grace spoken to us through the form of Hebrew poetic parallel structure.)