Thursday, March 24, 2011

Three Parables

The current adult study at church is a NT survey by the Okenga Institute – distance learning from Gordon Conwell Seminary. I have liked these courses, not merely because they challenge my assumptions about Scripture and the faith, but because of how they do it. I find that many things I thought I knew have a pretty slender foundation. I have been told things over the years about when various NT books were written and why. It’s a pastiche of information, some of it dating back to confirmation class in 1967 with Rev. Willard Soper. Bill would have been in seminary thirty years before that, and his professors in turn … well, you get the idea. Much of the rest comes from writings or sermons by evangelicals pretty close to the fundamentalist side of things, or the introductions and notes for each book from study Bibles. Or whatever everyone else at various Bible studies had been exposed to.

It doesn’t mean that any of that information is wrong. I simply note that the supports for what we think we know are often weak.

In discussing the 25th chapter of Matthew, the instructor mentioned almost offhandedly that these three parables of judgment had been arranged thematically to connect with Matthew 24, in which Jesus speaks of his eventual return. For no reason I can identify, I have always treated the gospels, especially the Synoptics, as chronological. I figured these three parables showed up then because that was about when Jesus said them, at least according to Matthew’s memory. That they might be specifically chosen to be part of a package about judgment, though they had been uttered weeks or even years apart, had simply never occurred to me.

So let’s look at them as a package, rather than three individual parables. This is unlikely to make things simpler at first, because these three are among the most troubling of parables: The Wise and Foolish Maidens; The Servants and Talents; and The Sheep and the Goats. Read them over – at least glance rather than work entirely from recollection.

The first thing I’m noticing is that judgment is going to work out very, very badly for some people, and they are going to be surprised at this. This is Jesus talking, red-letter direct quotes, and he is quite clear that some are going to be condemned. He tells the foolish maidens “Truly, I don’t know you.” The goats he tells “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” The third servant he tells “And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Hyperbole to make a point? Maybe. But it sure sounds to me like he means it.

Second, I notice that the lack of generosity shown by the wise maidens to the foolish is in sharp contrast to the behavior applauded in the sheep of the third parable. I recognise that the Wise and Foolish Maidens isn’t about generosity, and parables are supposed to have but one focused meaning, but still – it’s quite a difference. Similarly, the Parable of the Talents seems to tell us to take enormous risks, and the Sheep and the Goats is at least compatible with that. But the first parable counsels the opposite: be cautious. Be overcautious. Again, not the main point of the story, but the different tone is unmistakable. Taken as a group, however, they are consistent. The wise maidens don’t help the foolish, the first two servants don’t help the third, the sheep don’t help the goats, and Jesus is down with that. You snooze, you lose.

Third, I’m not seeing a strong element of grace in these parables. It looks like works from here. I can make them fit with a little effort, but even as I do, I wonder if I am stretching and rationalising in order to fit a theory of my own rather than what the Scriptures are trying to tell me.

Fourth, there is the phrase in the Sheep and the Goats about the least of these, and Jesus’s brothers and sisters. We leap to the conclusion that the first of these means “poor people,” and the latter means “everyone,” but we are drawing heavily on modern misreadings of the parable of the Good Samaritan for those meanings. Consistent with the actual meaning, the text seems to be saying we should be generous to a new group of people – people who follow Jesus, not simply everyone. That’s rather troubling, to think that the order is to be generous to our new family, those other Christians. Not very American. Not very melting pot/multiculti/religious tolerance. Though that is consistent with some other things Scripture says. John 17, 1 John 4.

Relatedly*, notice that there is nothing about government or even collective action here. I grow weary of those Christians (left or right, depending on the issue), who seem to regard that as a mere technicality because they cannot conceive of work being done any other way. I go more to the opposite extreme, wondering if the sheep get any credit for of the good works done by sheep-influenced governments, or credit for keeping goats out of office. They might even incur blame for these things, as they could conceivably be regarded as tricking others into thinking they have done good works when they haven’t. Jesus never goes near those ideas – and given the sharp examples here of how he judges people who we might think got it almost right, we might fearful of presuming too much.

So I'm acknowledging that it's difficult and puzzling. What say you?

*That was an entirely futile paragraph put in for my own pleasure. It will have absolutely zero effect on those in both the social justice or Christian America movements. I despair of them ever being able to examine their assumptions in this area.


Dubbahdee said...

Robert Farrar Capon (my guru) has a series of three books on the parables. "Parables of the Kingdom," "Parables of Grace," and "Parables of Judgement."
I have read the first, but not the other two. Capon's way of parsing uses what I think is a solidly exegetical approach (evangelical even), yet he comes up with unusual conclusions. I think that he is able to strip away accreted assumptions and look at what the text from a different angle. Admittedly, his bias is on the side of grace, but he makes no bones that some people will not be at the party.
He also allows himself to be informed much by the church fathers.
I suppose a more advanced biblical scholar than myself might be able to shoot holes in his arguments, but I just read them and watch my head explode as he answers questions that no one else has been able to answer for me.

MaxedOutMama said...

AVI - first, I think you have to read the 14 maidens parable and keep in mind that to a Jewish hearer of that time, their context would include the miracle of the temple oil - the Chanukah miracle. This is a Jew speaking to Jews.

In that context, the duty of the maidens is to provide light for their master, and it is implied that it is a sacred and absolute duty. Their duty is not to make others look as if they had prepared properly for their duties, especially since their reasoning is that if they give the other seven the oil, the master may not get the necessary and proper light.

In other words, don't neglect your sacred duties in favor of more mundane assistance. Also, given the one day's worth of oil burning for seven background, the idea may be implied that if you only have a deficient amount of oil, but dedicate all you have, you will still be able to meet your sacred obligation with G_d's assistance. However, failing to even try to get the oil in the first case is an utterly different case.

MaxedOutMama said...

As for the second parable, the third servant is scared. He does not think that he has the ability to wisely invest the money for an increase. He's probably right.

However, he is found deficient not because he cannot invest the money to double it as the other two servants can. No, he is found deficient because he did not invest the money AT ALL. His master tells him not that he should have been able to double the money, but that he should have given the money to bankers for a much smaller return. That was all that was expected of him.

Looked at in this light, this fits well with the widow's donation parable. We are not asked to do what we do not have the ability to do, but we do have the duty to do what we can do with what we are given.

I find this parable rather comforting. What is being asked of the third servant is so little that I feel that I can do it.

MaxedOutMama said...

As for the third parable - the Doom parable, as I think of it - this restates the Golden Rule as "Do unto others as you would do unto me".

Looking at it in that light, it does not conflict with the first AT ALL. Rather it removes any possibility of confusion in the first parable.

It is obvious that Jesus isn't going to walk up to you and ask you to give him the divinely dedicated oil for the lamp so that he can look alert when he shows up.

We can see from the juxtaposition of the first and the third parables that if one of the seven maidens hadn't had time to get oil because she was nursing a sick man or feeding the hungry, she would not be in neglect of her spiritual duty.

In fact, this third parable tells us that to neglect our mundane duties with the excuse of attending to our spiritual duties is the worst error of all.

MaxedOutMama said...

PS: I don't think you are necessarily wrong for thinking of Matthew as chronologically ordered. That is the way I (completely ignorantly) have always taken it.

I think the thematic unity here is probably due to the original timing; I think Jesus meant the juxtaposition of the parables and probably the order of his teaching was about as it is presented.

I do think that to try to read the Gospels without the Jewish context robs them of much of their meaning. I think Jesus was speaking to the Jews because they were the people who could properly understand and transmit what he was saying.

terri said...

Each gospel has its own unique emphasis and the synoptics--Matthew, Mark and Luke--portray a much more earthy, harsh Jesus than the gospel of John, with Matthew portraying Jesus more harshly than all of the rest.....which explains why the Gospel of John was always my favorite.

Most scholars now think that Mark was the first gospel written and that Luke and Matthew simply take Mark, reproducing it word for word, and add other teachings and parables that had been accumulated. So, the writers weren't recording a linear chronology of events as much as they were arranging what they knew into a form that made sense to them and made a particular point about Jesus, God and The Kingdom.

Matthew is generally the more "Jewish" of the gospels and is more concerned with judgement and eschatology. The judgments in the Matthean parables are almost always communal, universal judgements at the "end of the age".

You can see the difference when compared to Luke whose judgements in the parables are almost always concerned with the individual...Lazarus and the rich man, the foolish rich man, the individual debtors, the prodigal son...etc.....stories in which the individual plight of forgiveness and repentance is at the forefront, rather than a judgment that is being executed upon all people at the same time.

In the parables you list, there is a division between communities...good virgins, bad virgins.....sheep and goats....servants who will be given authority and those who will have what little they do have taken away from them.

There is no concern about the individual virgins or sheep.

This could be a reflection of the writer's evaluation of those communities who had chosen to follow Jesus and those who had chose to reject him. He's elaborating on the fracture that has been caused in the religious sphere at the time.

"Which community are you going to be a part of?" might be the question he's asking by listing these parables and in this particular way.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

terri, that is the way I have always understood the order and the arrangement of the Synoptics. This course challenges that deeply, even suggesting that John was the first written! I make no claims here, only pass along what someone at GCTS (about the only evangelical seminary in the NE) thinks.

Maxed Out Mama - some of what you say was indeed in the back of my mind as I wrote.

To all: What, then? What is the connecting thread of these three?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

BTW, if that seemed curt, I will note that I have new pieces that I am keeping from all your comments, and didn't mean to suggest otherwise.

terri said...

I didn't take your reply as curt in any way. You usually are brief in your replies....unless you are really worked up about something! ;-)

That's curious about the Gospel of John being written first.

It's pretty well accepted that the high Christology expressed in John and the various well-developed theological discourses in John are a more refined portrayal of Jesus.

John makes Jesus more powerful and more conscious of his power and position than any of the synoptics do. It would be strange for other authors to then say less about Jesus' explicit divinity....somehow downgrading what they were willing to baldly proclaim in their gospels rather than adding to the already well-developed themes that John would have already established.

Why would the synoptics have less details about the resurrection story...with Mark ending with the women not even seeing Jesus...when there was an already detailed description of events by John?

I shouldn't get started on this stuff. I'll drone on endlessly.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Dr. Gordon passes on the theory that we always thought of John as coming later because the other three seemed bare, not theologically deep, and not so well organised. But as we have come to see the remarkable assembling of the other three in literary style, and pushed back their compilation dates even further, it became clear that the early church had exalted and sophisticated theology right from the start, and we didn't need to posit this long development of ideas to get to the Gospel of John. Once the assumption was dropped that there needed to be this time of development, we find that the actual evidence for John coming later is quite weak.

He acknowledges that it is a minority view, but suggests that John up and wrote his independently not as an expansion or counterpoint to the others, but because the others weren't written.

Mr Tall said...

Great post and discussion; thanks to all.

I was just trying to teach the sheep and goats to my Sunday school class yesterday -- ages 6-8. It was tough. There's a lot of harshness there, and kids that age aren't much for nuance, so it's Goodies vs Baddies pretty quick!

Since this lesson came as the finale to a series on all three parables in that chapter, I was trying to think up links, too.

One very pertinent question a student asked (a seven-year-old) was how do we know that someone who comes to us 'in need' (my ironic quotation marks, not his!) isn't just trying to rip us off?

Is it possible that there is a distinction to be drawn there between the virgins-who-should-have-been-prepared in parable 1, and the truly needy in parable 3? Is Jesus (or Matthew), by placing these stories in sequence, trying to tell us that not everyone who rushes up to us 'in need' is not really 'one of the least of these'?

This thread shows it's tough for adults to feel sure they're really hearing Jesus' message from these parables; I hope I didn't mess up the perceptions of my class yesterday!