ALISON, J., Living in the End Times London 1996
BAILEY, K. E., Jacob and the Prodigal Oxford 2003 89.
FARRAR-CAPON, R., The Parables of the Kingdom Grand Rapids 1985 .
McCRACKEN, D., The Scandal of the Gospels: Jesus, Story, and Offence. Oxford 1994.
PERRIN, N., Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom: Symbol and Metaphor in New Testament Interpretation. Philadelphia 1976.
SCHWAGER, R., Jesus in the Drama of Salvation. New York 1999.
The Parabolic Discourse. Mark 4:1-34.
Mark sets the scene here very carefully; he creates the impression of something momentous happening by creating a sort of stage for Jesus. His repetition of the command to listen emphasises the fact that some of those in the crowd were not listening.
The last two chapters have contained a sense of growing opposition and misunderstanding. It seems that the promises made at the beginning of the Gospel about the kingdom of God being close at hand are far from coming true, so in one way the parables are a reflection on what is going on for Jesus, but nevertheless saying that, despite appearances to the contrary, the kingdom really is growing. But it becomes clearer and clearer as we go through the gospels that what people – even the best people - think the kingdom of God is, and how a messiah should bring it about are so different that careful explanation will not work, they will need to be shocked out of their familiar ideas. This long parabolic discourse, although it occurs in different places in Matthew Mark and Luke, basically Jesus has reached the same point in each Gospel. That’s the point where it is no longer a possibility for Jesus simply to explain things to people’s satisfaction, but to “call attention to the un-satisfactoriness of all their previous explanations and understanding.” So bad people are rewarded – the Publican, the Prodigal Son, the Unjust Steward. Good people get it in the neck: the Pharisee, the Elder Brother, the Diligent workers.
The parables are about the way the power of God worked in the world, but this is nearly always left-handed power, power that seems to be the opposite of power – weakness or inactivity. The temptations of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry are very much about repudiating straight-forward conventional power and opting in each case for something less tangible, less quantifiable.
But, perhaps most outrageously, Jesus draws attention to himself. John the Baptist, as we would expect of a prophet, points away from himself. Jesus calls his first disciples with the words: Come, follow me. He identifies himself with God by calling himself the bridegroom and master of the Sabbath. So on the one hand he is very ‘cool’ about messianic power. He doesn’t want people to spread the word about his miracles and healings. On the other hand he makes claims about himself far in excess of anything made by anyone else. Old ideas of the messiah are inadequate because he is not just God’s representative – he is God walking among them.
The parables here in Mark 4 speak of small things, seeming useless things which turn out to be of great value. The unexpectedly large yield of a hundred fold more than compensates for the failures. There is a deliberate element of surprise here. One expects after the three progressively more successful sowings a fourth one which is simply fruitful. One expects in a good year a tenfold increase in the yield - but a hundred fold - that is truly amazing! The kingdom truly shatters the way in which we imagine God operates. This reflects the experience of believers who are often overwhelmingly surprised at the way their lives turn out, at what God does. Maybe Mark inserts them here as: a) a progress report for Jesus. The parables of ch.4 are structured by the same forces that have driven the narrative so far; Jesus is the agent of God's power who is thrown into the world and is opposed and denied, but nevertheless history will see to it that his work bears fruit. The sower is a comment on the story so far, and a promise of what is to come. b) A comment on what was going on in Rome at the time of writing and an encouragement to persevere.
Vv 10-12. The mystery of the Kingdom is given to the disciples. Here he does not mean some privileged explanation which they have and others do not. Mystery has a technical meaning in Greek. It does not mean something which is complicated and obscure, but something completely unintelligible to outsiders, but quite clear to initiates. The fact of their discipleship gives them that mystery. It is Jesus Himself. Being with him, committed to him, everything makes some sense. Without that what he says and does is incomprehensible. Religious have all had the experience of trying to explain to our friends why we have chosen the celibate life and being unable to get through. To those on the 'outside' our life seems inhuman unnatural. Only those who live it can know how rich and fulfilling it is. This is similar for Jesus and his disciples. At this stage though, Mark is careful to say has been given rather than has been revealed to leave room for the misunderstanding of the disciples. Because of their relationship with Jesus they do have the key to understanding him, but at this stage they are still far from unlocking the mystery. They have been given the mystery, but they are still far from fully receiving or appropriating it.
The Reference to Isaiah.
The so that (Greek hina) of v 12 is a notorious crux of interpretation. It sounds as though the motive for Jesus' preaching is actually to obscure his meaning and lead to misunderstanding. The whole quote had worried Jewish scholars for several centuries before Jesus. Possibly Isaiah is using irony: "God has sent me to preach to these people, but for all the good I am doing he might just as well have sent me to close their eyes and ears. Jesus is having a similar experience, he sees so many people blinded by prejudice, sees dull incomprehension in their eyes sees people to lazy to really think about his teaching and he turns to the disciples and says: "I feel just like Isaiah felt." He says this not in anger or bitterness, but full of disappointed love and concern and reflection on the actual effect his teaching is having.
There is a sense in which his teaching does produce the opposite effect. We have all heard comic stories of people who go on a diet and have special food prepared for them, but having eaten their diet they then eat a bit of what everyone else is having and end up eating more than they were before they began the diet. So it has had the opposite effect. Some people practise Christianity in the sense of doing all that is required without making any real changes in their lives. Their Christianity makes them worse! It is then precisely in order to exclude such people that Jesus speaks in Parables. He knows from the beginning that some accept and some reject him. A teacher may know that some of his students have the required intellectual ability and some do not. He sets an exam in order to divide the two, although he is fond of all his students and would like them all to pass. He knows eventually some will have to go, so best get the pain over with as soon as possible.
A parable is in some ways a test to see how soft someone’s heart is. A parable can often be simple to understand at a superficial level, but difficult to comprehend its real meaning. It is a test designed by God to see if people can hear his word. (Just as one might, in strange company make a subtle joke to see if anyone is sharp enough or has enough sense of humour to catch it.) Failure to see a joke can tell a lot about the sort of person one is dealing with. Hence Jesus’ seeming frustration in v. 13: Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand any of the parables? This is followed later by For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. (Mk 4:25) Jesus seems to be saying: “If you can begin to understand that the kingdom works by completely different rules, then you will be able to enter more deeply into it, but if you imagine that it works by your rules and ideas about religion, of what’s good and bad, then the more you try to understand the less you will.” With a cryptic crossword the way to get the answers is precisely not to think in any conventional way, and someone who does will never get a clue, but one a person can slip into that way of thinking, then the answers come much easier. A parable is like a test and if one passes the test, then one can get the deeper meaning. Some computer games have different levels. When you become proficient enough at one level then the next opens up. Perhaps parables work like that. You grasp enough of Jesus message at a fairly superficial level that the next opens up. Some have such insight that the deeper levels open up straight away.
James Alison says: “The parables are highly creative little stories sprung from Jesus' imagination and have as their aim helping people to overcome their being blocked-up with respect to God and his project. However, behold, they are two edged weapons, capable of different interpretations. It is perfectly possible to interpret the greater part in terms of a violent God. In that case the parables only serve to reinforce what people already think anyway, and they move on no further. What I'm suggesting is that this would be the 'dull-hearted' reading of the parables. At the same time it is perfectly possible to read the same parables as obliging us to overcome this vision. This means that there is an interpretation for those who understand, and that what they understand will increase exponentially, and there is another interpretation for those who do not understand, so that what little they do understand is in the process of being lost, for they will get into an ever more tied-up and painful understanding of the things of God.” 
The only way the crowd can understand with the heart is to experience a collision, an offence, and then if they can get beyond that they have faith. If they can’t they remain in scandal. But, if they are not in any way put out by what Jesus says (think of the Vineyard labourers) if they simply fit what Jesus says into their world, they will never really come to faith but will imagine that they have. A parable can obstruct truth or reveal it – it depends on the attitude of the hearer.
So Jesus shows both possibilities: This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says: `You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. For this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.' (13:13-15)
But a little further in the same passage he says: All this Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet: "I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world." (13:34-35) They act as a gate to the truth a gate is there to let people in but also to keep undesirables out. A couple of examples: In the film “Mass Appeal” a seminarian is given the chance to explain in the pulpit on a Sunday morning what makes him tick, why he wants to be a priest. He tells a story of how he kept tropical fish and how one day the thermostat failed and the water became over heated. He came home to find some of the fish floating dead, others still alive but gasping at the surface of the water. He realized that many people were just like those fish, gasping for help, gasping for someone to cool them down and that’s what a priest does, so he decided to offer himself for the priesthood.
After Mass people were congratulating him. A lady came up and told him how much she had appreciated him and how she once had a fish and it died and what he had said coincided with her experience. His story had acted precisely as an obstacle to understanding and she now understood less than she did before, precisely because she thought she had understood properly. Often when preaching I have told a joke to make a point and that’s the only thing some people remember. They think the joke is some sort of light relief from the serious, heavy and boring business of preaching. In that case the joke becomes an obstacle to understanding, but the problem lies not with the joke but the hearer.
If we understand the parables of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price as saying that seeking riches or treasure is a legitimate pursuit, the parable acts as an obstacle. If we understand the vineyard labourers as supporting free market capitalism and the right of the vineyard owner to treat his workers as he pleases, the parable has become an obstacle, not only do we not get it, we understand the opposite of what it intends but think we have understood what Jesus meant. Parables both obscure and reveal truth which is hidden from normal seeing hearing and understanding.  This is true of everything Jesus does. His acts of grace so often cause scandal to people; instead of producing faith they do the opposite. Perhaps we could say that parables are verbal forms of what Jesus does.
The parable of Lazarus and the rich man could be seen as pretty mean but humanly satisfying stories of retribution. That would be falling into scandal. A certain type of person would relish seeing the rich man suffer and would think it was a Godly and upright thing to do so. Resentment towards the rich sometimes masquerades as love of the poor. Or the parable can be seen as a call to live out one’s relationship with the poor differently.
The person who is offended or scandalised by the gospel is closer to the truth than the person who is indifferent who simply fits what he hears into his existing scheme of things. (The explanation of the camel through the eye of a needle as the needle gate would be one such accommodation. If all Jesus is saying is that we can’t take our wealth to heaven, then he’s not saying much.) Think of how Nietzsche understood the gospel & rejected it, but understood it better than many Christians. It’s the difference between the rich young man who goes away and the Canaanite woman who is offended but says yes Lord, but…, and so keeps the conversation going. John the Baptist comes very close to being scandalised by Jesus – so close that he has second thoughts and thinks he might have been mistaken and Jesus isn’t the messiah. Which is why Jesus, in reassuring John that he was right says: And blessed is he who takes no offense at me. (Mt. 11:6)
With the Syro-Phoenecian woman it is also possible that Jesus intends an offence in order to see if she has faith. He has confronted the Pharisees; they have taken offence and decided to kill him. He confronts the woman but she refuses to take offence and that is seen as faith. Faith is the opposite of taking offence.  Jesus has something she needs and she will lay claim on it no matter what. I knew a missionary in Borneo who would no go to preach in a long house until the people had been to ask him three times. If he refused their invitation – an offence – and that put them of that was a sign that they did not want faith enough to be able to overcome offence, but if they were prepared to ignore the offence, that he saw as the beginning of faith. It’s said that orthodox Jewish rabbis will try three times to dissuade a convert from becoming Jewish. Only when he sees that the person wants the Jewish faith enough to overcome the obstacles will he be strong enough to keep it. We know that the ability to maintain human relationships is sometimes dependant on the ability and willingness to overcome scandals. We form negative opinions about people and only by persevering and allowing that opinion to change is any real growth in relationship possible. And often of course we want to be scandalised, we look for something to put us off. Some Christians happily live in scandal – they have a relationship with the Church that prevents them throwing themselves fully into Christian life, but also think that this is some sort of maturity and is preferable to simple people who don’t know anything bad about the Church and therefore have not been scandalised.
Jesus says is your right hand scandalises you, cut it off. The human tendency when scandalised is to look for someone else to blame and cut them off in some way. As opposed to Islamic think of cutting off the hands of thieves.
People can understand with their heart only by experiencing a collision with their normal understanding  “[T]he very nature of the parables of Jesus as texts forbids the reduction of the message to a series of general moral principles, or to a series of rubrics. Parables, as parables do not have a ‘message’. They tease the mind into ever new perceptions of reality, they startle the imagination, they function like symbols in that they ‘give rise to thought’”.  Or as someone else put it: We don’t interpret parables – they interpret us.
“Non-understanding is one function of parables. But the other function is not normal understanding; it is rather the transformation of the whole person, including the way a person sees. 
The parable can generate multiple meanings (Crossan) but that does not mean that at the core there is simply a void and that the only meaning is the one which we chose to give it. Jesus indents to convey something through the metaphor but it may be that it’s hard to convey that truth in any other way but metaphorical.
Revelation seems to need opposition – Isaiah 6 quoted by Jesus in Mark 4. Perhaps to hone it and make it clear to the bearer exactly what he stands for. Perhaps because revelation is so different to he kingdom of this world that if there is no opposition the revelation has not been fully made. Perhaps because the victim is THE bearer of God’s truth in the Bible so that when the bearer is rejected by people he has a privileged platform to speak the truth which he would not have if everyone agreed with him. Nietzsche understood Christianity better than many Christians so he rejected it. Sometimes we see clearly people who have “accepted” the gospel but in fact have just fitted Jesus into their own categories and blithely carry on as if nothing had changed. If God can only be fully revealed through the cross – God’s spokesman being rejected – then perhaps all revelation has to follow the same pattern. That’s the insight which both Jesus and Peter use when they quote Ps 118:22 The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; Mk. 12:10; Acts. 4:11; 1 Pet 2:7.
All this means that at the beginning of his parables Jesus lays out quite definitely what he intends to do with them and reflection on these few verses is indispensable if we are to understand any of the parables.
This is a parable about the Kingdom of God. Matthew makes this clear in v. 19: When any one hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it…For Jewish listeners that was something totally tied up with Israel and her history, was to be the fulfilment of Israel’s historic expectations. And Jesus says not one word about Israel. In other words he makes it clear from the outset that the kingdom is not limited to Israel, that he is talking about something that is universally true, that the kingdom is not national or tribal but catholic. No one, anywhere could conceivably be left out of the scene he paints. In fact most if not al of his parables apply to everyone. They are true for Non-Jews and non-Christians. It’s certainly not clear that those who respond well are a particular group – quite deliberately. Any believing Christian or Jew could ask which sort of ground he was. (In a similar way in Luke 4, he makes his first public appearance in Nazareth and enrages everyone by suggesting that God isn’t an Israelite nationalist. In both these instances, Jesus is making an inaugural statement, deliberately setting out his stall in a universalist way.)
In contrast to people’s expectations of the Messiah, of God’s dramatic intervention with drums rolls and fireworks, God enters the world like seed, almost invisible, very vulnerable, not at all what we expect of God. Yet anyone who has ever tried to keep a garden free of weeds knows that seed does grow, even if it’s there accidentally. That’s the action of God, quiet unseen, subtle, but relentless. And of course people’s reaction does have a bearing on how fruitful this will be but it grows nevertheless. Even the seed that is carried away by birds may well be excreted later and produce fruit somewhere else. The devil may try to carry off the seed and he may even succeed for a time, but just as nature uses animals top spread seed, so God can work with what the Devil tries – the crucifixion being the proof of that.
In the context of Mark’s Gospel the allegorical interpretation is historically much more accurate than we may first suppose. All these things actually happen to Jesus in the Gospel. Satan comes and carries away the seed sown on the path. In 8:33 Jesus tells Peter to get behind me Satan after he has resisted the idea of his suffering and death. Those on rocky ground wither when some tribulation comes their way. In 14:43 this comes as Judas arrives with a posse to arrest Jesus and in 14:50 they all forsook him and fled. Those who are choked by the lure of riches finds its fulfilment in 10:17 where Jesus tells the rich young man to sell everything and then "come follow me" He is held back because of his wealth. The seed in rich ground finds its fulfilment in the life of the church for which Mark is writing and which is looking forward to the final harvest at the Parousia. Perhaps this idea of three quarters of the seed not quite bearing the expected fruit is also a reflection of the life of the Church. Some are baptised but never live as Christians. Others compromise to varying degrees. A truly Catholic Church will always be made up of people whose lives put them into one of the four categories.
The element of surprise can hardly be overstated; the sower for most of the parable does not seem to be making a very good job of things. Much of his labour is fruitless, despite maybe promising beginnings. Jesus has a hope that his own ministry will bare abundant fruit despite the very mixed, in many ways discouraging beginning.
It has proved one of the most fruitful parables in its interpretation in the life of the Church. The immediate question is what sort of soil am I and can I do anything about it if I am the wrong sort? Are we yielding fruit, our parishes, our diocese, our schools our pastoral programmes?
Some years ago the New York Times surveyed American Catholics and non-Catholics on where they stood on major moral issues: abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia, nuclear weapons, fair trade agreements with third world countries etc. What they found was that there were 55 million Catholics in a population of 255 million Americans, and the difference in their attitudes amounted to just one half of a percent. The yield seemed non-existent.
The picture the parable gives is so different, and that is the point. The fruits are the kingdom do not necessarily admit of statistical observation. We all know that the Church and the Gospel have made an incalculable difference to the life of the world, something which is hard to measure, to put into statistics, but is nevertheless very visible. The popular Christmas film It's a Wonderful Life tells the story of a man who on Christmas eve is about to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge because his business has failed, he is convinced that his whole life has been a total waste of time. He wishes he had never been born. His guardian angel intervenes, saves his life, and reconstructs the life of his home town, lets him see what it would have been like had he not been born. The whole town is full of drunken unhappy people, who live lives of selfishness, and he his made to see that although in reality his life is not perfect, his town is a much better place for his being there. Sentimental and fanciful as this may be it makes the point that it is often impossible to quantify the good that one person does.
The same is true of Christ and the Gospel. If we were to make a similar film, supposing that Christ had never been born, what difference would there be in the world. Lives are changed, people do have in countless places a happier existence because of him and the presence of the Church. Can we prove it statistically? Very difficult. This is also something of what Jesus means when he says To you is given the mystery of the kingdom of God When we reflect on the parable, we are aware that the Word has had enormous yields in some places, but it does not admit to statistical observation. The figure of a hundred fold is deliberately exaggerated to make the hearer sit up and ask: "but is this true?" Clearly for Mark and his community, the answer is a resounding "Yes"
It has become almost a commonplace to regard the history of the catholic church in particular in a purely negative light. It’s fashionable for people to regard themselves as ‘recovering Catholics’, people who were brought up with the unfortunate handicap of Catholicism, but are slowly getting over it. In their opinion none of the seed has borne fruit. But we all know how different the true picture is. If we can see the Church without being scandalised, without allowing the many failures and betrayals to become the lens through which we read the whole of Church history, we can see how it has been an unparalleled force for good.
Everyone knows that a harvest is not just once in a lifetime, it's every year, in some countries twice a year. The parable is not so just to call us to self-examination, it's a confident statement that beginnings, even in the Christian life can be made again and again.
The different types of ground may also represent different types of response in each individual. We have all heard sermons which may have impressed us at the time, but an hour later were completely forgotten. We have all made good resolutions to lead better lives, but simply find that we have neither the energy nor the spiritual resources. We all know how our Christianity can be choked by more mundane worries, money, prestige etc. This is all predictable. But; the sower if he had any sense at all would have ploughed the land before he began, would have broken open the earth in order that the seed might enter and find a rooting place. What is surprising in our own lives is how often it is the places where we are broken open which prove receptive to the Gospel. The places where we are most hurt, most infirm (try walking across a ploughed field) are often precisely the places where the Word is most likely to enter in and work its wonders. The people with whom Jesus was having some success were the very people who fell into that category.
The Parable of the Darnel. 13:24-30, 36-42.
Fundamental to being a follower of Christ is the question of how to deal with evil without being drawn into it oneself. This parable tries to give an answer to that which is none of the usual answers. The darnel or tares of which Jesus speaks are a weed called lolium temulentum or bearded darnel and are still the curse of farmers in the Middle East. They are impossible to distinguish from wheat until the head starts to appear and at that stage it is too late since their roots are already intertwined with those of the wheat. They have to separated at harvest time since the grain of darnel is slightly poisonous and causes dizziness and sickness. Its grain is state-grey in colour whereas wheat is golden. What the enemy does was actually common practise and in Roman law it was considered a crime with a fixed punishment laid down.
The enemy’s action at night, therefore in secret, is contrasted with the owner who does everything in the light of day. The labourers are naive and cannot understand where the darnel comes from, they do not jump to the obvious conclusion that this is the work of an enemy, but simply say: Was it not good seed that you sowed in your field? They are not aware of the existence of evil and as we will soon see, do not think it should be allowed to exist at all. Many Christians have their heads in the clouds on this score and go around imagining that the real world is a sugary-sweet as the one they sing about in their often badly written hymns. A naively optimistic view of human nature ultimately denies original sin and make people lose all their vigilance. They then assume that their primary task is to eliminate evil - the darnel - and keep the field pure at all costs. The owner makes it clear that their primary task is to work for the good of the wheat. One of the problems with communism was that it identified evil as ‘out there’ – present in capitalism or imperialism, but never in us. And because of the refusal to recognise evil they were powerless against it and in fact became front-line agents of it. The American religious/political right falls into the same trap. “How can there be evil in our field, it was sown with good seed? Note that it is never suggested that the weeds are a threat to the wheat – just an inconvenience to the people who have to work the fields. When people are inspired by reforming zeal to root out abuses and straighten all that is crooked, they often do tremendous damage because they are over-idealistic and therefore unrealistic about others. They can easily lose all charity, and ultimately lose their way completely because they are no longer working primarily for the good of others, but are moved by a compulsive perfectionism. If the labourers in the parable are not aware of the real possibility of what the enemy has done, then they have led very sheltered lives, and if spiritual leaders are not aware of how evil can co-exist with good, they too are out of touch. A clear example of this in church history was the Spanish Inquisition when Church leaders decided to root out the evil of heresy once and for all, and resorted to threat, torture and death to achieve their aims. Their sins were far worse than those of the so-called heretics and they have done permanent damage to the Church's image as a whole.
The explanation of the parable identifies the landowner with Jesus who is the compassionate son of man. What we get here is in some ways a justification of Jesus' ministry to sinners.
There is a final reckoning at the end, but the parable’s main thrust is forbearance now, and that lack of forbearance will do damage to the wheat. Although we wish that ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ dressed in a way which distinguished them, they are hopelessly mixed up, and good and evil exist to some degree in everyone. What the enemy does cannot succeed in damaging the wheat. All he needs to do is sit back and let the good people do their work. In that sense the enemy has very limited power, it’s those who try to do good who have the real power to do damage. Note that the parable is not necessarily saying that resistance to evil is wrong, just that it is usually ineffectual.
Perhaps this helps us understand what Jesus means in the Sermon on the Mount when he says: Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; (Mt. 5:39) it’s not that he’s telling us to make doormats of ourselves, but warning us that when we start resisting evil we can end up doing greater harm than the evil we are resting. This parable is an illustration of why Jesus gave that teaching. It’s not just a question here of “whose side are you on?” that’s clear enough – for the servants and for us. It’s much more “whose methods are you going to use?”  Christians have made a royal mess of things by trying to do the Lord’s work using the Devil’s methods. Here we don’t mean deliberately doing bad things, but using coercion and right-handed power in circumstances where only the left-handed variety works.
In v.30 the master says: Let both grow together until the harvest; And the Greek word for ‘let’ is a;fete aphete from the verb avfi,hmi. aphiemi. This is also the verb to forgive in the NT. If we understand forgiveness as a major part of Jesus’ ministry, are we not meant to hear at least an echo of that here. How does God deal with evil? He forgives it. We may that there is a separation at the end, the darnel is destroyed. Yes, but that it entirely out of our hands. This parable is how to deal with evil now, and is telling us that in the end God will sort things out but that is absolutely none of our business.
The Mustard Seed and the Leaven. 13:31-33.
In contrast to the previous parable the end result is one big happy tree; there is no judgement or separation. Even though Jesus painstakingly avoids easy condemnation of people and seems to have little interest in deciding who is in and who is out, his followers have at times made that almost the central message of Christianity. Perhaps aware of the danger of judgement talk, aware of people’s ability to forget all that has been said in the parable about leaving things alone, Jesus uses two more images of the kingdom which have nothing to do with separation or judgement. Maybe this is a deliberate corrective to the way some people will insist on using his parable.
Just as separating the wheat from the weeds is perilous, deciding which birds shelter in the tree and which don’t is impossible. Certainly our parishes attract all sorts of strange ‘birds’, some attractive and welcome, some noisy and ugly, but they are all there and somehow in the kingdom there is room for them all.
In contrast to the darnel which is plentiful, the mustard seed is tiny but eventually grows much bigger than anything else. This has been illustrated so often in the life of the Church where tiny beginnings have produced splendid results. This parable indicates that quantity is a factor in the kingdom.
That of the leaven does not simply repeat the same message, but says that the kingdom also transforms, makes a difference in quality which is quite impossible without it, and is often difficult to isolate or detect, but is there unmistakably.
These two parables must be read together. Reading only the second one has often resulted in a faulty missiology, where the Church is not really meant to grow in number, but only to be a tiny presence influencing the whole of society. The first parable clearly has in mind something much bigger and much more visible.
Parables of Treasure. 13:44-46.
It’s hidden but it’s the whole point of our lives. The person who finds the treasure in the field was probably working in it, not looking for treasure as such. He never knew of it’s existence all the time he was working there, it was under his nose. But once he learn of it, it becomes the centre, the meaning, the goal of his life. The first point that Jesus makes here is that the kingdom, if it is to be found anywhere, is found in ordinary life - rather than in the miracles which the Pharisees have been demanding. The only way he get the treasure is to buy the field, which he probably doesn't really want, but there is no way of isolating the treasure from the place in which it is found. How often do we here people complaining about the parishes, communities, families? "If only I was not here, but somewhere else I could be a good Christian." "If only I lived with a different set of people I could be fulfilled in my religious life". The kingdom is found in the midst of all that, and when we imagine that we can somehow find it independently of all the mess in which we live, we are spiritually on dangerous ground. We come very close to those who want to eliminate all evil from the world.
The one who finds the pearl finds it not accidentally, but as the result of his life's search. For both of them though, the kingdom costs everything. As Jesus warns in the parable about the return of the unclean spirit, there can be no half measures in the Christian life. Christianity cannot be a hobby, it must involve every bit of us.
The Dragnet. 13:47-50
This is a very random way of fishing. It was dragged behind the boat and shaped itself into a cone and took along everything in its wake. It cannot discriminate, and the fisherman has no control over what goes into it. Someone once commented that the feast of All Saints should be called the feast of 'All Sorts'. The Church on earth is bound to be a mixture of all kinds of people, and like in the parable of the wheat and the darnel, to try to separate the good from the bad while the boat is still moving would destroy the whole operation.
There have always been two view of the Church; a community of struggling sinners or a community of the elite. Historically the Catholic Church has always chosen to be the former and the parables here seem to support that. There are elitist movements within her - and they always exist in uneasy tension with the Church as a whole. However we must not forget that one day there will be a separation, but that is not our task, but Gods. That does not mean that we accept any kind of behaviour or any opinion, but that in the area of discernment we be careful about judging individuals. The Church has no business chasing people away because they don’t come up to our standards. “Our business should be simply to keep everybody in the net of his kingdom until we reach the farther shore. Sorting is strictly his department, not ours.” 
The disciples say that they have understood. Their subsequent behaviour would suggest at least that they haven’t, even if they think they have. All teachers know the frustration of a pupil who thinks he’s got it al when he’s only got ten percent. A Scribe is also just a word for someone who is educated. So every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven could mean his disciples. what Jesus tells them in effect is: "you have great riches, you are steeped in the OT and everything you have learned so far will help you to understand what I say and who I am. But I also give far more than you have had. There are now many new things in your cupboard, things you never dreamed of. You must treasure them all. If you really have understood my teaching here, then you have the key to the rest of it."
If we are talking about scribes, then we have to talk about scripture too. It is an inexhaustible storeroom. The scribe is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old." The Greek word for treasure here is/ qhsauro,j thesaurus. Treasury would also be a possible translation. The disciple of the kingdom has a treasury at his disposal. A lot of what Jesus does is precisely bring out the deep meaning of the OT, the meaning that had been obscured by nationalism and one-sided readings. He often quotes passages which are deeply disturbing of what people do with their religious lives. What I want is love, not sacrifice for instance. And it’s not that some things are old and some are new. The Things we’ve known about for hundreds of years, like the Passover Lamb, turns out to have new meanings, like Jesus. Things which are new, like the resurrection, turn out to have been in scripture all along as the disciples learn on the Road to Emmaus.
It is perhaps a comment on what we mean by the Catholicity of the Church. Every expression of Christianity, fine as it is, is eclectic and uses that which speaks to its time. If we delve into the Church's past we find untold treasures and we may never discard them as useless, but we may choose to 'keep them in the cupboard' for a while. At the same time we must realise that God is always putting new things in the cupboard and we must remain open to that.
Farrar Capon distinguishes between parables of the Kingdom, of Grace and of Judgement. Until the feeding of the five thousand the parables are all about the strange workings of the kingdom. After that they are about the way, the strange way, in which grace works with increasing emphasis on the death of Jesus being the driving engine. After the death of John Jesus is more preoccupied with his own death, but not in a worrying sort of way. He is keen to let the disciples know that this is the way his purpose will be achieved, Once in Jerusalem he talks largely about judgement
The Unforgiving Debtor Matthew 18:21-35
Perhaps an insight from Kenya might help here. The concept of nguono, mercy is fundamental to Luo society. We all have obligations to fulfil, dues to pay etc. Some people through no fault of their own, or through some weakness are unable to fulfil the conditions, they can ask and receive mercy. This goes beyond mere justice. Strict justice is a pre-condition for mercy. If someone owes a hundred pounds he must pay back a hundred pounds no more no less. (it is also reasonable to pay some interest to compensate the lender, though when interest is excessive it is unjust.) In case of default, the lender has every right to take steps to obtain repayment, even if this means going to law, seizing some part of the borrower’s property, or withholding some part of his salary. Strict justice will not look at the borrower’s circumstances, only the terms of the transaction. Mercy will look at the circumstances as well, and may even decide to cancel the whole debt if repayment will injure the borrower. Often in law, people talk of the law having been upheld, but justice not being done. If people squat illegally on unused land and have nowhere else in the world to go, the landowner may forcibly remove them and still remain well inside the law. He has however failed to show mercy. A merciful person would recognise that although they had absolutely no right to the land, they needed it while he did not, and would work out some arrangement which allowed them to stay. That is the point of the parable The first servant does have a legal right to demand the hundred denarii of his fellow. But the reader sees that in the light of the mercy he has experienced, he is clearly wrong to exercise mere justice in this way. There is a sense that even though he claims his right, he has still acted unjustly. One might say that Kingdom justice is not justice unless it involves mercy.
When the servant starts to beg the master for forgiveness he thinks that he’s earned his forgiveness. Jesus has pre-empted that conclusion by making the debt ten thousand talents. It’s millions of pounds. Selling the servant, all his goods, bothers sisters uncles cousins and aunts into slavery will not recoup one hundredth of the amount. It’s millions of pounds, it cannot be paid back and the only way out of it is mercy So, realizing this, his master starts operating a different way. The offer to pay back is unrealistic, so the king who is a consummate bookkeeper decides on this occasion to stop bookkeeping. The servant wasn’t and that’s the problem. He hasn’t understood for one minute that he’s the recipient of grace. He knew the heat was off, but had no idea that the king had started behaving in a different way. Rather than step into the new world which the king is creating he remains stubbornly caught in the old world he knows.
We still remain uncomfortable with the harsh ending. It seems as though the loving merciful God always reverts to type in the end and becomes a ruthless punisher. But look more closely. Jesus seems to be saying that we get what we want.
"Handed him over" in v. 34 is pare,dwken from paradi,dwmi paradidomi, the same crucial word used by St. Paul in Rom. 1:24, 26, 28 in his re-working of "God's wrath" (1:18) as handing us over to the consequences of our own sins. It is also the word used by Jesus throughout the Gospels to describe his betrayal, his being handed over into the hands of those who will kill him. After briefly stepping into the master's debt-free world, the unforgiving servant steps back into the world where debts are kept by holding onto the debt of his fellow servant, and so suffers the consequences.
“The parables attempt to open up a new vision of those everyday things which are in themselves recognizable to everyone, but which not all see. Jesus made his teaching clear from everyday experience also in other connections. He justified the love of one's enemy from an experience which is accessible to everyone, but from which normally no lessons are drawn, or quite different ones: "so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous" (Matt. 5:45 ). Looking at the sun and the rain could teach people something crucial, as also looking at the birds of the sky, which do not sow, and at the lilies of the field, which do not work (Matt. 6:26, 28). From the experience of how God cares for them, people ought to learn to let go of their own cares and trust the heavenly Father. Similarly with the experience of the sower, the weeds among the wheat, the mustard seed, the leaven, the buried treasure, the pearl of great value, and the fish net thrown out into the sea (Matt. 13:1-53). All these experiences of everyday life can, when they are read correctly, give witness to the kindly Father, his proximate coming and dealings with people. Even if the new community in the kingdom of God contrasts completely with the old laws of the human world, it is however not something unrealistic. It only needs a new look to see signs of it everywhere in our everyday world. If people defend themselves against this new vision of reality, if they remain in their old positions of fear and self-defense, then they necessarily defend themselves also against what Jesus brings. Thus they lock themselves even more into their old world and give themselves up to a process of judgment, which runs according to self-chosen and stubbornly defended norms. Hence the parables lead those who hear them, and yet do not hear, into a process of self-induced hardening of heart.
The connection sketched out between the goodness of God in his dawning kingdom and the harsh words of judgment is confirmed in an impressive manner by the parable of the unforgiving servant. The master in this parable sets at the outset no condition for his servant, to whom he remits a gigantic debt without any return deed, and links with his action only the expectation that the fortunate man in turn treat his fellow servants in accordance with the experience that was granted to him. But this expectation is not fulfilled, and the servant, who had to pay nothing back, clings slavishly in his dealings with his fellow servant to the old norm of payment and repayment, so he is called back and made to explain himself: "Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?" (Matthew 18:33). The debt already remitted to him is now counted against him again. The master, who at the beginning of the story was pure goodness, behaves after the servant's refusal precisely according to the norm which the servant - despite his experience of generosity - applied in his treatment of his fellow servant. As the servant had his fellow servant thrown into prison, "till he should pay his debt," so the master gives him over to the torturers "till he should pay all his debt" (Matt. 18:30,34). Jesus concludes the parable with the clear application: "So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart" (Matthew 18:35)
Is this not Jesus way of saying “you get what you choose?” the consequences of unforgiveness are visible every day in the news, in Iraq for instance. The king’s gesture is mad – it’s a huge amount of money, and if others see him do this, he opens himself to being exploited by all his debtors. Yet he does it. There are very good, compelling reasons not to be merciful. “We can’t have people in government posts who until recently were terrorists.” But the alternative is hell.
The parable opens: Then Peter came up and said to him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.(18:21-22) Jesus is probably referring to a passage in Genesis: 4:23-24. Lamech says to his wives; I killed a man for wounding me, a boy for striking me. Sevenfold vengeance for Cain, but seventy-sevenfold for Lamech.
The possibility of this awful bloodshed, the result of anger which wells up from inside and cannot always be explained is always just round the corner. Once this begins it cannot be stopped, so it must at all costs and by all means be prevented. Sacrifice exists to do precisely that. The alternative Jesus offers to sacrifice is forgiveness.
To common sense, hard working Christians, few things could be more obvious than the meaning of the parable of the talents. God gives us all gifts in various measure and our task is to use them as best we can. (Remember that a talent for Jesus was a measure of gold, so a sum a money. The word ‘talent’ only means what it does in modern English because of its use in this parable.) So far so good. But I’m sure many of us have a degree of sympathy with the man who buries his one talent. He ends up deprived of his one talent: As for this good-for-nothing servant, throw him into the darkness outside. Is this not a little harsh on the part of God? After all the man failed through timidity and fear, not through any malice. Is the God who welcomes back the prodigal son after such a dissolute life going to punish someone for lack of initiative? Is the God who goes to dine with the collaborator and exploiter Zacchaeus going to be so peevish with someone who is a little short on entrepreneurial skill? It seems that what Jesus gives with one hand he takes away with the other. And of course no matter what Jesus says about the mercy of God, people tend to latch onto these ‘hard sayings’ and construct their picture of god out of them.
All this makes one very big assumption, that the master in the parable stands for God. Nowhere does Jesus make this explicit or even really suggest it. In Luke’s version of the same parable is rather different. Here a noble man goes off to distant country to be appointed king and then return. Well, Herod Antipas, the current ruler in Galilee had been to Rome for just that purpose and no doubt all those listening to Jesus would have made the connection there. Herod as we know was a byword for corruption, accommodation with the Romans, someone who protected his own interests at all costs. He was absolutely the last person anyone would cite as an example of God’s justice. Jesus calls him a fox. Is this the sort of person Jesus would use as an image of God? Not likely! Now if the master/ruler in the parable does not stand for God, then we have a little more room to explain his rather unfair action.
Most of us automatically assume that making large profits is a good thing. we live in a world where it’s relatively easy to become affluent by dint of hard work and education. Therefore we miss the fact that Jesus’ world the only way people can make such huge gains (up to 1000%) is by ruthless profiteering and by exploiting other people (As some still do in the sweat-shops of the developing world) The unfortunate bearer of the talent says to the master: I knew you were a hard man, reaping where you had not sown, and gathering where you had not scattered. The master does not disagree. But that sounds like a very up to date description of sharp practice, of dodgey business techniques. This unfortunate servant then is the only one who goes by the principles of the kingdom. Obviously he can’t stand up 7 say to his Master: “I think the way you do business stinks!” But he resists passively, he says to himself: “I can’t change the system, but I will not be co-opted by it. Because of this he is persecuted, but then Jesus did say: Blessed are those who are persecuted in the cause of right (Mt. 5:10) Perhaps this parable if an illustration of that and an invitation to Jesus’ disciples to choose between living in the kingdom of this world or living in the kingdom of God.
Does this then invalidate the other more traditional interpretations? Not necessarily. Using Parables to make a point was fairly common practise in Palestine at the time of Jesus. It was understood that they are like many sided Jewels, that a parable can have several meanings depending on the point of view of the reader. Parables can speak to different people in different ways. But it must be said that Jesus does not waste time telling people the obvious. The Old Testament Proverbs are full of the idea that industrious people prosper and the lazy get nowhere. There is always in Jesus’ parables an element of surprise and challenge. That idea would be no surprise to anyone. It would be no challenge to those who were benefiting from exploiting others, and no comfort to the poor, many of whom could barely survive, who had not as it were received even one talent, who would never in their lives have the chance to do a bit of speculation or make a few bob for themselves. If Jesus intended to make a point about hard work he would certainly not be saying anything new. But if he is making a point about the standards of the kingdom being radically different to those of this world, then he makes it very well.
Parables in Luke
The Good Samaritan. 10:29-37
The lawyer starts not looking for truth but to test Jesus. The parable and his response to it provide a test for the lawyer but of a pragmatic not a theoretical nature.
The question: Who is my neighbour is something that was of living importance. In all ancient societies there is one set of rules for the family clan or tribe and another, often very different, for ‘outsiders.’ At the time of Jesus people answered this in various ways, the tendency always to exclusivism rather than including people. Particularly the Pharisees and the Essenes considered themselves under obligation to no one but their own kind. The Hebrew word behind this is yre( which presupposes a reciprocal relationship and is the opposite of a stranger rGE , someone who sojourns in the land. Unlike many other cultures, respect and care for the stranger were also part of the Torah, e. g. Deut. 10;19 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. So even though people tried to develop circles of exclusion, built into to Israel’s scriptures was the notion that they had an obligation to outsiders. Jesus’ view of who is a neighbour is scandalously broad, but so is the OT’s.
This is a good example of a parable with more than one level of meaning. At the most basic level the Samaritan helps someone, does a good deed. When Jesus concludes by telling the lawyer Go and do likewise (10:37) is he telling him to go and help the unfortunate, or is he saying something more? The trouble with the good deeds interpretation is that one can do this and remain in a position of strength. Many people do this or similar who have no faith, just good deeds. It is not my intention, nor I believe Jesus’ intention in any way to demean such good deeds. Indeed if As Christians we could just manage these good deeds the world would be much better. And if this is all we draw out of the parable we miss something much deeper. If the world were to be saved by good deeds it could have been saved a few days after the giving of the ten commandments.
What the lawyer is called to imitate is that mystery of lost-ness. The Samaritan goes to great discomfort to help the man. Perhaps what matters is not all these meritorious deeds – which many find a little over the top, but that he shares the victim’s pain and discomfort. He becomes a loser himself. A great deal has been written about the damage done by ‘good Samaritans’ who help the downtrodden and poor from a position of total strength without ever sharing in any way in their poverty. In order to be saving the Samaritan has somehow to enter his pain.
Of course the lawyer cannot even bring himself when asked to say: “the Samaritan”. That sticks in his throat. There is here a point about the most despised people being the instruments of God. Even to believe or admit that requires a certain amount of losing, even dying. The priest and the Levite are the operatives of the Temple system. The sacrificial system with its clean and unclean becomes an obstacle to the exercise of charity. It’s not just that the Temple isn’t doing its job; it’s standing in the way of God’s will being done.
Is the main figure the Samaritan or the unfortunate traveller? It seems to be once again the question of how we respond to victims which is the test of our response to Christ. The victim is the Christ figure. In that it is very like the parable of the last Judgment in Mt. 25 where there is the element of genuine surprise to realize that they had responded to Christ in the victim.
Perhaps the Martha and Mary incident which follows straight on is also put here as a conclusion to what has been said. If Martha stops cooking what has she got left? She will loose her life, and Jesus tells her to learn from Mary, to let go.
In the lead up to the parable of the uninvited guests Jesus is at a banquet and what he says has bearing on the parable. The admonition about not choosing places of honour may seem irrelevant in these days of informal dining. It’s about much more than placemats. Insisting on social precedence is not in the end life-giving, it’s very hard work and the possibilities of being slighted are many. What Jesus is talking about is one of a piece with Luke’s statement that: When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. (9:51) In other words he deliberately chose to face death. He did not cling to life. And here he’s telling people to take the same attitude. Social precedence may seem hugely important, but in fact it’s by not clinging to these things (and their modern equivalent, whatever that may be) that people can really find life. What we think our life depends on is merely a juggling of accounts in our heads.
The admonition: When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, (14:12-13) is not so much about social etiquette as about social book-keeping and the avoidance of it. The human race is addicted to keeping accounts of all sorts spiritually and socially, and assumes that these things hold the world together. Now if God kept such accounts we would all be sunk, so stop it. And in fact the only way we can receive blessedness is to stop this, hence: and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just. (14:14) Instead of relying on your own efforts, your own merits and your own distinctions to give you the ‘life’ you need, rely on God alone. If people keep a score of the invitations they give and receive, there really is no such thing as a free lunch. Every invitation then, which looks like a free gracious offer, is part of a social accounting system, no one gets anything for free, no one gives anything freely. Such a system excludes the possibility of grace. The whole point of the coming parable of the wedding feast is that the people who finally in no way deserve the invitations they get, and were in no position ever to earn their place. Grace versus merit.
Luke follows this with: When one of those who sat at table with him heard this, he said to him, "Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!" (14:15) This is the usual pious baloney that religious people tend to trot out. Jesus is talking about life and death issues and this man, having completely missed the point, tries to score by saying something holy. (Imagine someone comes to address a parish group about justice issues, third world debt, bonded labour, unjust trade relations. Someone in the middle pipes up and says: “Well God is always just” and imagines that they have made a serious contribution to the discussion. The statement is true but a complete non-sequitur. This man has a lazy mind. Jesus is saying all sorts of things that are really beyond him, so he tries to move the conversation onto ground which is familiar, to kick the ball into his side of the pitch as it were. Jesus takes the ball from the man, kicks it in a different direction and talks about this banquet but in very different terms.
The excuses for not attending are all legitimate and any of us would understand perfectly, even if we were disappointed. But the man flies into a rage. However real the excuse the result is that his banquet is empty and all these people have missed out on the wonderful treat he is offering them.
Please note this is not a parable about being nice to the poor. The man’s motivation is not: “I want to give these poor unfortunates a chance”. He wants to make sure his house is full. Nor are these the ‘deserving poor’, they are the dregs of society. They have absolutely no reason whatsoever to expect an invite. Nor is there is any sense that he is trying to bring about some social uplift. This is pure grace, not a measured, reasoned response, but pure, crazy gift. There is no sense of triage here, no sense that those brought in might benefit. Nobody who is at the feast actually merits being there – those who did all said no. they refuse to accept any gift unless they are sure they have a personal right to it.
Matthew’s Version. (22:1-14)
Matthew’s version is so different that it almost seems a different parable. There are ingenious theories about how Jesus’ original has been presented by Luke and the early church for its own purposes edited this and produced Matthew’s version. Well these theories are all speculation based on the point of view of the theorist, not on anything in the texts themselves. If we follow this we end up with the view that the Gospels are presenting us not with the real Jesus, but with a rather un-Christ-like second-generation reworking of him. It’s much simpler to imagine that Jesus told this same story twice but in different places – note the difference of where they come in the respective gospels – and for different purposes. In Luke he seems to be in the house of a Pharisee and it’s one in a string of parables of grace. But the situation in Matthew – Jesus is now in Jerusalem, people’s rejection of the free gift of grace is happening – would merit the telling of the parable that we find there. He tells his parable of grace once again, but adds a rider about what happens when people don’t want it. Any good preacher will re-use good material but will not always use it in the same way.
The image of a marriage feast keeps turning up; Jesus calls himself the bridegroom, and at the consummation of everything in Rev. 19 we find the marriage of the Lamb going on and the declaration: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb. (Rev. 19:9) This is about God’s great offer to entire human race. True enough, the people who are rejecting the offer at this point in the gospel are the Jewish leaders, but it’s not just them who have rejected God’s offer. The human race has been doing that since the Garden of Eden.
The violence enters. The messengers’ ill-treatment is pretty much the standard way people have treated those who invite people into God’s feast. That happened with the prophets, with Jesus and the Apostles and continues to happen. The destruction of their city is a comment, a prophecy if you like, of the fall of Jerusalem. Are we saying that the events of 70 AD were God’s punishment for rejecting Jesus? No. If he were really like that people would have an excuse for not coming to his banquet. Remember this is a parable, not a simple allegory. It’s to make people think. However, we can say that the destruction of Jerusalem is the result of people’s not listening to Jesus. And when he drew near and saw the city he wept over it, saying, "Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hid from your eyes. For the days shall come upon you, when your enemies will cast up a bank about you and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and dash you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another in you; because you did not know the time of your visitation." (Luke 41-44) It was the violence of the zealots, the people who believed that God was summoning them to armed resistance which brought about the fall of Jerusalem. Jesus was clearly not for this kind of struggle. If they had listened to him Jerusalem might still have been standing. After the raising of Lazarus we read: So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council, and said, "What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation." (Jn. 11:47-48) Clearly they were mistaken that Jesus would be the cause of this, but it did happen, and this is what Jesus is alluding to here.
So then the servants collect everyone they can find: both bad and good; this is important. There is a judgement, there is a separation in this parable, but it’s not on any of the grounds that good religious people would expect. And being of all sorts they would have nothing to wear. It does seem to have been the normal thing in Jesus’ world for people to provide wedding garments. The vestige in our culture is perhaps the carnation given to each guest, or the clothes made or hired for the bridesmaids and the grooms close friends. So in refusing to wear the offered garment the man has accepted the invitation but only half-heartedly – “I’ll come to the wedding but don’t expect me to smile or dance.” This may well have been borne out of Jesus experience with his followers who definitely wanted to be part of the action, but were not prepared to change their lives in any way. People who genuinely accept the blessings of the kingdom, but don’t adopt any of its attitudes. Or, at some level he simply can’t believe that this good fortune has happened to him. Perhaps the problem with the silent guest is that he does not imagine himself to be at a wedding banquet, but in a place of judgment, and for this reason does not dare to speak when he is addressed, and so receives treatment according to his imagination. (This is similar to the man with the one talent.)
No one is excluded who isn’t already included. The whole world has been dragooned into this wedding feast.
The Lost Sheep. 15:1-7.
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable: (15: 1-3). This is Jesus apologia for his way of acting towards sinners. Note it is given to the Scribes and Pharisees, not too ‘the crowd. This is a carefully constructed rabbinical-style argument meant for people who would hear the nuances and subtleties. Also the four stories which follow is treated as one parable, four different ways of making the same point.
The image of God as shepherd is well known in the OT. In Ps. 23 God brings back the sheep who cannot find his own way back. The Hebrew bbe_Avy> yviîp.n: is usually translated He restores my soul. The verb be_Av Shub meaning ‘to return’ is also the usual OT verb to repent. So this could equally be translated as he causes me to repent. The next phrase He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake suggests that the writer was previously not following paths of righteousness.
In Jeremiah 23: 1-8 the image of the good shepherd is contrasted with bad shepherds who have been leading a flock (Israel) astray. God promises in the wake of this to lead them in person. Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, (Jer. 23:3)
In Ezechiel 34 we meet the same idea for the third time. He makes a blistering attack on the leaders (shepherds) of Israel who have not only neglected the flock, but have been devouring the sheep.,, so the flock needs rescuing from the shephereds. God promises once again to come in person to rescue them. Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am against the shepherds; and I will require my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them. "For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep; and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered (Ez. 34: 10-12)
So Jesus first response to the charge that he eats with lost people is to say that he fulfills in person the promise made through David, Jeremiah and Ezechiel. Also by implication he is rescuing them from bad shepherds (this is made much clearer in the Good shepherd allegory in John 10.) He is claiming to be none other than the promised shepherd i. e. God. This is at least an implicit reference to the incarnation. The religious authorities instead of going after the lost sheep abandoned them and in fact used them as a way of establishing their own self-righteousness. Jesus claims to go after them, to make up for the mistakes of the Pharisees.
In both Jeremiah and Ezechiel the good shepherd is God but David is waiting in the wings to take over the leading of the flock. The reader of Luke already knows that Jesus is a son of David. He is saying to his audience, who knew their scripture well, that in him both God and David are present to the flock. Note the joy present here and in the other two stories of ch. 15. repentance also seems to be not so much a heroic act of self-improvement as simply accepting being found. The sheep makes no effort at all to come back, it is all the work of the shepherd who finds and then carries it back. And at the end there is a party.
When the fatwah was issued on Salaman Rushdie in the late 80’s, commentators noted how ironic it was that it was made “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.” People asked how an injunction to kill someone can be made like this. Within a certain understanding of God it makes perfect sense. Some people see God as merciful to the group by defending it against people who are threats, so the killing of a blasphemer or heretic is an illustration of God’s mercy. But for instance in the parable of the lost sheep (Lk. 15: 4-7) Jesus proclaims a God who behaves in exactly the opposite way and will even put the group at risk for the sake of one wayward person.
The Lost Coin. 15:8-10.
If Jesus has made his point about the lost sheep, isn’t the next story a bit redundant? Very often in Luke Jesus puts female images side by side with male images. In 13: 18-21 a man sows a mustard seed, a woman hides leaven in flour. Both Martha (10: 41-42) and the ruler (18:22) lack one thing. The men of Nineveh and the queen of the south are paired (11:29-32) here are many more examples.  The presence of this parable may explain the absence of the mother in the prodigal son. Each of the three main characters in ch. 15, the Shepherd, the Woman and the Father, is a figure of God. God is one. So to introduce a mother figure along side the loving father would be to confuse the image of God. Jesus nevertheless brings in a female image of God’s diligent search for the lost through this parable. Also this whole chapter is in some way a re-writing of the story of Jacob. His mother, Rebekah is a flawed character who puts him up to deceiving his father. Jesus drops her from his new story but at the same time creates a strong, positive female image and so his female listeners can also be edified and find themselves in this.
The Prodigal Son. 15:11-32.
Some years ago I walked into our central house in Kisumu, Kenya. I was greeted by the local superior Alfons with the words: John, I’ve got good news for you, Andy has got typhoid, to which I replied: Well, thank God for that! What lay behind this strange exchange? Andy was one of our priests, at a meeting the previous day he has gone raving mad, started shouting and kicking, had to be physically restrained and was carted off to hospital. We were all afraid that he had had a bad mental breakdown, and if that were the case, would he ever be normal again? At the hospital they discovered that in fact he had typhoid, and that the typhoid has somehow affected his brain. This was of course no laughing matter but with the right drugs and plenty of rest and care he would get better, as indeed he did. Once we had identified the trouble, we could deal with it.
Strangely, when I say to myself: I am a sinner, that is good news. It means I know that part of the reason for the mess in my life is sinfulness and if I can address that and do something about it my life can change for the better. So many people around us make a total mess of their lives, but having no understanding or even idea of what sin is, proceed blithely along, digging themselves into an even deeper hole.
When the prodigal son comes to his senses he realises, faces up to the fact that he has made a total mess of his life and that it really is his own fault. His offence is enormous. In asking his father for a share in the property, he is basically saying to his dad that he wants nothing more to do with him. This is a statement about what sin is, ultimately wanting God dead, wanting nothing moiré to do with him or living as if he was dead.
Property was divided up either when the sons married or when the father died. But it was up to the father to take the initiative. He can’t wait for either, and clearly he wants the money, not the land, takes it and clears off. In a society where family ties count for everything he could not insult his father more. This is not the modern idea of a young man wanting to make his way in the world. The expected cultural response from the father is to hit the boy across the face and tell him to have more respect for his elders. So the father is also acting contrary to all the social norms and people would probably frown at the father as much as at the son. (there is more than a hint here of the doctrine of free will that God really does let us do what we want, and take the consequences.) Jesus is often accused of using an oriental patriarch as a model for God, in fact he is doing the opposite here. The father in this story does not simply reflect the norms of the surrounding culture, but goes way beyond them. Remember that the son’s share of the inheritance was land cattle and goods. It was theoretically possible to have this while the father was still alive, but he then turns it all into cash – how else could he later on squander it? It really was unthinkable that he should sell it all. By so doing he brings shame on the family and in a village community the only person who would buy it would be someone who is disreputable, used to shady deals, the sort of person who today buys things that ‘fell off the back of lorry’. The father sits by and lets all this happen so his behaviour, his non-control of his son is also scandalous. The son makes his move Not many days later, because had he remained the anger of the other villagers would have built up against him.
But why does he want to leave in the first place? The answer to that lies later in the story with the reaction of the older son. When he arrives back from the fields and hears a party going on he refuses to go in, although as yet he has no idea that his wayward brother is the reason for the party. Why? He is not a party animal; he lives for work, that’s all. So when he remonstrates with his father about never having been given a kid to celebrate with his friends, the father knows all too well that if he had given him a kid he would not have had a party with it, he would no doubt have fattened it up, sold it and put the money in the bank. The father knows that he is reliable: You are always with me and all I have is yours. But that’s all. There is no fun in this son; he lives for work, for duty and no one could fault on that score. All his chores are done, no doubt the farm is clean and well kept and all the tools and implements neatly stored in their proper place, but there is more to life than that! The younger son felt always put down, somehow reproached by the older boy. He could not live up to his high standards of behaviour, he wanted to live a bit, hang loose, enjoy his youth. With this workaholic brother around, always setting a “good example” that was impossible. He felt stifled. So…..he left home. And the day he left home was the day laughter walked out of the house, the day he left home was the day joy and lightness and fun walked out with him. From then on there was nothing to live for but work and duty. No wonder the father longs to see him back. No wonder the father stood on the veranda every day wistfully hoping his boy would return! No wonder he breaks into a run when he sees him still a long way off!
One of the dead sea scrolls, the Testament of Kohath reads:
For anyone who did sell his inheritance like this and dare to return home there was a shunning ceremony called the ‘Kezazah’ or ‘cutting off.’ People would fill a pot with burned nuts and corn and break the pot in front of the guilty individual and shout: “so & so is cut off from his people” and from then on he would be an outcaste. The son knows that if he goes back to the village he could well face that, and maybe one reason why the father runs towards him is so that he can get to him and embrace him before the villagers can start a kezazah. The father’s embrace protects him from the wrath of the community. (The modern equivalent is surely a prominent person being pilloried by the media, having the press camp on their doorstep waiting to take them to the cleaners.)
In Middle Eastern culture men of standing never run, by doing so they would loose all dignity and when a person of dignity receives someone of lesser dignity he does so sitting, never standing. So simply by breaking into a run he would be doing something very surprising, holding up his robes and showing his legs and all the attention of the other villages would be on this curious sight, not the bedraggled boy making his way along the path. By running he looses dignity. The same thing applies later when he comes out to remonstrate with the older brother. If anyone should do this, it would be the mother. So here the father behaves like a mother. The OT never calls God mother but sometimes says that he is like a mother. Note too that God is not like a father, any old father, he is like the father in Hosea 11 and Luke 15. The image of a grim old patriarch, so common in the Middle East is found nowhere in the Bible as an image of God.
But why does the younger son really come back? Preachers sometimes make much of the son’s return as the great example of repentance, of turning away from sin and beginning a new life. Is this boy repentant in that sense? Not at all! He’s hungry, that’s what makes him go back, hunger, an empty belly. He’s still as selfish as he was when we met him at the beginning.
In Exodus, after the plague of darkness, we read: Then Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron in haste, and said, "I have sinned against the LORD your God, and against you. Now therefore, forgive my sin, I pray you, only this once, and entreat the LORD your God only to remove this death from me." (Ex. 10:16-17)
We all know that Pharaoh in no way repents of his stubbornness, he’s just playing for time. And Luke exploits that similarity here. But here at least the boy has come to his senses, and in that respect he has changed somewhat. When we met him he saw no real chance of any kind of life at home. He thought if he could have plenty of wine women and song (or sex and drugs and rock and roll) he would have a great life. That’s the false hope of many young people who lack the hard experience of life. At least now he’s at bit more in touch with reality, he knows which side his bread is buttered, in that sense he’s a little nearer the truth than when we first met him. Does he regret what he has done? Yes, in the sense that it has landed him a job as a swineherd (the most despicable job a Jew could ever do), but he has no real desire to make amends as yet. He decides to make up a story: I will say to my father:” father I have sinned against heaven and against you”. If he can say the right the right words, put on a bit of a show, grovel, eat humble pie he will win his father’s heart. And then purely by hard work he will gradually ear his place back in the community. In that sense he thinks just like his older brother who considers his own place at the table the just reward for all the hard work he has done.
When the father sees him he is moved with compassion, the Greek says: evsplagcni,sqh which really means his entrails turned over, he is so moved by the sight of his son. By rights the father should stand at the house and wait for the boy to come to him. We expect him to say something like: “Oh, you’re back are you, well don’t think you can just walk in here and take the place over, you’ve offended us deeply and you’ve left us short-handed on the farm. Work for a while, let’s see if you’ve changed and then maybe I’ll give you your old room back.” In strict justice he should say something like that, but of course when you love someone, you’re concerned about far more than strict justice. The boy falls on his face and begins his little recital, so carefully rehearsed during the long journey back home. But that father wants none of it, he just wants the boy, any which way, he’ll have him back on any terms, because love is like that. Rather than demand the retribution which is his right he makes a huge fuss of the boy.
Many middle eastern commentators note that he does not cut the boy short, the boy amends his speech and leaves out: “treat me as one of your hired servants."' This is because he realizes that he doesn’t need to work his way back or in any way earn his father’s love.
And the boy is such fun to be with, Yes, he has always had a wayward streak in him, but that’s part of what makes him so likeable. Often roguishness is an attractive quality in a person. Left to grow wild and unchecked the person becomes a criminal or a least a social misfit. But given a secure environment the rogue becomes someone with an adventurous spirit, someone who is not afraid to “have a go”. In both of his sons, the father sees qualities which he loves and admires, but it seems he can’t have them all in the one person.
Of course the older son objects but he has no right to. Everything he wants he has. He has chosen a simple life, he doesn’t really like parties, but he cannot begrudge it to another. Originally of course he represents the Pharisees who have always done their duty and feels resentful to Jesus because he offers the Kingdom of God to people who don’t deserve it. At the beginning of Ch. 15 we are told: All the tax collectors and sinners were drawing close to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled saying: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” So Jesus told them this parable. He tells it to challenge their attitude. They certainly think that there should be full and sincere repentance before there is any talk of mercy. With Jesus it seems the other way around, he makes room in his heart for people, he shows them that they are loved, and then they change – take the story of Zacchaeus for instance. The boy in this story has made some move, no matter how insincere and that is enough for the father to be going on with. And this is Jesus’ core image of God the Father. He is not impartial; he does not weigh up everybody on the basis of their merits and demerits. He rushes to meet people when he sees even the slightest chance of a hope that the person might change and come back. So both at the beginning and the climax of the story the father goes way beyond what would be expected of a good father in Israel. Jesus doesn’t call God father because “He’s just like your dad”, but rather because he is infinitely greater than any human parent. This is exactly how Jesus deals with sinners, so Jesus is implicitly identifying himself with God. He makes this explicit in Jn. 10:30: I and the Father are one."
The older son is so put out that he breaks his relationship with the father he also ends up estranged, and that says Jesus is exactly what the Pharisees are doing by their attitude. Like Jonah they would prefer no relationship with God than friendship with a God who doesn’t do what they expect him to. There is no happy ending to the parable. Jesus says implicitly: “Your younger brother is awaiting you at the banquet, what are you going to do? So in order to take part in the banquet, each of the sons has to start seeing the other through the loving eyes of the father rather than through their own rivalrous competitive eyes.
On one level the two sons represent the two types of people Jesus is dealing with: The Pharisees who are right, yes, but really not much fun to be with, and as the poet e.e.cummings puts it: When men are right they are not young. The sinners who are certainly not examples of how to live, and who need to have a long, hard look at their lives, but who strangely because of this are more open to the mercy of God than those who have been so good for so long that they don’t really need it. The two sons are also parts of ourselves. One the one hand we have a side that is fun-loving and irresponsible, but nevertheless warm, on the other hand we have a part of us that is hard-working and dutiful, but also rather intolerant and severe. In most people they are not in perfect harmony, one side is over-developed at the expense of the other. In some people one side totally takes over and then becomes pathological. But we need to let the two side talk to each other, make friends with both of them and give both room to breathe and develop.
The Unjust Steward 16:1-8
Perhaps the most puzzling of all Jesus’ parables is that of the crafty steward in Luke 16:1-8. A steward is dismissed for being wasteful. Behind his master’s back he gives his debtors big reductions in their debt, the net result being that the master receives far less in repayment. The master then praises him for his astuteness. Is Jesus really praising this dishonesty? What is going on here?
First of all we must drop any assumptions that this first century economy works like our own. There are no clear goodies and baddies here. The master is probably a wealthy absentee landlord who lets out his land to poor tenant farmers. Life was a continual tug of war between the two; the landlord, rather greedy, trying to squeeze every last ounce of profit from the tenants; the tenants not exactly paragons of honesty trying to give the master the absolute minimum possible and the steward caught between the two. Probably it was one of the tenants with a grudge who denounced him for being wasteful.
The crucial issue here is the way in which interest is negotiated. The master makes a loan of fifty measures of oil- or more likely its monetary equivalent. Jewish law forbade the taking of interest in any form, but with the vagaries of the climate and the agricultural market, an ‘unprotected’ loan could well be economic suicide. (Isn’t this parable starting to sound rather modern?) The way round this was to charge interest to express it as part of the principle in the contract. In other words instead of saying; “I borrow 50 measures of oil at 100% interest = 100 measures,” the contract just said: “I borrow 100 measures of oil – full stop.” In addition the steward would take his own cut – not expressed in the contact, but understood by landlord and tenant alike. If the steward is dishonest, let’s remember that his master isn’t exactly opposed to a little ‘creative accounting’, a little legal fiction.
This is not a morality parable whose message is “being dishonest can be bad for you” . Jesus never wastes his time saying the obvious. It comes after three parables of grace; the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son. Their message is emphatically not “don’t get lost”. Rather it is that when we are lost grace comes to find us, and the prodigal son being lost and then found is an occasion of grace and rejoicing for all except the older son whose attitude of “my brother should never have got lost in the first place” is the only thing that cuts him off from grace. There is a further similarity. We are told that the prodigal son squandered his money and that the steward squandered his master’s property. In the Greek original the verb used is identical – diaskorpizein. Just as the prodigal son is a hero of sorts – it is through him that grace is poured out on the household – so the steward is not the bad guy but in a sense the hero of the story. Through his shrewd rearrangement of the accounts everybody manages to benefit from a potentially destructive situation. How?
The master depends totally on the steward. He would probably not want dismiss him but if the tenants see him take no action, then they will take that as a signal to run rings around him. He is the only one who knows all the ins and outs of the business and to find a replacement will be difficult. The tenants are also a bunch of crooks and who knows how they will manipulate a new steward. There is no knowing how the steward will react to his dismissal and the master may well have to write off most of this year’s profits. Surprise surprise, the tenants all pay back the principle (without interest) so although his profits are down he has got back all his principle, the tenants are all delighted and the steward has made himself a load of new friends into the bargain. So out of a situation in which everybody was likely to lose, the steward has, through his astuteness, brought about a situation in which everyone is a winner (at least to some extent). The only reason for this is that he realised how utterly destitute he might become. Just as the prodigal son only returns home out of desperation, so this steward only changes the contracts because his back is pressed tight against the wall. It’s in these no-hope situations that grace seems to work most powerfully. What promised to be a very ugly time for all, turned out – somehow – to everyone’s advantage. No wonder the master praises him!
The religion of the Pharisees was very much a kind of meticulous spiritual book-keeping, everyone had to pay their dues and there was no room for people who did not come up to standard. In this parable Jesus makes the scandalous claim that the ways of God are much like those of the steward than those of the perfect accountants. Strange isn’t it? But then so’s the cross!
The steward is rescued from himself, being caught is a blessing for him since if he continued to get away with his dishonesty he would have become more corrupt and eventually really bad.
We are comfortable and familiar with forgiveness, however great, but here is something else. Continuing in circumstances which are far from perfect. Many devout Christians would be willing to write the steward off completely, but somehow life goes in and this too is one of the ways in which grace works. It’s about not closing the door or hanging up the phone but being prepared to carry on. There is a similarity between this and John the Baptist’s attitude in Luke.
And the multitudes asked him, "What then shall we do?" And he answered them, "He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Collect no more than is appointed you.” Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” (Lk. 3:10-14)
He makes the best of a bad job, and shows how it is possible for good to come without total conversion.
The truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa is perhaps a living illustration of this parable. The master could have maintained his position and refused to utter a good word about the steward. The tenants (who had probably been treated badly by him) could have done the same. But because everyone was willing to soften their attitudes a little everyone benefited. No doubt there ware people walking round in South Africa today who strictly speaking should have been put behind bars. But when an evil is so widespread and endemic, any effort to redress it in terms of strict justice could well have done more damage than good, and some would have still got off Scott free while others would have paid more heavily than was necessary. Insisting on this would have probably meant the various communities becoming even more estranged. So grace was needed there, more than strict justice or retribution and grace made the way forward possible.
The Pharisee and the Publican.
Our awareness of hypocrisy and our ability to detect phoney religion is very much to do with the fact that our culture is the product of the gospel. Indeed most of the Bible has strong antennae for phoney religion – the prophets. Also this sensitivity can lead simply to cynicism and irreligion. Many people would be critical of the Pharisee merely because he went to the front and some even because he observed the correct ritual. This is not why the gospel criticises him. In say Islamic societies (or uncritical Christian societies – American televangelists) people wouldn’t immediately see what was wrong with the Pharisee. This display of piety would in itself be an indication of goodness.
However, there is a sense in which his goodness depends on the tax collector’s badness. Exposing the fact that his goodness is in relation to the tax collector’s badness, exposing this phoney goodness is at the heart of the gospel. We are reminded of the words of Isaiah 64: 6. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
The basic business of establishing our righteousness in comparison to other people’s badness is at issue here. Jesus is saying that self-righteousness simply isn’t righteousness. If my being good depends on someone else being bad, them I’m not really good. (In the story of the Gerasene demoniac in Mk when the people see the man cured and in his senses they become aftraid and at that point beg him to leave the district. If we are naïve we may conclude they do this because of all the dead pigs. This has got nothing to do with it. By curing this man and restoring him to the community, Jesus has taken away one of their mechanisms for coping with their own sickness. While this man is sick, they are healthy, if he is mad, they are sane, if he is possessed by evil they are not. By curing him Jesus takes away that distinction and they may have to face up to their own dysfunction and sickness. Many people even today feel good about themselves because they can look at others who are ‘bad’, and compare themselves. We see in the gospels the ones society marginalises in order to feel good about themselves are the ones Jesus welcomes, thus destroying the distinction between righteous and sinner. (Every Mass begins with a recognition that we are an assembly of sinner, not of the righteous. The story is told of Pope John XXIII who on a visit to Regina Coeli prison in Rome told the prisoners: “There is a big difference between you and me; you got caught!”)
The Pharisee knows he’s good because the publican is there. If the Pharisee stands before God alone, then what? There’s also the possibility that there is another Pharisee who is much more pious, and our Pharisee becomes the bad one with whom he compares himself. (see Isaiah 6 and his own realization of being a sinner.) Electioneering in this country seems to work on the same principle. “vote for us because the opposition’s rubbish”.
The story is told of a state banquet at Buckingham Palace given by Queen Victoria. Very splendid, very lavish and chokingly stiff and formal. Whatever was served, it necessitated the use of finger bowls. One visiting dignitary, unused to these things, picked up the finger bowl and drank it, taking it to be one of the many drinks offered. The people around were horrified at this breach of etiquette and looked on him with scorn. Queen Victoria (not known for being easy going) saw what was going on, saw that the man had just made himself a social pariah and rescued him by picking up her own finger bowl and drinking it, which meant that everyone else around the table had to do the same. She ‘saved’ him by deliberately occupying his place of shame and because she was queen emptied it of all shame.
In a difficult but vital passage Paul claims that God in Christ does that with sin. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5: 21)
The place of shame is something created by people to reinforce their own sense of goodness. It may be the cross, it may be position occupied by the class geek in school, it may be the position of an ethnic or social group who are lowest in the pecking order like untouchables in India. For many people the fact that someone else occupies that place is the guarantee that they are ok. For such people it’s essential that the place of shame exists since their sense of goodness depends upon it, and usually they will fiercely resist any attempt to rehabilitate the shameful person or people. Once Christ has occupied that place, the most shameful place on earth, there is no longer any need to create such places or to establish our own goodness by not being there. (The cross was doubly toxic; used the Romans as the ultimate deterrent it could produce martyrs, people who because they were killed by the occupying power became local heroes. But Deut. 21:23 says that anyone executed by hanging on a tree is cursed by God. For the Jews then Crucifixion robbed them of the ability to become heroes.)
We find a similar idea in Galatians. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us -- for it is written, "Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree" (Gal. 3:13)
For the Christian, being baptised into Christ’s death means we forego any claim to righteousness through a human system – because that claim depends on our being able to identify others as bad – which Jesus forbad us to do. (Lk. 6:37) Paul says the same: Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, (Rms. 2:1) One could almost translate that as: “what goes around comes around”. In other words: “If your sense of being good depends on being able to identify others as ‘bad’, sooner or later you will end up being the bad one in someone else’s system of goodness.” If people believe they need guns to protect themselves, they are likely in the end to be the victims of shooting. If people believe and invest in that system of goodness, then sooner or later they will become the victims of it. Once Jesus has occupied the very worst place in that system and come back from the dead, that toxic place is emptied of all its poison.
The real tragedy here is that grace only works in those who accept that they are lost and while he is clinging to his own sense of superiority he has not ‘lost his life.’ Were the publican to look down on someone else who was a worse sinner than he – I may not be much good, but at least I’m better than him” – he would not have found God’s favour.
How can we be moral without being moralistic – the traditional problem or how can we drop our moralism without dropping our morals – the modern problem.
The Vineyard Labourers. Mt. 20: 1-16.
The story of the vineyard labourers is a possible skandalon. It is possible for the reader to be just as offended as the workers of the first hour or it is possible to overcome it and enter some deeper meaning. Our ability to overcome scandal depends largely on our trust in the person who gives it. If a well trusted parish priest came out on a Sunday morning dressed up as a clown, people would know that he wasn’t just making a mockery of the Mass, but making some serious point. But if a newcomer was to do the same they would judge him straight away as a fool. If we trust the Gospel we must believe it’s doing this for a purpose and that our task is to discover that purpose.
First of all social conditions. Casual labour was a harsh reality then, and still is in many poor countries. A denarius was a day’s wage for a casual labourer. It was a minimum wage; he would never have anything to save out of it and if he got less, someone in his household would go hungry that night. If anyone received lass than that it would not be a just wage since it would not be enough to survive on. So from a merely economic point of view, the owner does justice.
So in one way, it is about God’s generosity, it’s something that keeps coming up in the NT. God does not give what people deserve, but what they need. But it’s not making the point that God loves the sinner as much as the righteous. There is no suggestion that any of the workers is morally better than any other. They all simply do what they are asked.
The parable is much more an exposé of human attitudes to God in the sight of his generosity. The owner’s question: Why should you be envious because I am generous? o` ovfqalmo,j sou ponhro,j evstin o[ti evgw. avgaqo,j eivmiÈ ho ophthalmos sou poneros estin hoti ego agathos eimi? is more literally rendered: Is your eye evil because I am good? His generosity has provoked resentment in the onlookers. They are scandalised as is the reader. People often make all sorts of helpful suggestions about how the owner should have conducted his affairs. They can get drawn into the scandal while ignoring the basic fact that he has done a good and generous thing for the majority of the workers. Part of the initial purpose is to ensure that the reader is scandalised only to draw him further into the mystery of God’s dealings with people. Perhaps the parable is unique in that if the reader is attentive he cannot but avoid being scandalised.
The parable is about the human race’s resentment towards God. It’s always been there, it was one of the things engendered by the snake in the Garden of Eden – that God is somehow untrustworthy. The unhappy workers would have gone home that night convinced that the owner was unjust and that they would be perfectly justified in taking occult compensation if the chance arose, i. e. helping themselves to a few extra bunches of grapes that the owner wouldn’t miss. This resentment can lurk in the hearts of even the most dedicated workers, and they feel justified in their resentment. Because the eleventh hour labourers are valued, the first-hour men feel undervalued, though they have no objective reason to. In the eyes of the vineyard owner they are ‘worth’ every bit as much as they were when he hired them. Their resentment is like that of the older son in Like great parable who feels undervalued simply because his brother is valued. In both cases they can only maintain their sense of value by others being in some was devalued. The parable draws out that resentment, that sense of grievance against the owner/God in order to expose this lying in even the hearts of dedicated Christians.
Rivalry is a constituent part of fallen human nature. The proof of this which every parent knows is to watch two toddlers in a nursery full of toys. One picks up a teddy bear and begins carelessly to play with it. The other will soon enough turn from what he is doing and focus his attention on that teddy. He will try to take it off the first one, who in turn will stubbornly cling to it. The result will always be tears. In the space of a few minutes, an object which neither of them was really that keen on becomes an object of intense desire. Affluent parents may solve the problem by buying another identical teddy, but one can be sure that their attention will soon move to another object. Almost all human conflict is the result of people modelling themselves, (albeit unconsciously) on others and then entering into rivalry with others. All human conflict is about wanting what someone else has and desires – money, land, prestige, a spouse, a friend, power etc. every human society is threatened by this desire which becomes rivalry which leads to conflict. (It is no accident that the last two commandments warn against this mimetic desire. Covetousness is the reason why people kill, commit adultery, steal and bear false witness against each other, and if the Decalogue wants to stop those it will have to attack their root cause – desire. The Ten Commandments display an anthropological understanding which is remarkably spot-on.)
Everybody in the parable gets what has been agreed on, Justice has been satisfied but goodness provokes grumbling. They have what they were promised, and it’s enough. But they expected more seeing how generous the owner was. And that leads to resentment. Instead of being grateful for the work & pay they are resentful. The human race has always been resentful against God, That’s what serpent engenders in the garden of Eden. For centuries it was largely hidden but of course when Jesus claims to be God that’s when people really decide to get rid of him.
For many people who can’t be bothered to practice their faith, the image of God as someone unfair suits them, just as it’s good to think of our enemies as bad people.
Visible resentment towards God is a very modern sin. Someone once said: “After 40 you’re either grateful or resentful.”
The word ‘Eucharist means thanksgiving’. The Eucharist is antidote to resentment, but people express their resentment by staying away from mass. The parable is really about resentment towards God, but it’s not until the modern age that people have been able to express that openly. In a religious traditional society people could never do that. If I begrudge God even the one hour a week I give him I’m in a very bad way.
Our entire economic system is based on people not being grateful and contented, but always wanting more. Industrial revolution – mass production – advertising. Things sometimes do make us happy, but they can also make us discontent and resentful and unhappy, because we live as people always wanting more.
The Eucharist works in the opposite direction. Centre of Christian life is an act of thanksgiving.
Those vineyard workers have a choice between happiness or misery, gratitude which will enable them to sleep well at night or resentment which will eat away their lives and will stop them enjoying even the good things they have. It has got nothing to do with getting higher wages or changing their circumstances, it’s to do with how they choose to live.
The labourers, despite being probably illiterate, are consummate bookkeepers, and religion very easily goes off in that direction. Jesus wants to show here that God has nothing to do with our bookkeeping. The Pharisee and the publican, Romans and Galatians are at pains to point out that it is of no avail and that Christ has paid any debts that we might have had, so all of us are recipients of God’s generosity. All through his ministry, Jesus seems to be disturbing God’s order, the difference God erects between righteous and sinner. This is threatening not only to religion but to society as a whole. This distinction is as it were a dam which stops the overflowing of sin. “If we don’t contain it then it could engulf us all.” Even non-religious people today often have a finely tuned sense of who is good and who is bad, although they may not use those terms. In the parable the order of things is disturbed. The obvious objection is “If news of this gets out, everybody will be turning up at the last minute.” “You can’t make too much of God being gracious, because in that case everybody will misbehave.”
There is a very clear call here for a change of attitude. The harvest is often an image of the end-times. Jesus is suggesting that unless we change we will be rather uncomfortable in heaven. The fact that the labourers would get their just reward was never in jeopardy, but self-righteousness, even when it seems to be well-justified, is always the enemy of grace.
1. R. FARRAR-CAPON, The Parables of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids 1985) 6.
2. J. ALISON,Living in the End Times (London 1996) 83.
3. D. McCRACKEN, The Scandal of the Gospels; Jesus, Story and Offense (New York – Oxford 1994) 76.
4. See D. McCRACKEN, The Scandal of the Gospels; Jesus, Story and Offense (New York – Oxford 1994) 19-22.
5. See Ibid 82.
6. N. PERRIN, Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom: Symbol and Metaphor in New Testament Interpretation. (Philadelphia 1976) 106.
7. D. McCRACKEN, The Scandal of the Gospels; Jesus, Story and Offense (New York – Oxford 1994) 92.
8. See R. FARRAR-CAPON, The Parables of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids 1985) 105.
9. R. FARRAR-CAPON, The Parables of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids 1985) 158.
10. See K. E. BAILEY, Jacob and the Prodigal (Oxford 2003) 89.