The Pope's First Jesus Book— Chapter Seven

In Chapter Seven (pp. 183-217)  the Pope comes to grips with Jesus’ parables, and acknowledges his indebtedness to the classic work by Joachim Jeremias on The Parables of Jesus.    The Pope is conversant with the discussions of A. Julicher, trying to make a hard and fast distinction between parable and allegory, but as the later critique of Julicher has shown this doesn’t work. There were allegorical elements or features in early Jewish parables,  including in Jesus’ parables, and as Jeremias complained Jesus was not teaching nice stories about general morality.  These parables are eschatological in character.  The Pope also engages with C.H. Dodd’s classic work on The Parables of the Kingdom, and like Jeremias he thinks there is something to the stress of Jesus on the Kingdom being ‘now’ in his ministry, and also something to the denial that Jesus was saying this meant the end of the world now.   Early Jews did not see the coming of God’s saving reign as the end of the world in toto, just the end of the old ways of the world.  But we have to also add that the parables speak of the ‘not yet’ as well.  The Son of Man will come in the future, but will he find faith and faithfulness on earth?    The Pope emphasizes the intersection of eschatology and Christology in the parables—- Jesus is the Kingdom bringer, and it will be his kingdom that comes.   Jesus is the kingdom of God, the reign of God on earth, come in person ( p.188).   The Kingdom is present but in seed form, and the time of Jesus and the disciples is the time of sowing the seed.   But there is a sense in which Jesus himself is both the sower, and the seed which must be planted in the ground and die (John 12.24— cf. Jn. 16.25 on the veiled nature of parables).

The Pope believes that one of the causes for so many misunderstandings and misuses of the parables is that people fail to allow themselves to be drawn into the parable so its mystery can be unveiled.   The parable demands the collaboration of the learner, to journey with the tale or metaphor (p. 192).   I think there is a lot of truth to this.  If you just want to understand it, but not enter into the mystery it is pointing to, the exercise if not fruitless, is at least pointless.  Parables affect and transform lives, but some don’t want to be changed.   It becomes especially problematic when “we have developed a concept of reality that excludes reality’s translucence to God”  (p. 193).   Think of the parables as like a mirror.  You are only going to see your own reflection unless you believe it possible to look through the mirror and see to the other side and at the same time let oneself be seen by the One looking through this two way mirror from the other side.  Real knowledge of God comes only through and with repentance which involves real knowledge of self.  Similarly, real understanding of the parables requires repentance and turning.  “the parables are ultimately an expression of God’s hiddenness in this world and of the fact that knowledge of God always lays claim to the whole person… and that it can’t exist without repentance”  (p. 193).

The Pope goes on to offer a brief exposition of three Lukan narrative parables— the parable of the Prodigal Son, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.    Following Jeremias in his exposition of the Parable of the Good Samaritan,  the Pope points to the story of when the Samaritans defiled the Temple precincts (somewhere between 6-9 A.D.) by strewing dead men’s bones during the Passover ceremony (p. 196).  It was taken for granted Samaritans couldn’t be neighbors.   The Pope reminds us of the story in Luke 9 where Jesus and the disciples try to enter a village in Samaria and are rebuffed because Jesus is going up to Jerusalem and the Sons of Thunder want to call down lightning on the town for their inhospitable ways, but Jesus forbids it.    Here, the Samaritan becomes the example of how to be a neighbor to others.  The parable then is not about the limits of the term neighbor, but how to be a neighbor to anyone and everyone.  As the Pope says,  a ‘new universality’ is entering the scene in these teachings,  crossing and destroying tribal and prejudicial boundaries.    The Pope thinks Augustine’s later allegorizing of this parable, while infamous, is not so bad because we do have a image of fallen humanity left for dead on the side of the road and without outside assistance, he would not be o.k. or rescued.   Is Jesus really claiming to be the Samaritan in the story?   Or is he just shaming the Jewish lawyer with the positive example of the Samaritan’s compassion?   It is surely more likely to be the latter and furthermore, without clarification, any man lying on the side of the commuter road between Jerusalem and Jericho would have been assumed to be a Jew— someone the priest and Levite had an obligation as neighbor to, in any case.

On p.  202 the Pope begins to deal with the Prodigal Son parable, with the correct observation that it ought to be called the parable of the two brothers— since it is about both of them  (see 15.11).   Interestingly, the Pope reminds us of the many stories in the OT about two brothers who are hardly two peas in a pod—- Cain and Abel,  Jacob and Esau,  and compare as well the two brothers in Mt. 21.28-32.    Notice that the Father gives the prodigal his inheritance in advance, which normally would only be given at the death of the father, so to request it was to say to one’s father— ‘you’re as good as dead, give me the inheritance now’.   This was not only shameful,  if the father did it, it meant the son was dead to the family, no longer a member of the family, and could not expect to be treated as such when and if he returned.   The son proceeds to live in a way that squanders his ‘essence’ as the text says,  and only afterwards does he ‘come to himself’.   The point is he realizes he was not being himself.   And one may wonder how exactly the older brother knew exactly how he had squandered his inheritance.   True freedom is not doing anything you want, regardless of moral consequences.  That actually only leads to slavery— slopping hogs, and envying them their food— the lowest job imaginable to a Jew (and the story means he was living in a Gentile place).   The Pope rightly sees Hosea 11.1-9 as in the background here— God is compassionate and comes running to the one who now longs for reinstatement.     The Pope points to the term which refers actually to the spleen, the deepest organ associated with the deepest of emotions— compassion.   Jesus is not the Father in the parable, but he uses the father’s behavior as justification for his own way of treating sinners, tax collectors etc.   The sense of entitlement, and feeling bereft or hard done by, is clear in the case of the older brother. He resents the party given for the younger brother.    He believes he has been done an injustice, but the Father says no, all I have is yours, and you are always with me.  The son seemed to think that there should be quid pro quo, especially considering how hard he had worked, but in fact he had not earned it— the father already saw what he has as belonging to the elder son.   The application in the text to loyal Jews vs. the sinners and tax collectors who were repenting due to Jesus’ compassion makes better sense than the later Jew vs. Gentile contrast found in the Fathers.  The Pope clearly knows and values the expositions of the fathers on these parables, however far removed they are from the original sense and context of the parables.

One of the Pope’s best insights is about the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (pp. 211ff.) which he suggests has as a backdrop a text like Psalm 73— why do the wicked prosper, asks the psalmist?   He also compares the sentiments in Ps. 77.14ff.    The rich fool in the parable is only awakened to the empty hearted nature of his previous life, in the afterlife.  Blessed are those on whom it dawns during this life.   On p. 215 the Pope says the parable has the rich man in Hades, a temporary place, not Gehenna, which is Jesus’ equivalent of Hell, the final stopping place.   The point however of the parable, as the Pope mentions is that if someone will not believe the Word of God as a sign from God, they will not believe the work of God either, even if one rises from the dead.  The problem is not the character of the sign, but the hard heart of the observer and their unwillingness to believe on any showing.

  • http://firsttestamentstudies.wordpress.com/ Ryan Collins

    Dr. BW3,

    You said: “The Pope believes that one of the causes for so many misunderstandings and misuses of the parables is that people fail to allow themselves to be drawn into the parable so its mystery can be unveiled. The parable demands the collaboration of the learner, to journey with the tale or metaphor (p. 192). I think there is a lot of truth to this.”

    I could not agree with the Pope more. I think the problem, if one should call it that, is that we in the Western world are so oblivious to the parabolic nature of the Hebraic culture. But it seems that it is not entirely just parables that we fail to engage with; Westerners (including myself) seem to have difficulty comprehending the fullness of Hebrew poetry, the use of block logic in Hebrew writing, and colorfulness of their language in “painting verbal pictures,” as Dr. Marvin Wilson would put it.

    I think if people put forth a bit of effort to understand the concept behind parables and the Judaic culture that surrounded Jesus’ parables, then this would open up an entirely new aspect of Scripture that most Christians have not grasped (whether intentionally or unintentionally) yet.

    I am enjoying your chapter reviews very much. Also, I just recently read your essay post from 2007 about Lazarus being the Beloved Disciple…you’ve ruined my night! Haha! Excellent work, as always.

    In Him,
    Ryan Collins

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Easter blessings Ryan….. Yes sir, Lazarus is my guy. You might enjoy our novel The Lazarus Effect.

    BW3

  • http://firsttestamentstudies.wordpress.com/ Ryan Collins

    Dr. BW3,

    Easter blessings to you as well, sir. Consider myself all over the Lazarus Effect. I was absolutely mesmerized by the essay, so I am sure the book will be outstanding.

    In Him,
    Ryan C.


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