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Jesus Traditions

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Contents of Jesus Traditions

 

Addenda (7)

 

Addendum S

 

Allegorical Material in Matthew

     

The Allegory of the King’s Marriage Feast
Matthew 22:1-14

 

It appears that the author of Matthew has used a plot something like that in Luke 14:16-24, the parable of All Kinds of People Invited to the Great Banquet. From this he has crafted the melodramatic story of a king who invites guests to a wedding feast for his son. When an initial announcement to the guests goes unheeded, other servants are sent, with the message that everything is prepared. This too is unheeded; some make excuses about visiting a farm or tending one’s business, while others seize the servants, treat them shamefully and kill them. [Such extreme actions, reminiscent of material in the allegory of the Vineyard, alert us to the presence of features that are hardly true to life, in any age or place: abuse and murder by guests who have been invited to a wedding feast?] The king launches a punitive military campaign, to destroy the murderers and burn down their city. [A wedding has turned into a war!] Then the servants are sent out again, to bring in all sorts, whether good or bad [!], for the “wedding is ready” [ready still, military campaign, and all!]. So the wedding hall is filled with guests for the happy occasion, but the story takes another ominous turn when the king discovers a man without a wedding robe [as if a wedding robe might be expected of some one invited in off the streets]. Then things get really ugly when the hapless fellow is bound hand and foot and thrown “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 22:13). [In-this-age celebration merges into end-of-time perdition.

     

As parable, this narrative has heavy going, with its unrealistic details; but as allegory, it reveals effectively the thought-world of Matthew and his community, who are committed to a Christian Jewish position in the post-70 era. The theme of the allegory is world mission, with conditions.
   •  The king (however unattractively portrayed) is God.
   •  The marriage feast for his son may well be the end-of-time banquet symbolizing joyous life at the ultimate triumph of God’s kingdom.
   •  The servants (or slaves) sent out are prophets and Christian missionaries.
   •  The unheeding and murderous guests are Jews, especially the establishment.
   •  The destruction of the city is the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70.
   •  The guests invited in from the streets are probably gentiles, some good and some bad.
   •  But the gentile mission as Matthew understands it is not without conditions: the invitation into the Christian community is free, but Torah observance is not optional. This point of view places Matthew in a position quite contrary to the Torah-free gospel of Pauline Christianity.

     

 

The Allegorical Interpretation of the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43)

We have here the story of a farmer who planted his field, only to learn when the plants came up that the enemy had come by night and sowed weeds, which appeared along with the wheat. Instead of rooting out the weeds and risking the wheat, he instructed his servants to wait until the harvest, when the weeds could be separated out and burned.

It is not at all easy to decide whether this narrative is sufficiently true to life to pass muster as a parable; the malicious act of the enemy is strangely unmotivated, and one suspects that the story is made to order for its allegorical interpretation. But if we still had the original “frame” which occasioned the parable we might be more convinced of its realism. Matthew connects the story with the Kingdom of Heaven, but it is not clear with what aspect of the kingdom he is making a comparison. The parable seems to counsel patience in making judgments about people, but since we know nothing about the original situation we cannot sharpen up the application much more than this.

 

There is little uncertainty about the allegorical interpretation, which as Matthew’s contribution is well supplied with his favorite expressions for end-of-time events; click on apocalyptic exuberance.

Matthew 13:36-43  37The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are colleted and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

 

The allegorical equivalences are clear:

The farmer is the Son of Man [in the Book of Daniel, an apocalyptic figure, 7:13-14].
The field is the world.
The good seed are the children of the kingdom.
The weeds are the children of the evil one.
The enemy is the devil.
The harvest is the end of the age.
The serfvants are the angels.
The bonfire for the weeds is fiery perdition for evildoers [weeping and gnashing of
    teeth = a favorite expression of Matthew].
The gathering of the wheat into the barn is end-of-time rejoicing for the righteous.

As is often the case with allegorical material, the narrative succeeds not so much in convincing the reader as in expressing in vivid terms what the reader already acknowledges.

     

Addendum T

 

The Corrupt Manager

 

A Parable to Challenge the Interpreter: Luke 16:1-13

In Luke chapters 14 to 18 we have a remarkable string of parables, interspersed with other sayings. All but two are from Luke’s special source.
   •  Luke 14:7-14, From Lower to Higher Place at a Feast
   •  Luke 14:15-24 || Matthew 22:1-10, All Kinds of People Invited to the Great Banquet
   •  Luke 14:25-33, Counting the Cost: the Tower Builder; the King Going to War
   •  Luke 15:1-7 || Matthew 18:12-14, The Lost Sheep
   •  Luke 15:8-10, The Lost Coin
   •  Luke 15:11-32, The Prodigal Son
   •  Luke 16:1-13, The Corrupt Manager
   •  Luke 16:19-31, The Rich Man and Lazarus
   •  Luke 17:7-10, No Claim to Merit for the Servant
   •  Luke 18:1-8, The Shamelessly Persistent Widow
   •  Luke 18:9-14, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
     

Perhaps none of the gospel parables resists attempts to make sense of it more stubbornly than the parable of the Corrupt Manager. It tells of the rich man who dismisses the manager of his estate for wasting his goods; whereupon the manager brazenly discounts the “accounts receivable” of his employer, in order to ingratiate himself with the debtors after he has been terminated. Then the manager is commended for his shrewdness.

Luke 16:1-8a  1Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master (kurios) is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master (kurios)?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8aAnd his [literally, the] master (kurios) commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; . . . 
    
. . . 8bfor the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.
     “9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
     “10Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?
     “13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

The interpretive problems begin almost immediately, with our trying to determine where the parable ends: at 16:7, so that the master or Lord (kurios) who commends the manager is Jesus? Or does the parable end at 16:8, so that the master (kurios) who commends the manager is the employer, the rich man in the parable? Since it makes little sense for the rich man to commend one who has despoiled him yet again, we may conclude that the parable ended at 16:7, and that the commendation of the manager comes from Jesus. But then we are puzzled not only by why Jesus told the parable, but by why he should commend such conduct.
     

Given the difficult parable, and the hopelessly confusing applications of the parable which are attached, we may try to sort things out with these observations:
   •  It is evident that the original “frame” for the corrupt manager’s portrait has been lost in transmission, with the result that its original intention is obscure, and difficult to restore with any assurance.
   •  The parable itself seems to have survived reasonably well. 
   •  It is reasonably certain that the parable was troublesome to Luke, and perhaps to his source as well; in a vain attempt to make sense of it, he has strung together a number of sayings, the effect of which is instead to compound the confusion:

  Application 1.  8bfor (Greek, hoti) the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.  It is hard to take these words seriously as the reason (Greek, hoti) for the parable, not only because it is a tautology to say that street-wise people are more street-wise than the children of light (presumably, the disciples of Jesus); but also because it abandons the presumed theme of the parable, which is the importance of decisive action of some sort, related perhaps to participating in the mission of Jesus. It is doubtful that Jesus spent his time giving advice to his followers on how to be a success “in dealing with their own generation” (succeeding in business or politics?).

  Application 2.  9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.  While this saying may be a valiant attempt by Luke or his source to make the best of an odd parable by “spiritualizing” the outcome of the unscrupulous maneuvers of the manager, it turns out to be very bad moral advice, as if somehow the end justifies the means.

  Application 3.  10Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?  These pious generalities seem remote from the morally counter-intuitive direction of the parable. Further, one might take exception to the notion of being faithful with dishonest wealth (verse 11), as if this were something virtuous. Indeed, the moral truism in verse 10 might not quite be true, if a person was a faithful and generous church member, but in his business engaged in false advertising or failed to observe good environmental procedures.

  Application 4.  13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” This Q saying ( || Matthew 6:24)  seems even more remote in meaning from the parable, and contradicts application 2 (verse 9).

Restoration of the “Frame”?

We may attempt to restore the frame in which this portrait first appeared, but only tentatively. It is arguable that the parable was originally told, not to reinforce some moral or religious truism, but to seek a decisive response from his listeners. Whether it was a call to discipleship, or (as earlier suggested) a demand for decisive action related to his mission in some way, Jesus spoke of an unscrupulous steward or manager who, for all his faults, had the merit of acting decisively in an unfavorable situation. The occasion when this challenge was put forth came and went, but the story was remembered, and at first retold, perhaps with a chuckle at how the rascal made out. The survival of the parable is thus testimony to the intrinsic attractiveness of a well told story, even if the conduct described was not to be emulated, and the original point was forgotten. 

Regrettably, this is only one of quite a few of Jesus’ parables where the frame was abandoned, and the portrait survived.

     

Revised August 31, 2003

 

Contents of Jesus Traditions

 

 

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