reader’s patience is requested in the fact that these Jesus
pages are in effect a kind of sub-Web, “piggy-backing” on the
principal Web, http://www.paulonpaul.org,
and thus that the As Paul Tells It . .
. designation at the top of each page is not quite accurate.
Traditions Home Page is readily accessible by clicking on Contents,
to be found at the top and bottom of each page.
of Jesus Traditions
Allegorical Material in Matthew
The Allegory of the King’s Marriage Feast
|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
• The servants (or slaves) sent out are prophets and
• 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
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
teeth = a favorite
expression of Matthew].
The gathering of the wheat into the barn is end-of-time rejoicing for
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.
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
• Luke 14:7-14, From Lower to Higher Place at
• 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
• 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
• Luke 18:1-8, The Shamelessly Persistent
• Luke 18:9-14, The Pharisee and the Tax
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.
difficult parable, and the hopelessly confusing applications of the
parable which are attached, we may try to sort things out with these
• 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
• 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,
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
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
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
Regrettably, this is only one of quite a few of Jesus’ parables where
the frame was abandoned, and the portrait survived.
August 31, 2003
of Jesus Traditions