Gospel Parables – The Challenge
A parable of Jesus is, more often than not, a gauntlet thrown down: a challenge. Always behind the challenge is Jesus' God - a God bent on the salvation of humankind - and Jesus' concern for the establishment of the rule of God. We look at some forceful parabolic challenges.
The Labourers in the Vineyard 20:1-16
The parable of Mt 20:1-16 originally ended at v 15 and the key to it is the last phrase of that verse: 'because I am generous.' It is this generosity that explains the apparently capricious conduct of the householder. For, indeed, at first sight, it does seem unfair that all the workers were to receive the same wage. But when we understand his motive we judge his conduct very differently. A denarius represented a day's wage, just enough to support a family; anything less, and especially payment for a single hour, would be inadequate. It is because he had pity on them that the owner called them to the vineyard in the first place, and it is because he has pity on them that he pays them all, the full wage. There 'is nothing arbitrary in his conduct - it is the action of a man who is full of compassion. So, too, does God act, for God is all goodness and mercy. This is the message of the parable.
But if we look again we see that it is two-tiered, that it is made up of two episodes. First we have the hiring of the labourers and instruction about their payment (vv 1-8), and then follows the indignation of the recipients who feel themselves cheated (vv 9-15). It is characteristic of such parables that the emphasis falls on the second part. Because that is so here, we should realise that the parable is aimed at people who resemble the murmurers. The fact is: God is not 'fair'! The parable shows what God is like, full of compassion for the poor - and for sinners, poorest of the poor. It points out how wrong-headed it is to be scandalised by his great goodness. Matthew is hitting at some 'begrudgers’ within his community. God's prodigal goodness is an affront to human level-headedness. God's love of sinners is an insult to the pious.
The Wedding Feast Matthew 12:1-14
Drawing their inspiration from Isa 25:6-10 (among other passages) Jesus' contemporaries envisaged the arrival of God's reign in terms of a banquet, an eschatological celebration. Jesus addressed his parable of the Wedding Feast to those people (in the present context, the chief priests and elders) who considered that, belonging to Israel, there was no need for them to reply to the invitation - they had reserved places. Emphasis is on the invitation and its acceptance or rejection. Like the vineyard (Mt 21:28-32, 33-43) the banquet is - a metaphor. The reference in v 7 is to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Matthew echoes an early (but mistaken) Christian interpretation of the event: it happened because some in Israel rejected the invitation to the kingdom and maltreated the messengers - especially Jesus. The 'slaves' of vv 8-10 refer to apostles whose preaching gathers together all and sundry. The 'wedding hall' of v 10 is the Church, the community of those who have hearkened to the good news.
Matthew's final scene (vv 11-13) is really a separate parable added to the first. (This explains the incongruity that people dragged in off the street, v 10, are blamed for not being properly dressed for a wedding, v 12.). It is Matthew's warning to the Church. The Church is held together neither by family ties nor by an external structure, but by active, personal and continual response to God's word: work of a lifetime. The 'wedding robe' of vv 11-12 is a symbol of this response, that is, of a life led in conformity with God's word as it has been revealed in Christ. The condemnation of v 13 is a warning to Christians that they, too, like the religious leaders of Israel, can fail to answer God's invitation. The observation of v 14 ('For many are called, but few are chosen') which does not really fit vv 1-10 or 11-13, does suit Matthew's general intention, a reminder of the need to respond to God's call. God's invitation is to all ('many'), but only those who truly respond will become the 'chosen,' the elect. Mere membership of the Church is not enough. Response is in doing the will of the Father (Mt 7:2 I).
The Astute Manager Luke 16:1-8
The parable of the Astute Manager was one which Jesus' hearers would have readily understood. They would have appreciated the humour of his bold characterisation: his putting forward of a disreputable man as a spur to resolute decision and action. The manager (steward) was accused of embezzlement. Until he produced his books he had a breathing space. He rewrote contracts - in favour of his master's creditors and in view of a kickback. It was a neat scam! The master (who had to honour the contracts duly made in his name) grudgingly applauded the resourceful conduct of his unscrupulous manager. Jesus would wish that his disciples show as much resourcefulness in God's business as men of the world do in their own affairs. Outside of a Jewish environment the parable quickly raised the problem of how this dishonest man could be, in any sense, an example. The verses 10-13 are meant to answer the difficulty raised by the steward's conduct: he is no longer a challenge but a warning. Luke is more precise. In v 9 ('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'). The crafty manager is brought forward to teach Christians the wise use of money: to make friends through it (by almsgiving) so that at death, when money fails, their benefactors can welcome them into eternal dwellings. In Luke's eyes, to use money wisely is to give it to the poor and so ensure one's eternal lot. The hazard of the rich is linked to the horizon on which their eyes are fixed: 'where your treasure is, there will your heart be also' (I2:34). They become incapable of looking beyond this present life. Luke, obviously, has to do with a Christian community wherein many are wealthy. And that worries him.
Dives and Lazarus Luke 16:19-31
If the Astute Manager (in its extended form 16:1-13) is to teach the disciples the proper use of money, Dives and Lazarus (16:19-31) is to point out to the Pharisees the danger in which they stand by selfishly hoarding their wealth (v 14) - Luke has Christian 'Pharisees' in mind. Dives (the man is anonymous; the traditional name comes from the Latin dives; rich man) was a worldling who did not look beyond the good things of this life (v 19). In sharp contrast is the crippled beggar Lazarus. He would have been glad to eat - if they had been offered to him - the pieces of bread on which the guests wiped their fingers and then dropped on the floor (vv 20-21). The rich man might (according to Luke's understanding of v 9) have made of Lazarus a friend to welcome him into the eternal habitations. It is important to observe that nowhere is it suggested that Dives' wealth is ill-gotten nor that Lazarus was his victim. The sin of Dives is that, cushioned by his lavish life-style, he was simply oblivious to the presence of a beggar at his gate. The contrast between the two in the next life is more pronounced - but they have exchanged roles.
Jesus' story reflects the current development of the Jewish notion of Sheol (abode of the dead) in the wake of belief in resurrection and retribution after death. In this Jewish scenario reflected in vv 22-26, we are not given anything resembling a 'topography of hell.' Similarly, in the second part, the reaction of Dives is described from an ordinary point of view: his present sorry state had at last opened his eyes and he was understandably desirous that his brothers should escape his fate (vv 27-28). Abraham answered that the five, who evidently led much the same sort of life as their unhappy brother, have 'Moses and the prophets,' that is, the Old Testament. A text of Isaiah meets precisely the situation in question: what God asks of his people is 'to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him (Isa 58:7). The man made one more bid (Lk 16:30). Surely, if Lazarus were to come back from the dead his brothers would at last be moved and repent. The reply is that a miracle will not help those who have made no use of the means God has put at their disposal.
The Good Samaritan Luke 10:25-37
The introduction (vv 2.5-29) is essential for an understanding of the Good Samaritan. The lawyer's question - 'Who is my neighbour?'- was meant to embarrass Jesus; he, adroitly, put the onus on his questioner, who found that his reply (from Deut 6:5 and Lev 19-18.18) won the approval of Jesus. So the lawyer tried again and asked for a definition of 'neighbour.' This time he must have felt that the 'Master' would be hard put to answer for he had raised what was, in fact, a much-discussed problem. All would agree that, even in the broadest interpretation, the term should be limited to Jews and proselytes (converts to Judaism). It is expected that Jesus, too, will respect the broad limits; it remains to be seen whether he will narrow them appreciably.
Though it is not explicitly stated, it is certainly implied that the man mugged on the road to Jericho was a Jew (v 30). His nationality is not expressly mentioned because the very point of the parable is that the lawyer's question is not going to be answered in terms of nationality or race. Priest and Levite refused to become involved in what, one way or another, was sure to be a messy business (vv 31-32). Jesus does not accuse them of callousness, he does not pass judgement on their conduct. They are men who lack the courage to love; dare we say that they represent the common man? After priest and levite, it might have been expected that the third traveller would turn out to be a Jewish layman; the bias would be anti-clerical. The drama is that the third man, the hero of the story, is one of the despised Samaritans. He has been designedly chosen to bring out the unselfishness of love. The man applied first-aid to the wounded traveller and carried him to an inn; and he did not consider that his obligations had thereby ended. Whatever a cynic might have thought of his conduct so far, the man turns out to be very much the realist. He did not naively presume on the charity of the inn-keeper but paid him, in advance, to look after the victim.At the end, Jesus got the lawyer to answer his own question. Yet, did he really answer the original question? In v 29 he asked: 'Who is my neighbour?' while the question that Jesus puts in v 36 is rather: 'To whom am I neighbour?' The lawyer was concerned with the object of love and his question implied a limitation: my neighbour is one who belongs to such and such a group. Jesus looked to the subject of love: which of the three had behaved as neighbour? The lawyer's question was not answered because it was a mistaken question. One cannot determine theoretically who ones neighbour is because love is not theory but practice. One's neighbour is any person who needs one’s help, says the parable. The wounded man was neighbour to the priest and levite quite as much as he was to the Samaritan, but while they would have theorised in the manner of the lawyer, he acted. The traveller was neighbour to all three; the Samaritan alone was neighbour in return. The lawyer had learned his lesson and answered correctly (v 37). Though the final recommendation -'Go, and do likewise' - was addressed to the lawyer it holds a message and a warning for all Christians. We must not pause to ask ourselves: 'is this person really my neighbour?' Such a question has no place in Christian life. Christian charity knows no bounds and oversteps all man-made limits. The pity is that there are so few 'Samaritans’ among us. The Good Samaritan makes painfully clear that parable is dangerous - if one hearkens.