Tuesday, February 17, 2015

More Parables

In Matthew 24, Jesus is engaged in a conversation concerning the coming of the Son of Man. He concludes with a parable, in which a master goes away leaving a servant in charge of his household. Two scenarios unfold: one in which the servant is faithful to his master, and is rewarded; another in which the servant is ‘wicked,’ mistreating his fellow slaves, and associating with drunkards. The master returns at an unexpected hour, and has the servant punished by being cut into pieces and assigned a place with the hypocrites, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

When we read parables such as this one, we tend to assume that the principle character – often a king or wealthy master – is God, and that the parables tell us something about what God is like. Here, God will reward good behaviour and punish wicked behaviour. But it is not the characters in Jesus’ stories that more-fully reveal what God is like to us: it is Jesus himself who reveals to us what God is like. God, Jesus himself, and others might turn up in Jesus’ stories, in a variety of roles in different parables.

Jesus was repeatedly accused of being wicked, of misleading the people, of hostility towards the righteous. And at the coming of the Son of Man – no-one knows the hour, but it is approaching, and will come in darkness – Jesus will be cut in pieces (in fulfilment of prophecy), and assigned a grave with the wicked (in fulfilment of prophecy); sent to the realm of the dead, while his friends are left to weep in despair.

This is not a parable to show us what God is like, but to show us how the world works – its system of reward and punishment – and what it will do to Jesus. It is a story about the coming of the Son of Man, not as angry master but as (one who knows that he will soon be the) victim of violence.

In the following chapter, Jesus tells three more parables. In the first, five wise bridesmaids refuse to enter-into a relationship defined by the debt-system with five foolish bridesmaids. This is a parable that contrasts choices that result in ‘life’ or in ‘death.’ Choosing to place yourself in debt to another – or, indeed, placing others in debt to you – results in being shut out from life. Here we need to remind ourselves of the context in which Jesus is telling these parables: the coming of the Son of Man, which will not only be at an unexpected hour, but also in an unexpected way. If the bridegroom in this parable – like the wicked servant in the previous parable – is a veiled reference to himself, then his coming will be his coming death. But Jesus approaches that moment neither indebted to anyone not holding anyone in debt, and therefore even death will no shut him out from life, despite its best efforts, despite delaying him. And he urges his listeners to do likewise.

In the second, Jesus again tells of a powerful man who goes away, entrusting money to three servants. As the story unfolds, we discover that the man is a harsh man, who takes for himself what belongs to others. Two of his servants act in accordance with the master’s values, and are rewarded. One tries to distance himself from his master, and is punished. The point of the parable is not to show us what God is truly like – unjust, prone to rage – but to point out to us how the world works. To those who have, more keeps being added. Those who already have little, even what they have is taken from them. Kings reward their servants and citizens for reflecting the values of the king. If a ruler whose empire is built on the exploitation of others rewards actions consistent with the empire he is building, what sort of behaviour will a righteous king reward? When we look at Jesus himself, we have to conclude that the investment and reward of the kingdom of heaven is the investment and reward of forgiveness.

(This parable is even more striking in the account of Luke 19, where the powerful man, who has had himself declared king, has those who refuse to recognise him slaughtered in his presence. In the following verse, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem, where he will be slaughtered.)

In the third parable, Jesus contrasts ‘sheep’ and ‘goats’ – those who live counter-culturally to a dent-system, self-giving with no hope of reward; and those who live in accordance with a debt-system, giving nothing where there is no hope of a return. The sheep are rewarded – the rewards of forgiveness, the benefits of the cancellation of every debt. The goats are punished. Surely here is evidence of God adopting a retributive or punitive justice? Yet the question remains: is this a punishment determined by God, or a punishment determined by another, a punishment chosen by the refusal to reject the divine plea to reject the debt-system? Giving us free choice limits God’s own freedom; and yet God uses his freedom relentlessly to call us.

These, then, are not simply parables about the kingdom of heaven, but parables that point to the stark contrast between two kingdoms, as we move inevitably towards the crucifixion.

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