Parables: Surprise and the American Mind

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The Parable of the Dishonest Manager

16 He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ The master commended the dishonest manager [‘steward of unrighteousness’] for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth [‘mammon of unrighteousness’], so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.

Luke 16, ESV

Sometimes, we miss the surprise in a parable simply because we do not know the Bible well–take the example of The Good Samaritan. See the previous post (below).

Other times, we let the surprise distract us from the point,

…As in the passage above. For decades I have heard Christians exclaim, ‘What?! The master praised this servant???”

(Perhaps our American focus on our own possessions contributes to missing the point.  Another factor can be a technical mindset that insists on deciphering every detail, cf parable of the mustard seed)

Often, a parable has a single point and Jesus drives it home in verse 9. We may miss the word play in our modern versions–“mammon (wealth) of unrighteousness” plays off the “steward of unrighteousness” in verse 8.

In the light of God’s eternal realm, we are to share passing wealth to aid those in need, now.*

“It [worldly wealth] is to be used to win friends, no doubt by almsgiving….the giving of alms is a testimony to the reality of discipleship and self-denial…” I. Howard Marshall, NIGTC

*Another irony–while the unrighteous steward made friends with those who had wealth for this life, we are to “make friends” of the poor with eternal life in mind.

The Scandal of the Samaritan

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“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he [Jesus] said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor? 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.

Luke 10 (ESV)

The shock of Jesus’ parable of The Good Samaritan no longer makes its true impact on many Christians. In our day of biblical illiteracy, we often have little or no idea about the setting. And the fitting title, by which this parable is well-known, obscures the fact that this would have been scandalous to the ears of the listeners.

 If we remember the woman at the well (John 4) we have a clue about a Samaritan’s standing in that day when she asks Jesus, “How is that you, being a Jew, ask me a drink since I am a Samaritan woman? (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)” [v.9]

And we are given a key detail by this woman about one of the factors of this division in verse 20: “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”

 ‘This mountain’ was Mt. Gerizim where a temple to Yahweh was built in the 4th century B.C. by the Samaritans. For the Jew, the only true temple of worship was in Jerusalem.

The key factor in their division was ancestry. The Samaritans viewed themselves as descendents of the Northern Tribes of Israel.  We hear this in the woman’s words, “our father Jacob” (v. 12).

 But the Jews viewed them as unclean foreigners. This went back in history to Assyria’s conquest of the Northern Kingdom. When one nation conquered another, it was often the policy to re-settle the conquered land with other peoples (see 2 Kings 17:24 re: Samaria). This also resulted in inter-marriage with any remaining tribes of the original people.

Thus, when Jesus spoke of the priest and Levite and Samaritan, and asked which did the will of God, it was a real shocker. These two Jews, called by God for service to him, a priest and a Levite, disobeyed God’s command.

 Like the injured man, the priest was coming down from Jerusalem, the center of worship. “He would be returning from a period of duty in the temple to his home in the country (cf. 1:23), for Jericho was one of the principal country residences for priests.” [NIGTC, Marshall]

But it was the despised Samaritan who loved this injured man as himself, thus fulfilling the command of God. And it was the loving acts of this Samaritan of which Jesus spoke when he told the devout Jewish questioner, “You go, and do likewise.”

[Go and do as this Samaritan did, not as the Priest and Levite did.]

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A Mustard Seed

Reading the Gospel of Mark, the beginning chapters brought to mind an old, distorted view of Holy Scripture that can cause confusion for some. This is another failure to understand context. This troubles some modern, technical minds. We all find it hard to make the paradigm shift to appreciate the Semitic mind.

The problem: “a mustard seed which…is smaller than all seeds on earth…”

This tiny seed is less than half the size of a poppy seed. Still, a botanist or flower gardener can show us smaller seeds, but that is entirely irrelevant. Jesus is not speaking as a botanist. He tells us at the start (Mark 4:30) that this is a parable. In parables we find hyperbole, e.g. the camel (or rope?) that cannot pass through the eye of a sewing needle [forget the ‘urban legend’ of the gate] but may be swallowed instead of a gnat!

Understanding context keeps us from focusing on gnats.

For the technical mind, “all” must mean “all.” But for the literary mind of the writer, it is a device to convey the point, as in the opening of Mark: “Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him [John] and were all baptized…”

No one thinks that if we had the exact census numbers for Judea and Jerusalem of that day, that they would equal the number of all those  who went out to hear John or the number of baptisms.

Back to the mustard seed, this extended simile, a parable, makes a vivid point. And the Jewish proverb (Plummer), “Small as a mustard-seed,” is used by Jesus in comparison with the resulting bush to emphasize “the sheer miracle of the growth of the Kingdom” (Albright).