Monday, March 20, 2017

The Rich Man and Lazarus (part 24): Geoffrey Chaucer (part 1)

Geoffrey Chaucer

As noted previously, many other important interpretations of the rich man and Lazarus parable could be found in English literature during this period, such as Handlyng Synne (214.6635-6720), The Pricke of Conscience (84.3062-66) or William Langland’s Piers Plowman (B.16.252-71). Piers Plowman also discusses the parables of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (B.1.183-87), the Unjust Steward (B.6.229-30), and the Talents (B.6.240-48; Wailes 1986: 41-42). The most famous work during this time period, however, is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, one of the greatest masterpieces in English literature. Chaucer was the most important English poet before Shakespeare, but his career also included roles as a diplomat and civil servant under three British kings.

Chaucer was born into a prominent family in London—his father and grandfather were successful wine merchants—which was also involved in government service. The first definite record of his life comes from 1357, where he is listed as a page (under the name of “Galfrido Chaucer”) in the household expense accounts of Elizabeth, the Countess of Ulster and wife of Lionel, one of the sons of King Edward III. Chaucer then served as a yeoman (a “valettus”) to Lionel in a military expedition to France, where Chaucer was captured during an unsuccessful siege of Reims (the king ransomed him for £16). This expedition was the first of many journeys that Chaucer would undertake to Europe on diplomatic missions (beginning with a trip to Spain in 1366 and continuing with at least two missions to Italy and several trips to France) and he was granted a lifetime annuity in 1367 by Edward III as a squire of the king’s household (a title that designates a person on a commercial mission), an annuity of £10 (and a pitcher of wine a day for life) by John the Gaunt in 1374 (which he surrendered in 1388 but were reinstated by King Richard II in 1394 and in 1397), and various other payments for his services on the kings’ missions.. Chaucer also served in many other roles: He was a customs controller in the Port of London who collected export duties on hides, skins, and wool (1374-1386), was a Justice of the Peace for Kent (1385-1389), attended Parliament as a “knight of the shire” of Kent, and was appointed by the king as “clerk of the works” (1389-1391), duties which including oversight of all aspects of building and repair projects (Brown 2011: xii-3). Upon his death, Chaucer was only the second non-royal to be buried within Westminster Abbey, in a section that would soon be named the “Poet’s Corner.”

The Canterbury Tales is the best known and most popular of Chaucer’s writings. At first glance, it appears to be merely a collection of fictional short stories of various pilgrims who make their way along the fifty-four miles from Southwark Cathedral in London to Canterbury to worship at the shrine of Saint Thomas. These brilliant tales, however, integrate the sacred and the profane, spiritual insights and earthy humor, truth and deception, and numerous literary genres in poetic form, and they display a philosophical and psychological depth that creates an unforgettable band of travelers (see Lerer 2006: 243-4). These characters interact in a familiar setting. Chaucer’s many diplomatic trips, for example, evidently followed the same journey on which he would send his pilgrims in in these tales. 

The language and content of the Bible permeated most literature of the Middle Ages, and Chaucer’s works are no exception:
To begin by trying to assess the place of the Bible in medieval culture is like trying to apprehend the oxygen in the air we breathe. In the liturgy, in proverbs and idioms of common speech, in the language of the law and of political thought, through dramatic performances in churchyards and in village squares, in the art of the cathedrals and of parish churches, for high born and low born alike, the Bible was everywhere; it was a constant component of the mental life of medieval men and women (Besserman 1988: 4).
There are hundreds of allusions and citations of the Bible in Chaucer’s works, but these works demonstrate a significant amount of flexibility in citing and using the Bible that might seem surprising (see Whitehead 2009: 134-51).

Chaucer most likely began work on The Canterbury Tales around 1387, and the work remained unfinished at his death thirteen years later. Only 24, some incomplete (e.g., the tales of the Cook and the Squire), of an estimated 120 tales that Chaucer planned to write are found collectively in a number of manuscripts (Hirsh 2003:43; Chaucer 2008: xx). The general prologue introduces us to a number of pilgrims, such as the Parson, a godly and poor country cleric who is rich in “holy thought and work.” A learned man, he diligently seeks to preach “Christ’s own gospel,” is patient in bad times, and, instead of haranguing his parishioners to tithe is more likely to give his own income and goods to his parishioners who are in need. The parson lives a life worthy to be emulated by his flock; he is holy and virtuous but shows pity to sinners and leads others to heaven by his example. This idealized portrait represents, for Chaucer, “the perfection of religion” (Hirsh 2003: 49), someone who practices what he preaches. On the other hand, the friar in The Summoner’s Tale is similar in some respects to Friar Hubert who narrates The Friar’s Tale. Hubert is described as a wanton and festive man, who gave penance easily when he knew that he could gain financially from it, “was the finest beggar of his house,” and “always got a farthing ere he went.” 

The next post will discuss Chaucer's use of the rich man and Lazarus parable.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

A blog post about parable books by Anthony Le Donne at The Jesus Blog:

A blog post by Anthony Le Donne at The Jesus Blog:

Update Your Parables Bibliography

Readers of this blog know that I have a very high opinion of Stories with Intent by Klyne Snodgrass. And, yes, I am willing to admit that part of my reasoning is that I like saying the name Klyne Snodgrass. SWI is still the most comprehensive book on the parables ever written. But while you were binge-watching Stranger Things the topic of parables has become a trend.

David Gowler, The Parables after Jesus: Their Imaginative Receptions across Two Millennia

Ruben Zimmermann, Puzzling the Parables of Jesus: Methods and Interpretation

R. Steven Notley and Ze'ev Safrai, Parables of the Sages

John P. Meier A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume V: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables

Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: the Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi
For a comparison of these last two books by Brant Pitre (who studied under both authors) see:

So what am I missing? Any other recent treatments of Jesus' parables or parables in the ANE more generally?


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Review of The Parables After Jesus

I am grateful to Jake Raabe for the very thoughtful review of The Parables after Jesus.

I have a shelf on one my bookcases dedicated to the parables of Jesus. A variety of books sit on this shelf: a volume of allegorical interpretations from the Church Fathers, a historical-literary approach to fables in the ancient near-east, a lengthy exegetical commentary on the parables of Jesus, a speculative and skeptical assessment of what Jesus “actually said,” a devotional volume, and so on. I have these because, as David B Gowler argues in the introduction and conclusion to The Parables After Jesus: Their Imaginative Receptions Across Two Millennia, the full meaning and significance of a parable is found in its continued reading, interpretation, and application by the community it was given to. 
The Parables After Jesus is a study of this reception history. It provides an overview of how different interpreters understood Jesus’ parables throughout Christian history. Though this volume can be used as a sort of encyclopedia (a handy reference for, say, learning how Tertullian used the parables, of how the Wheat and Tares has been used throughout history), it functions best as a type of historical narrative. It records Christianity’s response to Jesus’ most famous teachings from the imaginative allegories of the Church Fathers through the elaborate four-fold interpretations of the Middle Ages to the historical-critical leanings of the Reformers to the decline of biblical literacy and rise of skepticism in the Modern era. This journey through church history with the parables is fascinating. 
Part of the fascination in this volume is the wide variety of interpreters and mediums of interpretation Gowler brings in. Entries range from the great Christian theologians such as Augustine and Luther to the novels of Flannery O’ Connor to the paintings and artwork of William Blake and Thomas Hart Benton to South-American Liberation theologians. The range of interpreters even goes so far as to include Islamic and Buddhist interpreters of the parables. Given the massive variety of people, times, and mediums covered, it’s surprising how well Gowler explicates each source and interacts with recent scholarship. It’s almost hard to believe that one person could write with equal proficiency on the writings of the Church Fathers, Victorian artwork, and modern novels. Serious work was put into this volume. 
Perhaps the amount of work Gowler put into this book makes sense in light of his reason for writing it. As he states in the book’s conclusion: 
“Each interpreter has his or her unique context, point of view, and conceptual system, and each one responds to Jesus’s parables differently… All interpreters must realize that their interpretations depend in some way on the interpretations of those who preceded them…. My own perspective is that understanding should lead to action- ‘if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing’- that there should be both a responsive and responsible ethical moment in the act of reading, one that leads to action in a number of realms.” (256) 
This focus- quality scholarship stemming from a desire to see Jesus’s parables provoke action- makes The Parables after Jesus a fantastic resource for any interested in the Bible or Church History. Those in an academic setting will appreciate Gowler’s meticulous and thorough account the reception history of an integral part of Jesus’ public ministry. Pastors and ministers will appreciate Gowler’s multitude of examples of how parables have been interpreted, preached, and represented in a variety of settings. This book has my highest recommendation. I welcome it to my parable-shelf.
Some reviewers of reception history scholarship, not just mine, do not understand the importance of the history of interpretation of the Bible both inside and outside the church and/or scholarship. Raabe makes a cogent and succinct case for the importance of reception history, which is, I think, the best and most critical part of his review.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Rich Man and Lazarus (part 23): John Gower (part 3)

Back to John Gower's Confessio Amantis:

The Confessor continues in great detail—greater detail than in the Lukan parable—of how much distress the impoverished Lazarus was in; not only was he starving but he was freezing as well, so sick that he could no longer more from where he lay (6.1006-1009). As Lazarus lay there dying and unable to move, the Confessor states:

The houndes comen fro the halle,
 Wher that this sike man was falle,
 And as he lay ther forto die,
 The woundes of his maladie
 Thei licken forto don him ese.

This section indicates that the dogs licked Lazarus’s sores because they pitied him and were trying to help. But the Confessor then says that Lazarus was so “full of such desese [disease]” that even this gesture of help was not enough to save him. So his soul “passeth” from his body, and God, the one “whom nothing overpasseth,” (6.1020) took Lazarus to heaven to Abraham’s “barm” [bosom], and had everything that his heart desired (6.1025).

Then is happened, “as it should,” the rich man suddenly died and went straight to hell. The “fiend” (i.e., Satan) dragged him into the fire, and as he suffered immensely from the intense pain of the flames, he looks up to heaven and sees Lazarus enthroned with Abraham. In response, he “preide” (prayed) to Abraham:

Send Lazar doun fro thilke Sete,
 And do that he his finger wete
 In water, so that he mai droppe
 Upon my tunge, forto stoppe
 The grete hete in which I brenne (6.1041-5).

Although Abraham responds first by calling the rich man, “Mi Sone” (my son), he is adamant that this great reversal had occurred because Lazarus in his lifetime had done “gret penance” and the rich man is deservedly punished with everlasting pain for his sin of sating his bodily lusts, whereas Lazarus receives the reward of endless joy in heaven:

Mi Sone, thou thee miht avise
 And take into thi remembrance,
 Hou Lazar hadde gret penance,
 Whyl he was in that other lif,
 Bot thou in al thi lust jolif
 The bodily delices soghtest:
 Forthi, so as thou thanne wroghtest,
 Nou schalt thou take thi reward
 Of dedly peine hierafterward
 In helle, which schal evere laste;
 And this Lazar nou ate laste
 The worldes peine is overronne,
 In hevene and hath his lif begonne
 Of joie, which is endeles (6.1048-1061).

The rich man was being punished in hell for his delicacy/gluttony, and his pain was eternal; he would never escape the fires of hell. Lazarus, on the other hand, was just beginning his eternal life of joy, after his painful life on earth. Abraham also refuses to send Lazarus to warn the rich man’s father—unmentioned in the Lukan parable—and the rich man’s five brothers, who all dwell in the same house, to warm them of the fate that awaits so they can avoid the eternal punishment the rich man is suffering:

I wolde preie an other grace.
For I have yit of brethren fyve,
That with mi fader ben alyve
Togedre duellende in on hous;
To whom, as thou art gracious
I preie that thou woldest sende
Lazar, so that he mihte wende
To warne hem hou the world is went,
That afterward thei be noght schent
Of suche peines as I drye.

As in the parable, Abraham refuses, because the rich man’s father and brothers had Moses and the prophets to warn them, and refuses again, when the rich man says that someone comes back from the dead to warn them.

The Confessor then delivers the moral of the story: Amans should embrace the truth of the parable. The sin of delicacy/gluttony occurs when those who have do not share with those who have not, just like the rich man, who had grown rich from the labor of others, would not even share a crumb of bread with poor, starving Lazarus:

This tale, as Crist himself it tolde,
Thou schalt have cause to beholde,
To se so gret an evidence,
Wherof the sothe experience
Hath schewed openliche at ije,
That bodili delicacie
Of him which yeveth non almesse
Schal after falle in gret destresse.
And that was sene upon the riche:
For he ne wolde unto his liche  1120
A Crumme yiven of his bred,
Thanne afterward, whan he was ded,
A drope of water him was werned.
Thus mai a mannes wit be lerned
Of hem that so delices taken;
Whan thei with deth ben overtaken,
That erst was swete is thanne sour.
Bot he that is a governour
Of worldes good, if he be wys,
Withinne his herte he set no pris  1130
Of al the world, and yit he useth
The good, that he nothing refuseth,
As he which lord is of the thinges.
The Nouches and the riche ringes,
The cloth of gold and the Perrie
He takth, and yit delicacie
He leveth, thogh he were al this.
The beste mete that ther is
He ett, and drinkth the beste drinke;
Bot hou that evere he ete or drinke,  1140
Delicacie he put aweie,
As he which goth the rihte weie
Noght only forto fiede and clothe
His bodi, bot his soule bothe.
Bot thei that taken otherwise
Here lustes, ben none of the wise;
And that whilom was schewed eke,
If thou these olde bokes seke,
Als wel be reson as be kinde,
Of olde ensample as men mai finde.  

Jesus himself told this parable, which heightens the importance of the moral message. The sin of gluttony/delicacy involves the lack of sharing one’s possessions with the poor, but the critical issue is not to “prize” (6.1130) those earthly possessions—to stand “above” them (he lord over them)—and also to use them to help others who are in need. People should not only feed and clothe their bodies but also feed and clothe their souls. At this point, the Confessor cites the emperor Nero as another negative example of delicacy and narrates a story about his excesses: to find out which activity was best for digestion, Nero had three men of eat and drink with him at a banquet. He then ordered one man to ride a horse, the second to sleep, and the third to take a walk. Then Nero had them killed and their stomachs cut open to see which activity was better for digestion. Since the man who had walked had better digestion, Nero started talking walks after his banquets. The Confessor concludes that this and other examples of Nero’s inordinate depravity means that people will always read about the drunkenness and lusts of Nero (6.1222-25).

As Peter Nicholson notes, Gower does thus not condemn wealth. Instead, he condemns the misuse of and lust for wealth to the exclusion of others. If the rich man had only helped Lazarus and others in need, he would not have been condemned. His interpretation indicates that renunciation of wealth is not necessary; neither is the complete avoidance of worldly pleasures (“bodily delices”). They should be used wisely, however, with a concern not only for the needs of the body but also for the needs of the soul. The final word is that one should enjoy pleasure wisely, unlike the rich man, Nero, and others who pursue pleasure without restraint (Nicholson 2005: 323).

Gower’s use of the Rich Man and Lazarus parable is not unique in this period. A comparable interpretation in the context of gluttony may be found in Robert of Brunne’s Handlyng Synne (214.6635-6720), but interesting divergent interpretations are found in such texts as The Pricke of Conscience (84.3062-66), William Langland’s Piers Plowman (B.16.252-71), or Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Summoner’s Tale.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Rich Man and Lazarus (part 22): John Gower (part 2)

Confessio Amantis

For some reason I often type "Gowler" instead of "Gower" in this section. 

The sixth book of Gower’s Confessio Amantis begins with the “Confessor” (Genius) noting that gluttony is “Sin’s great and awful origin” (6.1) and it has so many branches that he will treat only two, although he mentions other aspects of gluttony in passing (Gower had discussed five aspects of gluttony in his Mirroir de l’Omme). Both drunkenness and delicacy are compared and contrasted with love. The drunken person and someone in love, for example, could be described as “bewhaped and assorted and having “loste his wit” (6.80-82), although drunkenness is a choice and being in love is not (6.90-92; cf. 6.117). The Confessor begins with drunkenness, which “turns a wise man to a fool” (6.18). Amans admits that he is intoxicated, but he is drunk with love instead of alcohol (e.g., 6.112-32). The primary issue is not to allow (love) drunkenness to separate the mind and its thoughts from reality:

Thenk wel, hou so it the befalle,
And kep thi wittes that thou hast,
And let hem noght be drunke in wast 6.314-16). 

The Confessor then notes that the god Jupiter has two different “drinks of love,” one is sour and the other is sweet. Cupid, the god of love, is blind, however, and sometimes mistaken serves the wrong “drink of love.” It is only through prayer that one’s thirst might be satisfied, and the Confessor cites a story about Bacchus (the son of Jupiter and the god of wine) who was dying of thirst in the desert. He prayed to Jupiter, a “wether” (ram) appeared, it caused fresh water to spring out of the ground, and Bacchus was saved (6.396-425). The moral of the story is that one should pray for God’s grace (6.440-445). The Confessor also offers stories of the negative effects of drunkenness, such as Ovid’s tale of the wedding feast of Pirithous and Hippodamia (Metamorphoses Book 12)

The second aspect of gluttony, “delicacy,” also pertains to love as well as material possessions and pleasures (e.g., the one who is “delicate” (gluttonus) in love also is not faithful to his wife; no matter her excellent qualities, he is never satisfied; 6.677-686).

The attachment to excessively fine or exotic food is not possible for those in poverty (6.619), which makes it easier to condemn than drunkenness. Such fine foods also are not good for one’s health: “comun mete” (common meat) is better for one’s “sustenance” and “governance” (6.649-652). Likewise, delicacy in love can also damage one’s health (6.665-66). To make sure that Amans understands what delicacy is, the Confessor illustrates delicacy with the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, since it is not a “fable and is a “tale accordant unto this”:

Crist seith: "Ther was a riche man,
 A mihti lord of gret astat,
 And he was ek so delicat
 Of his clothing, that everyday
 Of pourpre and bisse he made him gay,
 And eet and drank therto his fille
 After the lustes of his wille,
 As he which al stod in delice
 And tok non hiede of thilke vice.

This mighty lord with a great estate ate and drank his fill. Then a deadly-hungry Lazarus appeared at the rich man’s gate and asked for food (“axed mete”), a direct request for help not mentioned in the Lukan parable:

 And as it scholde so betyde,
 A povere lazre upon a tyde
 Cam to the gate and axed mete:
 Bot there mihte he nothing gete
 His dedly hunger forto stanche;

The rich man, who had a full paunch from all the food and drink that he had lusted after, would not deign to speak a word to Lazarus and offered him not even a crumb. The man’s lack of charity toward the poor is thus made even more explicit, because Lazarus could not survive without alms from the rich man:

 For he, which hadde his fulle panche
 Of alle lustes ate bord,
 Ne deigneth noght to speke a word,
 Onliche a Crumme forto yive,
 Wherof the povere myhte live
 Upon the yifte of his almesse (6.986-1005).

Terrence Tiller translates the above quote into modern English:

A mighty lord of great estate
There was, who was so delicate
In clothing, that he made him gay
In lawn [linen] and purple every day;
And he would eat and drink his fill
After the pleasures of his will –
Like one who, wrapped in luxury,
Gives not a fig for gluttony.
It happened that a leper stood,
One day, before his gate; and food
Was all the unhappy wretch’s prayer.
He did not get a morsel there,
To keep his dreadful hunger still;
That other, who had gorged his fill
On all the pleasures of the board,
Deigned not to answer, nor afford
Even a single crumb whereby
The wretched leper might not die
But live upon his charity.

There are a number of developments so far in Gower’s retelling of the parable, but most of them are insignificant (e.g., Lazarus is definitively a leper, not just “covered with sores”). The major development is that the rich man—who had a “full paunch” due to his excess—refused a specific request from Lazarus for a morsel of food (he “axed mete” = asked for food), so his lack of charity toward the poor is made even more explicit. 

The next post will continue the examination of how the “Confessor” elaborates the parable.

The Rich Man and Lazarus (part 24): Geoffrey Chaucer (part 1)

Geoffrey Chaucer As noted previously, many other important interpretations of the rich man and Lazarus parable could be found in Engl...