Sunday, December 29, 2013

Rembrandt and the Parable of the Rich Fool of Luke 12:16-20 (Part 2)

A previous post noted how some things about paintings/parables are made extremely clear by a close viewing/reading of a painting/text, while other aspects of both visual and textual exegesis become clearer when we study carefully the various contexts of the parable/work of art. Other aspects, however—often by design—will be forever shrouded in mystery.

Think, for example, of this Russian parable (see V. N. Voloshinov/[Mikhail Bakhtin], “Discourse in Life and Discourse in Art”):

Two people are sitting in a room. They are both silent. Then one of them says, “Well!” The other does not respond.

No matter how carefully we do a “close reading” of that parable, we are lost without more context. To understand the parable more fully, we need what Voloshinov/Bakhtin calls the “extra-verbal context”: the “common spatial purview” of the interlocutors (they looked out a window and saw that it had begun to snow); their “common knowledge and understanding of the situation” (it was May, and spring was long overdue), and their “common evaluation of the situation” (they were tired of winter and bitterly disappointed by snowfall in May).

Other than what if anything we can glean from the narrative context, such detailed information is usually not available to readers of Jesus’ parables. Instead, parables often function like enthymemes: syllogistic arguments in which premises are assumed, not expressed directly, and these unspoken premises have to be filled in by readers/hearers of the parables. Compare this syllogism:

Socrates is a man
All men are mortal
Socrates is mortal

with this enthymeme that assumes the premise “all men are mortal”:

Socrates is a man; therefore, he is mortal.

Sometimes the unspoken premises are unclear, and different readers/viewers fill in the unspoken premises in different ways. Consider these three examples of different interpretations of the Rich Fool parable:

1. The rich man utters a soliloquy that repeatedly uses the first person singular in just three verses—“I” six times and “my” five times, in addition to speaking to his “soul.” Charles Hedrick sees the man’s numerous first-person references as being “quite natural in the context of a soliloquy.” +Joel B. Green, however, argues that people who engage in such soliloquies are “consistently portrayed negatively by Luke” (2:35; 5:21-22; 6:8; 9:46-47). Although Hedrick is more concerned about the parable of Jesus and Green is more concerned about the parable as found in Luke, I think Green has the better argument. The man focuses entirely on himself, takes no account of others, and, most importantly, takes no account of God. His resulting decision earns him the title “fool” from God (12:20)—in the only instance of God being a (direct) character in a parable of Jesus.

2. Interpreters also disagree about the farmer’s competence. The wealthy man already has storage barns, but this crop is so extraordinary that his existing facilities are insufficient. At what point did he recognize this extraordinary harvest? Was he incompetent, as Charles Hedrick suggests, because he did not see this unusually abundant crop until harvest time? A capable farmer would have seen it coming for weeks, so perhaps the parable caricatures the farmer (cf. how Jesus castigates the crowds for their lack of discernment about signs of the Kingdom: 11:14-32; 12:54-56). Klyne Snodgrass, however, “finds no evidence for such an interpretation.” The difference is that Hedrick interprets the aorist form of the verb εφορέω
  (euphoreō; “produced abundantly”) as designating that it was already harvest time before the farmer recognized his extraordinary crop.

3. Scholars also debate the perspicacity of the rich man because he decides to tear down existing barns to build newer, larger ones. Why not merely build additional facilities? Does this aspect also function to caricature the farmer, or in Brandon Scott’s words, “burlesque” the everyday, because the man misjudges both the harvest and the remedy? In addition, interpreters postulate different reasons for building the storage facilities. Perhaps the man’s intention is to hold back his harvest to help drive up the price of grain—or at least to store it until the price goes up—and to receive a higher price for it later.

Is he a bumbling fool or a shrewd agribusinessman? Is he a typical covetous member of the elite class seeking to hoard his wealth at the expense of others, or primarily an example of the uncertainty and fragility of life, a life that does not consist in the abundance of possessions? Green and Hedrick believe the farmer plans to store the crops to get a better price (Green, Luke, 490; Hedrick, Parables as Poetic Fictions, 156-57). Snodgrass argues that since those plans are not explicitly stated in the parable, such interpretations read “into the parable intentions that are not there” (Stories with Intent, 397-98).

The answer depends not one whether readers decide to fill in the gaps (or “missing premises”) of these parables—because every reader does in some way, whether they admit it or not. The answer depends on how readers decide to fill in the missing “social premises” of this enthymematic parable and what contexts one chooses to inform one’s reading:

  • The most obvious comparative text for this parable is the version found in Gospel of Thomas 63 (although the stories have significant differences). The Lukan story seems to focus on the use of one’s possessions, whereas the Thomas version functions more as an admonition against greed.
  • Some scholars point to biblical comparative texts that stress that hard work and diligence lead to wealth (Prov 10:4, 22) and that God rewards those efforts with wealth and possessions (Eccl 5:19). Yet, even texts that have a positive view about gaining wealth can warn those who do so to be careful: “One becomes rich through diligence and self-denial, and the reward allotted to him is this: when he says, ‘I have found rest, and now I shall feast on my goods!’ he does not know how long it will be until he leaves them to others and dies” (Sir 11:18-19; cf. 5:1, 3).
  • Other comparative texts, though, chastise the wicked as being always at ease and increasing in riches (Ps 73:12). Some comparative texts assume that the wealthy will become increasingly wicked while bemoaning the plight of the poor: “Keeping watch over riches wastes the flesh . . . . The poor man toils for a meager subsistence, and if ever he rests, he finds himself in want” (Sir 31:1-5). Still other texts condemn those who become wealthy through “unjust means,” who “have grown rich with accumulated goods,” and whose “granaries are (brim) full as with water”; such riches, we are told, “shall not endure” (1 Enoch 97:8-10).
  • Hedrick cites comparative texts about farming practices, for example, from Roman elites like Cato, Varro, and Cicero (who praises the “provident and industrious” farmer who always has storerooms and cellars filled with abundant provisions). Roman farming manuals contain admonitions that storage facilities should be used so that the farmer can wait until a more propitious time to sell his crops. Cato, for one, advises that a farmer should “have a well-built barn and storage room and plenty of vats for oil and wine, so that he may hold his products for good prices; it will redound to his wealth, his self-respect, and his reputation” (On Agriculture 3.2).
  • Proverbs 11:26, on the other hand, says that “people curse those who hold back grain.”

Using comparative texts, while helpful in filling in the “gaps,” raises difficulties. What types of comparative texts are appropriate? Do we use comparative texts to ascribe a profit motive to the rich man? Is it permissible to use Roman farming manuals that stem from the elite in society, who obviously have very different views about wealth than the non-elite like that of the *“peasant artisan” Jesus? Does it matter for the comparative texts we choose that our story says nothing about either the farmer’s diligence or acquisition of wealth through unjust means?

Thus, the quest for comparative texts often leaves the context ambiguous, and it drives us to examine the social and cultural texture of the Rich Fool parable to see if questions about the character of the rich man can be answered more fully.

I won’t summarize the arguments in my published article, but, in brief, the first-century cultural setting of this parable demands—from the perspective of “peasant artisans” such as Jesus—that the rich man be seen in a negative light even before his condemnation from God. Although the parable never says directly that the man wants to drive up prices, Green’s observation is apt: “Given the subsistence economy of the peasant population surrounding him, this need for increased personal storage space not directly related to his agricultural activity must have seemed odd in the extreme, if not utterly monstrous.” What elites like Cicero might deem good agribusiness practices actually have “detrimental consequences for the peasants and tenants who are [the Rich Fool’s] neighbors.”

Because of the enthymematic nature of parables, not all questions can be answered through analyses of the parables themselves or through comparative texts or even through cultural analyses. The parables’ often deliberate ambiguity continues to “leave the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought,” as C. H. Dodd famously put it.

The reality is that such debates about cultural contexts and comparative “texts” also apply to interpretations of the painting by Rembrandt that is often entitled “The Rich Fool.” The next entry will turn to those fascinating debates, including whether Rembrandt’s painting actually about the Rich Fool.


*I realize that “peasant artisan” is a problematic term, but I agree with Doug Oakman that we haven’t yet found a better term to describe the economic status of the majority of people in first-century Palestine.

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