Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins: John Everett Millais

I’m taking a bit of a break from John Chrysostom and the parables to highlight the work of an undergraduate student at Oxford College of Emory University. One of the students in my “Portraits of Jesus” course this semester wrote his exegetical paper on the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Mt. 25:1-13) and two images created by John Everett Millais about the parable. He asked to remain anonymous, but he is a second-year Linguistics major. He gave me permission to include parts of his paper on this blog, and I am delighted to share them.

The following italicized sections come from my student’s paper. I’ll start with a section of how he introduced Millais (I’ll insert the image of Christ in the House of His Parents, from the Tate, London):

John Everett Millais, 1829-1896, was an English artist born to a wealthy family in Southampton. He was a child prodigy, being admitted to the Royal Academy Schools in 1840 at the age of 11 as the youngest ever student. Living in London, he would be a founding member of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood along with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt. The so-called PRB favored presenting their subjects more realistically than was common in the art of that time. This style had especially serious implications for the portrayal of religious subjects, shown in the controversy over his painting, Christ in the House of his Parents.

Here is the Millais image the paper cites: Christ in the House of His Parents. We used this image (among about 30 others) during the first class session of our “Portraits of Jesus” class to start to discover differing conceptions of Jesus’ “image” and to start our discussions of the implications of those images. You can see the foreshadowing involved: the boy Jesus has cut his hand on a nail, and the blood drips upon his foot, as the boy John the Baptist brings some water (and the sheep symbolize the flock of Christians). As the Tate website notes, Millais used friends and family as models for this painting, and the reaction from the public and newspapers was extremely negative (Charles Dickens was one of those revolted by the way in which Jesus and his family were portrayed, as everyday human beings).

Christ in the House of his Parents, John Everett Millais

The student paper then adds a lot more information about Millais, but I will just cite a snippet more that is more closely connected to the engravings of the Wise and Foolish Virgins parable:

[Millais] is also famous for his many portrayals of beautiful young women, such as the titular character in his masterpiece Ophelia. In addition to literary scenes, he also painted many biblical scenes including many parables. By the end of his career, Millais’ work spanned a large range of expression, from the intellectual, revolutionary paintings of his youth to popular commercial illustrations later on (Riggs).

In the next post (maybe tomorrow, but it's finals week at Emory, so I may be delayed), I will post the section of the paper on Millais's brilliant The Wise Virgins.  

Thursday, April 24, 2014

John Chrysostom: The Parables and Social Justice (part 4)

William Blake, The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, Tate, London

One of the students in my course, “Portraits of Jesus,” wrote textual and visual exegeses of the Wise and Foolish Virgins parable and John Everett Millais’s two engravings based on it. Since this post includes John Chrysostom’s interpretation of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, I think I will next take an excursus over the next post or two and excerpt portions from my student’s exegesis of Millais’s engravings. Also, in a (much) later post, I will discuss the Blake pen and watercolor image on the same parable (above), which is also brilliant. I have to admit, writing this book is fun!

But first, John Chrysostom’s interpretations:

One of Chrysostom’s major themes is the necessity of almsgiving, helping our fellow human beings, and other righteous deeds. Note the introduction to his homily on the parables of the Wise and Foolish Virgins and the Talents:

These parables are like the former parable of the faithful servant, and of him that was ungrateful and devoured his Lord’s goods. For there are four in all, in different ways admonishing us about the same things, I mean about diligence in almsgiving, and about helping our neighbor by all means which we are able to use, since it is not possible to be saved in another way. But there he speaks more generally of all assistance which should he rendered to one’s neighbor; but as to the virgins, he speaks particularly of mercifulness in alms, and more strongly than in the former parable.

In the parable of the Unfaithful Servant, the servant was punished for committing evil deeds, but in the parable of the Ten Virgins punishment comes upon those who sin by omission, specifically not helping the needy. Here, perhaps because of his commitment to Christians’ responsibility to aid the poor, Chrysostom is more willing to include allegorical readings, such as equating the “lamps” in the parable with the “gift of virginity, the purity of holiness” and the oil for the lamps symbolizing “humanity, almsgiving, succor to them that are in need” (78.1). This line of interpretation, also suggested by Jerome, connects faith with works. All of the virgins have “faith,” but the ones who have enough oil exhibit their faith through works, which means that only those Christians whose works demonstrate their faith will be admitted into the kingdom of heaven (see Wailes 179).
The parable of the Talents reinforces the responsibility to help the poor and needy, as Chrysostom seeks to show in Homily 79. He interprets this parable in light of his previous interpretations of the parables of the Ten Virgins and the Wedding Feast: 

Let us hearken then to these words. As we have opportunity, let us help on our salvation, let us get oil for our lamps, let us labor to add to our talent. For if we be backward, and spend our time in sloth here, no one will pity us any more hereafter, though we should wail ten thousand times. He also that had on the filthy garments condemned himself, and profited nothing. He also that had the one talent restored that which was committed to his charge, and yet was condemned. The virgins again entreated, and came unto Him and knocked, and all in vain, and without effect.
            Knowing then these things, let us contribute alike wealth, and diligence, and protection, and all things for our neighbor’s advantage. For the talents here are each person’s ability, whether in the way of protection, or in money, or in teaching, or in what thing soever of the kind. Let no man say, I have but one talent, and can do nothing; for you can even by one approve yourself. For you are not poorer than that widow; you are not more uninstructed than Peter and John, who were both “unlearned and ignorant men;” but nevertheless, since they showed forth a zeal, and did all things for the common good, they attained to heaven. For nothing is so pleasing to God, as to live for the common advantage. For this end God gave us speech, and hands, and feet, and strength of body, and mind, and understanding, that we might use all these things, both for our own salvation, and for our neighbor’s advantage.

Jesus commands us to help our neighbors in need, so the mere fact that our neighbors are in need should be sufficient enough reason for us to help them. But Chrysostom also points to the parable of the Sheep and the Goats to construct what he thinks should be the strongest reason of all: In reality, according to that parable, when you help someone in need, you are helping Jesus, the one who gave his life to save you (Homily 79.2).

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Chrysostom: The Compassion of Jesus in the Wheat/Weeds and other Parables (part 3)

Wheat and the Weeds/Tares (part 1 of 4) Ely Cathedral

Chrysostom's expositions of the parables are some of my favorites from interpreters of this era. See, for example, the last paragraph of this post, where Chrysostom stresses the compassion of Jesus and also says that details of the parables “must not be explained throughout word for word, since many absurdities will follow.” Those with ears to hear . . . .

Chrysostom’s Homily 46 (On Matthew) discusses the parable of the Wheat and the Weeds (Matt. 13:24-30). Weeds are similar in appearance to wheat, and they are sown after the wheat is sown, which symbolizes for Chrysostom how the devil can only attempt to subvert the truth after the fact; the devil cannot create anything on his own. That is why false prophets arise after true prophets spread their message. The moral of the parable is that although we have to sleep physically, we must be morally awake so we can prevent the perversion of God’s message by the devil.

The parable of Sower teaches that three parts of the seed are lost; the parable of the Wheat and Weeds then explores what else happens to the one part of the seed that survives and flourishes—even those seeds suffer great damage because of the weeds the devil plants in the field. Jesus then tells the parable of the Mustard Seed to encourage his hearers, since the parable demonstrates that God’s message will be victorious in the end, that the “gospel shall be spread abroad.” The mustard seed “is the least of all seeds” but it becomes a tree. Chrysostom thus draws out the meaning of the parable in its Matthean context: “Thus [Jesus] meant to set forth the most decisive sign of its greatness. ‘Even so then shall it be with respect to the gospel too,’ he said. Yes, for his disciples were weakest of all, and least of all; but nevertheless, because of the great power that was in them, the gospel has been unfolded in every part of the world” (Homily 46.2).

Chrysostom celebrates the wisdom demonstrated in Jesus’ parables. Jesus uses nature to illustrate his message so often, for example, because nature follows a set course and events necessarily follow one another: the sower sows, crops appear, and then comes the harvest. These parables imply that the same inevitability applies to Jesus’ message about the kingdom; certain events “cannot fail to take place.” Likewise, the twelve “inexperienced and ignorant” apostles are the leaven that leavens the whole dough of the multitudes (Chrysostom interprets the parable/simile in a positive way as well: the leaven “converts the large quantity of meal into its own quality” just as Christians shall “convert the whole world”). Chrysostom focuses on the positive. People can change; Jesus empowers the leaven, and the twelve apostles were able to leaven the whole world. It is the task of Christians, Chrysostom admonishes, “to amend the unconverted who remain; we, who ought to be enough for ten thousand worlds, and to become leaven to them” (Homily 46.2-3).

In his next homily (47), Chrysostom notes that although Jesus’ parables were designed to make his audience perplexed and to stimulate them to inquire further, some people, such as the scribes, did not pose one question or follow Jesus to “his house” to learn more (cf. Matt. 13:36). Jesus explained further when his disciples asked him questions, and Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the Sower illustrates that parables, because of their nature, “must not be explained throughout word for word, since many absurdities will follow.” Chrysostom thus permits a limited amount of allegorical speculation on the meaning of the parables, and he usually does not travel far beyond the allegorical paths the Gospel authors themselves provide, as can be see from his interpretation of the parables of the Wheat and the Weeds. Chrysostom once again gleans details from the parables that other interpreters overlook and that accentuate the love of Jesus: Jesus himself sows the seed, but when punishment comes, it comes by the hands of others. This illustrates Jesus’ “unspeakable love to man, and his leaning to bounty, and his disinclination to punishment” (cf. the parable of the Net where it is the angels who separate the evil ones from the righteous and “throw [the evil ones] into the furnace of fire”; Matt. 13:47-50). Although the parables are similar, Chrysostom argues that the Weeds designate the wicked ones who reject Jesus or distort his teachings, whereas the bad fish symbolize those people in the church who believed in Jesus but did not faithfully follow his commands (Homily 47.3).

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Chrysostom: The Sower parable (part 2)

Vincent Van Gogh, The Sower (after Millet)

Most of Chrysostom’s extant expositions of the parables come from his series of homilies from the Gospel of Matthew, and they usually follow a similar format. Chrysostom begins by discussing the historical setting of Matthew and its author, as well as its major themes and overall structure of the book. Individual homilies on particular passages begin with a reading and detailed exposition of the passage, including placing the passage into its literary context. He then focuses on the flow and logic of the passage, including the key terms and its meaning in its historical context. Then Chrysostom turns to his own audience, exhorting his congregation to apply the text’s meaning in their daily lives. Chrysostom wants his hearers to follow the requirements of the gospel, turning away from evil and turning toward God’s will, including almsgiving and a devotion to all things spiritual (McKim).

Chrysostom’s understanding of the parable of the Sower (Matt 13:3-9), for example, first places it within its literary context: Matthew says that Jesus “told them many things in parables,” whereas in the earlier Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke more clearly and plainly. That is because, Chrysostom says, the audience for the Sermon on the Mount was “simple people,” whereas this audience for the Sower parable also included scribes and Pharisees (cf. Matt 13:12-15 concerning the parables and those who “do not understand”). Jesus begins with the Sower parable to make “the hearer more attentive,” to “rouse” their minds, and to “make his discourse more vivid, and fix the memory of it in them more perfectly, and bring the things before their sight.” This approach, Chrysostom adds, is similar to the approach of the prophets (Homily 44.3).
Chrysostom basically follows a similar allegorical interpretation of the parable to the one given in Matthew 13: Jesus is the sower who sows the “word of godliness” (his “doctrine”) on the land, the “souls of men.” Three parts of the sown seed perish, and one part is saved, but Chrysostom absolves the sower for responsibility for the seeds that perish by focusing on the seeds: noting that Jesus’s parable does not say that the sower cast the seeds “by the way side” but that the seeds “fell,” which places the responsibility upon the type of ground on which the seeds fell, not on the actions of the sower.

Chrysostom connects this parable to the Jesus’ audience in Matthew, by saying that Jesus taught the parable to everyone “without grudging”: Just as the sower makes no distinction in the types of land on which he sows the seed, but simply and indifferently casts his seed; so [Jesus] too makes no distinction of rich and poor, of wise and unwise, of slothful or diligent, of brave or cowardly; but he discourses unto all, fulfilling his part, although foreknowing the results; that it may be in His power to say, “What ought I to have done, that I have not done?” (Isaiah 5:4). Obedience to Jesus’ commands is the key to producing fruits of the kingdom (Homily 44.5).

Thus Jesus’ disciples should not despair if their hearers fail to respond positively, because the same thing happened to Jesus. He (fore)knew that many would not respond but kept on sowing the seeds of the kingdom anyway. Chrysostom then admits that it is reasonable to question why a sower should sow seed on soil among thorns, on rock, and on the wayside, all of which seem never likely to produce fruit (note above how the Sower is absolved of this responsibility). The reason is that he believes that soil can change, just like human beings can change and respond positively to the good news of the kingdom:

There is such a thing as the rock changing, and becoming rich land; and the wayside being no longer trampled on, nor lying open to all that pass by, but that it may be a fertile field; and the thorns may be destroyed, and the seed enjoy full security. For had it been impossible, this Sower [Jesus] would not have sown. And if the change did not take place in all, this is no fault of the Sower, but of them who are unwilling to be changed: He having done his part: and if they betrayed what they received of him, he is blameless, the exhibitor of such love to man.

Chrysostom concludes that the parable teaches that one’s faith must be put into practice: People who hear the word and respond must become free from gluttony, envy, lust, pride, and the deceitfulness of riches, They also must cultivate virtues so that they may “strike their roots deep” (44.6).

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

John Chrysostom and the Parables (part 1)

John Chrysostom (ca. 347/9–407) offers some of the most fascinating insights into fourth-century Christianity, the Church, and society. His interpretations also give us insights into differences of opinion concerning allegorical interpretations of the parables and a powerful testimony concerning issues of wealth and poverty, including social justice.

Chrysostom was born in Antioch (in Syria) and studied law with the great pagan orator Libanius. Chrysostom then felt drawn by Christian monasticism, studied with a Syrian monastic for four years, and lived in a cave for two years. During this time he practiced severe austerities that undermined his health for the rest of his life. Chrysostom also studied theology with Meletius, the bishop of Antioch, who baptized him, and Diodore of Tarsus. Meletius also ordained him as deacon in 381, Flavian, bishop of Antioch, ordained him as priest (presbyter) in 386, and, against his wishes, appointed him Bishop of Constantinople in 398.

Chrysostom set out to reform what he saw as a corrupt city. He became popular with many people of Constantinople, but quickly became unpopular in some circles for his denunciations of iniquity—the clergy and the wealthy were typical targets.

The controversies extended even beyond the city, as Chrysostom became embroiled in both imperial and ecclesiastical politics. Although Chrysostom had significant support from the people of Constantinople, much of the western church, and even from Pope Innocent I, he was unable to escape condemnation and exile: He was deposed in 403, recalled to his post, and then exiled for good near Antioch in 404. When exile did not kill him quickly enough, he was moved to Pontus, and then died on 14 September 407 when he was forced to travel 20 kilometers a day on foot in frail health on a brutal journey in severe weather. His last words, we are told, were “Glory be to God for everything” (Kelly 1995; Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church).

Over nine hundred of Chrysostom’s exegetical homilies are extant. In these sermons, he rails against the abuses of the wealthy and speaks words of comfort to the poor. A gifted orator—chrysostom in Greek means “golden-mouthed”—Chrysostom was the greatest preacher and one of the foremost expositors of scripture in the patristic era. Two concerns are primary in his homilies: discerning the will of God through a rigorous reading of Scripture and urging his congregation to follow those biblical teachings in word and deed, especially in taking care of the less fortunate within society.
His ascetic practices and generous almsgiving were indicative of his concern for the poor. Chysostom was particularly concerned for those who had to resort to begging, and his continuous pleas for generosity and almsgiving “came to be resented by the wealthy, whose ostentatious style of life he frequently lambasted” (Chadwick 2001: 484). Chrysostom’s devotion to the Bible sometimes generated animosity against those who ignored the Bible or who did not work diligently to understand it and apply it in their lives. This anger led him to castigate his listeners for their ignorance and malfeasance. His goal was to exhort his listeners to live faithfully as Christians, which for him “meant striving for social justice for the poor through almsgiving and turning one’s back on material goods to strive for spiritual virtues” (McKim 2007: 571).

The best introduction to Chrysostom’s life and work is J. N. D. Kelley, Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.

The next post will start discussing some of Chrysostom’s parable interpretations in his homilies on the Gospel of Matthew.

"The Work of Christmas," by Howard Thurman

"The Work of Christmas," by Howard Thurman   Howard Thurman’s poem, “The Work of Christmas” is my favorite Christmas poem, and I p...