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).

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