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).

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