Monday, May 5, 2014

John Chrysostom (part 5): The Laborers in the Vineyard and the Wedding Feast

I think a couple more posts on John Chrysostom and the parables will be enough to finish a decent overview of how he interprets the parables. Nothing beats reading the primary sources themselves, however!  

Even when Chrysostom utilizes allegorical interpretations, he does so in a restrained way, such as when he discusses the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (in Homily 64, On Matthew). He notes that the intent of the parable is puzzling at first, because the saying before and after the parable (first/last; Matt. 19:30; 20:16) seems to be at odds with what happens in the parable (where all are equal; 64.3). He then offers a more limited (compared to Augustine and others) allegorical reading of the parable: The vineyard denotes the commandments of God, the time worked signifies one’s lifespan, the various laborers indicate the different ways to follow those commands, and the hours hired are those “who at different ages [i.e. from young to old] have drawn near to God” (64.3). The first workers who complain about their pay are like the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Son, who complains about the father’s reception of the younger son. Once we learn the reason for why the parable was composed this way, however, we should not speculate about anything further (“we must not be curious about all the points in the parables”). Chrysostom therefore seeks to ascertain the central and essential points of the parables, tries to focus on those elements alone, and cautions against over-speculating about other details of the parables.

Chrysostom believes that the purpose of the Laborers in the Vineyard parable is to “render more earnest them that are converted and become better men in extreme old age, and not to allow them to suppose they have a less portion.” Those first laborers who complain, then, serve as a warning for longtime Christians not to envy how such “latecomers” are treated. Chrysostom entreats his hearers to “use much diligence both to stand in the right faith, and to show forth an excellent life. For unless we add also a life suitable to our faith, we shall suffer the most extreme punishment” (64.4).

Since the parable of the Wedding Feast in Matthew 22:1-13 clearly exhibits several allegorical elements that are not found in Luke’s version, Chrysostom includes allegorical elements in his interpretation. Matthew’s parable “proclaims beforehand both the casting out of the Jews, and the calling of the Gentiles; and it indicates together with this also the strictness of the life required, and how great the punishment appointed for the careless” (Homily 69). Both the context in Matthew just before the parable (e.g., 21:33) and the symbolic elements within Matthew’s version (e.g., the king, son, wedding banquet, troops burning the city, and the addition to the story in verses 11-13) lead to Chysostom’s conclusions, as do a number of other verses from the Gospels (e.g., Jesus’ words before the resurrection for the apostles to preach to the Jews and his command after the resurrection to preach to “all nations”). Arguing that the “wedding garment” symbolizes one’s life and practice, Chrysostom exhorts his hearers not to clothe their souls inwardly with the “filthy garments” of a corrupt life and evil deeds but instead to clothe their souls inwardly by obeying what Jesus taught (69.2).

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