Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Augustine and the Parables (part 2)

"St. Augustine Teaching Rhetoric," Jan van Scorel (1495-1562)


Augustine's pre-Christian life affected his interpretations of the parables, such as his training and vocation as a rhetorician that is depicted in the above painting by Jan van Scorel. Augustine's mother, Monnica, is in the background on the right; the pairing of the two in this manner captures their situation at the time (i.e., pre-Christian) in an effective way. This image is part of a larger polyptych by the Dutch painter that depicts several other events in Augustine's life as well. 

I simply don't have room in 1600-2000 words in the section of the book devoted to his interpretations of the parables, though, to delve deeply into those issues about how his previous life affected his parable interpretation. That would be a fascinating study. 

As you can imagine, there is a huge amount of material from which to choose in Augustine's works to illustrate his approaches to parable interpretation. Along with variety of people, however, I am also striving to include a variety of the types of materials. For that reason, I decided to focus extensively (in the section devoted to Augustine) on his homilies/sermons. These examples also help illustrate Augustine's stress upon the "love of God and love of neighbor" in biblical interpretation (see the previous post).

Augustine often connects physical and spiritual aspects in his interpretations. The Sheep and Goats parable, for example, means that giving to those in physical need results in God giving you the gift of eternal life; Sermon 36.5-6). But Augustine declares that love of God and neighbor must underlie those actions, or those actions are in vain. Similarly, the wedding garment in the parable of the Wedding Feast symbolizes that a garment of love/charity is required for salvation (40.4-9): “So then, have faith with love. This is the ‘wedding garment’” (cf. Sermon 43.5 where the oil in the lamps in the Ten Virgins parable symbolizes love/charity).

Augustine also finds the imperative to love God and neighbor in the parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Sermon 33). Jesus relates the parable after he tells Peter to forgive people seventy times seven times (Matt. 17:21). This parable, Augustine says, serves as a warning to “save us from perishing,” since every person is in God’s debt and, in some sense, is owed a debt by another (33.2). Jesus provides the way out of our debts: “Forgive and you shall be forgiven” and “Give, and it shall be given unto you” (i.e., doing kindnesses; Luke 6:37-38):

Again, as to the doing kindnesses; a beggar asks of you, and you are God’s beggar. For we are all when we pray God’s beggars; we stand, yes rather we fall prostrate before the door of the Great Householder, we groan in supplication wishing to receive something; and this something is God himself. What does the beggar ask of you? Bread. And what do thou ask of God, but Christ, who says, “I am the living Bread which came down from heaven” (John 6:51)? Would you be forgiven? Forgive.

Augustine’s inclination toward spiritual meanings often leads him to discover great symbolism in numbers. In the parable of the Talents, for example, Augustine connects the 10 Commandments and the ten thousand talents the servant in the parable owes. The talents thus symbolize the debt of all sins owed to God, “with reference to the number of the Law,” since

a hundred times a hundred make ten thousand; and ten times ten make a hundred. And the one “owed ten thousand talents,” and the other ten times ten denarii. For there was no departure from the number of the law, and in both numbers you will find every kind of sin included. Both are debtors, and both implore and beg for pardon; but the wicked, ungrateful servant would not repay what he had received, would not grant the mercy which had been undeservedly accorded to him.


Augustine concludes that Christians should thus forgive others so that God will continue to forgive their sins (33.7).

The next post will focus on Augustine's famous interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan, but it will also include some of his not-as-famous comments about it.

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