Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ephrem the Syrian and the Parables (part 2): The Parables and the Poor

Ephrem the Syrian

Ephrem’s commentary on the Diatessaron does not treat the whole text, and it spends more time on certain passages than others. Some of Ephrem’s interpretations of the parables focus exclusively on the literal, non-allegorical meaning (e.g., the Laborers in the Vineyard, 15.14-17; the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, 15.24; the Unjust Judge, 16.16). Ephrem also, however, utilizes significant amounts of typology and symbolism in his commentaries, and he elaborates the themes he discovers there and compares them to types and symbols from Hebrew Bible narratives that in his view reflect upon the passage (Griffith 2004: 1406). Note, for example, how Ephrem indicates that the Lost Coin could not only symbolize someone who strayed from the “righteousness of nature” but also “the image of Adam” and Adam’s fall (14.19; cf. the Unjust Steward, 11.21).

Ephrem’s concern for the poor permeates his commentary on the Diatessaron. His comments on the parable of the Sower, for example, include an admonition to the rich not to let the thorns of wealth hinder their faith (11.16). He also devotes extended sections on the rich man—so “confident in his earthly wealth” (15.3)—who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life (e.g., Luke 18:18-25), before explaining the meaning of the Rich Man and Lazarus parable. After the rich man and Lazarus died, the rich man’s agony was increased because he was able to see Lazarus rejoicing while he was being tortured in Hades. The context of the passage suggests, Ephrem argues, that Jesus was comparing the rich man to the Jewish priests and Lazarus to his disciples (15.12). Ephrem then, however, discusses the moral implications of the parable:

See then! The more the rich man lived sumptuously, the more [Lazarus] was humbled. The more Lazarus was made low, the greater was his crown. Why was it, therefore, that he should have seen Abraham above all the just, and Lazarus in his bosom? It was because Abraham loved the poor that he saw him, so that we might learn that we cannot hope for pardon at the end, unless the fruits of pardon can be seen in us. If then Abraham, who was friendly to strangers, and had mercy on Sodom, was not able to have mercy on the one who did not show pity to Lazarus, how can we hope that there will be pardon for us? (15.13; Ephrem the Syrian 1994:  235-36)
Ephrem interprets the parable in a similar way in The Hymns on Paradise by noting how Abraham, “who even had pity on Sodom,” has no pity for the rich man “who showed no pity” (1.12, cf. 1.17). In Hymn 7, Ephrem elaborates that we should learn about God’s justice from this parable:

And may I learn how much I will then have received
            From that parable of the Rich Man
Who did not even give to the poor man
            The leftovers from his banquet;
And may I see Lazarus,
            Grazing in Paradise,
And look upon the Rich Man,
            In anguish,
So that the might of justice outside
            May cause me fear,
But the breath of grace within
            May bring me comfort (7.27; Brock 1990: 129).

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