Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Hildegard of Bingen and the Unjust Steward

Hildegard of Bingen; Codex Latinus 1942

Back to Hildegard of Bingen and the parables.

Exegesis plays a central role in Hildegard’s works, and her exegetical homilies in particular establish her “as the only known systematic female exegete of the Middle Ages” (Kienzle 2009: 2). Fifty-eight of her homilies were collected in her Expositiones euangeliorum (Homilies on the Gospels; Hildegard 2011). These homilies were initially preached to her religious community in Rupertsberg (and possibly Disibodenberg), and they focus on twenty-seven gospel passages, including seven parables: one in Matthew (Laborers in the Vineyard) and six in Luke (Great Supper, Prodigal Son, Dishonest Steward, Rich Man and Lazarus, Pharisee and Publican, and Fig Tree). Hildegard works through the text systematically, verse-by-verse, phrase-by-phrase, and even word-by-word.

Homilies 1 and 2 both discuss the parable of the Unjust Steward, but they interpret it from different perspectives. Homily 1 envisions God as Creator as the foundational idea. The rich man symbolizes God, and the steward represents Adam to whom God entrusted Paradise and all creatures. As the steward of creation, Adam is “brought up on charges” by the angels and has to give an account to God, because Adam disobeyed God’s command. The reviewing of the steward’s accounts represents God’s question in Gen 3:11: “who told you that you were naked?” Likewise, dismissing the steward symbolizes Adam’s banishment from Paradise. Other details of the parable also represent what happens to Adam in Genesis 3: The steward not being able to dig is equated with Adam no longer having the creatures being subject to him); just as the steward makes deals with the debtors so they will receive him into their homes, Adam, after his banishment from Eden, arranges deals with the creatures who had been subject to him so that they “will receive me into their homes, namely, into their cohabitations, so that we may live and dwell together on earth.” Similarly, just as the master commended the unjust steward for the arrangements he had made with the debtors, so God also commends Adam for his arrangements with the creatures of the earth. By turning to God’s creatures, Adam showed the prudence that would eventually lead him back to God (Hildegard 2011: 31).

The first homily concludes with Hildegard assuming the voice of Jesus to exhort her listeners with words that incorporate Jesus’ words at the end of the parable (in italics):

And I,” namely Christ, “tell you,” human beings: “Make for yourselves friends,” namely, good angels and humans, in justice and truth, so that they may hold you in esteem for good deeds . . . . They whom you have led in this age from unfaithfulness to faith, and from sin to righteousness and thus into eternal habitations, will hasten to you with extreme mercy and welcome you into the heavenly and unfailing homeland which you lost because of Adam (33). 

The obedience of the creatures in Paradise to Adam (as their “superior”) parallels the obedience human beings owe to God. Hildegard’s focuses, then, as she preaches to the members of her spiritual community at Rupertsberg, on the obedience, including good deeds, necessary to follow God: “Proper work carried out in obedience to the superior”—including one’s superior in one’s religious community—“benefits all” (Kienzle 2011: 177).

The second homily on this parable repeats the exegesis of the entire parable but does so from the perspective of the soul’s inner struggle between good and evil. The rich man still represents God, but in this homily the steward designates the human will that leads human beings either to obey or disobey God. As in the first homily, Hildegard concludes with a direct exhortation to her audience: They should repent and


leave behind the burning lust of vices. In that way, when you lack vices, and you do not want to sin further, they will receive you, repentant and renewed in the good, into life’s pastures, where there is no lack of security or fullness of eternal joys (36).

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