Friday, January 30, 2015

Martin Luther and the Parables (conclusion)

1534 edition of Luther's Bible

Luther did not avoid tackling some of the more problematic parables, such as the Unjust Manager (Luke 16:1-9). [The following sermon is taken from volume IV:292-301 of The Sermons of Martin Luther, published by Baker Book House in 1983]. Luther notes that the parable relates the story of how a steward cheated his master: he artfully but deceitfully deprived his master of his property (294).
The key point, for Luther, is that Jesus does not praise the dishonest actions; he praises him for his shrewdness:

He does not praise the thing in itself as good, but blames him for previously squandering his master’s goods, and afterwards shrewdly appropriating his property. This however the Lord commends, namely, that he did not forget himself, praising nought but his cunning and shrewdness. Just as when a flirt draws the whole world after her, and I say: she is a clever flirt, she knows her business. The Lord further concludes, that just as the steward is wise and shrewd in his transactions, so should we also be in obtaining eternal life . . . . As the unjust man acts shrewdly, though wrongly and like a rogue, so we also should act shrewdly but righteously in godliness. This is the proper understanding of this parable (294-5).
A second difficulty of interpretation arises, because Jesus then commands his followers to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth” (Luke 16:9), which some of Luther’s “adversaries” (in the Roman Catholic Church) interpret as meaning that doing “works” are necessary for salvation, whereas Luther argued that salvation came through faith alone. Luther responds
If they thus attack us we must answer. Above all things it must be remembered that there is indeed no doubt whatever, that faith and love are the only source, as you have ever learned, that through faith we become inwardly pious, and we outwardly prove our faith by our works of love. . . . If I am to make for myself friends by means of mammon, I must first be godly. For compare these two statements: A corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit, and again, a good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. From which judge for yourself: if I am to do good and give away mammon, I must indeed be first good at heart, for God looketh upon the heart, and as he finds the heart, so he estimates our works. This I say, that men should not cram works into the heart, but let the heart first be good through faith, that the works may flow forth, otherwise you do no one any good; for if you have before given a person anything, it did not come from the heart. Hence the conclusion is, that I must first be good before I can do good. You cannot build from without inward, you do not commence at the roof, but at the foundation. Therefore faith must first be present (296).
The “works” are the outward signs of one’s inner faith, and faith comes first. Works do not make some good; instead their bear witness to the genuineness of one’s faith (297). We do not earn salvation by doing good works; we must first believe, and good works will follow (299).

In a similar way, in his sermon on the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Luther has to explain why Luke here, as in other places, “makes the impression as though righteousness came by works” (337).  [The following sermon is taken from volume IV:337-347 of The Sermons of Martin Luther].   

Consequently it sounds as though Luke everywhere taught that righteousness came by works; as you have recently heard: Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven; and, make unto yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness. And here it appears as though the publican had obtained his goodness by praying and smiting his breast. So this Gospel appears as though we should become good or pious by our works.

Now you have heard that a man, before he can do anything good, must by all means first be good. For the truth must always stand: “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit;” and again, “An evil tree cannot bring forth good fruit.” Thus a man must first be good, before he can do good (338).
Note: I have also finished writing the sections on John Calvin and John Maldonatus on the parables, and I will share insights from those two sections on the blog as well. I haven't decided yet what to post next, though.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Martin Luther's Sermon on the Wheat and Tares parable

Domenico Fetti, Parable of the Wheat and Tares

I just finished writing about John Maldonatus and the parables, and I included his discussion of the Wheat and Tares parable (I also will be writing about Roger Williams's famous interpretation of the parable and its importance for the separation of church and state in the United States). In the meantime, though, I am writing about Domenico Fetti's (should be more famous) paintings of the parables; hence the image above (although I won't include this image in the book; I have four other great ones; H/T to Mikeal Parsons for his recommendation of Fetti's works on the parables).

In this post, though, I want to continue my series on Martin Luther and write about his sermon on the Wheat and Tares.             

In a sermon preached in 1525 on the parable, Luther follows the standard interpretation that the sower is Jesus, the field is the world, and the enemy that sowed the tares was the devil, the harvest is the end of the world, and so forth. The question is what to do about the false Christians and heretics that dwell upon the earth with the “true Christians” (101). Jesus provides the answer with this parable:
Again this Gospel teaches how we should conduct ourselves toward these heretics and false teachers. We are not to uproot nor destroy them. Here he says publicly let both grow together. We have to do here with God's Word alone; for in this matter he who errs today may find the truth tomorrow. Who knows when the Word of God may touch his heart? But if he be burned at the stake, or otherwise destroyed, it is thereby assured that he can never find the truth; and thus the Word of God is snatched from him, and he must be lost, who otherwise might have been saved. Hence the Lord says here, that the wheat also will be uprooted if we weed out the tares. That is something awful in the eyes of God and never to be justified.
From this observe what raging and furious people we have been these many years, in that we desired to force others to believe; the Turks with the sword, heretics with fire, the Jews with death, and thus outroot the tares by our own power, as if we were the ones who could reign over hearts and spirits, and make them pious and right, which God's Word alone must do. But by murder we separate the people from the Word, so that it cannot possibly work upon them and we bring thus with one stroke a double murder upon ourselves, as far as it lies in our power, namely, in that we murder the body for time and the soul for eternity, and afterwards say we did God a service by our actions, and wish to merit something special in heaven.
Therefore this passage should in all reason terrify the grand inquisitors and murderers of the people, where they are not brazened faced, even if they have to deal with true heretics. But at present they burn the true saints and are themselves heretics. What is that but uprooting the wheat, and pretending to exterminate the tares, like insane people?

As an interesting side note, Luther also does not hesitate to include an argument for his ideas about human free will:
Today's Gospel also teaches by this parable that our free will amounts to nothing, since the good seed is sowed only by Christ, and Satan can sow nothing but evil seed; as we also see that the field of itself yields nothing but tares, which the cattle eat, although the field receives them and they make the field green as if they were wheat (103).

The above quotes are from volume II:100-104 of The Sermons of Martin Luther, published by Baker Book House (Grand Rapids, MI).

Back to preparations for the Honors Seminar class tomorrow.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Honors Seminar update

Oxford College Library: the Special Collections Room is in the center of the picture (it's the room with the windows just to the right of the sofa in the hallway downstairs)

I am delighted to have such outstanding students qualify for and enroll in my Honors Seminar, "Chorus of Voices: The 'Afterlives' of Parables." The first two weeks of classes (we meet on T/Th) have been fantastic.

Our class has been given the privilege of meeting in the Special Collections Room of the Oxford College library (it's not really a classroom). It's a perfect location for our seminar, and the resources we need are either at our fingertips with online materials or just a short walk away in the stacks.

The seminar is really a "working group," because it is a collaboration. The students are each working on a semester-long project, and I am working on a similar project (this book). 

So far, students have picked the parable on which they want to work the entire semester. They will explore the reception history of "their" parable in different eras, perspectives, media, and so forth. 

Students have picked the following parables on which to focus:
  • The Final Judgment—Sheep/Goats (Matt 25:31-46)
  • The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)
  • The Talents (Matt 25:14-30)
  • Workers in the Vineyard (Matt 20:1-16)

Each week every one of us will report (e.g., give a paper) on our progress. The students have already found some very interesting things--many of which I had not seen/heard before--so we are already learning a lot from each other

We started the class by establishing what "doing" reception history means, and we are accomplishing that primarily in a "Ways of Inquiry" (distinctive to Oxford College of Emory University) approach. 

We started with Thomas Hart Benton's Prodigal Son lithograph, talking about our initial observations/thoughts and then discussing what they needed to do/know in order to do a “reception history” of this image.

I won't discuss those matters in detail, but in the other class periods, we examined other receptions of the parable of the Prodigal Son: (a) Chartres Cathedral (stained-glass window), (b) Antonia Pulci (play), (c) Albrecht Dürer (engraving), and (d) Robert Wilkins (blues song; we also talked about blues music in general and some other blues songs about parables).

Students have now read and critiqued the sections of my book on "The Parables and the Blues," Albrecht Dürer, and Antonia Pulci. I am amazed at how quickly they have picked up essential elements of reception history (they work on the image, play, text, etc. itself before they read about it). They also have been extremely insightful about my book drafts, and they have already made significant contributions toward making the book better.

Starting the week after next, once students get going on their projects more fully, we will devote equal time in class to all projects--mine will merely be one of the five projects.

We are primarily focusing on the receptions themselves: we worked careful and extensively, for example, on both reading the lyrics of the blues songs we discussed, but we also spent a significant amount of class time listening to various versions of those blues songs--from the "original" version to more recent "redone" versions (Blind Joe Taggart, among others, deserves more "hits" on YouTube).  

We are doing another of other things, but perhaps I will write about those aspects later.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Martin Luther: Ethical Actions stem from "real, true believers."

Martin Luther: Christians, “who have been redeemed through the blood and death of the Son of God, should live godly lives”

Luther goes even further in using Jesus as an example in his final sermon in Wittenberg (January 17, 1646), just a month before his death (Luther preached five other sermons in other cities before his death on February 18, 1646). The text on which the sermon is based is Romans 13:3, in which Paul bids his readers not to think more highly of themselves than they should, but to base that judgment upon “the measure of faith which God has assigned” them (LW 1955 51:371). Ethical actions are some of the “fruits of faith,” fruits that demonstrate we are not “false Christians . . . but rather real, true believers.” Christians, “who have been redeemed through the blood and death of the Son of God, should live godly lives” (372).
What makes this sermon especially interesting is that Luther incorporates aspects of earlier allegorical interpretations of the parable of the Good Samaritan, so, even at the end of his career, Luther was not beyond some of the “spiritual jugglery” of which he accused Origen and others in their interpretations:
After baptism there still remains much of the old Adam. For, as we have often said, it is true that sin is forgiven in baptism, but we are not yet altogether clean, as is shown in the parable of the Samaritan, who carried the man wounded by robbers to an inn. He did not take care of him in such a way that he healed him at once, but rather bound up his wounds and poured on oil. The man who fell among the robbers suffered two injuries. First, everything that he had was taken from him, he was robbed; and second, he was wounded, so that he was half-dead and would have died, of the Samaritan had not come to him (373).
Luther’s assumption that the man would have died if not the Samaritan had helped him is not explicit in the parable itself, but Luther states that view because of the theological point he makes next, and it follows the standard allegorical interpretations of the parable:

 Adam fell among the robbers and implanted sin in us all. If Christ, the Samaritan, had not come, we should all have to die. He it is who binds our wounds, carries us to the church and is now healing us. So we are now under the Physician’s care . . . . Therefore this life is a hospital; the sin has really been forgiven, but it has not yet been healed (373).

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Howard Thurman

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have not yet written the section in Chapter 5 about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the parables, but here, in honor of Dr. King Day, are the titles of three sermons/speeches that I will consider including in the book:

  • “Why didn't They Stop?” (on the Good Samaritan)
  • “The Impassable Gulf” (on the Rich Man and Lazarus)
  • “The Seeking God” (on the Lost Sheep). 
Instead of discussing Dr. King in the book, however, I may focus on someone who is not particularly well-known but who should be: Dr. Howard Thurman. Dr. Thurman was a friend and classmate of Dr. King's father (at Morehouse College), and Dr. Thurman became a mentor to Dr. King (and many others).

Some of Dr. Thurman's sermons on the parables may be found here:

I am grateful to my friend and colleague, Dr. Kipton Jensen, who sent me the above resource. Dr. Jensen is a professor at Morehouse College and a Thurman scholar.

Finally, I want to add that the Pierce Institute of Leadership and Community Engagement at Oxford College of Emory University tries to live according to Dr. King's words that he wrote while a student at Morehouse College in 1947:
We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character--that is the goal of true education.
Later today I will post about (the Reformation's) Martin Luther and the parables in the continuing series on Luther. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Martin Luther's ethical take on the Good Samaritan parable

Martin Luther

Just like Luther’s first extant sermon included the ethical implications of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, in a 1544 sermon on Luke 14:1-11, Luther stresses the ethical implications of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Luther makes a distinction between the “outward use of the sabbath” (e.g., the time, hour, or place) and “the necessary works of love, which God requires at all times and hours and all places wherever there is need” (341-2). To keep the Sabbath, according to Jesus, is to do a “holy work” owed to God—to keep the Sabbath day holy and to preach “god’s word purely and holily”—to receive the Word of God, and to call upon and pray to God in “common assembly” (342-3). In this way, the Sabbath is made holy, and “our neighbor is also served through preaching and prayer . . . through which he is helped eternally” (343).
But that is only part of the command to keep the Sabbath holy; Christians must also follow the “second table” of the Ten Commandments, which commands us to help our neighbor whenever he is “in physical need and wherever you see that he needs your help.” God commands us to do this, not only on the Sabbath, “but in every time and hour” and in every place. Luther then says:
Thus this commandment concerning the Sabbath includes the whole law, so that the other commandments are not made null and void through it. For example, when I see my neighbor in need and in danger of life and limb, that I do not pass him by, like the priest and the Levite, and let him lie there and perish, so that in my very pretension of keeping the Sabbath pure I become a murderer of my brother, but rather serve and help him, like the Samaritan, who bound up the wounded man, set him on his beast, and brought him to an inn (344).

Luther then points to the example of Jesus, who first would preach a sermon to the congregation in the synagogues and then afterward healed the sick; thus he fulfilled both “tables” of the Ten Commandments.

"The Work of Christmas," by Howard Thurman

"The Work of Christmas," by Howard Thurman   Howard Thurman’s poem, “The Work of Christmas” is my favorite Christmas poem, and I p...