Monday, January 25, 2016

Parables and "An Economy for the 1%"

"An Economy of the 1%"

I have finished writing both the Preface and the Conclusion to the book. I decided to cut a few paragraphs from the earlier draft I had written, and this blog post consists of a section of the Conclusion that I deleted from the draft. It originally came after I had written a couple paragraphs about the responses that Jesus expects from hearers of his parables, including the fact that understanding should lead to concrete actions. Here is the deleted section, but one that deserves to be posted on this blog:

One example will suffice to illustrate the continuing relevance of the parables of Jesus in ethical responses to issues in human society: According to an Oxfam International briefing paper published in 2016, “An Economy for the 1%,” we live in a world where 1% of the population has more wealth than the remaining 99% and where sixty-two people own more wealth than the entire bottom half of the world’s population (in 2015;

There is little doubt as to how Jesus, himself near the bottom of the first-century socio-economic ladder, would respond, and how he would expect those who claim to follow him and his teachings to respond. And many of the interpreters of the parables in this book have reacted similarly:

As Theophylact says about the parable of the Rich Fool, the “stomachs of the poor” are the storehouses in which our excess food should be stored: “They are in fact heavenly and divine storehouses, for he who feeds the pauper, feeds God (1997: 147).

Or, as Martin Luther King, Jr. explains the same parable:
The answer is simple: feed the poor, clothe the naked, and heal the sick. Where can we store our goods? Again the answer is simple: we can store our surplus food free of charge in the shriveled stomachs of the millions of God’s children who go to bed hungry at night. We can use our vast resources of wealth to wipe poverty from the earth. 
Or, as Pope Gregory writes about the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, we all have “many brothers of Lazarus” that we encounter every day: “Therefore do not lose the opportunity of doing works of mercy; do not store unused the good things you possess” (Gregory 1960: 158).

Or, as John Chrysostom notes about the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, since Jesus commands us to help our neighbors in need, the fact that our neighbors are in need is more than enough reason to come to their aid. Most importantly, Chrysostom argues, the parable demonstrates that when you help someone in need, you are, in reality, helping Jesus, who gave his own life to save you (Homily 79.2).

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in a conversation with a lawyer. The lawyer “tested” Jesus by asking him what he had to do to inherit eternal life. The lawyer already knew the answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.”

Jesus responds: “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live” (10:25-28).

The lawyer then asked Jesus: “And who is my neighbor?” (10:29), and Jesus replies with a parable that describes the extraordinary actions of a man, a hated Samaritan, who assists another human being in need, after two religious people ignore the helpless man.

The conversation between Jesus and the lawyer concludes:
[Jesus said,] “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:36-37).

That’s what Jesus means earlier when he says, “Do this, and you will live.”

Another image that reinforces the importance of helping others and the impermanence of material wealth is a painting by Hieronymus Bosch that I saw in the National Gallery in Washington, DC: Death and the Miser (ca. 1485-1490). It is a genre painting, but it also could be seen as an illustration of the Rich Fool parable in Luke:

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Leo Tolstoy and the Parables (part 4)

"Where Love is, God is"

The description of the conclusion of this story by Tolstoy is written in memory of my mother, who had similar boundless kindness and generosity as does Martin in the story:

Martin returns to work, and as it grew dark he looks out his window and sees an elderly woman walking by. She carried a heavy sack of woodchips and a small basket of apples, and, as Martin watched, a boy grabbed one of her apples and tried to run away. The woman grabbed him, however, and threatened to take him to the police. Martin rushed out the door, separated the woman and the boy, and calmed them both down. He told the boy to ask the woman for forgiveness and to promise never to take anything that didn’t belong to him ever again. After the boy did so, Martin gave him an apple and told the woman he would pay for it. Then Martin tells the parable of the Unjust Steward to the woman to help convince her to forgive the boy:
“You will spoil them that way, the young rascals,” said the old woman. “He ought to be whipped so that he would remember it for a week.” 
“Oh, Granny, Granny,” said Martin, “that’s our way—but it’s not God’s way. If he should be whipped for stealing an apple, what should be done to us for our sins?” 
The old woman was silent. 
And Martin told her the parable of the lord who forgave his servant a large debt, and how the servant went out and seized his debtor by the throat. The woman listened to it all, and the boy, too, stood by and listened. 
“God bids us to forgive,” said Martin, “or else we shall not be forgiven. Forgive everyone; and a thoughtless youngster most of all.” 
. . . 
“Of course, it was only his childishness, God help him,” said she, referring to the boy.As the old woman was about to hoist her sack on her back, the lad sprang forward to her, saying, “Let me carry it for you, Granny. I’m going that way.” 
The old woman nodded her head, and put the sack on the boy’s back, and they went down the street together, the old woman quite forgetting to ask Martin to pay for the apple. Martin stood and watched them as they went along talking to each other (93-94).
It had grown dark, so when Martin returns to his basement room, he lights his lamp, finishes his work, and gets the Gospels from the shelf. Before he starts to read, though, he hears a noise, turns around, and thinks he sees some people standing in the dark corner:
. . . And a voice whispered in his ear: “Martin, Martin, don’t you know me?” 
“Who is it?” muttered Martin. 
“It is I,” said the voice. And out of the dark corner stepped Stepanitch, who smiled and vanishing like a cloud was seen no more.” 
“It is I,” said the voice again. And out of the darkness stepped the woman with the baby in her arms, and the woman smiled and the baby laughed, and they too vanished. 
“It is I,” said the voice once more. And the old woman and the boy with the apple stepped out and both smiled, and then they too vanished.” 
And Martin’s soul grew glad. He crossed himself, put on his spectacles, and began reading the Gospel where it had opened; and at the top of the page he read:“I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in.” 
And at the bottom of the page he read:“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:35, 40). 
And Martin understood that his dream had come true; and that the Saviour had really come to him that day, and that he had welcomed him (94).

This story and its use of parables clearly reflect Tolstoy’s view of Christianity: the importance of loving God and loving others. Tolstoy believed that if all everyone behaved the way Martin did, with ethical actions based on Jesus’ teachings, the kingdom of God would be created on earth.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Leo Tolstoy and the Parables (part 3)

In Memory of Betty Gowler
(December 27, 1931 - January 12, 2016)
For as long as I remember, I loved her laugh . . . and making her laugh
(Thanks to Nancy Gowler Johnson for a copy of this photo)

The next day Martin keeps looking out his window, because he wonders whether Jesus might visit him. Once when he looks out the window he sees Stepanitch, a retired soldier from the Czar’s army who was now so poor that he did odd jobs in the neighborhood just to make ends meet. Stepanitch was shoveling snow but had paused to rest, so Martin invites him inside to warm up and have a cup of tea. As they talk, Martin shares with Stepanitch what the voice the night before had told him about Jesus coming to visit Martin, as well as many stories about Jesus. The conversation ends this way:
Stepanitch forgot his tea. He was a very old man, easily moved to tears, and as he sat and listened the tears ran down his cheeks.
 “Come, drink some more,” said Martin. But Stepanitch crossed himself, thanked him, and moved away his tumbler, and rose. 
“Thank you, Martin Avdeitch,” he said, “you have given me food and comfort both for soul and body.” 
“You’re very welcome. Come again another time. I am glad to have a guest,” said Martin (90).
Martin returned to work but kept looking out his window in anticipation. Soon he saw a peasant woman, dressed in tattered summer garments, who carried a baby in her arms. Martin asked her to come inside to warm up. As he fixed the woman some lunch, the woman told him that she had pawned her winter shawl to buy food. Martin gives her an old cloak to keep her and the baby warm, and then:
[Martin] told the woman his dream, and how he had heard the Lord’s voice promising to visit him that day. 
“Who knows? All things are possible,” said the woman. And she got up and threw the cloak over her shoulders, wrapping it round herself and round the baby. Then she bowed, and thanked Martin once more. 
“Take this for Christ’s sake,” said Martin, and he gave her six-pence to get her shawl out of pawn. The woman crossed herself, and Martin did the same, and then he saw her out (92).

Martin’s words “for Christ’s sake” foreshadow how the story will end.

The next post will conclude the story, a story that also reminds me of the kind, faithful, and generous nature of my mother.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Leo Tolstoy and the Parables (part 2)

"Where Love is, God is"

As I mentioned in my last post, Tolstoy’s sentimental 1885 short story, “Where Love is, God is,” gets to the heart of Jesus’ teachings, most notably using the parable of the Sheep and Goats as its central motif.

What follows is a summary with some analysis of the story, so don't keep reading if you prefer to read the story itself first to find out what happens. 

The story begins by describing the main character, a cobbler named Martin Avdeitch, who lived in a village in Russia. Martin’s wife died when their son was three years old, and their son died a few years later, so Martin was filled with overwhelming grief. He expressed his pain, loss of hope, and desire to die with an older holy man, and:
The old man replied, “You have no right to say such things, Martin. We cannot judge God’s ways. Not our reasoning, but God’s will, decides. If God willed that your son should die and you should live, it must be best so. As to your despair—that comes because you wish to live for your own happiness.”
What else should one live for?” asked Martin.
“For God, Martin,” said the old man. “He gives you life, and you must live for Him. When you have learnt to live for Him, you will grieve no more, and all will seem easy for you.”Martin was silent for awhile, and then asked, “But how is one to live for God?”The old man answered: “How one may live for God has been shown to us by Christ. Can you read? Then buy the Gospels, and read them: there you will see how God would have you live” (CCEL 86-87)
Martin began to read the Bible occasionally, but as time went by, he read it every night after dinner.

Although the story primarily interprets the Sheep and Goats parable, Tolstoy incorporates a few other parables as well. The narrator relates how Martin sat up late one night reading Luke’s Gospel, including the House built on the Rock parable. Martin wonders whether he had built his own “house” on the rock, and he recommits himself to trying to follow God’s commands in every aspect of his life. He goes on to read about the sinful woman and Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7:36-50, including the Two Debtors parable, and reflects on it:
He must have been like me, that Pharisee. He too thought only of himself—how to get a cup of tea, how to keep warm and comfortable; never a thought of his guest. He took care of himself, but for his guest he thought nothing at all. Yet who was the guest? The Lord himself! If he came to me, should I behave like that (88)?

After reading that story, Martin falls asleep, but then thinks he hears a voice speaking to him: “Look out into the street tomorrow, for I shall come.”

The next day, three events occur that shape Martin's understanding of himself, other human beings, and this parable.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) and the Parables

One of the best examples of Leo Tolstoy’s view of Christian morality is found in his 1885 short story, “Where Love is, God is.” It is a poignant and somewhat sentimental story, but it gets to the heart of Jesus’ teachings, most notably focusing on what the parable of the Sheep and Goats teaches about human relationships and the will of God.
Tolstoy, the author of classic novels such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, was born in a Russian aristocratic family on August 28, 1828, at Yasnaya Polyana, his family’s estate about 120 miles south of Moscow. Tolstoy’s mother died when he was two years old, and his father died just seven years later. Both deaths were devastating losses that affected Tolstoy for the rest of his life.

Tolstoy attended Kazan University but dropped out when he inherited the family’s estate in 1847. He lived a rather dissolute life—parts of the estate, for example, were sold to pay his gambling debts—and suffered from an often overpowering guilt, because he could not live according the “Rules for Life” that he composed for himself (Tolstoy 2006: 15-16). He joined the army in 1851, following in the footsteps of his brother Nikolai, and his first published novel, Childhood, appeared in the magazine, The Contemporary, where it gained the favorable attention of other Russian authors, such as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Ivan Turgenov.

Tolstoy became more famous after he published several other works during the five years he served in the army—his fans included Tsar Alexander II. Tolstoy also reflected on religious issues, became an ardent pacifist, and even contemplated starting a new religion based on “the religion of Christ, but purged of dogma and mystery, a practical religion, not promising future bliss but providing bliss on earth” (Bartlett 2010: 113).

Tolstoy left the army in 1856, traveled extensively, moved back to Yasnaya Polyana, and then married Sofya Behrs in 1862. He worked on War and Peace for over five years, which was published in 1869, and wrote Anna Karenina from 1873-1878, a book he never liked (Tolstoy 2006: 23). A spiritual crisis led him to re-evaluate his religious beliefs, and in his 1882 A Confession, he concluded that God did indeed exist. This work represents a shift in Tolstoy’s writings; the novelist developed into a moralist, prophet, and evangelist preaching the ethics of Jesus.

Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is within You argues that non-resistance to evil as espoused by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is the foundation upon which humanity must build its house (citing the House built on the Rock parable; Matt. 7:24-27). He admits that only a small number of Jesus’ followers actually had followed Jesus’ teachings on non-violence, a “corruption” of Christianity that had brought untold destruction over the intervening centuries (Tolstoy 1894: 185-86).

Tolstoy’s understanding of Christianity was unorthodox, and he was excommunicated from the Orthodox Church in 1901 after his book, Resurrection, harshly criticized the church. He refused to accept traditional Christian doctrines, such as the Virgin Birth, Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, or the Trinity. Tolstoy’s Christianity focused on the Love Commandment (Matt. 22:37-39), the Golden Rule, and social action based on the Sermon on the Mount that would lead to the elimination of evil society and the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth. Christianity, he argues, is not about worship of God or doctrines; it is instead a way of life based on the teachings of Jesus that changes the whole structure of society.

In his work, What I Believe (1882), Tolstoy establishes the principles—based on the Sermon on the Mount—he wants to follow in his daily life (cf. Bartlett 2010: 309, 342):
  • Live at peace with all human beings without anger, since anger was the root of all violence (Matt. 5:21-22);
  • Do not lust, divorce, or have sexual relations outside of marriage (Matt. 5:27-32);
  • Do not swear oaths (Matt. 5:33-37);
  • Live in non-violence even against evil (Matt. 5:38-42);
  • Love everyone, even your enemies (Matt. 5:43-48).

Tolstoy’s views on the Sermon on the Mount and non-violence influenced both Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Gandhi as a twenty-five year-old lawyer working in South Africa, was especially impressed by Tolstoy’s book, The Kingdom of God is within You, and appreciated Tolstoy’s attempt to live according to the principles he espoused (cf. Bartlett 2010: 309, 342). Tolstoy and Gandhi shared commitments to peace, non-violence, the Sermon on the Mount, and vegetarianism, and they corresponded with each other shortly before Tolstoy’s death (e.g., see Tolstoy 2009: 316-317). 

Next up: A summary/analysis of the story.

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