Friday, December 23, 2022

"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 post it every year. It provides a vision of a society informed by Jesus’s parable of the Sheep and Goats in the Gospel of Matthew and the biblical principle of hospitality: 

When the song of the angels is stilled, 
When the star in the sky is gone, 
When the kings and the princes are home, 
When the shepherds are back with their flock, 
The work of Christmas begins: 
To find the lost, 
To heal the broken, 
To feed the hungry, 
To release the prisoner, 
To rebuild the nations, 
To bring peace among brothers, 
To make music in the heart. 

Thurman reminds us of how Jesus wants us to respond to our fellow human beings in ways that God demands and in ways that echo, as Jesus of Nazareth declared in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, how God loves and treats us. May we truly make "music in the heart" for others and therefore ourselves in 2023.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Rembrandt's technique sheds light on how parables work

Some scholars wrongly title this Rembrandt painting "The Parable of the Rich Fool,"
based on Luke 12:16-20. It is "The Money Changer" (Der Geldwechsler).
(Wikimedia Commons/The University of Leipzig)


I have been neglecting to post things that I have published elsewhere. Over the next few weeks, I will try to correct that oversight, beginning with some pieces published in the National Catholic Reporter.

Here is the link to the original article that ran on July 9, 2022, and this is what it said:

My father loved parables — stories that taught, stories that presented ideas and morals in ways that made pictures in people's minds. … Because he believed stories were so important as teaching tools.
— Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Talents

If studied correctly, "the parables will receive a like interpretation from all." So wrote Irenaeus, the second-century Christian theologian, in Against Heresies: Book Two. This inaccurate claim, however, can be easily disproved by Irenaeus' own parable interpretations, not to mention the myriad of different interpretations of Jesus' parables that have occurred over the intervening centuries. Although some parables are relatively simple and straightforward, others can be elusive, enigmatic and encourage a range of interpretations as these short narratives continue to challenge our minds, hearts and imaginations.

As scholars explore what parables, these "teaching tools" mean, they also attempt to discover how parables work, that is how they produce meaning, such as the literary or rhetorical ways in which they seek to communicate and persuade. A critical component, as Octavia Butler puts it, is how they create "pictures in people's minds," which corresponds to the argument of the New Testament scholar C. H. Dodd, who claimed that Jesus' parables "are the natural expression of the mind that sees truth in concrete pictures rather than conceives it in abstractions."

How are we to understand the "pictures" these ancient parables create in the minds of today's hearers? To answer that question, it is helpful to explore how parables "work" in ways similar to pictures, as an intriguing painting by Rembrandt illustrates. This exploration sheds some light on why parables, like images, can produce multiple responses or meanings:

The room is dark, illuminated by a single candle. An elderly man sits at a desk overloaded with books and papers, some written in what appears to be Hebrew script. The man, a pince-nez perched on his nose, thoughtfully examines a coin. The hand holding the coin — with fingers made partially translucent by the candle's light — blocks the viewer from seeing the candle directly, but its glowing light illuminates the man, a small area of the desk and other elements in the darkened room.

All inessential elements are cloaked in shadows. On the desk are a gold-weigher's scale with a box of weights, as well as chaotic stacks of books and papers, with a huge (account?) book open on the man's right, through which large Xs have been marked through some entries. The man's face is brilliantly lit, and we see virtually every detail of his aged, wrinkled face — including his reddened nose, right ear and eyelids, as well as the soft shadows produced by his glasses — as he gazes at the coin in his hand. Other coins on the desk glimmer in the reflected glow of the candle's light, as do the epaulets on the man's shoulder. The fancy ruff around his neck also glows in the light, which then reflects even more light onto the man's face.

Who is this man and what does this painting say to its viewers? The painting resists characterization and it leaves many questions unanswered — even the title and subject of the work is disputed. Some scholars argue that it is a depiction of the rich fool parable in Luke 12:16­-20, but the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin (correctly) entitles it, "The Money Changer" (Der Geldwechsler).

Parables can create vivid pictures in the mind, but, like this painting by Rembrandt, those pictures are often enigmatic and sometimes puzzling (e.g., one meaning of the word used in Hebrew for parable, mashal, can be "riddle"). For example, William Blake compared his art to the parables and fables of Aesop and declared: "The wisest of the Ancients considered what is not too Explicit as the fittest for Instruction because it rouzes the faculties to act." Or, as Dodd put it, a parable leaves "the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought." That aspect of parables can give them tremendous power to affect their hearers and readers in numerous ways — challenging them to change their attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.

In rhetorical terms, both parables and visual images often function in a way analogous to enthymemes. An enthymeme is a syllogism with an unstated premise — one of the two propositions on which a syllogism's conclusion is based. A complete syllogism contains two explicitly stated premises that lead to a necessary conclusion, such as this famous syllogism about Socrates:

All humans are mortal;
Socrates is human;
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Unlike syllogisms, enthymemes omit a premise and the unstated premise has to be supplied by the audience. The above syllogism about Socrates, for example, easily transforms into an enthymeme (all humans are mortal; therefore, Socrates is mortal), because it is simple enough to supply the proposition that Socrates was human.

Parables and visual images thus can be enthymematic by omitting "premises" of one kind or another, thus leading to ambiguity and multiple meanings. The enthymematic process provokes divergent responses as interpreters endeavor to understand them since not every audience member envisions the missing premise in the same way.

Sometimes in parables and visual images, the "missing premise" can be unintentionally omitted. Many social and cultural assumptions in ancient texts, for instance, are incomprehensible to most modern readers. Thus, a key role for interpreters is to strive to understand the meanings of parables in the contexts of Jesus' life and ministry by attempting to fill in the "missing premises" or gaps with historical, social and cultural information, and then to contextualize the parables of Jesus authentically — making them relevant for contemporary society without anachronizing or domesticating his message.

In addition, because of the nature of parables and visual images, a premise, or other such "gaps," is intentionally omitted, as is the case in Rembrandt's painting.

The lighting spotlights the main character and the psychological depth opened up by Rembrandt's brilliant manipulation of light and shadow (chiaroscuro) is seemingly bottomless and, along with the man's seemingly introspective detachment, also creates a sense of mystery. That is, we get a strong sense of something deeply serious going on in the mind of this man, but the precise nature of his thoughts and feelings is, at best, only darkly implied.

Rembrandt uses chiaroscuro both as a dramatic means of portraying a scene and as an effective way of suggesting inner character with psychological insight subtly portrayed with a sense of mystery. The rays of light are reflected in various ways and sundry places, just as parables are reflected in different ways in different contexts and heard in numerous ways by various hearers. Rembrandt illuminates some objects clearly, while other aspects remain murky or obscure, placed deliberately in the shadows, creating uncertainties and provoking debates.

In a similar way, the parables of Jesus illuminate some things as clear as day. Other aspects become clearer as we learn more and more about the first-century contexts in which Jesus created and his followers preserved, transmitted and transformed his words. Whereas still other elements — because of the nature of the parabolic word — remain deliberately in the shadows, provoking our responses as we endeavor to understand Jesus' parables more clearly in his context and ours and seek to change our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors accordingly.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

What are They saying about the Parables? (Chapter 4 , part 6): Evaluation of recent contributions from Ruben Zimmermann


Ruben Zimmermann's contributions to parable study are vast and significant, and more is forthcoming from him. In brief, though, through his books (and dozens of articles), Zimmermann makes significant methodological, hermeneutical, and ethical contributions to parable interpretation, including his efforts to facilitate collaboration among scholars around the world. 

The “integrative method” of historical, literary, and reader-oriented approaches that Zimmermann proposes advances dialogues not just in parable scholarship but also in historical Jesus scholarship. 

Zimmermann’s work is also comprehensive in the ways discussed in the Preface to my WATSA Parables? book. He investigates what parables do and how they work; he explores their meanings; and, perhaps most importantly, he endeavors to ascertain what parables want, the ways in which parables challenge their hearers to act. 

Yet these explorations, discussions, and collaborations need to be extended. An integrative method, for example, is not new or unique, and, in fact, should be—as some already are —even more comprehensive, integrating not just literary, rhetorical, and socio-historical analyses but also additional insights, for example, from socio-economic, socio-cultural, and other social-scientific analyses of the first-century Mediterranean world. 

In addition, a richer dialogue with literary approaches would strengthen discussions about the dialogic function of parables embedded into larger narratives, which includes (a) centripetal elements that necessitate interpretation of the parables within their literary contexts and (b) centrifugal elements that require analyses of how the narratives can attempt to impose more-monologic discourse on the more-dialogic parables (see the discussion of “monologic authority” at the end of Chapter 3 above). Sometimes embedding parables into larger narratives can change their meanings dramatically. In these cases, the tensions between parables and the larger narratives in which they are embedded cannot control, contain, or complete the parables’ ability to create or communicate meaning.

The next post will offer a brief conclusion about heteroglossia, polyphony, and parables. After that, on to discussing Chapter 5 of What are They Saying about the Parables?

The Eye of the Needle is NOT a Gate in Jerusalem


I keep seeing over and over again the claim the the "eye of a needle" means a gate in Jerusalem, so I thought I should repost this comments about that error:

In a commentary for Fortune, I included the following:
Jesus told a wealthy man to sell all his possessions and to give the proceeds to the poor. Jesus then told his disciples how difficult it was for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God (as likely as a camel going through an eye of a sewing needle).
I added the word "sewing" because I did not have the space to explain that when the Gospel texts said, "a needle," they meant a sewing needle (Hobart argued it was a physician's needle in Luke, but Cadbury put the "Lukan physician's language" theory to rest).

The editor(s) of Fortune removed my citation of the biblical texts (Matt 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25) in this instance and for all the other biblical references, so in the numerous comments by readers of the essay who responded to the article, several observed that I had made a mistake or that my knowledge of the Biblical context was incorrect. For example (taken from the Yahoo! Finance page, where it was also posted online):
I agree with Mr. Gowler's assessment, except for one thing. The "eye of the needle" was a gate in the walls of Jerusalem...a little gate. For a camel to pass through, it had to be unburdened and had to stoop down a little. In other words, hold on to your possessions and your pride, and you'll never get through. As far as Mr. Ryan having a problem with the poor carpenter's son from Nazareth, I am in complete agreement.

Other commenters were more caustic about my alleged lack of knowledge of this gate in Jerusalem.

It's interesting how these misconceptions persist, and these domestications of Jesus's words--efforts to tame his radical message--all derive from interpreters' unease with this shocking, hyperbolic statement. 

There is no evidence that the saying refers to a gate, including a particular gate in Jerusalem. That arose sometime, most likely, in the middle ages (I remember the version about this mythical gate that I heard from a pulpit growing up is that the camel actually had to pass through the Jerusalem gate on its knees).

If you change one letter in the Greek word (an eta to an iota) that would change the word "camel" to "rope" or "ship's cable," and some scribes evidently made that change in a few manuscripts (e.g., S, 1010, f13), and Origen, Cyril of Alexandria, and a few others favored that view.* 

Others claim that the Aramaic word "behind" the Greek word meant a thick rope or a ship's cable (e.g., Lamsa, Gospel Light, 115-116). Others suggest that the word actually means a "large wooden beam" (noted but rejected by Ibn al-Tayyib).

One of the better studies of this saying is in Kenneth Bailey's Through Peasant Eyes, 165-166, and he convincingly makes the argument that this needle is indeed a needle. He also points out that there is a later rabbinic saying in the Talmud (probably dependent) that speaks of the impossibility of "an elephant going through the eye of a needle" (an elephant being the largest animal in Babylonia; Ber. 55b; there also is a comparative text in the Qur'an: Sura 7:40). 

One can also point to the analogous saying of Jesus about straining the gnat and swallowing a camel (Matt 23:24) for a similar hyperbolic, impossible task.

The text speaks about something that is impossible for human beings; that rules out a gate where a camel's burden needed to be unloaded before it could pass through.

Many interpreters point to this passage as an example of Jesus's "peasant humor"--it is impossible for the largest animal in the area to pass through such a small aperture--but told from a deadly serious perspective, from a prophet similar to Amos, a "voice from below" who cried out against the injustices of the wealthy of his day. 

*Thanks to James Ernest for catching a typo in the earlier version.

Friday, March 18, 2022

A Lenten Meditation in NCR: The Way of the Cross from Advent to Lent


This article is not about a parable, but I want to share it on this blog. The article is found in today's issue of The National Catholic Reporter. In this Lenten meditation, using the work of Adolfo PĂ©rez Esquivel and illustrated by Alastair McIntosh, I argue that the Way of the Cross begins with the Magnificat, is inaugurated by Jesus’s Nazareth sermon, and is completed by Jesus's last week in Jerusalem. The first two paragraphs of the article are:

The Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem begins with commemorating Jesus’s condemnation by Pilate in the traditional site of Pilate’s Praetorium and ends at the Holy Sepulchre with remembering his internment in the tomb. At each of the fourteen stations in this “Way of the Cross,” pilgrims are urged to meditate on the events and meaning of Jesus’s death. 

Yet Jesus’s path to the cross did not really begin in Jerusalem. Jesus’s teachings and ministry were the first stages of his path to the cross in Jerusalem, as prefigured in Mary’s Magnificat and proclaimed in Jesus’s inaugural sermon in his hometown of Nazareth. The seeds planted in verses read during Advent thus prepare us for Jesus’s ministry, and Jesus’s proclamation of good news for the poor and his critiques of power, wealth, and oppression led inexorably to the Way of the Cross that we commemorate during Lent.

The article can be found here

The illustrations by McIntosh can be found here.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

"The Mote and the Beam" gives insight into COVID-19 debates

"The Parable of the Mote and Beam" (circa 1619) by Domenico Fetti (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Parable of the Mote and Beam (circa 1619) 
by Domenico Fetti (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Last summer I had another essay accepted by The National Catholic Reporter. I wrote it primarily to convince myself to have more patience with anti-vaxxers, something that is almost exponentially more difficult to do several months later. You can find the full essay (1200 words) here.

The essay discusses what the Gospel of Luke calls a parable--the Mote and Beam--and Domenico Fett's awesome painting of it (above). Along the way, I use Howard Thurman's "three Hounds of Hell," which I think is very helpful in understanding what motivates those who intentionally lie about vaccines, masks, and other mitigation efforts. 

Here's a sample:

Jesus' admonitions are often difficult to implement, and the task is especially arduous when applied during a pandemic that is prolonged by people hesitant or even adamant about not taking simple actions to protect themselves and their neighbors. It seems that the "beams" are in their eyes, not ours, and that they are blind to both the danger and the solutions — and maddeningly so to the rest of us.

In addition, some influential voices — for fame, power and/or profit — deliberately mislead others about actions they should take to protect themselves and their neighbors, such as convincing people that the COVID-19 vaccines are unnecessary, or harmful, or a "personal choice" that does not affect others.

In such cases, it seems clear why Jesus prefaces the mote/beam parable in Luke with the parable about the blind leading the blind, with them all falling into a pit. Disaster is sure to follow, just as Jesus warned.

The arguments against masks, social distancing and vaccines are scientifically false, so their opponents are in error, sometimes tragically so. To be clear, Jesus' admonition not to "judge" other human beings in this section of Luke (6:37) does not mean that we should avoid correcting such erroneous beliefs and behaviors; it means instead that we should not judge in a condemnatory way (as noted in the same verse) and that our critiques should be merciful, generous, loving and intended to be redemptive, all of which are included in a humble acknowledgement of our own failings — noting the beams in our own eyes.

I don’t know if I’d say the same thing at this stage of the pandemic, but maybe I should:

"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...