Concentrating on the parables
How can we untie that knot? Jesus of Nazareth was really canny, because most of his teaching is illustrated by his parables. So let’s concentrate on them. These were short illustrations which confirmed the point he had been trying to make in discussion around a question. His parables contained the conclusions he wanted to leave with people. The great thing about a parable is it is portable, memorable, and obvious, or at least it was in the right hands. Farm laborers, fishermen, and ordinary folk understood them. The exception was the clergy of the day. They were invested in a totally contrary set of assumptions which Jesus was challenging.
This is the first key to understanding Jesus’ teaching: he was attacking the received ideas of the nature of God. They could not afford for him to be right. What he proposed would deny them their raison d’etre. They would be surplus to requirements. That same teaching 115
about the nature of the divine works today, and there are still hosts of people who have trouble with it. Just like the clergy of his day, there are large percentages of folk who cannot afford to allow his word to be true.
Don’t bother with the beginning
All those stories of the birth of Jesus came later and were the final touches Luke and Matthew finally added to their gospels. You can come back to them later.
These three synoptic gospels were completed and in a form we would recognize between 75 CE and 85 CE, give or take a decade. Some theological teachers believe nothing was written down before about 70 CE, and all these stories were passed down by word of mouth.
They depended on people’s memory. I think that is nonsense. If you want an example of a gospel handed down by word of mouth, then look at the Gospel of Thomas. This has early material in it, but it is filled with extraneous items belonging to later periods. Everybody added whatever was their personal view of the gospel plus miscellaneous thoughts that had little to do with anything.
So when were the gospels written?
This is a different question than, “When were they completed?” or, in today’s terms, “When were they published?” The important issue is, “When were 116
the individual documents, which the gospels contain, written?” Without going into any great detail or explanation, here are a few of my own conclusions about when the various parts of each gospel were written. This gets technical so skip ahead if you need to.
Mark: The first edition came out about 45 CE
We call this Proto-Mark. John Mark was most likely its author and jotted down the stories he heard directly from the early disciples who met at his mother’s house in Jerusalem. His is a bald, factual account of Jesus’
Galilean ministry, which lasted about a year. I believe John Mark wrote his narrative to fill Paul in on Jesus of Nazareth’s life during that last year. Paul had not met Jesus so he needed at least an outline of Jesus’ story.
Mark and Paul did not get on together so Mark left Paul’s employ in a huff, but he left behind a copy of his first attempt at a gospel. When Luke came on board as a travelling companion and secretary, there was Proto Mark sitting on his desk. Mark took off with his own copy of his work and later added further stories and teachings. This is the copy Matthew had on his desk when he wrote his gospel, but that is a lot later. Most of this is conjecture derived from the stories we have in Acts of the Apostles. It cannot be proved.
Luke’s gospel was written between 52 CE and 54
Again, I cannot prove this, but at the time Paul was in prison waiting for his court appearance before the Roman Governor Felix. For two years, Luke and others attended the needs of Paul, who was confined to his quarters in Felix’s headquarters in Caesarea Maritima.
He had plenty of time to indulge his passion for writing and collecting the writings of others. What else would he do? I cannot prove this, but later we might visit this idea again. Luke had in his possession at least three documents at this time. Proto Mark, a document we call Q (a collection of parables and teachings), and another mystery document we designate as L. We don’t know anything about who wrote Q, but I have some very esoteric ideas about who wrote L., I believe it was the earliest of the documents, and written during Jesus’ early Jerusalem ministry. This document contains parables like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan.
I also believe this document was responsible for Paul’s original ideas that clarified Jesus’ message. As he says in his letter to the Galatians, “I got my gospel straight from Jesus and not from any human source.” The Birth narratives were all added during the decade of 70 CE
or later and I will not discuss them here.
Matthew was the last written of the synoptic gospels
This is a very Jewish gospel and reminds us that at this 118
time, Christianity was a part of the Jewish religion.
Matthew was finished in its present form about 85 CE, but like Luke it is composed of what he copied from other documents. He clearly had Mark’s latest edition, and also Q which Luke used. Matthew also had his own special material; this we designate M. Here are some of the oddball things about Matthew: He uses Q
differently from Luke by adding his own interpretation to aspects of the parables he copies. He embellishes the stories he finds in Mark, again adding his own twists; for example, at one point in Mark’s gospel Jesus is seen walking on the water, but in Matthew, Peter, one of the disciples, gets out of the boat and tries his hand at walking on water. Matthew for one reason or another improves on Mark’s story. He also changes words in the Lord’s Prayer, but this may be liturgical creep.
When prayers are used in worship, over time people add their own usage and the prayer changes in small ways. The changes in Matthew’s Lord’s Prayer suggest a gap of thirty or forty years between the two. Notice we cannot prove this, but it is a useful way of thinking when reading the gospels and being flummoxed by the differences.
• Mark wrote down what he heard from the disciples in the first few years immediately after Jesus’ death, 119
and he left a copy with St. Paul.
• Luke copied what other people had written without too many corrections, and those were grammatical.
Although he did like to improve on a good miracle here and there.
• Matthew took what others had written and changed it to fit what his own people believed or remembered. He is quite polemical at times.
• The Gospel of John or Fourth Gospel was written later, probably about 95 CE.
So pick up a copy of the gospels and study the gospel texts for yourself.
How to use a Parable
These are simple illustrations, sometimes of no more than a single sentence, but at other times running on as a complete story. “You cannot gather figs from thistles” is an example of the short parable, and the story of the Prodigal Son is of the longer variety. The first thing to remember is these parables were meant to be simple illustrations that ordinary people could easily understand. The parable was not meant to confuse or hide the truth. The only people who could not 120
understand them were the clergy. They did not want to understand but rather argue. A contemporary method of teaching was to argue using different points of view and quoting the writings of other men. The discussion on abstruse points of observance of the law might go on for days. After all, there was no TV or other distractions. This was not Jesus’ way.
The simple parable
Just look at the illustration, and ignore the explanation.
Even when Jesus begins to explain it in the text, just look at the simple illustration. This is when things go off the rails. He was too good a teacher to have to explain what he said. The people in front of him understood very well what he meant. Later the disciples had to try to explain to others, and they put their explanation in his mouth. They even expanded on what he was teaching to include their own ideas, such as judgment and damnation. When he wanted to expand his listeners’
understanding, Jesus would use a second parable like the first, but which would develop the theme one more step. We call this literary device a couplet. Look out for them.
Each of Jesus’ parables is a simile
Many of them begin with the words, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like...” Jesus’ style is recognizable after 121
reading a few of them; his words have a rhythm about them that can be identified as uniquely Jesus of Nazareth. Further, these similes only occur in the synoptic gospels, but not the gospel of John. That writer puts in Jesus’ mouth teaching expressed in metaphor rather than simile. That is another story we may eventually get around to telling.
Jesus states the subject of the parable in the first phrase of the parable
The point of the parable will therefore be about what that person or object does. This might seem obvious, but it is not. Preachers, teachers, and eminent theologians have gotten parables wrong for centuries, all because they missed who or what the subject of the parable was. It is very difficult to understand a parable if you begin with the wrong assumptions. The perfect example of this is a parable referred to as that of the Dishonest Steward, Luke 16:1-8. For 2,000 years, the point of this parable has been missed entirely because would-be interpreters have concentrated on the figure of the dishonest steward. Jesus tells us in the first line who it is about: “There was a rich man who had a steward.” It is about the rich man, and it is about what he does that matters, not the machinations of the grotesque figure of the steward. The same thing happens in the stories of the Prodigal Son, the Sower, 122
the Weeds, Treasure hidden in a field, Pearl of Great Price, and several more.
Where is the Parable told?
Parables about farming, fishing, and everyday life of the laborer belong naturally in the area of Galilee. The man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, the story of the Good Samaritan, was told to people in Jerusalem, as were several other parables that belong in the city rather than the countryside. It is very important to understand what kind of people were listening to him, and what kind of expertise and experience of the world was common to them. Jesus intentionally involved the people in his teaching method. So the story of the woman making bread no doubt had mouths watering at the thought of new baked bread. Imagine a laborer coming home hungry and smelling new loaves cooling, ready for his breakfast.
Who was he talking to?
This is similar to the last one. Ask who was he talking to and you get some surprising answers. The Prodigal Son story is told to a group of clergy and business entrepreneurs. That information is there in the text, but most preachers never mention that when they try to explain it to their congregations. The clergy’s and entrepreneurs’ respective behavior is very germane to 123
understanding the dynamics behind all five parables of that section. In fact, you can’t grasp the full impact of those parables unless you do take their reaction into consideration. Let your imagination loose. It has an important role in thoroughly understanding Jesus’
What was the question that precipitated the parable?
Jesus did not go about dripping parables
indiscriminately. Each was an illustration to clinch his point made in conversation or discussion. We see this a couple of times; the Lawyer who asks “Who is my neighbor?” is one example. This takes a little patience to figure out. If the parable is about the Kingdom of God, then you know the discussion and question that preceded it were about that subject. Reflecting on what the question was assists a great deal with narrowing the quest for the parable’s meaning.
What did the subject of the parable do or say?
It is in what the subject did or said that the key to the parable resides. The host of the marriage feast tells his servants to go out and bring everyone into the feast.
Here is the key. Jesus is saying in effect, everyone is invited, but those who chose not to respond will not get a smell of the banquet. This is the point of the 124
parable. Every one of us is invited into relationship with the divine. However, only those who respond to that invitation will enjoy the greater perspective it gives.
This point becomes a subject for us to meditate on.
Each parable has a profound, single point illuminating a principle of life with the Divine.
The Fourth Gospel or The Gospel of
This is the most puzzling of the gospels, so don’t give up on it. Thousands of books have been written about it. This gets technical, but for those who are interested, the story of St. John’s Gospel is fascinating. I offer this information so you might understand how the different pieces of the gospel fit together, and not be put off by them.
Who wrote it?
The hand of three writers can be discerned in the text of John’s gospel. As before, I will express my opinions on this issue.
The first and last chapters
These chapters form the Prologue and the Epilogue, which were written by a disciple of John, the beloved 125
disciple. This was someone close to John, who had listened to his teaching for a long time. He was able to express in wonderful majestic terms the teaching he had received from him. John was dead when these words were penned, and his gospel was published after his death.
The eyewitness was John as a young disciple of Jesus; John was there with Jesus in his early ministry in Jerusalem. No, this was not John of James and John, a fisherman from Capernaum. This was a young man, probably in his twenties, who knew Jerusalem very well.
He knew his way into the High Priest’s house or palace, and he understood the geography of the area and the names of local landmarks.
His description of events is detailed. It has a number of irrelevant observations remembered from being an observer rather than reporting others’ experience. He knew Lazarus, Mary and Martha, Nicodemus, and the politics of Jerusalem.
When he reported a story he shared with the synoptic gospels, he always corrected what they had written or added details to their account. For example, Jesus’
baptism down by the Jordan River is reported by all the synoptic writers, but in John, he is not reported as being 126
baptized. Jesus meets John the Baptist at the river, but there is no baptism mentioned. There are several other instances when the “eyewitness” corrects the synoptic story.
Cleansing of the temple
All three synoptic gospels mention this as happening in the last week of his ministry. The major point they make is that Jesus overthrew the tables of the money changers and attacked the commercialization of the temple. John states that Jesus let the animals go and then attacked the dealers selling doves. In John, Jesus attacked the temple’s function as the center for sacrifice.
He was in effect saying, “No more sacrifices.” This also happened in the opening months of his ministry in Jerusalem, and constitutes his mission statement.
Walking on the water
In John’s account, Jesus is almost certainly on shore and about to walk past the disciples who are in the boat. When they shriek in fear he says, “It OK. It’s only me.” He then clambers into the boat and they are immediately at the place they were heading for. This is very different from the synoptic version. Problem: You can’t walk on water because it provides no friction.
The crucifixion and resurrection
John’s details of the crucifixion are detailed and consistent with what we know about the geography and the political realities and aspects of Jewish life.
The Shroud of Turin supports John’s account of the crucifixion in great detail. The Shroud of Turin is of course another subject for discussion. John’s story of the resurrection has details that we can confirm from the information on the shroud. I know a lot of people have a problem with the Shroud, but there is too much evidence in support of it being the actual shroud that covered Jesus’ body as he lay in the sepulcher for it to be any kind of fake. It is hard for modern people to accept something they can’t account for through their own experience or knowledge bank. In this case, something really weird happened, but we don’t know what. You just have to get over it.
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