Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Parables of Jesus (Part 3)

The Parables of Jesus (Part 3)

The eschatological and “Kingdom” parables in Matthew and Luke are being examined according to five themes:

    1. The Matthean ‘additions’ to the Synoptic tradition in Mark 4
    2. Vineyard Parables
    3. Banquet/Feast Parables
    4. The Eschatological Parables in Matthew 25
    5. The “Delay of the Parousia” in Luke

The first three of these were treated in Part 2; here we will study the remaining two.

4. The Eschatological Parables in Matthew 25

Following the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” (chap. 24), Matthew records three additional eschatological parables:

Matthew 25:1-13: Parable of the Bridesmaids

Both of the parables in Matt 25:1-30 are Kingdom parables, as is specified in verse 1: “the kingdom of the heavens will be considered (to be) like…”. As in several of the parables we have already examined (Parts 1 and 2 of this study), the setting involves a man who has gone away and is expected to come (back). In the Bridesmaids-parable, this motif has been simplified to that of the bridegroom in a marriage/wedding-ceremony who is coming to fetch the bride and take her to his house. A rather different wedding scenario appears in Luke 12:35-38 (cf. below). There is some question whether, in the original context of the parable(s), the man/bridegroom represented Jesus or God the Father (YHWH). The setting here in Matt 25, following the Eschatological Discourse in chap. 24, naturally would have led early Christians to associate it with Jesus’ return. However, more properly the image refers to God’s end-time appearance for Judgment, and to deliver the faithful ones among his people; this appearance was understood in terms of his heavenly/divine representative—Messenger of the Lord and/or Son of Man—identified with Jesus in the Gospel Tradition.

There is again a distinction between two groups, juxtaposed against one another, as in the parable of the Weeds and the Net (cf. the discussion in Part 2). The two groups are together in one body (community or collection of people), but reflect very different characteristics. In the Bridesmaids-parable, there are ten virgins (maidens)—five of whom are described as mindful/thoughtful (fro/nimo$), while the other five are “dull” (mwro/$). They are together in one place, attending the bride, a detail which has to be inferred from the context (the variant reading in v. 1 indicates that copyists may have misunderstood the setting of the parable). The bride, who belongs to the bridegroom (having been betrothed to him, by a binding agreement [covenant]), is similar in many respects to the field in the Weeds-parable which belongs to the Sower (the Son of Man). The bride/bridegroom imagery, based on ancient Near Eastern (and Old Testament) tradition, more specifically suggests the religious relationship between God and his people Israel. In addition to the general milieu of ancient love poetry and marital imagery, which may be interpreted in this light (cf. Song of Songs 4:8-5:1), it is found, e.g., in Isaiah 49:18; 61:10; 62:5. The theme of love between husband and wife, in terms of marital faithfulness and loyalty, was used in the Prophets as a way of expressing Israel’s unfaithfulness to God, violating the binding (marriage) agreement, or covenant. We see this most famously in Hosea 1-3, but also in a number of other places, such as Joel 1:8 and Jer 2:2. On the wedding feast (verse 10), cf. Rev 19:7-9 and the discussion on the Feast/Banquet parables in Part 2.

Typically the servants/workers as characters in Jesus’ parables are meant as instructive examples for his disciples—the disciple of Jesus will see himself (or herself) in the position of the faithful servant. The parable functions as an exhortation (and a warning) for the disciple to behave in the manner of the positive character, rather than the negative. The “lamps” carried by the maidens is a figurative expression of the disciple’s behavior and faithful devotion, as stated more generally in Matt 5:14-16, etc. The brief Lamp-parable in the Synoptic tradition (Mark 4:21-22) has an eschatological orientation, which is echoed here as well. There is a sense in which the light from the lamps is defined as the message of the Kingdom which has been given to the disciples.

Apart from the fundamental setting of the coming/return of the man (bridegroom), the eschatological aspect is emphasized by other details in the parable, such as the use of the noun u(pa/nthsi$ / a)pa/nthsi$ (vv. 1, 6). The related verbs u(panta/w and a)panta/w are virtually synonymous—both have the basic meaning of going away to come opposite (i.e. to meet, come face-to-face) with another person. Paul uses a)pa/nthsi$ specifically to refer to believers meeting Jesus in the air at his return (1 Thess 4:17). However, in Old Testament and Jewish tradition, the primary idea was that the people must be prepared to meet their God—i.e. the end-time Judgment. This eschatological judgment motif—involving the separation of the righteous and wicked, as of the true and false disciple (cf. the chap. 13 parables)—is vividly expressed by the climactic scene of the parable (vv. 11-12), which has similarities to the sayings/parables of Jesus in 7:21-23 and Luke 13:25-27.

The suddenness of the bridegroom’s appearance is emphasized in vv. 6, 10, in which he comes “in the middle of the night” when many, like the dull/foolish bridesmaids, might naturally be asleep. This reflects the imminent expectation of the end-time Judgment, held by early Christians (and other Jews of the time), though tempered, perhaps, by the motif of a ‘delay’ in v. 5: “But (while) the bridegroom (was) taking (his) time…”. This could provide support for the idea of a significant period of time (some years, at least) which could pass before the end-time Judgment (and return of Jesus). For more on the “delay of the Parousia”, see section 5 below.

There are certain parallels between the Bridesmaids-parable and the brief parable in Luke 12:35-38; despite differences in detail, the general outline and message are much the same: the servants (disciples) are to keep their lamps lit and remain watchful for their master’s return.

Matthew 25:14-30: Parable of the Talents (par Lk 19:11-27)

The Matthean Parable of the Talents is quite similar to the Lukan Parable of the Minas (19:11-27); many scholars consider them to be part of a shared tradition (“Q” material), though the significant differences make this less than certain. There are several ways of understanding the relationship between the two:

    • They reflect two different, but similar, parables of Jesus
    • It is the same parable, preserved in two different lines of tradition
    • It is the same parable (“Q”), modified by one or both of the Gospel writers

In favor of the latter is the fact a common core parable can be obtained by a simple removal or modification of several elements unique to each version:

    • Matthew:
      • Addition of the concluding line (v. 30), which is especially common as a refrain in the Matthean sayings/parables
    • Luke:
      • The narrative introduction in v. 11
      • The reference to the man as of noble origins, and the reason for his departure (“to receive a kingdom of himself”), v. 12
      • The verses/details related to this Lukan kingship motif—vv. 14-15a, 25, 27

Apart from these separable components, the differences between the two versions of the parable are minor—most notably, the difference in the amount of money involved (talents vs. minas). Curiously, Luke’s version specifies ten servants, though the parable itself, like Matthew’s version, only deals with three. Perhaps the reference to ten servants is meant to give the impression that the faithless servant (1 of 10), like Judas Iscariot (1 of 12), is relatively rare among the disciples of Jesus.

If we examine the parable in Matthew, we see that it is included together with the previous Bridesmaids-parable as another parable of the Kingdom (vv. 1, 14); Luke’s version makes this explicit (cf. below). We have the familiar motif of servants/workers and the landowner or household master who goes away. The money entrusted to the three servants resembles the lamps held by the bridesmaids—both symbolize the disciple’s faithful service to God and Jesus. Instead of two groups, there are three distinct characters, yet still reflecting two kinds of characteristics—those who deal faithfully with the money for their master, and those who do not (through fear and inaction). The end-time Judgment is expressed through several details in the parable:

    • The return of the master who settles the accounts (v. 19)
    • The reward given to the two faithful servants (vv. 20-23)—note the traditional reference to “entering” the divine/heavenly life (i.e. entering the Kingdom)
    • The judgment against the wicked/unfaithful servant (vv. 26ff)
    • The separation of the wicked—thrown into the “outer darkness” (v. 30)

As noted above, the Lukan version contains a kingship narrative line running through the parable:

    • The narrative introduction (v. 11), establishing the reason for Jesus’ uttering the parable (cf. Section 5 below)
    • The man is described as “well-born”—he goes away specifically “to receive a kingdom for himself” (v. 12)
    • The parable is interrupted, it would seem, by the notice in v. 14, introducing the theme of the rebellious citizens who do not want the man to rule over them as king
    • When the man returns, he is said to have “received the kingdom”, i.e. authority to rule (v. 15a)
    • Again, at the end of the parable, we find another reference to the people who did not wish the man to rule—now they are characterized as “enemies” (v. 27).

It must be admitted that verses 14 and 27 seem out of place in the parable, which otherwise generally matches the version in Matthew. It has been suggested that two separate parables are blended together in Luke’s version: (1) a parable similar to Matt 25:14-30, and (2) a parable involving a king and his subjects. The two strands fit uneasily, making two very different statements: (1) exhortation to faithful discipleship, and (2) Jesus’ role/position as Messiah. Interestingly, the Lukan version, like Matthew’s, ends with a harsh declaration of Judgment (v. 27), though the two differ considerably in form and emphasis.

Both versions also include a motif suggesting a ‘delay’ in the coming of the end-time Judgment (and return of Jesus). Luke expresses this by way of the introduction in v. 11, and also with the detail that the man travels into a “far-off place” (v. 12). For Matthew, a similar idea is indicated in the parable when it is stated that master returns “after much time” (25:19). This will be discussed in Section 5 below.

Matthew 25:31-46: Parable of the Sheep and Goats

The last of the three parables in Matthew 25 has much the character of a vision-scene with symbolic/figurative elements, rather than a parable properly speaking. Indeed, it is not a Kingdom-parable, but a description of the Kingdom of God in heaven. It is, in fact, a scene of the great Judgment, set in the heavenly court. The eschatological key phrase is found in the opening words:

“And when the Son of Man should come in his splendor, and all the Messengers with him…” (v. 31a)

This virtually restates the Synoptic saying in Mark 8:38 par, referring to the appearance of the Son of Man at the end-time Judgment, viewed as imminent. The corresponding saying in Matthew at this point highlights the theme of the Judgment:

“For the Son of Man is about to come in the splendor of his Father, with his Messengers, and then he will give forth to each (person) according to his deed(s)” (16:27)

For more on this end-time appearance of the Son of Man—a tradition deriving primarily from Daniel 7:13-14ff—cf. Mark 13:26-27; 14:62 pars, and the recent study on the eschatological Sayings of Jesus. The opening verse of the parable emphasizes the exalted status and position of Jesus (at God’s right hand), as the divine/heavenly Son of Man. The depiction of the Judgment scene is altogether traditional, at least in its basic framework:

    • The judgment of the Nations (v. 32)—traditionally, the Messiah would play a prominent role in this process; in 1 Enoch, as in the Gospels and early Christian tradition, the Danielic Son of Man figure was identified as God’s Anointed One (Messiah), the two figure-types being blended together.
    • The separation of the righteous from the wicked (vv. 32ff)—this is stated generally (“he will mark them off from [each] other”), which could give the misleading impression that nations are being separated from another. Rather, it is the people (humankind) generally who are being separated.
    • The separation is expressed through the symbolic designation of “sheep” and “goats”; this simply reflects shepherding imagery, like the fishing imagery in the Net-parable (13:47-49), and one should not read too much into the sheep and goat as distinctive symbols.
    • The basis for the separation (righteous vs. wicked) is ethical (rather than theological), though with a uniquely Christian emphasis (cf. below).
    • The final Judgment (reward/punishment) likewise is stated in traditional language:
      “and these [i.e. the wicked] will go away into punishment of the Ages [i.e. eternal punishment], but the just/righteous (one)s into (the) Life of the Ages [i.e. eternal life]” (v. 46)

What is especially distinctive, and most memorable, about the parable is the basis for the judgment/separation, which is set forth in considerable detail (unlike the parables of the Weeds and Net, where is left unstated). It is described entirely in terms of how one has responded to people who are in need (of food, clothing, comfort, care/treatment of sickness, etc)—i.e. to the poor and unfortunate in society. This has caused some consternation for Christians accustomed to viewing salvation strictly, or primarily, in terms of faith in Jesus, i.e. acceptance of him as Messiah and Son of God. However, the emphasis in the parable here is not much different from that in the Sermon on the Mount (see esp. the Beatitudes [5:3-12] and the Antitheses [5:21-47]), where traditional religious and ethical standards have been given a new, deeper interpretation. The true and faithful disciple of Jesus will follow this new ethic, and the declaration by Jesus in 5:20 is very much of a kind with the parable of the Sheep and Goats:

“For I relate to you that if your justice/righteousness does not go over (and above, even) more than (that) of the Writers [i.e. Scribes] and Pharisees, you (certainly) will not go into the kingdom of the heavens!”

5. The “Delay of the Parousia” in Luke

A final topic which must be addressed, related to the parables in Matthew and Luke, involves several key references which suggest a period of time which is to pass before the coming of final Judgment and the return of Jesus. This would seem to contrast with the language of imminence which otherwise is found in most/many of Jesus’ sayings (cf. the earlier study of the Sayings). The specific (and difficult, from our viewpoint) aspect of imminent eschatology in Jesus’ sayings/teaching will be discussed in more detail in the next study (on the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse”), as well as a separate study devoted to the topic. However, it is worth mentioning here these important references in the parables to what is typically called “the delay of the Parousia”—i.e. a recognition among early Christians, after several decades, that the coming of the end (and the return of Jesus) might not occur for some time. In this regard, the relative dating of the Gospels could be significant. Mark is usually recognized as the earliest of the four canonical Gospels, dated perhaps c. 60 A.D., with Luke somewhat later (after 70 A.D.), and Matthew, perhaps, later still (c. 80 A.D.). Apart from the statement in 13:7b (to be discussed), there is little in Mark to suggest anything other than an imminent expectation of the end—i.e. within the lifetime of the disciples. If the conventional dating of Luke and Matthew is correct, they would have been written at a time when a number of the disciples—i.e. the first generation of believers—were beginning to die off. It must be admitted that this issue is not specifically addressed in any of the Synoptic Gospels, but only in the Gospel of John, usually thought to be the latest of the four (c. 90-95 A.D.?)—cf. the tradition (and the way it is presented) in Jn 21:20-23. It is natural that the later, more developed Gospel tradition would reflect the concern of this “delay”, and seek to explain it, at least in a rudimentary way.

Even so, it must be stated that evidence of this sort is rather slight in Matthew and Luke. Neither Gospel writer felt it necessary to alter, to any real extent, the various Synoptic sayings and traditions which indicate an imminent expectation of the end-time Judgment. For example, they all leave the statement by Jesus in Mark 13:30 par in place without any real modification or explanation. Similarly, references indicating a significant ‘delay’ are relatively rare, and should not be overstated. We saw above, details in two of the parables which are worthy of note:

    • It is said of the Bridegroom that he was “taking (his) time” (xroni/zonto$), which led some of the maidens carelessly to fall asleep (25:5)
    • In the Parable of the Talents, it is only “after much time” (meta\ polu\n xro/non) that the master returns (25:19)

Both details, it would seem, reflect the same basic idea, though the latter more clearly indicates a significant period of time. If these parables properly refer to the return of Jesus, then it could, perhaps, express the idea (or at least allow for the possibility) that Jesus might not return within the lifetime of the first disciples.

The Gospel of Luke contains more details of this sort, which, indeed, is more fitting for the context of the combined work of Luke-Acts, with its emphasis on a period of mission work among the Gentiles that must take place before the end comes (Acts 1:6-8, etc). The parables also express this in various ways; there are two which need to be examined here: (a) the Parable of the Judge and the Widow, and (b) the Parable of the Minas.

Luke 18:1-8: The Parable of the Judge and the Widow

The purpose of this parable is expressed by the Gospel writer in the opening words (narrative introduction, v. 1): the necessity of the disciples “always to speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray] and not to act out of a bad (heart) [i.e. be weak, cowardly]”. In other words, Jesus exhorts his followers to be persistent in prayer, even in the face of difficult and trying circumstances, where it may seem as though God does not hear them. This is certainly the primary message of the parable (vv. 2-6); however, if we read between the lines, the chronological dimension of the parable could be taken to suggest a delay in the end-time deliverance of God’s people (i.e. the Judgment), which early believers (along with many devout Jews) were fervently expecting. The woman in the parable “would come toward him [i.e. the judge]” (v. 3), i.e. would come repeatedly; and the judge was apparently not willing to hear her complaint “upon [i.e. for] (some) time” (v. 4). The explanation of the parable by Jesus in verse 7, and its application to the disciples (believers), suggests more is involved here than simply the question of unanswered prayer:

“And would God (then) not (all the more) make out justice for his (chosen one)s (which he) gathered out, the (one)s crying to him day and night, and is his impulse (to answer) long upon them [i.e. is he long in answering them]?”

There seems to be an echo here of the eschatological (and Messianic) hope expressed, for example, in 2:25, 38. Moreover the persecution which Jesus’ disciples will face, also implied here in the parable, is often presented in an eschatological context (21:12-19 par, etc). Luke is fully aware that at least thirty years would pass, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, without the end coming, and that, during this time, the early Christians (especially missionaries such as Paul and Barnabas) would face persecution. This parable may have been included by the Gospel writer, in part, with just this context in mind. The eschatological orientation of the parable would seem to be confirmed by the concluding declaration by Jesus in verse 8b, which may have circulated originally as a separate saying: “All the more, the Son of Man (at) his coming, will he find trust upon the earth?”. Disciples are to continue following Jesus faithfully, trusting in God, for the period (however brief or long) that lasts until the Son of Man comes. Verse 8a suggests that this period of time will not be all that long, preserving the basic sense of imminence—”I relate to you that he [i.e. God] will make out justice for them in (all) speed!”. On the language of imminence here—i.e. the expression e)n ta/xei, “in [i.e. with] (all) speed”—cf. the separate study in this series on imminent eschatology in the New Testament.

Luke 19:11-27: The Parable of the Minas

The parable itself was discussed above, in connection with the Matthean Parable of the Talents. Here, it is necessary to focus on two elements of the Lukan version: (a) the narrative introduction in verse 11, and (b) the description of the man who goes away in verse 12. First consider the setting indicated in the narrative introduction, which also serves as a transition from the Zaccheus narrative in vv. 1-10:

“And (at) their hearing these (thing)s, (Yeshua,) putting (this also) toward (them), said (it as) an (illustration) cast alongside [i.e. parable], through [i.e. because of] his being near to Yerushalaim, and their considering that the kingdom of God was about to shine forth [i.e. appear] paraxrh=ma.”

The syntax is somewhat complex, but what the author is describing is clear enough. Jesus was aware that many people (among his disciples and other followers) were thinking/expecting that the Kingdom of God would suddenly appear and be realized (on earth) once they arrived in Jerusalem. The adverb paraxrh=ma is difficult to translate literally; fundamentally, it refers to something which comes along (para/) just as it is needed (xrh=ma)—i.e. just at the right time. Sometimes it carries the sense of “at that very moment”, “immediately”. The “triumphal entry” narrative in the Gospel tradition (Mark 11:1-10 par) indicates that many people envisioned Jesus as the Messiah (Davidic-ruler type) who would establish the Kingdom in Jerusalem—presumably an earthly (Messianic) Kingdom, according to popular tradition. The questions posed to him in Lk 17:20 and Acts 1:6 reflect a similar eschatological expectation. In response to those questions, Jesus redirects his audience, pointing them toward a different (and deeper) understanding. Much the same is done here, through the parable which follows in vv. 12ff. The Kingdom of God will not be established immediately at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

This brings us to the beginning of the parable, which differs from the Matthean version in the description of the man who goes away. Here is how it is stated in the Parable of the Talents:

“…a man going away from his own people…” (25:14)

This simple phrase likely reflects the core parable (cf. above); however, in the Lukan Parable of the Minas, it is expanded considerably:

“A certain well-born man traveled into a far(-off) area to receive a kingdom for himself and (then) turn back [i.e. return].” (19:12)

I noted above that there is some ambiguity in these parables whether the figure of the master/landowner who goes away properly refers to Jesus or God the Father (YHWH). Probably in their original context it is God who is in view, though early Christians certainly would have come to interpret such eschatological parables in terms of Jesus’ return at the end-time. The Matthean Parable of the Talents could be understood either way; however, in the Lukan Parable of the Minas there is no question at all—the man who goes away has to be identified with Jesus. This is abundantly clear from the details in verse 12:

    • a well-born man (but not yet a King)
    • travels into a far-away land
    • to receive a kingdom for himself
    • and then returns back to his own land

This action in the story refers to a local ruler (prince, etc) who travels to the land/court of a powerful sovereign (king) to be granted the title and status of king (i.e., vassal of the greater sovereign). When he returns to his own land he now rules as king under the authority of the sovereign who granted him that title. From the standpoint of the Gospel narrative, this process described in verse 12 can only refer to the death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus. Having being raised to the right hand of God the Father, when Jesus returns, it will be as a divine King ruling with God’s own authority.

There is nothing in the parable which indicates exactly the time that the man (Jesus) is away; the designation of “far-off land” is best understood in terms of location (i.e. with God in Heaven). The Matthean parable does state that it is only “after much time” that the man returns. If we are faithful to the Lukan parable itself, all that we can say is that the Kingdom of God will not be established until some time after Jesus’ death, resurrection and departure to the Father. In the context of the wider narrative of Luke-Acts, this allows at least for a period of missionary work among the nations (Gentiles), as indicated in Acts 1:6-8ff; however, beyond this, there is no indication of the amount of time that is involved. This will be discussed further when we study the eschatology in the book of Acts.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Parables of Jesus (Part 2)

The Parables of Jesus (Part 2)

Part 1 of this study examined the parables in the core Synoptic (triple) tradition, as represented by the Gospel of Mark. We looked primarily at the Kingdom-parables in chapter 4, along with the parable of the Wicked Tenants in 12:1-12. Now we turn to the parables found in Matthew and Luke (but not Mark); some of these parables are unique to each Gospel, while others occur in both (i.e. material commonly designated “Q”). These eschatological and “Kingdom” parables will be examined according to five themes:

    1. The Matthean ‘additions’ to the Synoptic tradition in Mark 4
    2. Vineyard Parables
    3. Banquet/Feast Parables
    4. The Eschatological Parables in Matthew 25
    5. The “Delay of the Parousia” in Luke

1. The Matthean ‘additions’ to the Synoptic Tradition in Mark 4

Matthew 13 clearly draws upon the same tradition as Mark 4—a sequence of Kingdom-parables, according to an established (thematic) arrangement. However, Matthew includes several parables and sayings not found in Mark (nor the corresponding version in Luke [8:4-18])—these are:

    • The dual-saying in vv. 16-17 (“Q”, cf. Luke 10:23-24)
    • The Parable of the Weeds (vv. 24-30, 36-43)
    • The Parable of the Leaven (v. 33)
    • The Parables of the Treasure and Pearl (vv. 44-46)
    • The Parable of the Net (vv. 47-50)
    • The concluding saying in vv. 51-52

The additional parables all illustrate the Kingdom of God (“Kingdom of Heaven“, in Matthew)—vv. 24, 33, 44, 45, 47, and also v. 52. They also serve to enhance the eschatological orientation of the sequence of Kingdom-parables; in particular, the Parables of the Weeds and Net have a clear reference to the end-time Judgment.

The Parable of the Weeds (Matt 13:24-30, 36-43)

The “Parable of the Weeds” is similar in theme and scope to the Synoptic Parable of the Sower (13:3-9 par); both parables include an explanation of the parable by Jesus given to his close disciples (vv. 18-23 par, 36-43; cf. verse 11ff). Many critical commentators express doubt that the explanations come from Jesus himself, but rather reflect early Christian interpretation. It is hard to find clear objective evidence for such a distinction, and the explanations are generally consistent with the language and style of Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptic tradition. The question, for our study, is especially significant in the case of the Parable of the Weeds, since the explanation of that parable, if coming from Jesus, would reflect his own eschatological understanding.

Unlike the parable of the Sower, the Weeds-parable is marked specifically as a Kingdom parable: “The kingdom of the heavens is (consider)ed to be like a man scattering fine seed in his field” (v. 24). However, in the explanation to the parable of the Sower, Jesus does indicate that it, too, relates to the Kingdom, identifying the seed as “the word/account [lo/go$] of the kingdom”. The context of that parable suggests that the sower is Jesus (proclaiming the message of the Kingdom); while the explanation of the Weeds-parable identifies him as “the Son of Man” (v. 37). This expression, or title, is used frequently by Jesus, often as a self-designation. The eschatological usage, drawn primarily from Daniel 7:13-14, features prominently in the Weeds-parable, and will be discussed in more detail in the study on the “Eschatological Discourse”.

Interestingly, while the seed in the Sower-parable is identified as the message or “word” of the Kingdom, in the Weeds-parable it is the “sons” (ui(oi/, i.e. children) of the Kingdom (v. 38). The reference to “sons”, in terms of the Semitic idiom which Jesus would have understood, has two principal aspects:

    • In the literal sense of (royal/aristocratic) sons who will inherit their father’s estate, and
    • Indicating those (as a group) who belong to the Kingdom—i.e. members of the Kingdom. The Hebrew /B@ (“son”) is often used in the sense of someone who belongs to a particular group or category, possessing certain attributes or characteristics, etc.

By contrast, the “weeds” (ziza/nia) are identified as “the sons of the evil (one)”. It is possible to translate this expression as “the sons of evil”, but the context suggests a person (or personification)—”the evil one” (i.e. the Satan or ‘Devil’); Jesus’ usage elsewhere would seem to confirm this (cp. in the Lord’s Prayer, 6:13). This sort of stark dualism is less common in the Synoptic sayings of Jesus than in the Johannine discourses, where it features prominently (Jn 3:19-20; 5:29; 8:39-47). First John presents a contrast very close to that of the parable here (3:8-10, “the children of God and the children of the devil”, v. 10). A similar dualistic contrast (“sons of light” and “sons of darkness”) is found in the Qumran texts. The ziza/nion, a Greek word of uncertain derivation, would typically be translated as “weed”, but seems to refer primarily to a type of grass or stalk which resembles the grain itself, but yields no produce.

The “field” (a)gro/$) in the parable is said to be the sower’s own field (“his field”, v. 24), while in the explanation it is identified as o( ko/smo$ (“the world-order”, v. 38a), i.e. creation, the created order. This emphasizes the cosmic aspect of the parable, and also indicates that the Son of Man, as God’s heavenly/divine representative, has authority and control over the world. Here ko/smo$ is used in a neutral sense—i.e. the world and all the people in it—much as in the parable of the Sower, where there are different types of soil, representing different responses of people to the message of the Kingdom. A different sort of illustration, but along similar lines, is presented in this parable: the Son of Man sows the good seed, while the enemy (e)xqro/$, the ‘devil’, dia/bolo$) sowed in the weeds (the false seed) secretly, at night. The explanation suggests two levels at which this may be interpreted:

    • True and false disciples of Jesus, both part of the same group of people identifying themselves as his followers. This certainly would have been the immediate understanding of the parable by early Christians.
    • The “weeds” as intrusive attempts to stifle the spread and growth of the Kingdom—this would include both people (false believers, persecutors), and other sorts of obstacles, temptations to sin, etc (v. 41)

The crux of the parable is its eschatological orientation—the harvest motif (vv. 28-30) used in parable, with the explanation in verses 39ff. The climactic statement of the parable would have immediately evoked the idea of the end-time judgment, as seen from the words of the Baptist in 3:12 par, echoed here:

“Release [i.e. allow] both to grow together until the reaping [o( qerismo/$], and in the time of the reaping I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather together the weeds and bind them into bundles toward the burning down (of) them, but bring together the grain into my building where (the grain is) put away!'” (v. 30)

In the explanation, there is no doubt left as to what Jesus means:

“The reaping [i.e. harvest] is the completion (all)together of th(is) Age, and the reapers are the (heavenly) Messengers” (v. 39b)

He is referring to the end of the current Age, and the idea, expressed elsewhere in the Gospel tradition, of the role of the Angels (assisting the Son of Man) in the end-time Judgment (Mk 8:38; 13:27 par; Matt 16:27; 25:31, etc). Verses 40-41f drive this home emphatically:

“…so it will be in the completion (all)together of th(is) Age—the Son of Man will set forth his Messengers, and they will gather together out of his kingdom all the (thing)s tripping (people) up, and the (one)s doing (things) without law, and he will cast them into the burning chamber [i.e. furnace] of fire…”

The kingdom of the Son of Man (“his kingdom”, par “his field”) involves: (a) the proclamation of the message of the Kingdom in the world, and (b) those who belong to the Kingdom and respond to this message (i.e. the true disciples of Jesus). All that does not belong to the Kingdom, or which hinders its proclamation and establishment on earth, will be burned up at the end-time Judgment. The divine/heavenly dimension of the end-time Kingdom is made clear in the concluding words of the parable (v. 43, cf. Daniel 12:3):

“Then the just/righteous (one)s will give out (rays of) light as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

The Parable of the Net (Matt 13:47-50)

The parable of the Fish-Net is much shorter and simpler, but has essentially the same theme as the parable of the Weeds. Instead of seed cast into a field, it uses the image of a fishing-net cast into the sea (v. 47). Fundamentally, it is the end-time Judgment which is in view here; first in the parable—

“…and when it was filled, they stepped it up upon the shore, and, sitting (down), they gathered together the fine (fish) into containers, but the rotten (one)s they threw away” (v. 48)

and then in the explanation (v. 49):

“So it will in the completion (all)together of th(is) Age—the Messengers will come out and will mark off the evil (one)s out of the midst of the just/righteous (one)s.”

The dualistic contrast here is simpler, drawing upon the traditional religious-ethical distinction of good/bad, righteous/wicked. Jesus’ statement in John 5:29 reflects the same traditional language:

“…and they will (all) travel out [i.e. from the dead]—the (ones hav)ing done good into a standing-up [i.e. resurrection] of life, but the (ones hav)ing acted foul(ly) into a standing-up of judgment.”

2. Vineyard Parables

Jesus appears to have regularly used the image of workers in a vineyard in his teaching. Many in his audience likely would have identified themselves with the servants, laborers, and tenants of these parables. The illustrations seem to play especially upon the idea of the absentee landowner—a man who travels away or lives elsewhere while the land itself is worked by hired laborers and tenant farmers. This proved useful for instruction on the theme of responsible discipleship—working faithfully while God is ‘away’ (in Heaven). The same storyline and setting could easily be applied—both in the authentic tradition, and in early Christian interpretation—to the idea of Jesus as the master who goes away (i.e., his death, resurrection, and departure to the Father). In several of the parables with an eschatological emphasis, this latter setting seems to be in view.

We have already looked at the (Synoptic) parable of the Wicked Tenants (Mark 12:1-12; par Matt 21:33-46; Luke 20:9-19). It remains to examine two other parables found in the Gospel of Matthew, both of which occur in the general context of (end-time) reward and judgment—cf. 19:13-30; 20:20-28; 21:33ff.

Matthew 20:1-16: Payment of Laborers in the Vineyard

This is marked specifically as another Kingdom-parable:

“For the kingdom of the heavens is like a man (who is) master of a house(hold), who went out before (daytime) [i.e. in the early morning] to arrange (for) workers in his vineyard (to work) for wages…” (v. 1)

The eschatological aspect of this parable has to be inferred from the fundamental idea of the work in the vineyard being done over the course of an entire day (these being day-laborers, with a harvesting context implied). At the end of the day (v. 8), i.e. at the end-time (end of the current Age), the agreed-upon wage (misqo/$) for each worker is paid. There is an obvious parallel here to the idea of heavenly reward for the faithful/righteous ones at the end-time Judgment, being implicit in the parable (vv. 9ff). Early Christians certainly would have understood the workers in the vineyard as faithful disciples of Jesus, who came to be disciples at different points in time. For all such disciples the payment/reward is the same, which is the primary theme of the parable—believers do their work in common, as disciples of Jesus, without expecting any special priority or status based on when or how long one has been a disciple. This is emphasized by the concluding, paradoxical words in verse 16, which may have originated as a separate saying: “So will the first be last, and the last first”. The saying could easily be interpreted a different way, according the reversal-of-fortune motif found in a number of Jesus’ sayings. Here, by contrast, an egalitarian principle is established, one which softens or re-works the traditional eschatological language of the Judgment (cf. above). However, since it is disciples of Jesus (i.e. believers) who are the subject of the parable (not the wicked), this emphasis is more appropriate.

Matthew 21:28-32: The Two Sons

The contrast between righteous and wicked—true and false disciple—is expressed more clearly in the “Two Sons” parable. Here it is a Father (i.e. God) who asks each of his two sons to work in the vineyard (v. 28). As in the parable of the Sower, there are different responses to this word from the Master (vv. 29-30, note the interesting textual variants of wording and order found in the manuscripts). While not designated specifically as a Kingdom-parable, the Kingdom (of God) is clearly in view, when Jesus essentially gives an explanation of the parable to the religious leaders who were questioning his authority (vv. 23-27):

“…Amen, I relate to you that the toll-collectors and the prostitutes lead (the way) before you into the kingdom of God!” (v. 31b)

This is effectively an application of the statement in 20:16 (above), according to the reversal-of-fortune motif: sinners in the present age will enter the Kingdom, while the ‘righteous’ (according to traditional religious and morality) may not. A more precise application would follow the Vineyard-laborer parable—the religious leaders may still enter the Kingdom, but only after the lowly/wretched sinners have done so!

There is not an obvious eschatological aspect to this parable, other than what can be inferred from its basic setting, along with the narrative context—much of Jesus’ teaching in Jerusalem (chapters 21-25) is eschatological in orientation.

3. Banquet/Feast Parables

There are three such parables to consider, the first two of which may derive from the same line of tradition (the so-called “Q” material). They draw upon the older traditional motif of the heavenly/eschatological banquet, inspired by passages such as Isa 25:6-8; 55:1-2; 65:13-14; cf. 1 Enoch 62:14; 2 Baruch 29:4, etc (Fitzmyer, p. 1026). It is alluded to at several points in the book of Revelation (3:20; 19:9). At times this banquet/feast is specifically associated with the Messiah (and/or a “Messianic Age”). Jesus applies the idea to himself, and his closest disciples, in Luke 22:16ff, 29-30 par.

a. Matthew 22:1-14 / Luke 14:15-24

Matthew and Luke appear to be dealing with a common parable by Jesus (“Q” material), though the differences are significant enough that one must allow for the possibility of ‘separate’ parables coming from two distinct lines of tradition. However, the basic outline is the same—that of a (wealthy/prominent) man who invites people to a great feast. As in the parable of the Sower, there are different responses to this message, but initially they are all negative—everyone invited declines to attend, offering various reasons to be excused. These reasons all relate to the business of daily life, and would seem to parallel the the third soil-type in the parable of the sower and “the concerns/distractions of the world” (Mark 4:19, Jesus’ explanation). As a result, the man extends his invitation further afield, reaching to the poorer segments of society. This aspect echoes the parable of the Two Sons (cf. above), and the contrast between the repentant sinners/outcasts and the ‘righteous’ who fail to respond to Jesus’ message. In what appears to be the core parable, the invitation goes out to the streets of the city (Matt 22:8 / Lk 14:22); however, in Luke’s version, this is further extended to the crowded narrow lanes (where the poor and disabled are commonly found), and even further out into the roadways and fenced-off lands. This latter detail allows for (Lukan) application in terms of the early Christian mission to the Gentiles.

Both versions treat this as a Kingdom-parable, though in different ways:

    • In Matthew, it is so designated by Jesus (“the kingdom of the heavens is [to be] considered like a man…”, 22:2). Moreover, the man is specifically referred to as a king, and the feast identified as a wedding banquet for his son (further giving the parable a Messianic dimension). The people being invited are thus members of his kingdom.
    • Luke introduces the parable in the narrative context of a feast Jesus is attending (14:15), at which a man declares to him: “Happy the (one) who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” This is similar to Jesus’ own words to his disciples at the Last Supper, where he speaks of drinking from “the produce of the vine” (i.e. wine) in the Kingdom of God (Mark 14:25 par). These motifs of eating/drinking should not taken too concretely; they are simply idioms referring to partaking in a meal. However, these references are eschatological, and relate to the feast/banquet motif mentioned above. As we see often in the Gospels, Jesus redirects his audience away from a simple traditional understanding (without entirely rejecting it), and points them toward a deeper meaning.

In Luke’s version, the poor and outcast take the place of the ‘righteous’ who refuse to attend, just as Jesus states in the Two Sons parable. Matthew’s version presents this quite differently, according to more traditional imagery associated with the end-time Judgment (cf. the chap. 13 parables above). Instead of the poor and afflicted, the call goes out to all people in the city, and a crowd comes to the feast—good and evil alike (22:10). This is very much akin to the parable of the Net, where good and bad fish are gathered up together in the net, to be separated out at the end-time Judgment. That is very much what the parable describes here in vv. 11-12, though in a most distinctive and memorable way, isolating on a single individual.

The Matthean version is thus more complex than the Lukan, and seems to be describing more distinct stages:

    • The well-to-do members of the kingdom (i.e. religious Israelites/Jews) who do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and/or fail to respond to his message
    • The disciples of Jesus who respond to his message, coming from all segments of the city—though not all are true, faithful disciples
    • At the end of the Age, at the time of the great feast, it is then that the true and false disciples will be separated

Finally, it is also worth mentioning a third version of this parable, in the Gospel of Thomas (saying/section 64); some critical commentators consider the Thomas version to be the more primitive, original form of the parable (Fitzmyer, pp. 1050-2).

Luke 13:23-30 (esp. verses 28-30)

There is a brief parable or illustration in the Gospel of Luke which is part of a block of teaching with an eschatological orientation. The section may be outlined as follows:

    • Narrative introduction (v. 22)
    • Question by someone (disciple?) in the crowd (v. 23):
      “(is it that) the (one)s being saved (are only) a few?”
    • Illustration of the Narrow Door (v. 24)
    • Illustration of the Master of House standing at the Door (vv. 25-27)
    • Illustration of the Kingdom Feast (vv. 28-29)
    • Concluding saying (v. 30):
      “see, there are the last who will be first, and the first who will be last” (cp. Matt 20:16, above)

The setting in vv. 22-23 introduces the eschatological context of these illustrations. For the association with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, cf. on Luke 19:11 below (Part 3); the context of question in verse 23 relates salvation to entering/inheriting the Kingdom at the end-time. In contrast to the belief expressed in Jewish tradition, that “all Israelites have a share in the world to come” (m. Sanhedrin 10:1; Fitzmyer, p. 1022), a number of Jesus’ sayings seem to suggest that only a small percentage of the people (i.e. those accepting and following him) will be saved. The two Door parables (compare with Matt 7:13-14, 21-23) seem to emphasize different aspects of Jesus’ (eschatological) message:

    • Entering the kingdom requires struggle (a)gw/n), due to the narrowness (ste/no$) of the door or gate, the result of the many obstacles which surround it (cf. the Parable of the Weeds above). Jesus declared and emphasized on numerous occasions to his disciples (and would-be disciples) that considerable hardship was involved in following him—a lifestyle which demanded an ethic even more stringent than that of the Pharisees (cf. the Sermon on the Mount, etc); and also a faith/trust in God which is rare indeed among people (cf. on Luke 18:8 below [Part 3]).
    • Moreover, the door is open only for a (short) period; at some point (the end-time) the Master of the house/kingdom, will decide to close the door. It will be impossible for anyone to enter at that point, regardless of the claims or petitions they may make (i.e. that they were followers of Jesus, etc).

This leads into the Feast parable of vv. 28-29—entering the Kingdom at the end-time means joining in this great feast, at which all the righteous attend (the Patriarchs and Prophets of Israel, etc). There are two components to this illustration:

    1. Many Israelites will not join Abraham and Isaac, etc, in the Kingdom, but will be “thrown outside” (v. 28)
    2. Others will come from all the surrounding nations, from all directions (east, west, north, south) and will “lean back (to dine)” in the Kingdom (v. 29)

Given the overall narrative of Luke-Acts, it is not surprising that the Lukan parables and teachings of Jesus emphasis this more inclusive aspect—allowing even for the inclusion of Gentiles (through the early Christian mission) into the Kingdom.

(to be continued in Part 3)

References marked “Fitzmyer” above are to J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), Anchor Bible [AB] 28A (1985)

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Parables of Jesus (Part 1)

The Parables of Jesus (Part 1)

Having studied the sayings of Jesus, it is now time to turn our attention toward the longer illustrations and parables. There are two areas which need to be examined: (1) parables related to the Kingdom of God, and (2) parables with an eschatological aspect or dimension. There is a good deal of overlap, but it is important to keep these two areas distinct. Just because Jesus may refer to the Kingdom in a parable, does not mean the thrust of the parable is eschatological per se. As we have seen, his use of the “Kingdom” expression and image is more complex than that.

According to the basic meaning of the Greek word, a parabolh/ is something “cast/thrown alongside”, i.e. placed alongside—an illustrative story or comparison, used as an aid in teaching. Jesus’ parables, as recorded in the (Synoptic) Gospels, tend to be relatively short stories, sometimes taking the form of example covering just a sentence or two. Again, I will begin with the Synoptic parables, represented by the Gospel of Mark, before turning to those in Matthew and Luke. There are relatively few Markan/Synoptic parables; most notable are those which occur in Mark 4 par.

1. The Kingdom of God (Mark 4:1-34 par)

If we begin with the core Synoptic tradition, as represented by the Gospel of Mark, there is only one section (chap. 4) which brings together a sequence of parables by Jesus, and these have the Kingdom of God as their primary theme. This is clearly expressed by the formula in verse 30:

“How may we say (what) the kingdom if God is like, or in what (illustration) cast alongside [i.e. parable] should we set it?”

The sequence of parables covers 4:1-34, which may be outlined as follows:

    • Narrative introduction (vv. 1-2)
    • The Sower (vv. 3-20):
      —The parable (vv. 3-9)
      —Jesus and the disciples (vv. 10-13)
      —Explanation of the parable (vv. 14-20)
    • The Lamp (vv. 21-25)
      —which includes an exhortation and reward-saying (vv. 23-25)
    • The Growing Seed (vv. 26-29)
    • The Mustard Seed (vv. 30-32)
    • Narrative conclusion (vv. 33-34)

Matthew and Luke have modified or developed this tradition in different ways. In Matthew (chap. 13), the Markan setting is maintained, but the author has included other parables and sayings which enhance the eschatological thrust of the section (cf. below). By contrast, Luke (8:4-18) has a simpler/shorter version of the Synoptic material, and sets it in a different context (cf. 8:1-3, 19-21). The essential theme, in both the Markan and Lukan versions, relates to the success of Jesus’ ministry—i.e. his proclamation of the good news (of the Kingdom) and the response (of his disciples) to this message. Many commentators feel that in the original context of the parable of the Sower—the parable itself, more than the explanation—had an eschatological emphasis. In spite of the initial obstacles, and lack of response, Jesus’ mission would take root, and from the first disciples, the message would quickly spread to a much wider audience, before the end comes. This is certainly suggested by the language in verses 8, 20 (cf. the parallel in v. 32), though it must be admitted that the emphasis in the explanation (vv. 13-20) is rather on the character of the different kinds of soil as representing different responses to the Gospel. The context of Luke’s version brings out the focus on discipleship even more clearly. Even so, an eschatological thrust by Jesus is likely, given the Kingdom-parables which follow in Mk 4:21ff par. We may consider the brief parable of the Lamp in vv. 21-25, which appears to be made up of several sayings which may originally have circulated separately, but certainly fit together here as a unit:

    • Illustration of the Lamp (v. 21)
    • Explanation/application for his disciples (v. 22)
    • Exhortation (v. 23)
    • Paradoxical dual-saying regarding (heavenly) reward (vv. 24-25)

Beyond the obvious reference to heavenly reward, implying an end-time Judgment setting, the eschatological emphasis may also be seen by the ‘explanation’ of the illustration in verse 22:

“For there is not any(thing) hidden, if not (so) that it may be made to shine forth; and (has) not come to be uncovered, so that it may (now) come into (the) shining (light)?”

This idea of the uncovering of secrets implies the end-time Judgment by God (indicated by the divine passive here), when all things will come to light—on similar passages in the New Testament, cf. John 3:19-21; 1 Cor 4:5; Eph 5:11-14. In this context, however, the saying must refer back to verse 11 and the “secret of the Kingdom” (cf. the next section below). It is the secret(s) of the Kingdom of God which are to be revealed at the end-time. They had been kept hidden (by God) previously, so they would not be uncovered until the present time—i.e. the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. Luke has another form of this (or a similar) saying in Lk 12:2-3, where the emphasis shifts from an eschatological warning (v. 2) to a directive to the disciples to proclaim the secret, i.e. of the Kingdom (v. 3). In Paul’s writings, and elsewhere in the New Testament, this revealing light is identified precisely as the Gospel message of what God has done in the person of Jesus (Lk 1:79; 2:32; Acts 13:47; 26:18ff; 2 Cor 4:4-6; Eph 3:9; 2 Tim 1:10, etc).

2. The “Secret of the Kingdom” (Mark 4:11 par)

Central to the sequence of parables in Mark 4 is the exchange between Jesus and disciples in vv. 10-13, preceding the explanation of the Sower parable (vv. 14ff). I give these verses in a chiastic or bracketed outline form:

    • Question of the disciples to Jesus, i.e. asking him about the parables (v. 10)
      —Declaration: The disciples are given the secret of the Kingdom (v. 11)
      —Scripture citation: The secret of the Kingdom is (and has been) kept hidden from others (v. 12)
    • Question of Jesus to the disciples about their understanding the parables (v. 13)

The apparent difficulty of Jesus’ quotation from Isaiah 6:9-10 has been overplayed in the past, tripping up commentators. Luke (8:10) has effectively removed the main problem by eliminating the second portion of the citation (v. 10). The thrust of the citation is that God has intentionally kept the “secret of the Kingdom” hidden from people until the moment it is to be revealed by Jesus and his followers—and only by them. As indicated by the outline above, this establishes the contrast in Mk 4:11-12, between Jesus’ close followers (who are given the secret), and all other people (from whom it remains hidden). I have discussed this passage in a detailed study on the use of the word musth/rion (“secret”). There are contemporary parallels to this expression (“secrets of God”) in the Qumran texts—1QM 3:9; 16:11; 1QS 3:23; 1QpHab 7:8, etc. The Qumran Community believed that they (alone) represented the faithful ones of Israel, who would play a central role in the end-time appearance of God (His Kingdom and Judgment), thought to be imminent. In this, they shared much in common with the earliest Christians, who inherited a significant portion of their eschatology from Jesus himself; on this, cf. the recent articles on the eschatological sayings of Jesus, and also the upcoming study on imminent eschatology in the New Testament.

3. Seed/Harvest Imagery in the Parables (esp. Mark 4:26-33 par)

A third aspect of the sequence of parables in Mark 4 to note is the repeated use of seed and harvest motifs, brought out even more vividly in Matthew’s version (cf. below). In addition to the parable of the Sower, we have the two Seed-parables in 4:26-33. Of these we notice especially:

    • Both are identified specifically as illustrations of the Kingdom of God (vv. 26, 30)
    • The first (parable of the Growing Seed) has an unquestionable eschatological emphasis (v. 29)

It is this last point which needs to be expounded further, as verse 29 serves as the climax to the parable of the Growing Seed (vv. 26-29). It also continues the image of the Kingdom of God as something hidden—adding this aspect (cf. vv. 11ff, 22, and the discussion above) to the earlier Sower paradigm:

    • “…as a man might cast (down) scattered (seed) upon the earth” (v. 26)
    • “and might sleep and rise, night and day, and the scattered (seed) might sprout and lengthens (even) as he has not seen (it)…” (v. 27)

The seed, earlier identified as the “word of God” and the proclamation of the Kingdom, works in a hidden manner, unseen and unknown to the man sowing who otherwise goes about his daily business. Yet the seed has a special power all its own, intrinsic to its very nature:

“Moving (it)self, the earth bears fruit—first (the) green (sprout), then a standing head (of grain), (and) then full grain in the standing head.” (v. 28)

Though hidden, this growth is both natural and expected; and, at the end of its period of growth, the time for harvest comes:

“But when the fruit gives along (its sign), straightaway (the man) sets forth the (tool for) plucking, (in) that [i.e. because] the (time for) reaping [qerismo/$] has come to stand alongside [pare/sthken].”

Many translations simply read “…the harvest has come”; however, I have translated the verb pari/sthmi according to its fundamental, literal meaning (“stand alongside”), to bring out more clearly the eschatological connotation, an emphasis which is inherent in the very harvest motif being employed. For the traditional use of harvest imagery to convey the idea of the end-time Judgment, in particular, cf. Joel 3:1-13; Isa 27:11-12; Matt 3:12 par; Rev 14:15ff; and also Matt 13:30, 39 (below). It was a natural image, as it clearly expresses the end of a distinct period of time—i.e. the agricultural season. The verb pari/sthmi connotes two eschatological concepts:

    • The sense that something is close by, or near to taking place—i.e. the imminence of the end-time Judgment
    • A usage similar to that of pa/reimi (“be [present] alongside”), which is the basis for the noun parousi/a (parousía), a technical term for the end-time appearance of God and/or His chosen representative (i.e. the return of Jesus, in early Christian usage).

4. The Parable of the Tenants (Mark 12:1-2 par)

This is the other parable in the core Synoptic tradition which has a distinct eschatological emphasis. Its location in the Gospel reflects two themes implicit in the parable: (1) the impending death of Jesus, and (2) the coming destruction of Judea/Jerusalem. The second of these features prominently in the “Eschatological Discourse” of chapter 13 par, while the first is the subject of the Passion account which follows. However, unlike the similar parable in 13:32-37 (cf. below), only the climax of the “Wicked Tenant” parable here refers to the end-time. In this regard, the image of the landowner who “went away from his people” (v. 1) can be somewhat misleading, when compared, for example, with Luke 19:12ff par. Here the man who ‘goes away’ is not Jesus, but represents God the Father, who gives over control of his land to ‘tenant farmers’. These people mistreat the landowner’s messengers (i.e. the Prophets), and, eventually, decide to kill the man’s son (Jesus) when he comes as a representative. The judgment/punishment for this deed will take place as soon as the landowner (God) returns/appears; the implication is that it will occur very soon after Jesus’ death:

“What then will the lord of the vineyard do? He will come and make the(se) workers of the land suffer (great) loss [i.e. destroy them], and he will give the vineyard to other (worker)s.” (v. 9)

If the landowner initially went “away from his people” (vb. a)podhme/w), when he comes back to his people it will be to punish the wicked ones. The end-time Judgment is clearly in view, but also the more specific idea of judgment on Israel (esp. Judea and Jerusalem) for their treatment of the Prophets, including John the Baptist and Jesus (who is also the landowner [God]’s son). As harsh as this sounds, and as uncomfortable as it might make Christians today, it is clearly part of Jesus’ teaching, being found several other places in the Gospel tradition—Matt 23:29-39; Luke 11:47-52; 13:33-35; 19:41-44; cf. also Paul’s words in 1 Thess 2:14-16.

The parable of the Pounds/Talents (Matt 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27) has a similar framework, but appears to deal more directly with the idea of Jesus‘ departure and return. It will be discussed in the next part of this study. Another parable similar in tone and emphasis is found at the conclusion of the “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13:32-37 par), and will be discussed in the study on the Discourse itself. It is worth mentioning here the same issue as in the Wicked Tenant parable, only modified and addressed specifically to Jesus’ disciples, who function as the servants left in charge of the owner’s estate. They are urged to act responsibly, in a righteous and faithful manner, realizing that the owner might return at any time.

Part 2 of this study will examine the specific parables in Matthew and Luke (but not Mark) which have an eschatological aspect or emphasis.

August 15: Mark 4:10-12 (Isa 6:9-10)

The use of Isaiah 6:9-10 in Mark 4:10-12 par

For a detailed study of the saying of Jesus in Mark 4:11 (par Matt 13:11; Luke 8:10), see the previous two daily notes (Aug 13 & 14). Today I will look the Old Testament passage (Isa 6:9-10) used there in the context of the Synoptic narrative.

Isaiah 6:1-13 serves as the introduction for the division of the book spanning chapters 6-12, and, in particular, the context of the Syro-Ephraemite War in chs. 6-8. It may also be intended to represent the visionary experience of Isaiah the Prophet. The section can be outlined as follows:

    • Vv. 1-7—The vision of God (YHWH) on his throne
      • v. 1: Setting and statement of the vision
      • vv. 2-4: Description of the Divine manifestation (Theophany)
      • vv. 5-7: Isaiah’s response culminating in a symbolic purification of the Prophet
    • Vv. 8-13—Commission of Isaiah and the Prophetic message
      • v. 8: Statement/narration of the commission—God’s request and Isaiah’s response
      • vv. 9-10: Description of the Message (Divine oracle)
      • vv. 11-13: Isaiah’s response culminating in a message regarding the ‘purification’ of the land and its people (through judgment)

There is a similarity in outline (and content) to the visionary experience of the Prophet Micaiah, described in 1 Kings 22:19-23:

    • A vision of God (YHWH) on his throne, surrounded by heavenly beings—1 Ki 22:19 / Isa 6:1-4
    • God’s request for a Messenger to be sent forth—1 Ki 22:20 / Isa 6:8
    • A Messenger volunteers:
      Heavenly messenger (“I will [go out]…”)—1Ki 22:21-22a
      Human messenger (“See, I [am here], send me”)—Isa 6:8b
    • At God’s command, the messenger is to obscure the understanding of human beings:
      To be a lying/enticing spirit for Ahab—1 Ki 22:21-23a
      To thicken/harden the hearts and minds of the people—Isa 6:9-10
    • The purpose is to bring about God’s Judgment on the land and its people—1 Ki 22:23 / Isa 6:11-13

The tendency has been for readers and commentators to focus on the positive part of Isaiah’s vision and commission (in verses 1-8), rather the negative portion of the message he is to speak (vv. 9-13). The most troubling aspect is the way that God seems to express the wish (or, at least, the purpose) that the Prophet, through his message, should harden the hearts and minds of the people so that they might not repent—at least not until the ordained Judgment comes (by way of the Assyrian invasions/conquests during the years 734-701 B.C.). In this regard, it is important to study closely the Hebrew text of verses 9-10, which I give here in a rather literal rendering:

“Go!—and you shall say to this people:
‘Hearing you must hear, and (yet do) not understand!
and seeing you must see, and (yet do) not (come to) know!’
Make fat(ty) the heart of this people—
their ears make heavy, and their eyes smear shut—
lest they see with their eyes,
and with their ears hear
and with their heart distinguish,
and there be turning and healing for (the)m!”

In some ways the key expression is found in the particle Á/P#, typically translated “lest” (for lack of a better option in English); however, the basic idea is something like “so as to avoid/remove (the possibility) that…”—i.e., “so that they do not see with their eyes,” etc. This combined with the causative (Hiphil) verb forms in v. 10—”make fat(ty)”, “make heavy”, “smear/glue (them) shut”—clearly indicates God’s intention regarding the effect of the Prophet’s message on the people. I regard only the portion marked by single quote marks (in v. 9) to represent the actual message; the remainder (v. 10) describes what the result of the preaching will (and should) be. This way of understanding human events and decisions as being foreordained and determined by God, according to his will and purpose, is generally foreign to our way of thinking today; however, it was quite common (and fundamental) to ancient (religious) thought. If a people suffered some disaster—plague, earthquake, invasion, etc—this was brought about by the divine powers; and, similarly, if people refused to repent or change their behavior, this too was the result of divine influence. It is really only in recent centuries that this basic worldview has undergone considerable change; and now the question of divine sovereignty vs. human freedom creates enormous difficulty and challenges for thoughtful persons, including believers in Christ. The problem was only generally (and vaguely) sensed by people in the time of Jesus; this, perhaps, may be glimpsed in the way that Isa 6:9-10 was rendered into Greek. Here is the LXX version:

“Go/travel (forth) and say to this people:
‘Hearing you will hear, and (yet) you should not put (it) together [i.e. understand]!
Looking you will look, and (yet) you should not (come to) see [i.e. know]!’
The heart of this people will be made thick/fat,
and they hear heavily in their ears, and close shut their eyes,
(that) they should not ever see with th(eir) eyes
and hear with th(eir) ears
and put (it) together [i.e. understand] with th(eir) heart,
and turn (back) upon (me), and I will heal them.”

The Greek wording, in verse 10, has altered the tone and tenor somewhat. First, the Hiphil imperatives have been changed into indicative forms, simply stating what has been (or will be) occurring; it also seems to put the responsibility on the people themselves. Second, the subjunctive forms make it at least possible that the people might (yet) see/hear/understand. The Greek particle mh/pote (“not ever, never”), corresponding to Hebrew /P# (see above), governing the subjunctive, could (conceivably) be read as a conditional statement—i.e., “unless they should see…” The last verb in v. 10 has also been changed into a first person future (indicative) form, where God says “I will heal them”. There are two ways v. 10 can be understood (in the LXX):

(a) “so that they might never see… and turn back (to me) and I would heal them [i.e. if they had turned to me, which they will not]”
(b) “unless they should see… and (then) turn back (to me) and I will heal them [i.e. if they do turn to me]”

The second of these is really not tenable, grammatically; for those readers who would like to shift the emphasis away from God’s purpose and over to the people’s response, it is necessary to infer a particle of result (rather than purpose)—”…they close shut their eyes so that [i.e. as a result] they won’t ever see…and turn back (to me), and (if they did turn) I would heal them”.

Matthew 13:14-15 cites the LXX rather closely; in Mark’s version, Jesus’ quotation is an abridgement (cf. the portion in italics above), with a few differences (marked by italics below):

“Looking they should look, and (yet) they should not see!
Hearing they should hear, and (yet) they should not put (it) together [i.e. understand]!
(that) they should not ever | turn (back) upon (me), and it be released [i.e. forgiven] for them”

The use of the third person (instead of the second) fits the application of the passage in context—i.e. as a fulfillment of the message God gave Isaiah to speak in Isa 6:9; and the use of the subjunctive throughout also fits the context, as an action/condition which eventually will be fulfilled. Here also the use of mh/pote + the subjunctive indicates more clearly a negative purpose—”so that…not ever…” Luke’s version has omitted any reference to verse 10, including just a (simplified) form of the Prophet’s message of v. 9: “Seeing they should not see, and hearing they should not understand” (Lk 8:10b). However, the author clearly realized the significance of the entire passage, since it is cited (by Paul) at the end of the book of Acts (Acts 28:26-27). In that context, its use holds somewhat closer to the original Old Testament setting, as an explanation (based on prophecy) for why many Jews refused to accept the Gospel. All through the second half of the book of Acts (chapters 1326), Paul experienced considerable Jewish opposition to his missionary work, in the midst of which he began to turn to the Gentiles (13:46-47; 18:6; 28:28). The tone of divine judgment, central to Isa 6:9ff, would not have been lost on Paul (cf. 1 Thess 2:14-16). The failure (and/or unwillingness) by many of his fellow Jews to accept Christ was an issue dear to his heart, and one which he ultimately gave considerable attention to in Romans 9-11. There the basic theme of Isa 6:9-10 is developed and expounded—God has (temporarily) blinded/hardened Israel so that the Gentiles might come to salvation; when this has fully come to pass, Israelites and Jews will come to faith in Christ and be saved as well.

A similar use of Isa 6:9-10 (close in form to that in Mark 4:12) is found in John 12:40. There it relates more directly than in the Synoptics to the lack of trust/belief in Christ by the people (v. 37), influenced, it is stated, by the fear of persecution, etc., from the religious authorities (vv. 42-43). That section in John is bracketed by two powerful and provocative statements, which, according to the creative logic of the Gospel, are certainly related:

    • “Yeshua {Jesus} spoke these (thing)s and, going away from (there), hid (himself) from them” (v. 36b)
    • “For they loved the esteem/glory of men, more than the esteem/glory of God” (v. 43, alluding to the “glory” of God in Isaiah’s vision [v. 41; Isa 6:1-4])

This “hiding” of Jesus is connected, generally speaking, to the idea of the “secret” of his identity (as Messiah and Son of God), and, as I have argued in the prior notes, to the “secret(s) of the kingdom of God” of which he speaks in Mk 4:11 par. However, it must be admitted that the use of Isa 6:9-10 in the Synoptic context, is really only connected directly with the parables by which Jesus expresses the secret [musth/rion] of the Kingdom. Here, contrary to conventional opinion (and interpretation), the clear implication is that parables are used to hide the secret of the Kingdom from people at large; only to his disciples does Jesus explain the meaning and significance of the illustrations. Through Jesus’ parables, as with the preaching of Isaiah, God blinds/hardens the minds and hearts of the people—what they see and hear is a simple illustration based on everyday life details; but what they miss (and what many continue to miss today) is the profound depth of spiritual meaning that underlies the illustration. There are few clear examples of this in the Synoptics, but it comes to be a prominent theme in the Gospel of John. Over and over again, Jesus’ audience (including the disciples) hears his words in a superficial manner, and misunderstands or misconstrues their real, deeper meaning. Often this takes place through a simple play on words, as in John 3:3-8—the word a&nwqen fundamentally means “from above”, but also is commonly used in the sense of “from the first,” i.e., “as at first, again“; Nicodemus hears Jesus say “you must come to be (born) from above [or ‘again’]”, that is, by the Spirit, and misunderstands this to mean that one must be born a second time (naturally) from the mother’s womb.

That Jesus’ closest disciples failed to understand the meaning of his words, at least initially, is indicated numerous places in the Gospels. One especially interesting example, with similarities to the language in Isa 6:9-10, comes from the Lukan version of the second and third Passion predictions by Jesus (Lk 9:43b-45; 18:31-34). On both occasions, it is stated that the disciples did not understand; but note the wording:

“But the (disciples) did not know [i.e. understand] this utterance (by Jesus), and it was covered along (away) from them (so) that they should not perceive/discern it [i.e. its meaning]…” (9:45)
“And they put together [i.e. understood] nothing of these (word)s, and this utterance was hidden from them, and they did not (even) know the (thing)s being said/related (by Jesus)” (18:34)

The passive verb forms are examples of the so-called “divine passive”—i.e. indicating action (effectively) performed by God. The truth of Jesus’ words was (intentionally) covered/hidden from the disciples (by God), at least until after the crucifixion and resurrection had taken place (according to what may be inferred from the Gospels).

August 14: Mark 4:11; Matt 13:11; Lk 8:10

In yesterday’s note, I looked at the basic setting of the saying in Mark 4:11 (and its Synoptic parallels); today, I will be examining a bit more closely the meaning and significance of the saying in context.

Mark 4:11 / Matt 13:11 / Luke 8:10

Here again is the saying in all three versions; for the sake of simplicity, this time I substitute “parable(s)” for the more literal “(illustrations) cast alongside”:

Mark Matthew Luke
“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God; but to those th(at are) outside, all th(ese thing)s come to be in parables.” “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of the Heavens, but to those (others) it has not been given.” “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but to the rest (of them, only) in parables…”

Several key points can be drawn from this saying in context:

Contrast between the disciples and other people—In all three versions, the pronoun “(to) you [u(mi=n]” is emphatic, set at the start of the sentence; and the narrative setting makes it clear that Jesus is addressing his followers (including the Twelve). They are contrasted with all the others who might hear Jesus’ words; this is expressed differently in each version:

    • Mark: “to you… to those th(at are) outside”
    • Matt: “to you… to those (others)”
    • Luke: “to you… to the rest (of them)”

But the contrast juxtaposing the two ‘groups’ is definite, by use of the (adversative) conjuction de/ (“but…”). It is of course a common feature of (religious) group identity to distinguish those within the circle of believers from those without. This was an important element of early Christian identity, and it is hardly surprising that it extends back to the earthly ministry of Jesus and his followers. Especially in the case of those who face persecution or marginalization by the wider society, a tightly held group identity becomes all the more prominent.

The parables are meant to establish and confirm this contrast—Interestingly, the idea of the parable would seem to point in the opposite direction—i.e. that the illustration would help to explain and clarify Jesus’ teaching regarding the Kingdom, etc. This is certainly the conventional thinking adopted by many commentators—i.e., that Jesus used simple illustrations from daily life to make his teaching easier for the common person to understand. The explanation offered by Jesus himself (in Mark 4:11-12 par) rather indicates that the parable was actually meant to hide the truth about the Kingdom from people at large. In this regard, we might observe that Jesus’ parables and stories are deceptively simple—they contain profound meaning and (spiritual) insight which centuries of study and interpretation have scarcely exhausted.

Only Jesus’ (close) followers are given an explanation of the parable—This is the whole point of the context of Mark 4:10-12, set in between the parable of the Sower (vv. 3-9) and its interpretation/explanation by Jesus (vv. 13-20). It is really the only parable (along with the similar parable of the Weeds in Matt 13:24-30, 36-43) for which such a detailed explanation is recorded. Some critical commentators have expressed doubt that Mark 4:13-20 par is authentic and represents the meaning of the parable as originally spoken by Jesus. It is not possible to address this issue in the space here, other than to state that I find little clear evidence to indicate that it is an early Christian product, rather than Jesus’ own teaching. There are, of course, many passages which depict Jesus’ followers (especially the Twelve) receiving information and insight from Jesus, apart from the crowds—cf. Matt 5:1ff (but contrast with 7:28); Mark 7:17ff; 8:14-21; 8:27-9:8ff; 9:30-32; 10:23-31, 32-34; 13:3ff; 14:12-31, etc, and pars.

Image of the Seed—All but one of the parables in Mark 4 use the image of a seed to describe the kingdom of God. The comparison is made directly in the two short illustrations in vv. 26-29, 30-32:

“So the kingdom of God is as (though) a man should cast the scattered (seed) [spo/ro$] upon the earth…”
“How should we liken the kingdom of God?… as a grain of (the) mustard plant, which when it should be scattered upon the earth…”

It is also central to the parable of the Sower:

“See! the one scattering (seed) went out to scatter (it), and it came to be, in the scattering (that)…” (vv. 3-4a)

In verse 14, in the explanation Jesus gives to his disciples, it is stated: “The one scattering (seed) scatters [i.e. sows] the word/account [lo/go$] (of God)”. The implied qualification is made explicit in the parallel of Lk 8:11—”The (seed) scattered is the word/account of God [lo/go$ tou= qeou=]”. Matthew’s version refers to it as the “word/account of the kingdom” (13:19a); it is perhaps likely that both Matthew and Luke have glossed an original lo/go$, each interpreting/explaining it in their own way. There are several important aspects to this image of the seed:

    • The seed is small and apparently insignificant (emphasized esp. in vv. 30-32)
    • It is effectively hidden, buried in the ground
    • The initial growth takes place unseen by human observers
    • The growth is gradual—before one realizes it, the plant has sprouted and shot up
    • Ultimately a large plant (or crop) comes from the tiny seed

The image of God (or Christ) as a man sowing seed also appears in Matthean parallel of the “parable of the Weeds” (13:24ff), and also in 25:24-26. Trust/faith (in God) is compared to a seed in Matt 17:20 / Lk 17:6. Most notably, Jesus ties the seed-image to his death (and resurrection/exaltation) in John 12:24; on this, cf. below.

What is the secret of the Kingdom?

In Matthew/Luke, the plural is used—”secrets [musth/ria] of the Kingdom…” They also qualify the verb used—”to you it has been given to know [gnw=nai] the secrets…” This seems to refer to knowledge regarding various details and aspects of the kingdom of God—its nature and growth, how it functions, its characteristics and manifestation, etc.—as illustrated in the various parables and other teachings of Jesus. The Markan version, on the other hand, suggests that the disciples themselves receive the Kingdom (or a key aspect of it): “to you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God”. It is possible that the plural form has been influenced by the (Aramaic) expression “(the) secrets of God” (la@ yz@r`), which is found in several of the Qumran texts (1QpHab 7:8; 1QS 3:23; 1QM 3:9; 16:11, etc; cf. Fitzmyer, Luke, p. 708). I would emphasize three fundamental ways of understanding this “secret”, in terms of:

1. The person of Jesus, his identity—As I discussed briefly in the previous note, the only real “secret” recorded in the Synoptic tradition has to do with who Jesus is, i.e. his identity as the “Anointed One” (Messiah/Christ) and/or the “Son of God”. This is central to the core Synoptic narrative, best represented by the Gospel of Mark, and sometimes referred to as the “Messianic Secret”. In the Markan framework, Peter’s declaration (“You are the Anointed [One]”) comes at virtually the midpoint of the Gospel (Mk 8:29), and is set parallel with the declaration (from Heaven) in the Transfiguration scene (9:7); in both episodes Jesus directs the disciples not to tell anyone about they have seen and heard. These events also surround the first of the three Passion predictions (8:31, followed by 9:31f and 10:33-34), which likewise involve a certain amount of secrecy (9:30; 10:32); clearly, the disciples were not able to understand the significance of these things at first (8:32-33; 9:32; 10:32)—cf. also the wording in Lk 9:45; 18:34, which is similar in sense to the citation of Isa 6:10 in Mk 4:12 par. In a subsequent note I will examine the idea of Jesus “hidden” among the people of the world; for the basic image of the Kingdom being present among people without their realizing it, cf. Jesus’ famous saying in Lk 17:20-21.

2. The death and resurrection of Jesus—This too is only implied in the parables of Mark 4; however, from the early Christian standpoint, the “word/account of God” (Mk 4:14 / Lk 8:11) primarily involved the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus (cf. below). A number of parables have this theme as well—cf. Mark 12:1-12 par; Matt 12:38-42; Lk 15:3-7 (cf. John 10:11-18); 16:19-31 (vv. 30-31). As will be discussed in an upcoming note, Jesus’ death and resurrection also informs Paul’s use of the term “secret” (musth/rion) in 1 Corinthians. As noted above, even Jesus’ disciples at first did not understand what he told them regarding his death (and resurrection); to the rest of the populace it would have been completely hidden. Only the suffering and death of the Prophets of old (who also proclaimed the word of God) was available for comparison, by way of foreshadowing (Matt 5:12; 11:11-14; 12:39-40; 23:29-36, 37-39 pars; and cf. Mark 8:28 par).

3. The proclamation of the Gospel—This is certainly how Christians have understood the seed (“word of God”) in the parable of the Sower. From the standpoint of Jesus’ own teaching, the expression must be taken somewhat more broadly, to encompass his proclamation of the Kingdom (Mark 1:15 etc, par), and other teaching, in light of the Old Testament (and Jewish) tradition. But, ultimately, it is the early (Gospel) proclamation (kerygma) that comes into view, with its emphasis on who Jesus was (point 1 above), his death and resurrection (point 2), and the salvation/forgiveness which is available (in his name) to all who come to trust in him. The book of Acts plays out, in narrative form, this aspect of the (seed) parables—through the proclamation of the Gospel, knowledge of Christ gradually spreads throughout the territory of the Roman empire, transforming the hearts and lives of many. In the first chapters of Acts we find numerous statements which summarize this early Gospel—e.g., 1:1-4; 2:22-24, 32-33, 36, 38-39; 3:13-21; 4:10-12, 27-28; 5:30-32; 7:52; 10:37-43; 13:23-31. Only after the resurrection could the truth be understood and the “secret” proclaimed (Mark 9:9 par; Matt 10:27 (cp. Lk 12:3); Lk 24:6-9, 25-27, 44-47; John 2:22; 14:19-20, 26; 15:26-27; 16:13-15, 25-26ff).

A proper study of Mark 4:10-12 still requires an examination of the quotation from Isa 6:9-10 (in v. 12 par)—this will be done in the next note.

August 13: Mark 4:11 par

This is the first in a brief series of daily notes centered on the (Synoptic) saying of Jesus in Mark 4:11 par:

“To you has been given the secret [musth/rion] of the kingdom of God…”

I will start with this saying in the context of the Synoptic Gospels, before proceeding to examine the use of the word musth/rion (myst¢¡rion) elsewhere in the New Testament.

Mark 4:11 / Matt 13:11 / Luke 8:10

Here is the complete saying from Mark 4:11:

“And he said/related to them, ‘To you [pl.] has been given the secret of the kingdom of God; but to those outside all th(ese thing)s come to be in (illustration)s cast alongside”

The word translated “secret” is musth/rion (myst¢¡rion), presumably from the verb mu/w (“to close, shut”), i.e. something which is closed, hidden, etc. In the ancient Greek (religious) context, it implies something about which people are to keep silent (cf. the introduction to this word study series). This is certainly the case in the so-called mystery cults (of Demeter, Dionysus, Isis, etc). The special (divine) knowledge and hidden things revealed to initiates during the ceremonies were not to be disclosed to outsiders. This is part of the reason that so little information survives about the mystery rites. Early Christians adopted a similar approach to the sacraments—the Lord’s supper/table and the initiatory rite of Baptism—though there is little of this emphasis yet in the New Testament itself. The religious theme of withholding ‘secret’ knowledge and revelation is almost entirely absent, with one notable exception—in the (Synoptic) Gospels, Jesus repeatedly commands that knowledge regarding his identity as the Anointed One (Messiah/Christ) and Son of God not be made public (Mark 1:44; 8:30; 9:9, 30-31 par, etc). In the case of the unclean spirits which made (or might make) such a declaration, he specifically orders them to be silent (Mark 1:34; 3:11-12 par, etc).

The saying in Mark 4:11 par is set in the context of parables told by Jesus in chapter 4 (similarly in Matthew 13 and Luke 8:4-18). The English “parable” is a transliteration of the Greek word parabolh/ (parabol¢¡), from the verb paraba/llw (“cast, throw alongside”); the parabolh/ is thus something thrown alongside (i.e. set beside), often in the sense of offering a comparison. In English idiom we might also speak of setting something “side-by-side for comparison”. A parable, properly speaking, is a saying or short story which illustrates a particular topic or point by way of figure—i.e., “this is like…” Most of Jesus’ parables are meant to illustrate and describe the kingdom of God—”the kingdom of God is like what, then? with what shall I liken it?” (Lk 13:18). A similar statement begins several of the parables in Mark 4—”thus the kingdom of God is as (if)…” (v. 26), “how shall we liken the kingdom of God, or in what parable shall we set it?” (v. 30). This occurs more consistently with the parables in Matthew 13 (vv. 44-45, 47, 52, also in Matt 20:1; 25:1, and cf. Matt 18:3-4 par). Here is outline of Mark 4, which comprises a distinct narrative unit:

    • Narrative introduction (vv. 1-2)
    • Parable of the Sower (vv. 3-9)
    • Explanatory saying (vv. 10-12)
    • Explanation of the Parable of the Sower (vv. 13-20)
    • Parable of the Lamp (vv. 21-25)
    • Parable of the Seed (1) (vv. 26-29)
    • Parable of the Seed (2) (vv. 30-32)
    • Narrative conclusion (vv. 33-34)

Matthew 13 contains additional parables and other material (vv. 24-30, 33, 34-35, 36-43, 44-50, 51-53), including a second explanation (with Scripture quotation) as to why Jesus taught using parables (vv. 34-35 [quoting Psalm 78:2]). Luke’s account (8:4-18) is shorter, corresponding to Mk 4:1-25 (but cf. also Lk 13:18-21). Mark 4:11 par is set between the parable of the Sower and its explanation:

And when he came to be down (where he was) remaining [i.e. ‘at home’, alone], the ones around him, together with the Twelve, asked him (about) the (illustration he) cast alongside [i.e. the parable]. And he said/related to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God; but to those th(at are) outside, all th(ese thing)s come to be in (illustration)s cast alongside [i.e. parables], (so) that ‘looking they might look and (yet) not see, and hearing they might hear and (yet) not put (it) together, (that) they might not ever turn (back) upon (God) and it be released for them [i.e. their sin be forgiven]’.”

There are three parts to this saying:

    • The notice of the disciples asking Jesus about the parable (v. 10)
    • The saying (v. 11), and
    • The citation from Isaiah 6:9-10 (v. 12)

Matthew and Luke both follow the same pattern as Mark’s account, but with a few notable differences:

    • The notice of the disciples asking Jesus about the parable
      Matt 13:10: “And coming toward (him), the learners [i.e. disciples] said to him, ‘Through what [i.e. why] do you speak to them in (illustration)s cast alongside [i.e. parables]?'”
      Luke 8:9: “And his learners [i.e. disciples] asked him ‘What could this (illustration) cast alongside [i.e. parable] be?'”

Matthew and Luke both omit any reference to the disciples coming to Jesus privately (i.e. alone). In Matthew’s account, they simply ask Jesus why he speaks in parables (the answer being given both in vv. 11-15ff [by Jesus] and vv. 34-35). Luke generally follows Mark, but specifically indicates that they are asking about the meaning of the parable.

    • The central saying
      Matt 13:11: “And giving forth (an answer) he said to them, ‘(In) that it has been given to you to know the secrets of the kingdom of the Heavens, but to those (others) it has not been given'”
      Luke 8:10: “And he said, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but to the rest (of them only) in (illustration)s cast alongside [i.e. parables]'”

Matthew and Luke agree in several details: (a) use of the plural “secrets” (musth/ria), (b) the expression “given to know [gnw=nai]” instead of simply “given”, and (c) no mention of the others as being “those outside”. Matthew characteristically uses the expression “kingdom of the Heavens” instead of “kingdom of God”; he has also included here another saying (v. 12), presumably moved from a separate location (Mk 4:25 / Lk 8:18, and cf. Matt 25:29 par) and joined to v. 11 by ‘catchword bonding’.

    • The citation of Isaiah 6:9-10
      Matthew (13:14-15) cites the LXX literally and in full, along with a characteristic citation formula (v. 14a). Mark’s version, which is an abridgment of Isa 6:9-10, is more likely to represent Jesus’ actual words as preserved in the tradition. Luke’s version (8:10b) is even simpler:
      “…(so) that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not put (it) together [i.e. understand]”
      The Markan form remains closer to the LXX:
      “(so) that looking they might look and (yet) not see, and hearing they might hear and (yet) not put (it) together, (that) they might not ever turn (back) upon (God) and it be released for them [i.e. their sin be forgiven]”

In omitting Isa 6:10 altogether, Luke has removed the (problematic) mention of conversion and forgiveness from the quotation.

The meaning and significance of this Synoptic passage will be discussed further in the next daily note.

April 2 (1): Luke 18:8

(From today on through Easter, I will be posting two daily notes—one in the morning, and another in the afternoon/evening.
The morning notes will continue the series on the Son of Man sayings.)

Luke 18:8

Following the eschatological sayings in Luke 17:20-37 (cf. the previous note), there is recorded a parable of Jesus, found only in Luke (18:1-8a), which concludes with a Son of Man saying (18:8b). In the Lukan narrative context, this parable likewise has an eschatological emphasis, seen particularly in Jesus’ explanation in verses 7-8a:

“Should God not (all the more) make the execution of justice for his chosen [lit. gathered out] (one)s, the (one)s crying (out) to him by day and by night, and long restrain (his) impulse (to give help) upon them? I relate to you that he will make the execution of justice for them in short (order)!”

While it is possible to read this statement in a general sense—i.e. God will not wait to give help to his people when the earnestly pray and cry out to him—the eschatological implication is striking. Part of the impending sequence of end-time events involves the beginning of great suffering and travail on humankind, and, in particular, the persecution of believers. This is outlined vividly in the eschatological teaching contained in the (Olivet) Discourse of Mark 13 (par Matt 24 / Luke 21):

    • Mk 13:5-8: false christs/Messiahs, war, earthquakes and famines, etc.—signs of the end, beginning of birth pains
    • Mk 13:9-13: persecution and arrest, killing, etc. of believers—with an exhortation to endure this to the end
    • Mk 13:14-23: an intense period of suffering/tribulation, along with desecration (of the Temple), false Messiahs, etc
    • Mk 13:24-27: the coming of the Son of Man, who will gather/deliver the Elect (and bring Judgment)

The widow of the parable, repeatedly crying out for justice, symbolizes the people of God (i.e. believers) who are enduring an intense period of suffering and persecution. Jesus declares that God will not wait long, restraining his impulse/desire to help his people in their time of need, but will bring justice/judgment in short order (i.e. quickly).

Christians today may well be reluctant to view this parable from an eschatological standpoint (despite the clear context of Lk 17:20-37), since, on the surface at least, it is hard to square with a ‘delay’ of some 2,000 years+ before the end-time comes in full. And, to be sure, during all this time, believers have endured considerable persecution, in varying degrees, in different places, still waiting for the final working-out of Justice. This is a highly difficult (and sensitive) interpretive issue which is not possible to address here in this note. For the moment, it is necessary to focus on the text of the Gospels, and the sayings/teachings of Jesus, as we have them, recognizing the numerous difficulties of interpretation that are present (and are likely to remain so). Faithful, careful exegesis and exposition requires that we not rush to explain away apparent difficulties and discrepancies in the text, however uncomfortable and challenging they may seem. I will soon be posting here a series on the Eschatology of the New Testament, in which many of these points are considered and examined in detail.

In conclusion, it is necessary to examine briefly the Son of Man saying in Lk 18:8b:

“More than (this) [plh/n]—the Son of Man (at his) coming, will he then [a&ra] find faith/trust [pi/sti$] upon the earth?”

Several details in this saying should be noted:

    • The conjunctive particle plh/n has the basic meaning “more (than)”, i.e. “more than this, besides this”, often used in an adversative sense—something like “however, nevertheless, despite (this)”. It connects back with the preceding parable (and explanation).
    • The participle e)lqw\n (“coming”) is to be understood dramatically in terms of the Son of Man in the act or time of his coming—i.e. when he comes, at the moment he arrives.
    • a&ra is an interrogative, inferential particle—”then will he…?” The sense is: once the Son of Man has arrived, will he then find…?
    • What is the precise meaning of pi/sti$ (“trust”) here? In early Christian usage, it normally refers to faith in Christ, and, in the context of the persecution of early Christians (Mk 13:9-13 par; Lk 12:8-12, etc), could be interpreted in terms of enduring/maintaining faith in the face of persecution. At the historical level of Jesus’ teaching, the reference is more likely to trust in God—i.e. that he will deliver his people.

The coming of the Son of Man is parallel to the “day/days of the Son of Man” in Lk 17:22-37—i.e., the time of his coming, with the Judgment of God, at the end. In Mk 13:24-27, the other side of the Judgment is expressed: the rescue/deliverance of God’s Elect in the time of trouble (on this image, see the prior note on Lk 9:26). As I have indicated above, this is also the context of Lk 18:1-8. Even so, the precise force of Jesus’ question in v. 8b is not entirely clear; there are at least two possibilities:

    • Will the Son of Man find the trust in God expressed by the widow of the parable, praying/crying out to God throughout the time of suffering
    • God will vindicate his people (who cry to him), but when the Son of Man arrives to deliver them will he find real trust in God among them—i.e. trust is distinguished from the simple act of crying out in distress

I tend toward the latter interpretation. Trust/faith, as found among the people of God (i.e. believers, followers of Jesus), should surpass the desperate example of the widow—how much more should they trust that God will work justice for his people!

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March 31: Luke 12:39-40

Today’s note continues the Easter-season study of the Son of Man sayings in Luke, set during the journey to Jerusalem and thereafter. The saying under discussion is Luke 12:40, part of a larger section of teaching (vv. 35-46) with an eschatological emphasis—stressing the importance of watchfulness and faithfulness of disciples. Three sayings (or groups of sayings) have been brought together:

    • Verses 35-38, which appear to be unique to Luke (but cf. Matt 25:1-13)
    • Verses 39-40, which have a parallel version in Matthew 24:43-44
    • Verses 41-46, which are similarly parallel to Matthew 24:45-51, with vv. 41-42a providing the narrative link with vv. 35-40.

All three groups of sayings utilize the illustration of the master of a house and a visitor who arrives unexpectedly. The first and third (vv. 35-38, 42b-46) specifically paint the scenario of the master of a house who is temporarily away (v. 36); despite his absence, the servants of the house must remain faithful and conscientious in the performance of their duties, since they do not know when he might return. The first illustration is positive, describing the faithfulness of the servants (vv. 37-38); the third is primarily negative, contrasting the faithful (vv. 42-44) with the negligent/abusive servant (vv. 45-46). Later Christians have tended to read the basic setting of these illustrations—the return of the master who has gone away—with the return of Christ; however, it is unlikely that Jesus originally intended the illustrations to be understood this way. Instead, the motif appears to have a simpler purpose and meaning—to stress the end-time appearance of God coming to Judge humankind (the Old Testament “Day of YHWH”). The coming Judgment (the Kingdom of God, i.e. God as King) is near, and could commence at any time; thus Jesus’ followers (believers) must remain faithful, even if there seems to be a delay in the coming of the end. Jesus himself was extremely reluctant to discuss just when the end would come; in fact, according to at least one saying in the Synoptic tradition (Mark 13:32 par) only God the Father knows when the time will be.

Luke 12:39-40

This basic understanding of vv. 35-38, 42b-46 outlined above is important for an accurate interpretation of the saying in verse 40. Let us look at this saying in context:

    • Verses 35-38 (illustration 1)—believers (are exhorted to) remain faithful when the end-time Judgment comes.
    • Verses 39-40 (illustration 2)—the danger facing believers / the coming of the Son of Man
    • Verses 42b-46 (illustration 3)—exhortation in the face of danger: some are faithful, others are found negligent and/or wicked when the end-time Judgment comes.

The two illustrations of the Master’s return (the end-time Judgment) bracket the central illustration and so provide its semantic and interpretive context. The danger facing believers is described by the simple example of a thief who attempts to break into the Master’s house—like most thieves, he is likely to come at an unexpected moment, therefore the servants of the house must take measures to prevent it. This illustration informs Jesus’ exhortation that begins verse 40: “and (so) you (must) come to be ready/prepared…”—that is, prepared and equipped to face the danger. The “danger” is defined as attack/infiltration by the enemy, probably best understood as testing/temptation by the Devil. The lure and result of temptation, even so far as incitement to blatant wickedness, is depicted vividly in the third illustration which follows (esp. verses 45-46). Thematically, we may analyze the entire pericope as follows:

    • The impending Judgment by God (the Master’s unexpected return)
      • Faithfulness of servants/believers
        • The danger facing believers (the Master’s house)
          • The coming of the Son of Man
        • Temptation of believers toward sin and wickedness
      • Faithfulness of believers, in spite of temptation
    • The impending Judgment by God (the Master’s return)

The central event—the coming of the Son of Man—is parallel to the outer framework of the illustration, i.e. the Master’s return (the end-time Judgment by God). The core exhortation is tied to the central event, summed up by the structure of verse 40:

“And (so) you (must) come to be ready/prepared…
in that (i.e. because)
…you do not think/consider [i.e. are not aware] of which hour the Son of Man comes”

We have already looked at several sayings where the “Son of Man” functions as God’s representative: a divine/heavenly figure who would appear (with the Angels) at the end-time, and/or would oversee the Judgment (Lk 9:26f, 12:8-9). Some scholars question whether or not (originally) Jesus might have been referring to a separate figure, and not to himself. While conceivable on objective grounds, I find this to be highly unlikely. There are so many instances where, in the use of “Son of Man”, Jesus clearly refers to himself, that in eschatological passages (such as we find here) there is little reason to think that he is not identifying himself with this figure as well. In other words, Jesus is not so much the returning Master of the illustrations, but specifically the Son of Man—the personal representative of God Himself at the end-time. This identification will be discussed again in the next daily note (on Luke 17:20-37).

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Passion Narrative, Pt 1 (Lk 7:36-50)

Luke 7:36-50

In the previous note, I examined the Anointing of Jesus in Mark and Matthew, in which it is set as the first episode in the (Synoptic) Passion Narrative. Luke likewise includes an Anointing scene, but one with a very different setting—earlier in the Galilean ministry period (7:36-50)—and with considerable differences in detail as well. These points of difference would normally be sufficient to mark the episode as deriving from an entirely separate (historical) tradition. However, at least two facts would argue against this:

    1. This is the only such Anointing scene in Luke; he does not include anything similar at a point corresponding to Mk 14:3-9 par. This might suggest that Luke felt that the episode properly belonged at a different point in the narrative. John’s version provides confirmation for an earlier setting of the episode, prior to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
    2. Luke’s account includes specific details common to the Synoptic (Markan) version:
      (a) The name of the host (Simon)—Mk 14:3 par; Lk 7:40.
      (b) The unnamed woman with an alabaster jar of perfume—Mk 14:3 par; Lk 7:37
      (c) As we shall see, the description of the woman’s action (v. 38) is nearly identical with that in John’s version (12:3), which otherwise is quite close overall to the Markan episode.

How are we to explain the relationship between the Lukan and Synoptic (Mark/Matthew) version? There are several possibilities:

    • They simply record entirely separate (historical) events, and the similarities between them are coincidental. This would probably be the normal traditional-conservative view, yet the points noted above seem to speak against it.
    • Luke has combined two distinct historical traditions:
      (1) that involving a “sinful” woman who wets Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair; the episode is set earlier in Jesus’ ministry, at the house of a Pharisee.
      (2) that of the woman who anoints Jesus at Bethany; i.e. the Synoptic tradition, set close to the time of Jesus’ Passion in Jerusalem.
      This would tend to be the more common critical view—that Luke has added details from the Synoptic version (which he has otherwise omitted) to the other scene.
    • They record the same underlying historical tradition (and event), but that Luke has brought out very different details and points of emphasis, through the specific tradition he has inherited.

Unfortunately, each of these three views has its own problems, and none is entirely satisfactory as an explanation of both the differences and similarities between the versions. The situation is complicated still further when one compares these two versions of the Anointing scene with the third (in John). Insofar as Luke has developed the core (Synoptic) tradition, we must consider this from several different perspectives.

1. If Luke has otherwise made use of Mark (or a similar Synoptic narrative), why did he omit the Bethany Anointing scene of Mk 14:3-9? Different possibilities have been suggested, but, in my view, the most convincing is that his purpose was to emphasize more clearly two primary thematic elements of the narrative—(1) the Passover setting, and (2) the Betrayal by Judas. Eliminating the Anointing episode at this point serves to join immediately the narrative introduction (22:1-6) with the Last Supper scene (vv. 7ff), in which both of these elements are prominent. Luke has further enhanced the narrative introduction by weaving into it the tradition of Judas’ betrayal (compare vv. 3-6 with Mk 14:1b-2).

2. The author (trad. Luke) may also have wished to give greater prominence to the earlier Anointing scene, set in Galilee. Whether or not he has included details, otherwise found in the Bethany scene, within this episode (cf. above), there is tremendous power and beauty to the narrative in 7:36-50. The Anointing episode outline (on this, cf. the previous note) is essentially represented by vv. 36-40, the first part of the narrative. The second part (vv. 41-50) involves a parable (vv. 41-47) similar to others found in Luke’s Gospel (see esp. 10:25-37, of the “Good Samaritan”). The three-fold emphasis on repentance, forgiveness, and love, reflects important Lukan themes, such as we see, for example, in the parable of the Prodigal (15:11-24ff). All of these elements, of course, are unique to Luke’s tradition, and are not found in the Synoptic Anointing episode. Yet, as noted above, there is some indication that the author may have seen the two traditions as reflecting the same episode. In particular, the reference to the host Pharisee as “Simon” (v. 40) could suggest a conscious harmonization with Mk 14:3ff.

3. The similarity between Lk 7:38 and Jn 12:3 raises the possibility that Luke inherited a form of the (Bethany) Anointing tradition closer to Jn 12:1-8 than Mk 14:3-9. This should be seriously considered, especially since there is some evidence that, in the Passion and Resurrection narratives, Luke and John are drawing from a common tradition separate from the Synoptic (i.e. not found in Mark/Matthew). John’s account of the Anointing will be discussed in the next note.

March 12: Matt 6:12; Luke 11:4a, continued

Matthew 6:12; Luke 11:4a (continued)

In the previous note, we discussed the petition in the Lord’s Prayer for the forgiveness (lit. release, sending away) of debto)fei/lhma, something which one owes and ought to pay back (vb. o)fei/lw). The Didache (8:2) version of the Prayer uses the singular, but Matthew’s version has the plural: “may you release for us our (deb)ts (that we) owe [o)feilh/mata]”. The corresponding Hebrew and Aramaic root would presumably be bwj, the noun boj referring to an obligation or debt. When used in a religious context, relating to sin, it would mean something like “guilt”. This religious usage is largely absent from the o)feil– word group in Greek, which may explain why the Lukan version of the Prayer reads “our sins [ta\$ a(marti/a$ h(mw=n]” instead of “our debts“.

Taking the Matthean version of this petition, on its own, the person to whom the debts are owed is not immediately clear. However, based the context in the Sermon on the Mount (especially vv. 14-15 which follow) it is apparent that these are things we owe to God, a point the Lukan version makes explicit by referring to sins. But what are these “debts” precisely?

In ancient Israel, sin was closely connected with the holiness expected of the people (Lev 19:2, etc), along with the various religious obligations which that entailed. These obligations are documented and described throughout the Old Testament Torah, the chief ones being related to the ritual purity required for contact with the sanctuary and sacred precincts of the Tabernacle/Temple. There were, of course, various sins and crimes (and other failings) which might be committed at the social level, but a carefully study of the Torah shows that even these are closely tied to the ritual holiness that defined the Israelite religious identity.

Jesus, following a line of teaching begun by the Prophets, turns this around—making the social-ethical aspect of religion take priority over the ritual dimenion. This is a thematic emphasis expressed, for example, throughout the Sermon on the Mount (see esp. the instruction in Matt 5:23-24), and it is certainly present here in this petition of the Prayer. Consider that Jesus might have said “may you release for us our debts we owe, even as we released the debts owed to us”; however, instead, the second half of the petition personalizes the matter, in terms of social relationships—not the debt owed (o)fei/lhma) but the person who owes the debt (o)feile/th$). The Lukan version makes the same point with a verbal participle: “…for (the one) owing [o)fei/lonti] to us”. Indeed, in Luke this is turned into a more inclusive, universal principle: “…for every [panti] (one) owing to us”.

As discussed in the prior note, a precise interpretation of this part of the Prayer depends on how one resolves the (text-)critical question, both in terms of the differences between the Matthean and Lukan versions, and the form of the verb a)fi/hmi (“send away, release”) in the second half of the petition. If the reading a)fh/kamen (“we [have] released”) is correct, then it implies that having our debts released by God requires that we (first) be willing to forgive the things owed to us by others. This condition is expressed a bit differently in the two versions:

    • Matt: “…even as [w($ kai\] we (also have) released our (deb)tors owing (to us)” — i.e., this is something we have done.
    • Luke: “…for we (our)selves also release every (one) owing to us” — i.e., this is something we regularly do (and are willing to do).

Clearly there is a principal of reciprocity involved, and it is conditional—only if we are willing to release (i.e. cancel) the things owed to us can we expect God to release the things we owe. Here, again, debt is understood, not in the sense of money or ordinary social obligations (though that can be involved), but in the ethical and moral sense. The “debts” owed to us (by other people) encompass any wrong or injustice toward us which might come about during the course of our life on earth, whether intentional or unintentional, in simple matters or major violations. We must be willing to “wipe away” and cancel the obligation such persons have to correct the wrong on our behalf. This also extends to any injustice or disruption which affects the relationship between two people. Jesus’ teaching in this regard is surprisingly practical, as we see in examples in the Sermon on the Mount such as 5:23-26. At the same time, the ethic required by Jesus of his followers cuts against the grain of the natural human desire for justice and retribution, especially in the command to love and pray for one’s enemies, refusing to strike back at one who mistreats us (5:38-47). Even if a person wrongs us many times, we must be willing to forgive (cf. below).

The conditional aspect of the petition—we are in a position to ask for forgiveness from God only when we forgive others—can make some Christians uncomfortable, as it suggests a requirement (something we must do) before we are forgiven by God. Yet, this is clearly a significant part of Jesus’ teaching; the saying which follows the Prayer in Matt 6:14-15 leaves no doubt of the condition required:

“For if you would release for (other) men their (moment)s of falling alongside, (so) also will your heavenly Father release (them) for you; but if you do not release (them) for (other) men, your heavenly Father will not release your (moment)s of falling alongside (either).”

The word para/ptwma, usually translated (somewhat inaccurately) as “trespass”, is here rendered more literally “(moment) of falling alongside”; in English idiom we might say “falling over the line”, i.e. any religious or moral failing, usually (but not always) unintentional. Mark 11:25 has a simpler saying which expresses much the same idea, and in language very much reminiscent of the traditions in the Sermon on the Mount:

“when you stand speaking out toward (God) [i.e. praying], you must release (it) [i.e. forgive] if you hold anything against anyone, (so) that also your Father the (One) in the heavens might release for you your (own moment)s of falling alongside”

Luke 6:37 has an even simpler and more concise saying (utilizing the verb a)polu/w):

“you must loose (others) from (their bond/debt), and you will be loosed from (yours)” [cp. Matt 7:1f].

This basic instruction occurs a number of times throughout the Gospel tradition, including several parables where Jesus employs the concrete metaphor of “debt” (using the verb o)fei/lw), as he does in the Lord’s Prayer:

1. The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt 18:21-35). This parable is introduced by the saying of Jesus in v. 22 (preceded by a question by Peter, v. 21):

“Lord, how many (times) shall my brother sin unto [i.e. against] me and I (still) release [i.e. forgive] it for him? until seven (times)?”
Jesus’ answer:
“I do not say to you ‘until seven (times)’, but ‘until seventy (times) seven'” [compare Lk 17:3-4]

In the parable itself, the reciprocal (and conditional) principle in Matt 6:12, 14-15 is illustrated most vividly, in terms of the monetary debt owed by a person. The much larger amount owed by the unforgiving servant to his master, of course, represents the “debt” a person owes to God.

2. The Parable of the “Dishonest Manager” (Luke 16:1-9). This is another parable involving a servant who collects money that is owed—this time it is done on behalf of his master. An interpretation of this parable has proven difficult for commentators, but the thrust of the illustration appears to be that the manager of an estate, who is being relieved of his position, decides, in the course of his final duties, to help his own future interests by deducting a certain amount from the bill owed by the servants (tenant farmers) on the estate. Most likely, the amount he deducts represents his own commission (he is presumably not stealing from what is owed to his master), and, as a result, lessens the burden for the other servants. This is practical advice, similar to the example given in Matt 5:25-26, but it underlies a spiritual principle: one’s relationship with God is based on, and should be reflected by, our wise efforts to make things right with our fellow human beings, acting fairly and mercifully, etc. The reciprocity of Matt 6:12, 14-15 is expressed again in the sayings which follow the parable (vv. 10-12).

3. The Parable on Forgiveness, part of the anointing scene in Luke 7:36-50 (vv. 41-47). Here a different sort of reciprocal principle is expressed, one which is doubtless more familiar (and appealing) to Christians today: our religious (and ethical) behavior should reflect our gratitude to God for his forgiving us our debt (i.e. sins).

All three of these parables use the verb o)fei/lw to illustrate the idea of sin and injustice, etc, as “debt”, something we owe both to God and to others, and the requirement that we “send it way”, by forgiving it (for others) and making things right again. It is important to keep this concept in mind as we consider the Prayer within the context of Jesus’ wider teaching. In the next note, we will turn to the subsequent petition(s) to see how Jesus further instructs his followers to respond to sin and evil in the world.

These notes on the Lord’s Prayer commemorate the start of the new feature “Monday Notes on Prayer” on this site.