Huw and I have been having an interesting conversation at the Episcopal Cafe that I think is worth expanding. It began with a discussion of the parable of the workers in the vineyard with the occasional infusion of the parable of the wicked tenants. In this exchange I was focused mostly on the first… Here are some of the pertinent comments to date:
I think in speaking about the “generosity” of the vineyard owner of Matthew 20 it’s important to note that the Scripture doesn’t call him “generous”. That’s a liberty taken by our translators; rather the word is “good” (ego agathos eimi)…
I don’t think a traditional meaning “doesn’t fit” the meaning of the text at all. Actually, I think it works better when we consider not only the content of the parable but its literary context as well.
If we look just before this parable we see the account of the young wealthy man who asks what “good thing” (ti agathon) he must do to be saved to whom Jesus responds that “there is one who is good” (ho agathos) (Matt 19:16-22).
Then Jesus speaks of the difficulties of the wealthy who wish to enter the kingdom [“easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God…”] (Matt 19:23-30).
Then we get this parable about the householder who hires laborers (Matt 20:1-16) which ends with the householder saying, “Why do you cast the evil eye [on me] because I am good?”
How do we interpret the householder given the rest of the discussion around wealth and the good? Is he a negative example that confirms the difficulty of the rich to do good or a positive exemplum of one who uses wealth as a manifestation of the nature of the kingdom?
If he is a sign of evil what, then, is the sign of the kingdom thus displayed?
I agree that we must always be on our guard against the domestication of the sharp edge of the Gospel. I just disagree that this reading strips the story of a Gospel challenge.
Donald – As you noted in your reply, “It is exciting when scripture pushes us to a kind of arguing that seems rabbinic”.
When I first read your post my guts knotted up a little. Your reading of the text comes at such a different angle to what is traditional that I felt as if the floor had dropped out on an exciting carnival ride. THAT’S what I like about this sort of Rabbinic Conversation! It’s like a roller coaster with the Holy Ghost at the switch as long as we trust each other.
Derek, your description of the text works well with my ex-Orthodox comfort level – which is therefore suspect. Thanks for that tracing of “good” through those passages. But does that literary context say anything about what *Jesus* intended by this story? Or does it tell us more about what the Matthewite community wanted to focus on in the hearing of this passage? Mind you – I don’t think it’s possible to make that choice in a satisfactory way; and I think such a realisation opens the doors to the possibility that there are many other ways of reading this text.
And this is even more true if the traditional reading is based, in circular fashion, on a context that simply expects the traditional reading.
It’s the use of Allegory that is the problem here: was Jesus intending Allegory? Did the Early Disciples hear Allegory? We may never know in this world, but certainly the Church Fathers saw nearly *all* the scriptures as conveying Allegory. Should we do likewise? Even if we follow in their footsteps, does that mean that only one allegory drawn from the text is right? If we decide to use their method do we need to duplicate their results?
One traditional allegory on the “Walking on Water” has Peter getting out of the boat showing us what happens when we dare leave the Church. It goes on to say that Peter was at fault for daring to leave the boat at all! After the Great Schism this reading becomes laden with political overtones. It’s no wonder we never hear it in the west outside of the Orthodox Church. I head it every year when that Gospel came up. And when Peter cries, “Save me” Jesus puts him in the boat (ie, back in the Orthodox Church). It has nothing to do with Peter “loosing faith” when he tried to Walk on the Water. Attempting to walk away from the boat and the other disciples was, in this reading, the sin.
Which reading is right? Does one need to be right and the other wrong? Do we need to pick one over the other other than as needed for a sermon in a given situation? Which one is intended by the Gospel writer? Which one would have been heard by his first community? Or would they have heard just a cool story? Do we need to know those answers beyond prying new, interesting readings out of the text?
Yes, a both/and reading is typically preferable over an either/or. I do think, however, that certain readings are to be preferred based on the principle of edification. I need to be challenged by readings like the ones Donald and Deirdre offer. At the same time, others need to be challenged again by the meanings that endure in the traditional readings. I do not accuse Donald or Deirdre of this at all, but there are some who believe that the Bible was entirely misunderstood until the 1960’s and I think that’s a mistake.
As for the parable and its setting, What you and Donald are doing is stripping away one setting and replacing it with another one. The one that you are discarding comes from the same general time-period and culture as Jesus himself, written by a people far more familiar with their cultural and interpretive practices than we are. The setting that you are replacing it with is a 21st century recreation that some scholars think might be possibly what Jesus was like. Or not. Personally, I’d rather work with the setting that we actually have and, since Matthew is the only gospel who preserves this parable, it’s the only one we have to go on.
Derek – ” I’d rather work with the setting that we actually have”
If by that you mean *only* the literary setting, then ok. As I said I thank you for drawing out the line on “agatho” through the preceding several scenes. It was something I wouldn’t have noticed without your sharing.
But, again: that only tells us about the text. Not about the community or the intent of the writer(s). It tells us nothing about Jesus. We don’t even know if the community would have heard those several passages read together. Even our assumptions about who that community was are mere guesses.
Any attemt at a cultural reading or a setting (New or Old) is a reading-into the text of material that isn’t necessarily there. Our choice, as you’ve noted, is to find out if it is a reading towards the edification of the people – and ultimately to their deification in Christ.
But, again: that only tells us about the text. Not about the community or the intent of the writer(s).
True. And the text is what we confess as part of the mystery that is the Word of God–not the community nor the intention of the writer(s).
It tells us nothing about Jesus.
Au contraire, my friend… It tells us how Matthew and possibly other pre-Matthean sources communicated who Jesus was. It may not give us historical “facts” about Jesus but it does tells us how the author and the transmitting community understood the ethos, aims, and point of Jesus. That’s pretty important in my book.
Speaking simply, we make meaning from a text based on two primary factors: content and context. I think that Huw and I both acknowledge that the more malleable of the two is context and the discussion here is not about what one context the text belongs in, but what we should consider the primary context (or contexts) and which should be secondary, tertiary or beyond. So we agree that there are multiplicity of legitimate contexts; the normative context is the one up for grabs.
From a scholarly point of view, I’m a literary guy. Thus, my intention is to give the text pre-eminence over other factors. Theologically, I do believe that the biblical text is the Word of God, inspired by God. I see it as something more a kin to a hypostatic union where it is simultaneously a limited human word and a revelatory divine word rather than following a dictation model. As a result of these convictions, I argue that the normative context for any pericope/section of text is its immediate literary context, the larger context of the book in which it is found and the wider context of the whole of Scripture. Another primary context for me is the history of interpretation—how the Church has understood, incarnated, and wrestled with the passage through the centuries.
I see Huw and Donald (who started this discussion) assigning a primary—perhaps normative—context of historical Jesus research to the parable. That is, they are suggesting (and do correct me if I’m reading you wrong, Huw) that a (if not the) central context for the parable is based in Jesus-as-he-was rather than the gospels which are texts that transmit not the pure Jesus—Jesus-as-he-was—but Jesus-as-the early-church-viewed-him.
I take issue with this. I’ve been trained in the New Testament guild. That means several semester-long in-depth seminars on the history of New Testament research and on the whole “Quest for the Historical Jesus” problem. I know where we’ve come from and where we are now. And frankly, I see most historical Jesus research as problematic. We have very limited data that we can say is “historical” in nature. Our main sources were not primarily interested in giving us the kind of historical data that we are after. As a result, most of the research greatly outstrips what I believe our sources give us. Whenever that happens, we begin wandering into the realm of fantasy. Historical reconstruction as wishful/hopeful thinking. Albert Schweitzer was the first to expose this for what it was at the turn into the 20th century and while we’ve progressed into new areas and sociological models he couldn’t have dreamed of, his central charge still holds true. The Jesus we go looking for is the Jesus that we find. I do not believe that the sources that we have—the gospels—contain the data for us to access Jesus-as-he-was and therefore any attempt to do so provides Jesus-as-we-wish-him-to-be mistaken as Jesus-as-he-was. And that, in my opinion, is why using historical Jesus research as a central context for understanding the parables is misguided—we’re not giving them a contemporary context, we’re giving them a modern context that masquerades as historical.
Having said all that, it’s only fair t note that the parables have been a central battleground for historical Jesus research through the 20th century because one of the few things that everyone actually can agree on is that Jesus taught in parables. (Naturally, we get into major arguments when various folks start pronouncing on which parables belong to Jesus and which are from the early church–or, worse yet–which pieces of which parables are from Jesus and which from the early church…) In this discussion, I’m not denying the validity of the work of folks like Jeremias or Perrin who did some careful and important work on the parables with either implicit or explicit ties to historical Jesus research, I just don’t think that even their careful research (not all of which I agree with either…) gives us enough of a solid context to justify replacing the context we do have with the one we reconstruct.