Things in Parables
Extravagant Stories of New Community
If multiplicity of
interpretations is the measure, many of the Gospels' parbles have been
and are extraordinarily successful. A number of these stories are found
in more than one version in the Gospels, and almost all of the stories
have been given a variety of emphases and readings through the Christian
centuries. Although this openness to different hearings is unsettling
for some people, it was evidently characteristic of the parables from
their early tellings and may have been part of their original purpose.
This study is concerned not only with the reasons that Jesus is said to
have taught in parables, nor just with the uses of the parables by the
early Christian communities, but also with the hearings that may be given
to these stories in a variety of settings and circumstances today. The
capacity of the parables to help shape the interpretation of contemporary
life and to encourage the telling of new stories is an additional interest
of these researches and reflections.
The book is in several
ways a companion volume to my study of the healing stories in the Gospels
(Power in Weakness: New Hearing for Gospel Stories of Healing and Discipleship),
which also sought to bring historical, literary, psychological, and theological
insights to bear on significant biblical narratives. Both studies reflect
the concern in stories of and about Jesus to engender a new sense of community
in conjunction with the advent of the kingdom of God. Many of the parables
and stories of healing convey through their extravagant terms a passion
for the inclusion of those whom others have been willing to set outside
the sphere of God's care.
have been developed and honed over a number of years in teaching undergraduates
and graduate students at several universities and seminaries. Versions
of the chapters have been presented at conferences and institutes for
clergy and for laity in many parts of the United States, in Great Britain
and Panama, and in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Special thanks are due
to responsive audiences at Ursinus College and the Protestant Episcopal
Theological Seminary in Virginia, and to the sponsors of the Brennan Lectures
in the Episcopal Diocese of Kentucky and the Cheney Lectures at the Berkeley
Divinity School of Yale Divinity School.
The questions and
responses of many friends and participants have helped me to think more
closely about the stories and to develop my understanding. I am particularly
grateful to Gary Commins, John Koenig, Mary Boys, Sue Anne Steffey Morrow,
and Dan Via for reading through the entire manuscript and giving me their
criticisms and suggestions. John Hollar and Barry Blose of Fortress Press
offered numerous improvements. Susan Buck carefully prepared the manuscript
and gave me good advice. Barbara Borsch, as always, helped me in too many
ways to count. The final responsibility of what now appears in print can,
of course, only be mine, but I do want these many good people to know
how much their listening and responding has helped me discover with them
"many things in parables" (Mark 4:2; Matt. 13:3). Princeton
The kingdom of
heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered
up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
Stories about buried
treasure are found in the folklore of every culture -- thousands of them
altogether, many of them variations on basic plots. Part of the enjoyment
of these stories is no doubt the imaginative opportunity they provide
to put oneself in such circumstances and to ask. What would I do if I
found such treasure? How would I feel? How would my life be changed?
This is one of the
things that is maddening about this all-too-brief parable. Hearers want
to know more. Were the evangelist a newspaper reporter, he would not find
that he had a job for long.
Perhaps the comparable
story in today's newspapers has become almost a stock item: the article
about the sixty-three-year-old truck driver with emphysema, or the cleaning
woman who is a mother of six, or the young, single clerk at the grocery
store, who suddenly wins three and a half million dollars in the lottery.
The story goes on to tell us why the person took a chance on the lottery.
It answers our questions: Where did the winner buy the ticket? How many
did the winner buy? Did the winner have some special reason for picking
these numbers? Does the winner play the lottery every week? Did the person
have some feeling of being likely to win?
Maybe there is a picture
of the elated winner holding the winning ticket. What is the person going
to do now? Will the winner quit work or stay on working? Will the person
pay off debts, buy a new car, go on a vacation, help friends, give some
away, invest it? Perhaps there are some brief comments from the neighbors.
What kind of a person is the winner? Will this change him or her?
Sometimes, after a
few months or even years, a follow-up article can be found in the Sunday
paper. Sam Brown, who won the giant lottery two years ago, says he is
really the same fellow he always was, though he did quit working and now
spends half of each year in his condominium in Florida. Or Irene Peters
has somehow managed to run through almost all her winnings and now has
large debts her income cannot cover. She does not know where it all went.
A lot had to go for taxes; some she gave away. She probably could not
really afford the new house and car. The car was in a bad accident anyway.
The saddest story
of all is that of Mildred Tomlin, who says the money was the major factor
in causing the breakup with her husband and, later, divorce. The only
time the children ever come by anymore is to ask for money, and she does
not seem to have friends as she used to. Probably all of this has contributed
to her bad health. She wishes she had never bought that lottery ticket.
The theme of discovered
treasure leading to tragedy is one of the basic plots of treasure stories.
Especially is this so if the finder did not seem to be a very deserving
person to begin with or if the treasure was illegally or immorally gained.
In a number of tales there is an implicit warning about having anything
to do with treasure that is buried. The act of digging it up and handling
it puts one in touch with deep and mysterious forces of the earth--that
unseen arena where precious metals are sometimes found and from which
food appears. There in the ground are the secrets of growth, but there
is also death, for to the earth all things living return.
is probably some sense that the finder has come into relationship with
deep-seated powers within the self--of greed and a lust for power. These
in the end turn upon the owner and bring about death. Or it may be that
the treasure awakens greed in others (often family members or friends),
replacing kinship and good will with devious scheming. In the end there
is tragedy for all. Gold in the final scene is recognized to be a kind
of root of evil that never should have been dug up. The once-shining metal
is at last seen as the "filthy lucre" it always was. In a number of treasure
tales the trove is eventually found to be worthless.
Probably this kind
of ending actually makes hearers feel better. Maybe they feel better for
not having won the prize or found the treasure themselves. See what it
leads to anyway! It may satisfy a suspicion that life finally must turn
out tragically for everyone, even those who seem to have been very lucky.
Fortune is, at best, always two-faced, and eventually all are leveled.
The more significant satisfaction, however, probably comes from feeling
morally instructed about the dangers of treasure that one has not worked
for or otherwise deserved. The imparting of that lesson appears to be
one of the important functions of such tales.
There are, on the
other hand, many treasure stories that are instructive in other ways.
Sometimes, although the finding of the treasure still can be seen as fortunate,
the hearer also recognizes it to be a kind of reward for goodness or a
lifetime of searching or otherwise preparing oneself for this great stroke
of luck. Or the narratives may teach by telling of the wise or charitable
things that were done with the treasure. In some traditions it is seen
that the treasure is really a figure for wisdom that, whether the
finder has looked for it or it has been discovered only by chance, is
now cherished and used acording to the ways of wisdom.
One can recognize
the tendency to make a treasure story instructive in these terms in the
Gospel of Thomas's versions of the parable of the treasure (saying
109) and of the allied story of the pearl (saying 76):
kingdom is like a man who had a [hidden] treasure in his field without
knowing it. And [after] he died, he left it to his son. The son did not
know [about the treasure]. He inherited the field and sold [it]. And the
one who bought it, went plowing and found the treasure. He began to lend
money at interest to whomever he wished.
kingdom of the Father is like a merchant, who had a consignment of merchandise
and who discovered a pearl. That merchant was shrewd. He sold the merchandise
and bought the pearl alone for himself. You, too, seek unfailing and enduring
treasure where no moth comes near to devour and no worm destroys.
Whether the author
of this gospel knew the parables from Matthew's Gospel or another source,
it would seem that he has reshaped them from a perspective influenced
by Gnosticism and with that interest in mercantile activity found at a
number of points in his collection of sayings. Hearers are to learn from
the father and son who did not recognize the treasure of life in their
midst. The lesson is that "unless you look for the treasure in your own
field it will pass to others who will profit from it." The lucky one who
here legitimately acquires the field and then discovers the treasure does,
however, then recognize it for what it is. His lending of it may indicate
a wise use of the treasure and/or a sharing of genuine knowledge with
others. True to the folklore pattern of such stories, the finder demonstrates
his new wealth.
In the story of the
pearl the prudence of the merchant is stressed. The pearl evidently represents
wisdom, and Thomas adds his version of another saying from the tradition
to emphasize wisdom's unfailing character.
Because the two parables
are separated in Thomas, some scholars believe Matthew first brought them
together in his Gospel. One can imagine, how- ever, that their similarities
caused them to be linked at an earlier point in the tradition. Some critics
suggest that Jesus may have used them in tandem to reinforce a similar
basic concern. In any event, Matthew would appear to have seen them in
this light, and the two short narratives do have much in common.
Although they begin
a bit differently, they are both intended to say that the kingdom of heaven
is like this situation. One may or may not regard the significance
of the two stories as self-evident, but they are also similar in that
neither offers hearers a lot to go on. Those who probe them are left with
a number of unanswered questions. Both move quickly to their conclusions
focused by the parallel structure of finding and then goes/went,
sells/sold all, and buys/bought. The manner in which the
treasure parable shifts to verbs in the present tense as it ends seems
to make the action even more dramatic.
Neither story tells
what was done with the great find. Some interpreters believe that it is
implied that the treasure and highly valuable pearl were sold for great
wealth, but that understanding may in fact run counter to the concentrated
effect of the narratives. In an important sense one does not do anything
with this treasure. One just has it. It is the kingdom--not valuable for
what one can sell or trade it for--but wholly for itself. It is treasure
of surpassing value.
To his mixed community
(consisting of many who were lax and inconsistent in discipleship as well
as the more dedicated) Matthew has directed these stories with their examples
of "total commitment." They tell of a single-mindedness and an alacrity
in willingness to give up all else in life for what is of worth beyond
measure. The one who discovers the treasure and the merchant respond with
everything they have. They are in some ways il- lustrations of the saying
that follows the warning not to have earthly treas- ures that rust and
can be stolen but to have treasures in heaven: "For where your treasure
is, there will your heart be also" (Matt. 6:19-21; Luke 12:33- 34). Hearers
can contrast the story of the man who asked Jesus about inheriting eternal
life and was told to sell what he owned and give to the poor and so have
treasure in heaven but was unable to do so because he had great pos- sessions
(Matt. 19:16-22; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 18:18-23).
It is, however, rightly
pointed out that what is described in these stories is not giving away
everything but using all else to purchase what is regarded as of still
more worth. In this sense the two parables are not concerned with sacrificial
living for the sake of those in need, and that would be the wrong sermon
to preach using these stories as texts. Nevertheless, there is a kind
of willingness to surrender all other things that is involved in their
actions, comparable, for example, to the athlete who goes into strict
training in order to win the gold medal. Matthew's audience was probably
meant also to re- member sayings of Jesus such as "The one who loves father
or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and the one who loves son
or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and the one who does not
take up a cross and follow me is not worthy of me" (Matt. 10:37-38). The
kingdom must be given a priority that is absolute.
The twinned parables
of the treasure and pearl are together used by the evangelist to stress
this theme, but it is worth recognizing that there are also differences
in the narratives. Fortune suddenly presents both individuals with a unique
opportunity, but in the case of the pearl merchant hearers are able to
reflect on the virtue of the "prepared mind." Lucky he may be, but without
the skill he has developed in discerning pearls through preparation and
searching, he would presumably never have been able to perceive the true
nature of the opportunity. It is not suggested, on the other hand, that
the one who finds the treasure is either prepared or searching for anything.
This individual is just plain lucky.
There are also aspects
of the treasure story that are, as it were, more murky. This is true not
only because of those connotations that go along with treasure buried
in the ground but because hearers cannot be certain of the morality of
the treasure finder's actions. Looking back through sermons and scholarly
interpretation of the parable, one can find a fair amount of concern in
this regard. It seems probable, however, that the early hearers of the
parable would have understood that what the individual did was legal.
In a sense ancient treasure belonged to no one by right, and, if the person
was a day laborer and not a servant who would have borne more responsibility
to the owner, he was within his legal rights in concealing the find and
then buying the field. What is not illegal is, however, not always considered
morally right, and it is at least difficult to get very excited about
the ethics of the treasure finder. It has been suggested that Matthew
might not have included the parable in his Gospel were it not already
linked with the more aboveboard story of the merchant who had been searching
for fine pearls and purchased the one of great value in the open market.
Yet it is in part
because the parable does not seem very concerned with advertising practical
morality or common-sense prudence, and because the narrative does not
fulfill expectations based on similar stories, that it reminds of other
of Jesus' parables in their challenge to usual ways of thinking and expecting.
The treasure finder "is as unscrupulous in his way as the Unjust Steward
himself" who did what he had to do without much apparent regard for the
niceties of the situation, in order, in his circumstances, to make the
calamity of losing his job into an opportunity for a new life.
Heard in this perspective,
the parable is also at least as much a question as advice: What would
you do--or what will you do in similar circumstances--in the story of
your life? Even more than the story of the pearl, the treasure tale intimates
how much luck or, if you will, grace is involved in coming across the
kingdom of God--God's presence which in many ways is hidden below the
appearances and surface interpretations of life. Coming into contact with
that presence puts one in touch with mystery and risk. The one who stumbled
across the treasure found without seeking; in a sense he was as much found
as finding. But now if one is to seize this opportunity one cannot play
it safe. If the individual realizes that the opportunity of this treasure
is worth more than all else possessed, present life and the future are
The parable now seems
to allude to stories about marriage feasts and dinner parties, and perhaps
to still others about finding the unexpected--what one has neither sought
nor earned--and thus having everything disrupted. When what counts more
than all else in life is suddenly come across, what happens to planning,
investment schedules--even concerns about prudential morality and deserving?
Whose future is it then?
Available from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com