Thursday, January 27, 2022

The Parables and their Study: An Embarrassing State of Affairs

In 2004 I called attention to what I described as an embarrassing situation in New Testament Scholarship.1 Whereas in the natural sciences “the confirmation or not of a limited hypothesis is regarded as an experimental fact if repetition yields the same result,”2 the modern study of the parables of Jesus yields remarkably different results. Each critic claims to have the key to explicate the parables of Jesus. Of course, literary and historical criticism are not the natural sciences, and in the study of parables the researcher’s personal proclivities frequently end up shaping the product of the study of the parables of Jesus.

Shortly before the death (4 B.C.E.) of Herod the Great, King of Judea, Jesus was born. According to early Christian tradition, his birth took place at Bethlehem (Matt 2; Luke 2), a few miles south of Jerusalem. He was reared, however, in the Galilee region at Nazareth, a tiny village in the hills a short distance from Sepphoris, where for most of Jesus’ life Herod Antipas directed the affairs of his tetrarchy (Galilee and Perea). Virtually everything known about Jesus’ public life comes from the early Christian gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, written decades after his death.3 Nothing is known of his private life. The gospels describe a number of Jesus’ public acts and preserve sayings and stories attributed to him in the course of his public career in the first third of the first century. Detailed reports exist of his death at the hands of the Romans during the Prefecture of Pontius Pilate (26-36 C.E.).

            The most prominent feature of Jesus’ public discourse, to judge from the gospels, is the brief story form he popularized in his short career. These stories, dubbed “parables” since the latter part of the first century, on their surface were simply secular stories about aspects of village life in what the Romans knew as Syria-Palestine, and later simply as Judea. Through the years it has been easier to reconcile the gospel accounts of Jesus’ activities with who Jesus has become in the faith of the church, than it has to reconcile his stories (which on their surface are not religious at all) with who Jesus has become in the faith of the church. Since the first century, his stories have remained a conundrum for the New Testament critic. How is it possible, for example, to find something religiously significant about God—or human life, for that matter—from a brief narrative about a woman putting yeast into a rather large measure of flour (Matt 13:33b; Luke 13:20b-21; Gospel of Thomas 96:1)? That issue—how to go from a first-century secular story to an “appropriate” religious explanation—has continued to be the fuse driving the fascination of the critic with Jesus’ stories. In the hands of his critics, those who ponder and analyze his stories for their “true” meanings, Jesus is seen to be many different people and his stories have been found to be about many different things. Each critic claims their own analysis unlocks the true meaning of the stories, giving expression to their true voice. That claim creates the embarrassing situation in which the study of Jesus’ parables finds itself today. The entire enterprise of parables study is threatened by each critic claiming to have the “true” interpretation of the parable. Their contradictory claims undermine confidence in any of the results. Yet no one seems to be bothered by this embarrassing state of affairs.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Charles W. Hedrick, Many Things in Parables. Jesus and his Modern Critics (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004). This brief essay is adapted from the introduction.

2James B. Conant, “Concerning the Alleged Scientific Method,” in Louise B. Young, ed., Exploring the Universe (New York: Oxford, 1971), 31.

3The Gospel of John has no parables. See Hedrick, Many Things in Parables, 4-5.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Thoughts on Advanced Old Age and the Bible

Once I was as quick as foxes on a hill, but in recent days rising is more difficult and walking sluggish and slower. Through the years the weight of gravity seems to have increased. The distance between think and speak is longer and words are sometimes lost or misstated. Memory comes back more slowly. There is always a brief nap after lunch in order to still my brain and restore my balance. Hearing once keen and clear, in recent days is muted and garbled by static. Sight has dimmed and must be aided by mechanical devices. Dizziness and imbalance put me always on the cusp of falling. Stepladders, I once mounted with alacrity and intrepidity, I now completely avoid. Pains persist in almost every joint. A dwindling stamina affects what I can plan for each day. Not anything in my body works as well as once it did, and some things do not work at all. Age is not just a number. It is the body’s acquiescence to one law of the universe—obsolescence.

My enforced isolation because of advanced age, health circumstances, and especially the pandemic has introduced into my life a kind of near-bearable monotony, even though the range of different things to be managed these days brings with them a kind of diversity. I find that I do not miss extensive engagement with the world; it distracts me from other things more compelling. Truth be told, the world is too much with us. I do miss, however, intelligent communication with colleagues on subjects of common interest. A little of what I need I meet through my blogging essays. But what I really want to do is to go back in time and do it all over again and this time to do it well. Alas, however, there are no do-overs in life!

William Wordsworth has a poem entitled, “The World is Too Much with Us.” As I read the poet, human beings have surrendered their engagement with the natural order of things for the machinations of a modern industrial world; the present age, one might say. We are so preoccupied with the necessities of surviving in such a world that we seldom pause to see the beauty and wonders of the natural world. The poet imagines renouncing faith and returning to an ancient Pagan world where human life was more in tune with the natural order of things and imagination added a certain spice to existence. There is a kind of world-weariness to the poem and a sense of loss that makes him “forlorn.” But sitting here today, January 1, 2022, I understand the poet’s frustration and loss caused by a necessary world-engagement. So might I, in some sheltered carrel, retreat into my mind from world engagement to imagine other worlds aborning.

Can a person of faith, no matter how eroded, find any consolation and solace in advanced old age from the ancient writings of the Judeo-Christian faiths? The answer is “perhaps.”

            To everything there is a season, as one biblical writer puts it (Eccl 3:1-8) and as the musical group, the Birds, have suggested most recently (in “Turn, Turn, Turn”), no doubt drawing on Ecclesiastes. The nostalgic mementos that we gather through life mark our inevitable “turns” into the other seasons of our lives. No matter how much we may wish to remain at one stage, the turns are inevitable. The early Christian writer, Paul, left behind two pearls of wisdom for those of us who have arrived at the season of advanced old age: on one occasion he opined: “I have learned, in whatever state I am to be content” (Phil 4:11-13 RSV). Sounds like cogent advice for those of us finding ourselves in that most difficult and inevitable season of life, if we are lucky enough to reach it. Nevertheless, he might have been led to that view because he thought the world was going to end in his lifetime (1 Cor 7:25-31). Hence, his advice to all those in the Jesus gatherings was remain as you are (1 Cor 7:17-24). In other words, learn to live with your situation; it will be for only a short period.

            The astute reader of 1 Cor 7:17-24 should by now have discovered his second pearl of wisdom: “were you a slave when called [into faith]? Never mind. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise, he who was free when called is a slave of Christ” (1 Cor 7:21-22). Where slavery is concerned, Paul willingly violates his own rule of “remain as you are” (1 Cor 7:17, 20, 24). The principle involved in both statements appears to be the following: learn to live with your situation, unless you can change it (italics mine). This principle applied to those of us caught in the final season of life is this: “Cope with it, unless you can change the situation to your benefit in some way.”

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*My thanks to Wallace Stevens and William Wordsworth for a few of their poetic phrases I have adapted for this essay.