Stories Jesus Told…Parables in Matthew (1)
One day a farmer's donkey fell down into a well. The animal cried piteously for hours as the farmer tried to figure out what to do. Finally he decided the animal was old, that the well needed to be covered anyway and that it just wasn't worth retrieving the donkey. So he invited all his neighbours to come over and help him. They all grabbed a shovel and began to shovel dirt into the well. At first, the donkey realized what was happening and cried horribly. Then, to everyone's amazement, he quietened down. A few shovel loads later, the farmer finally looked down the well and was astonished at what he saw. With every shovel of dirt that hit his back, the donkey was doing something amazing. He would shake it off and take a step up. As the farmer's neighbours continued to shovel dirt on top of the animal, he would shake it off and take a step up. Pretty soon, everyone was amazed as the donkey stepped up over the edge of the well and trotted off!
What is a Parable?
An earthly story with a heavenly meaning
An earthly story with an earthly meaning
An earthly story with a dangerous meaning
Parables are stories (narrative) that use allegory, illustration & metaphor to speak about something other than the main story being told.
Purpose of Parables
Current western theology is primarily constructed of logical ideas & arguments. Concepts are seen to be more important and valuable than story and metaphor in discussing theology.
Jesus’ parable telling can be seen as a rustic man just telling folktales for simple fishermen, village folk and farmers, minimising their value.
Metaphor is an important form of theological discourse. Metaphor communicates in ways that rational arguments can’t. Jesus used parable as theological discourse more than he used argument or logical ideas.
Parables aren’t just an illustration of a point that has been made – they’re not like a Sermon illustration. Parables create meaning on their own; they don’t just explain an idea.
What do we do with Parables?
One problem that arises with parables is that they are so grounded in the culture and context of the author/speaker that we can lose meaning or misinterpret them.
There are many universal themes used by Jesus in parables e.g. – loving fathers, rebellious sons & self-righteous older brothers as in the Prodigal son story. Those kinds of elements are accessible to most people no matter what culture they are a part of. However there are some specific cultural issues that need to be addressed and there is a limit on the universality of parable themes. E.g.- Understanding that in the middle east a son asking for his inheritance is like saying they want their father to drop dead & is means for the father to slap the boy in the face and drive them out of the house refusing any finance, it is seen as the ultimate insult. It’s important to try & understand the world of the Parable in interpreting them.
Why is Story used?
They are very engaging
They are memorable
They connect at more than just a cognitive level (emotion etc)
They significantly add to the meaning of a theme/idea
Lenses that can be applied when reading/hearing Parables:
Who was Jesus speaking to?
What is going on around him at the time socially/politically?
Who is the writer & where did they get their material from?
Who is the writer writing for?
How was it translated?
What type of Story is it?
What type of literary form does it take?
What are the social/political implications for the people Jesus was speaking to, the people it was being written for and also for people through history reading/hearing them including us?
What is a post-modern take on it?
What are the implications for a feminist view?
Why did Jesus use Parables?
Was he teaching about ethics (way of living) or theology (faith)…Or? At different times in history the Christian church has leant different ways on that question.
Maybe several reasons at a time… Let’s try & pay attention to these reasons when we are reading Parables.
About the book of Matthew
1st Book in New Testament
One of four Gospels (tells about the life of Jesus), one of 3 Synoptic (general summary) Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke & (John)
The author of Matthew
A few theories exist:
1. The Apostle Matthew (who was Jewish) who saw/heard what Jesus said/did personally & recorded it. This is the traditional view & is backed up by some historical documents talking about the apostle writing documents for the early church.
2. Unknown author who used Mark (Written 70ADish) & Q (An early document of Jesus’ sayings also used by Luke) with their own theological slant. Reasons for this include the inclusion of Q & Mark; original texts don’t ascribe an author (Not attributed to Matthew till late in the second century), the Greek origin & its later dating amongst other reasons.
It’s not of primary importance who the author is though. So we don’t have to know for sure – which is a good thing as we just don’t know.
The language of Matthew
The original language that Matthew was thought to be written in is Greek, but with a distinct Jewish style. Although there are still some arguments that it was written in a combination of Aramaic and Hebrew.
Setting of the Text
75-85 AD – Lots of complex reasons to do with historical, textual etc reasons.
The most compelling argument about its origin is that it was Written/Compiled in Antioch for communities in the same area. Alternate thoughts on the setting of Matthew were Syria.
Antioch was population dense and the third largest city in the Roman Empire behind Rome & Alexandria. It was a centre for of several major trade routes and had agriculture as one of the primary economical foundations. It hosted many powerful people who held a lot of power in the Empire, who were the rich elite. The City was composed of about 5% elite who ran the city for themselves and the rest a mixture of moderately wealthy, poor and very poor who served the needs of the elite.
The living conditions for those who were not wealthy were very poor, with negligible sanitation which led to diseases and short life-spans.
The ethnic make-up of the city included; Romans, Syrians, Greeks, Jews & others with distinct ethnic areas. There were a lot of transient people coming in from the countryside too. Ethnic tensions ran high, including the marginalisation of the Jews. Due to many of these factors, social disorder and crime were common.
The audience of Matthew
Matthew’s audience is thought to have been a small cross-section of Antiochan society from the poor to the wealthy. They would have been Christians who were located within the Jewish community in Antioch, although there was probably conflict.
The structure of Matthew
There are several thoughts on the structure of Matthew including:
1. Geographical/Biographical (the life of Jesus & where he went)
2. Topical (Discipleship, Apostleship, Revelation, Administration, Judgement)
3. Literary (Concentric themes alternating between Story & Sermon heading to the middle – Ch13 parables being the middle – then out again to the end)
4. Theological/Biographical (The person of Jesus Messiah, The Proclamation of Jesus Messiah, The Suffering, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Messiah).
There is not one correct way of understanding the structure of Matthew – all can be beneficial in understanding the document. In fact one proposed structure that is pretty helpful takes elements from many of the above.
Theology of Matthew
The gospel of Matthew contains a chronological biography of Jesus which is written in a way to express and emphasise certain theological ideas. The 4 main Theological themes in Matthew are:
1. Christology (What the author believed about Jesus)
2. The Kingdom of Heaven (God’s reign through Jesus, both present and future)
3. Salvation (How God acts in the past, present and future to redeem people from Sin)
4. Discipleship (Following the ways of Jesus)
Parables in Matthew
There are many parables in Mathew, some scattered throughout, but the highest concentrations are found in 2 places – Chapter 13 (Embedded Narratives) and the rest in Chapters 24 & 25 (Eschatological Discourse).
Matthew 13 is theologically, biographically and literary the centre of Matthew. The chapter consists of parables and their explanation. It is made up mostly of Markan parables that have been redacted. Its theme is primarily about the current (Matthean) state of the Kingdom (Whereas Chapter 25 contains Parables that are about the end time Kingdom).
We will be looking at a variety of Parables over the next 5 weeks in a workshop, Labyrinth, Culture Clash & Prayerful Lectio Divina. Olivia is going to spend 2nd September discussing the Eschatological Parables (Go Liv).