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Drawing on John Dominic Crossan's The Power of Parable, mainly ch. 3 (2012), Paul Ricoeur's "Listening to the Parables of Jesus" (1974), and Paul Tillich's The New Being, ch. 1: "To Whom Much Is Forgiven..." (1955).
Are these weird stories riddles, where if you figure out what they mean you get salvation? Are they homilies, telling you to go be like the Good Samaritan? Crossan says they're protests, meant to challenge the moral and social status quo. So what do philosophers have to gain by studying these? What do they add to moral theory, and do you have to have any religious commitments to get something out of them? Mark, Wes, and returning guest Lawrence Ware talk through the various ways of interpreting the Good Samaritan, The Sower, The Two Debtors, The Talents, the Hidden Treasure, the Ten Virgins, the Three Amigos, and more. Read more about the topic and get the books.
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End song: A new recording of a song written (apart from the first couple of bars) for this episode, "Jesus Noise," by Mark Lint. Read about it.
Listen to the Aftershow on this episode. Citizens can also listen to the bonus discussion on the Historical Jesus.
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Jesus picture by Corey Mohler
The story of Jesus with the Pharisee and the prostitute is stating that righteousness without love is useless. Love can bring righteousness that is deep, but righteousness by itself does not bring love.
“[Love] without [righteousness] is fatal; [righteousness] without [love] is impotent.” – Robespierre
an entire episode critically unpacking the precise definition of love would be fascinating.
not a parable, but i have once read an extremely deep interpretation of jesus’s cursing the fruitless fig tree when it in fact was out of season.
seems to me that someone could have found a definitive book by any of the typically post-doctorally trained jesuit or dominican scholars which bears the seal of approval of that institution most responsible for compiling and maintaining scriptural texts for 2000 yrs. crossan is a renegade hack funding his polemics by making the annual unitarian featured speaker circuit.
I said last time that Law Ware is awesome. Let me re-emphasize that–Mr. Ware is awesome. What comes across is such clarity in a way that breaks it down not just for the student but for everyone. It would be great for him to be on again–the more the better.
John Michael Zorko says
Agreed completely. I’m not religious (and I don’t really consider myself spiritual), but I really appreciated his input to the discussion. This was yet another fascinating episode that really made me consider a lot more thoughtfully a subject that I, under many – if not most – circumstances, would tend to dismiss. Well done, all 🙂
I disagree with the above comments. I didn’t really feel Law added much to the conversation and almost seemed to stifle the creative flow (however sacrilegious). He seems unable to have a true philosophically objective view of the subject matter.
What is a “true philosophically objective view”?
Law Ware Twitter: @law_ware says
Sorry you feel that way. Hopefully you enjoy the other episodes!
hey Law, when we get to “”The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables:
Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”
this seems to suggest that those in the know/gnosis don’t need parables, so what do we make of that in terms of using them (and perhaps the rest of the stories?) in the teaching&preaching to believers, is belief not knowing?
Law is awesome. As a lifelong Christian who recently came through a seven year crisis of faith and ended up as a devoted atheist and seeker of philosophical truths, I greatly enjoyed Law’s participation and insights. Theology is philosophy, and his theological insights are fascinating and compelling.
Kenneth Presting says
Let me add my compliments for a stimulating discussion. In fact, I was so stimulated that I wrote up a little essay, trying to apply Donald Davidson’s theory of Radical Interpretation to the hermeneutics of parables.
It’s kind of long, so I’m going to post it over on the discussion page for the Aftershow, here: http://partiallyexaminedlife.com/groups/ep-113-jesuss-parables-aftershow/documents/
Kenneth Presting says
Well, I just realized that the Aftershow discussion page is behind the paywall, so I will post my contribution here as well. It’s too long for one box, so the rest will be below:
One of the things which struck me in this discussion was how many of the parables use economic examples, or practical examples of decision making. Sometimes the decisions depicted could have appeared irrational, but just a little bit of a bigger perspective shows it to sensible after all. This applies to cases like the pearl of great price, or the field with the treasure. In each case, the merchant involved is clearly taking a serious risk, but if the ultimate investment pays off, there will be a clear profit.
A parable must necessarily have at least one level of meaning which is plain and literal. But at the same time, the literal meaning is explicitly displaced when the parable is announced to be metaphorical. One is ignoring the open invitation to metaphor if one stops with the literal meaning. At the same time, one must absorb and employ that literal meaning. How to do so is the question.
Another striking feature of the parables (for me at least) is how a theory from analytic philosophy – Donald Davidson’s ‘Radical Interpretation’ – applies so precisely to these tales of practical reason. In radical interpretation, one must attend not only to the verbal behavior of speakers, but also to their situation and to their choices. Interpreting a text means looking at more than what is said. It also requires attention to the situation, and the action of the agents. Davidson endorses a standard expected-utility oriented version of decision theory to add the dimension of practical reason to the verbal data.
I think it’s significant that so many of these parables feature pragmatic profit-and-loss choices which might look unreasonable (such as the shepherd who abandons his flock to rescue one sheep), but turn out to be positive examples from the Christian perspective. It becomes a recurring theme throughout the parables. Of course there are also the impractical, impulsive decisions such as the maidens who run out of oil for their lamps. But the constant feature I want to emphasize here is how the literal, accessible level of the parables always involve practical reason and pragmatic decisions, in a context where the actor who must choose faces a certain degree of challenge.
Here we can apply a hermeneutic principle which is shared by Continental figures such as Gadamer and Ricoeur on one hand, and an analytic person like Davidson on the other. Its basic to each hermeneutic method to apply a “Principle of Charity” which corresponds roughly to “putting ourselves in the position of the speaker” (or of a character in a story). More to the point, we should assume that each character is well informed and acting rationally, in line with a coherent system of beliefs, goals, and values. For Davidson, this corresponds to having a logically consistent set of propositional attitudes (i.e beliefs) as well as an economically rational utility function.
My point now is that Davidson’s approach fits the parables better than the continental hermeneutics, exactly because the economic judgment of the characters in the stories is so prominent. There is some serious cash changing hands, in some of these parables. And even in such cases as “The Widow’s Mite” the financial angle is still significant. The widow is giving up all that she has, and that makes it a big deal, no matter that the coin is small.
Take the parable of the two debtors, which is embedded in a story about Jesus himself visiting Simon the Pharisee. There is no kind of surprise in the comparison between the two debtors. That is a straightforward analogy, asserting that one’s gratitude is in proportion to one’s relief from indebtedness. But the larger story about Jesus in his visit to the Pharisee involves an explicit expression of surprise by Simon. He just can’t believe that Jesus is willing to pay attention to the sinner woman, when He is in the presence of such an august person as his righteous host. This is an instance of the Pharisee failing to charitably interpret Jesus’ behavior, and that is because Simon is making two mistakes. First, he doesn’t understand how Jesus’ ranking system for worthwhile personalities is different from his own. That by itself is not so bad. It is part of the principle of charity as Davidson describes it, that one must always assume that other people are at least as rational as you (the reader) are. Simon is assuming that Jesus is even more knowledgeable than himself, and Simon is sincerely perplexed. But the principle of charity also requires that once you find yourself interpreting someone else’s behavior as irrational, you must start to suspect that they either know something you don’t, or that they are motivated in a way you have missed. It is this latter issue which arises in the story of the visit to Simon. Simon thinks his righteousness makes him superior to the sinner woman, but Jesus has come to proclaim a revaluation of values, so to speak.
I would say that Simon is not just getting a lesson about The Kingdom of Heaven, he is also getting a lesson in how to read, and Jesus wants all of us to get the point along with Simon. Perplexity is the sign of a teachable moment, and we should stop and listen when we find ourselves perplexed. But the pragmatic everyday level of practical reason is at most half the story in any parable, and so far I have only been dealing with superficial, everyday misunderstanding in the parables. This is the sort of twist or surprise which common to every anecdote with even a small dramatic impact. Next I want to apply a hermeneutic process to Jesus’ own choice to tell these stories to his audience, and to us. Why doesn’t he just tell us what to do, the way the Old Testament did? What is Jesus’ purpose in sharing these Mayberry moments with us?
have you read Davidson on metaphors?
also in many of the places where talking in parables is still part of daily life they are just shorthand ways of saying things so may well have been the same for peoples past…
Kenneth Presting says
Thanks for this comment. My thoughts here are definitely influenced by Davidson’s thesis that the words used in a metaphorical text have their normal sense and denotation.
Kenneth Presting says
(this post is a continuation of the one above)
I want to argue that reading the parables introduces us to a hermeneutical process which has the structure of an analogy. The first half of this process, the first two terms of the analogy, consists of the written or spoken story. The second half of the process consists in reflecting upon the text and extrapolating the significance of the story into something personally useful. The parables encourage a recurring pattern of widening attention – at first blush, some agent appears unwise or misguided, but upon deeper reflection, or taking a larger view, the choice is seen as wise (or wholly unwise) after all. This is the first ratio in the analogy, two competing perspectives on a single pragmatic action where the narrow perspective incorrectly uncharitably takes the agent to be mistaken, but the wider perspective shows a rational, profitable judgment (or a horrible mistake). This is the first half of the analogy.
The second half of the analogy is the relation between pragmatic, temporal perspectives and the eternal, atemporal, infinite perspective. I want to say that this motion of expanding one’s perspective, which the parables are showing us in a context of temporal, pragmatic decision making, should itself be understood as a prototype of how we can read a religious text. Clearly it is characteristic of religious thought to take a perspective of infinite and eternal significance on at least some temporal, human activities. The New Testament parables, and the Christian movement in general, asserts that the spiritual significance of human events is not limited to certain temple rituals or sacrifices, but can be found in the immediate choices and gestures of everyday life.
More to the point, I want to follow Kierkegaard and say that the essential feature of faith which is expressed in the New Testament is that faith involves an “infinite motion” and is not a rational collection of evidence which results in a logical conclusion for a certain doctrine. In the first place, any collection of evidence would necessarily be finite. In the second place, reaching a logical conclusion based on evidence is a sign of the thinker’s pride in his own powers of deduction, and denies any role to (e.g.) the Holy Spirit. I cannot argue here for Kierkegaard’s methods or his conclusions, but a fine example is his famous discussion of the story of Abraham in “Fear and Trembling”, which is also referenced by J. P. Sartre (for his own purposes).
To conclude, let me just observe that many of the parables feature persons making decisions, and some of the central spiritual issues in Christianity are also decisions. Obviously this applies to the decision to adopt Christian faith, and all that might have entailed for the individuals in Jesus’ audience.
Jean van Petrus says
Law is the best! Have him on more often–maybe for Tilich and/or Franz Fanon?
what does Tillich add that we don’t get in folks already covered like Heidegger?
David Buchanan says
I am shocked, Shocked, SHOCKED to learn that Christians enjoyed this episode. Who’da thunk it? 😉
Andrius Kulikauskas says
I wrote this inspired by this episode. I submit it to your contest!
The Father’s 5 Stupid Virgins and the Son’s 5 Smart Virgins
I was glad to hear you talk with such verve about Jesus and his parables. He’s my very favorite thinker. You inspired me to try one more time to make sense of his parable of the ten virgins with the oil lamps in Matthew 25.
I now realize that the ten oil lamps are the ten commandments. Jesus is making a distinction between the five positive commandments “Do this…” which the smart virgins follow, and the five negative commandments “Don’t do that…” which the stupid virgins follow. He is following the numbering as given by the Talmud (see Wikipedia!) There is an ancient counting song in Aramaic, a summary of the Jewish faith, where ten is the number of the commandments. So it’s a good first guess as to what ten could mean.
The oil is the motivation for following the commandment. The positive commandments are angles on “Love God” and the negative commandments are pieces of “Love your neighbor as your self”. Loving God is its own reward, timeless, whereas loving your self is fleeting. You’re going to run out of oil unless you love God.
The smart and stupid virgins express two different mindsets: grace and justice. They express the ambiguity inherent in the world. We can look at our world through the eyes of justice as a closed system, which unfortunately, is at best a zero-sum game, and in fact, is ever at risk to go wrong, fall apart, go to hell. We can speak of the second law of thermodynamics. However, we can look at our same world through the eyes of grace as an open system, warmed by an everlasting sun, blessed by favor upon favor, so that life grows ever more mature. It is the difference between a world without God and a world with God. The mindset of grace, the world with God, the positive commandments are like the tree of life, and the mindset of justice, the world without God, the negative commandments are like the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which we must avoid. If we eat of the tree of life, then we are God, but if we hang around the other tree, we are tempted to be simply “like a god”.
That is why the smart virgins send the stupid virgins to the market to buy some oil. It is because the market is of the mindset of justice, where everybody is out to win the most they can. Whereas in the mindset of grace, you show just a little bit of good will at a time so that you never run out. (Wide is the highway of greed, and narrow is the path of grace.) With such a mindset, the smart virgins say, “Look, I’ll do you a favor, here’s a bit of advice, why don’t you go buy some oil?”
So who is the bridegroom? It is the God who is recognized in the world. And the virgins are the ones who do not yet know God.
Imagine a God prior to everything, space, time, logic, being, love, purpose… What could motivate a God for whom being and nonbeing are the same, simply words? God asks, “Would I be even if I wasn’t? If I’m really God, then I suppose I would. Let’s see!” And being a headstrong God, for whom what he thinks and does and is are all the same, then there isn’t any holding back. So then God has a two track mind, as in a proof by contradiction. Suppose there’s God, well, then there’s God. (That’s the case in the spiritual world.) And now suppose there wasn’t God, well, would God arise? (That’s the question in the physical world – we’re still waiting. ) Now Jesus is the God who arose in that physical world. God the Father is the God who understands (that he is God) and God the Son is the God who came to understand (that he is God). And how do we all know they are the same God? It’s because what they both understand is God the Spirit, the God who is understood, that ambiguity which they both support.
So God the Son is the God to be recognized in the world. So from his point of view, it makes a lot of sense to “love God” because then your eyes are looking for the light, even when it is dark. And you are seeing Jesus, you are appreciating him! And it is pretty stupid to be loving your self. Whereas for God the Father what’s important is that you simply keep your eyes open to anything because he’s running an experiment and he wants impartial witnesses. Sorry, Jesus! But Jesus is saying, if the whole point is to recognize God, then isn’t it smart to be looking for him, isn’t it smart to be loving God? Especially if you’re smart enough to figure out the experiment you’re in? And if you’re not looking for God, won’t it be just and fair that you miss out, and that he doesn’t recognize you either? So what’s the point of justice? Why not do yourself a favor?
Jesus is talking about father-son issues that he is having with God. Their conflict is basic to the Trinity. They had very different visions. Jesus had to give up his own vision, “the kingdom of heaven” and defer to his father. He’s venting in the last week of his life, like the man who escaped Plato’s cave and made it back, he’s knowing that he’s surrounded by idiots, well intentioned or not, and he’s going to seer into their minds a story they can remember so that some day, some where, some people will figure it out.
Why did Jesus speak in parables? It’s because he was afraid that being God, if he told people the truth directly, then he would take their freedom away. Whereas if he told them a story, then they could say, “Oh, Jesus! He’s telling his ridiculous stories!” That way he’s not interfering with God the Father’s experiment. And so Jesus explains, again ambiguously, that he tells parables so that people “could” not hear him, “could” not understand him, “could” be damned. Where the word “could” has the ambiguous meaning “are free to do so” (alongside “must do so”, which is the opposite). An ambiguity in every language!? But he can talk to his disciples in plain language because they have already chosen to believe him and accept his mindset of grace. In this way Jesus honors the Father and keeps the ambiguity of the Spirit.
So what is the “kingdom of heaven”? Jesus was a “good kid”. He had a vision, as in the Sermon on the Mount, where the “good kids” all get together and win the “bad kids” over by their example of what a beautiful society the world could be. Jesus called that the “kingdom of heaven” whereby heaven rules on earth. It’s a society where “what you believe is what happens”, which is to say, the divine can work within the limits of our puny minds and hearts. Blessed are the “skeptical”, the “poor-in-spirit”, who want to believe a little bit at a time, like crossing a river by jumping from rock to rock, so that you can have as little faith as you might choose to, as you might dare to. It’s about wanting to be responsible. And the river to cross, the idea to embrace is that “God doesn’t have to be good – life doesn’t have to be fair – the world doesn’t have to be just”, there can be an alternative. Life is the fact that God is good, but eternal life is understanding that God doesn’t have to be good, that there is all this wrongness out there which God still has to deal with, give meaning to, and our eternal life is to be dealing with it. Life is the mindset of justice, and eternal life is the mindset of grace, that God loves us more than we can love ourselves. For who of us wants to really be living forever, if this existing world is too much for us, and we keep tuning out and toning down? Only God wants that for us, even here and now. And yet the good kid is looking to God and willing to embrace eternal life personally. But the “bad kid” is insisting that “God is good”, is looking for the “rich-in-spirit”, the martyrs who say “I believe” and are ready to be miraculously flung along with them across the river. That is stupid, and not fair, either, by the way. Like the Buddhist “big boat” of mass salvation, as opposed to the “little boat” of personal salvation. The “good kid” understands the problem and that is why “blessed are those who get slapped for being good” (persecuted for the sake of righteousness) because that is how the good kids know each other, and that is how they can come together to organize the kingdom of heaven. Because they and Jesus prefer everybody to have the freedom of their own little boat.
But the Father said, No, that won’t work. The Father said that Jesus must die so as to let the “bad kid” have his day, and thus keep it all ambiguous for now. The Father so loved the world that he gave his only son… (John 3) whereas Jesus said at the end, “I don’t pray for the world, I pray for my own…” (John 17). That is why Jesus was so distraught at Gethsemane, “Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken away from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
The father’s idea is “what you find is what you love” – the lost coin, the lost sheep, the prodigal son. That’s not the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is the Son of God but he is afraid to tell anybody, he is afraid of the demons who say that he is. The child is the one who does like the parent, but the Son is the one who moreover is explicitly taught by the Father. The Son of God is taught by God’s example. Whereas the Son of Man is made an example of by Man. That is why the Son of Man is lifted up for all to see, all to mock and all to have second thoughts about.
In this way much of what Jesus has to say sounds outrageous from the point of view of justice, but makes completely different sense from the point of view of grace. When Jesus says “this is my flesh, eat it!” then it sounds crazy. But if he were to say, this is MY bread and so it’s destined for me to eat it and for it to become MY body. And now suppose I interfere with that and give it to YOU. Then you are eating my body! And you are drinking my blood! So it is about the shift that occurs when you stop assuming justice (what’s mine is mine) and now allow for grace (what was mine is now yours). And that we can all be one in what we give up to each other. And once we accept grace – once we pray for God to step in and change the rules of life – how can we insist on justice?
The “good news” for the good kid was that Jesus was alive – indeed, Peter was ready to give up his life for him. Whereas, the “good news” for the bad kid is that Jesus died. That’s obviously sick. Well, Jesus rises from the dead. So it’s as if it ends up being the same. And everybody can get on the boat. The evangelical “bad kids” – starting with Paul – win out with their formula “you must accept that you are a sinner so that you might be saved!” Really? Can’t I just be floored by the Sermon on the Mount, by a man who said “Love your enemy!” Something so outrageous, that I’d be lucky to even dream that up, so blessed to dare to say that, even after he said it, and yet how could I or anybody dare to command that??? A statement that insists on a split mind – that I myself can have an enemy, and yet also love them from God’s point of view. Something that could never make sense to an atheist – a good atheist simply avoids having enemies. It’s like inventing negative numbers. Can’t I acknowledge that such a Jesus must be God, just based on his nonhuman thinking? Wasn’t he embraced when he was alive? Didn’t he put the “good kid” Peter in a dumb spot, a disciple who risked his life to be as close to him as possible, even after Jesus had abandoned him, only to be put down by Jesus for disowning him! But anyways, now that we’re “saved”, could we get back to Jesus’s vision of the kingdom of heaven?
Getting back to the virgins – the commandments, the father-son issue is hinted at in the question, what is the greatest commandment? (Matthew 22) The Son says it is “Love God…”. Then he says there is a second one, which is basically just as good: “Love your neighbor as yourself”. So Jesus, if it’s just as good, then why is it second? Because the first one is smart and the second one is stupid. That is what the virgin parable is about.
He follows with the parable of the Good Samaritan (the Good Scientologist). The key point here – which he hides – is the question, who is my neighbor? Who should I love? Read the text! The answer is the Samaritan, the one who showed mercy, who showed grace. So “love your neighbor” does not mean “love that unfortunate victim”. It means the opposite: love that weirdo who helped you when you were down. In other words, “love your friends” – love those who are good to you. Because the experiment of life will introduce you to enough weird friends to keep you open. That’s all you need to do for God’s experiment to work. Because love is the essence of God – the unity of the representations of the structure of God. Once you love, you demonstrate that God exists.
Jesus prefers to “love your enemy”, as he teaches in the Sermon on the Mount. It means the same as “love God”, love unconditionally, love absolutely, not relatively (as in “love your neighbor as your self”). It means be unconditional, send your sunshine on the good and the bad, send your rain on the good and the bad. It means simply “be perfect” – Jesus never said “try”.
There’s a different kind of freedom in “loving God” than in “loving your neighbor as yourself”. We love God by appreciating that we can be loved more than we love ourselves (our parents are the symbol of such love). We love God by skipping out of the “justice” mindset of the “working world” and enjoying the “grace” of a day off. We love God by cultivating our minds to think in terms of ideas rather than images or even words, and to say just what we mean. We love God by insisting on a unity in all. All of this is positive, purposeful, creative activity. Whereas “live and let live” (don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t adulter, don’t lie, don’t covet) is a risky experiment for all concerned.
Jesus’s feelings about experiments – about the scientific method – the trinity, the endless cycle of “taking a stand, following through, reflecting” – is that it’s like the millstone of a donkey, like having that hung around your neck and being tossed in the depths of the sea – yes, maybe after billions of iterations you’ll figure it out. (Matthew 18) Why do that if you already know the answer, if you already have Jesus? Follow through with the answer you have! Make the experiment a good one! Why be a “bad kid” and go astray and lead others astray as well? Why not be a “good kid”?
Jesus’s story of the prodigal son (“the bad kid”) is remarkable because he ends up talking about his brother (“the good kid”). Why does he talk so much about somebody irrelevant to the main story? Well, who does Jesus himself empathize with? The bad kid? Or the good kid? Personally, I empathize with the latter, and I dare say Jesus did, too. Here’s somebody who didn’t ask for his inheritance ahead of time, didn’t philander it away, and now, when his brother comes back, is expected to party! Isn’t that just a bit much? Can’t he not feel in the mood? It seems ridiculous (injust, mean) that the very same preachers who preach forgiveness of the prodigal son now seize upon his brother for not being in the mood! When the reality is that we know most typically that the bad kid will go back to his ways. Jesus is saying – bad kid, look, I can empathize with you – I can feel your pain – but now can you empathize with me? Do you know what it’s like to be the good kid? To suffer for love of you when you were dulled by drink but I was sober with grief? To feel your pain twice as much as you did, and you having no comprehension of my own, of what it’s like to be slapped for being good? To this day!
I have tried to draw distinctions between the Son’s outlook and the Father’s outlook. But they clearly love each other and so their two worldviews play off each other very intimately. So it is quite a challenge to get into Jesus’s mind and tease the two apart. It is like a child who is lost. The stupid child goes looking for his parents, whereas the smart child goes to where his parents would look for him. The latter is I think the extent of human intelligence – the child’s view of the parent’s view of the child’s view of the parent’s view of the child’s view. Jesus starts out in the gospels as the stupid child who says “Hey, be a good kid, look for God!” and live God’s example, live as God’s children, but ultimately Jesus gets smart to the idea that he needs to go where his Father wants him to be, namely, the Son of Man, the one to be made an example of by “the bad kid” in each and every one of us.
But the time is now that we can realize Jesus’s original vision of the “kingdom of heaven”. We can dare to think “love your enemy” – “look at everything from his point of view”. Metaphysically, Jesus is the “theory”, the “insight”, (not the word, but the Logos – “In the beginning was theory, and the theory was with God, and the theory was God”) that bridges “love God” (be perfect) and “love your neighbor as yourself” (be equivalent). Jesus is the “person in general” by whom we are equivalent to each other and to a perfect person. He first came as a perfect person, but he might now arise in all of us as our equivalence. And that could be possible in a society, in a science, in a knowledge where God the Spirit is made tangible, so that all truth is available. “I have much more to tell you (God doesn’t have to be good!) but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (John 16)
Finally, as regards hermeneutics, I wish to emphasize the goal of trying to get inside Jesus’s mind. It’s quite possible that he was not always understood by the people in his own day, nor by those who came later, and yet there can be riddles for us that he put together that could make sense only thousands of years later, by which time he had helped change the world. I think it’s important to consider his mindset as a whole. I studied the Gospel of Mark for Jesus’s emotional responses (such as being frightened) and uncovering his underlying expectation that we are all one. I studied the Gospel of Matthew for the contents of his parables (What you find is what you love; Belong to the lord, share in his favor; Wait for the master, share in his treasure; Follow the teacher, share in his virtue; As you value the fruit, so you value the tree; As you value the little, so you value the big; As you value others, so are you valued; What you believe is what happens). I studied the Gospel of Luke for his concepts of what is good (good God gives good gifts by way of the good quality (destroy the bad and preserve the good, as does salt); good person does good deeds as witnessed by the good word; the good news is that this is the same good; these are all good will, which makes way for the good heart, which is good of itself). I studied the Gospel of John for his statements “I am…” and his speaking in code, almost like algebra, which seems like how he talked to himself, as given by his best friend. And that code says that the will of God is eternal life – our learning forever, growing forever, living forever through embracing the understanding that God doesn’t have to be good. Most helpful for discovering and appreciating the distinction between the Son’s and Father’s points of view was cataloguing the ways that Jesus figured things out.
All of this depends on reading the Gospel at face value. I learned this as a teenager when I read in the Sermon on the Mount, “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out!” Which preachers insist is an exaggeration, not to be read at face value. And yet Jesus’s logic rejects such wishful thinking: “For it is better to go to heaven without an eye than to be cast in hell with two.” Well, because I had decided that Jesus was truly Godly, even more so than I might be, then I felt I had to take him seriously. Otherwise, what is the point? Now, the first time I sinned, I told myself, Hey! I better take this seriously. And the second time I sinned, I insisted, No more sinning! And the third time, I sinned, I said, It is time to take out my eye! I had no excuse. Or I would have to give up on the idea of taking Jesus seriously. I didn’t see any way around this. But I cried out to God, I said, please don’t have me take out my eye! Please, don’t! I reasoned, my eye has nothing to do with it! I could take out my eye, and I would still sin! It wouldn’t do any good! And then I remembered what it says, “IF your eye causes you to sin…” So, obviously, and thankfully, my eye didn’t cause me to sin. My sin was deeper than that. So who do you think understands Jesus? Me or the preachers? Thank you, Jesus!
Wayne Schroeder says
Why would any philosophically minded individual ever be interested in Jesus’s Parables? I think that is the headline with this podcast. Yes, we have Gadamer helping us understand the concept of hermeneutics–how to interpret anything. Then we have Ricouer (& Tillich) helping us understand hermeneutics of religious texts in more secular ways. But still–what is the interest. Why would nonreligious individuals pursue religious significance in the absense of religious beliefs?
What if the repression of the religious now causes an eruption in the secular of the religious, just as the repression of the secular once caused an eruption of the irreligious.
Man refuses to live without meaning, whatever that is. Remove the religious regarding God and get science, transhumanism, etc. as a replacement. We appear to have no option, living without meaning is against the human condition.
Back to Jesus’s Parables: there was a time when meaning was about religion, belief, the new messiah (Jesus/Mohammed, Buddah,etc.). There was the death of God, and the secularization of society, the minimization of the religious in favor of the secular.
Now what? Ricouer acknowledges there has been a sociological transformation from the sacred to the secular, so why not address this issue, speak to the secular in common terms: affirming the critiques of Freud, Nietzsche and Marx as a basis of not only communicating with the sacred (historical hermeneutics) but also with the secular–yes, the issues of Freud (psychological), Nietzsche (philosophical) and Marx (socio-politico-economic) are relevant.
Ricouer boils this down to Event, Reversal, Decision, and yes, this can seem anti-climactic, but it responds to man’s hunger for meaning: God may be dead, but is the meaning of living in the absence of God necessarily any different? Shouldn’t we still love our enemies? Why? Not because there is a God, but because there is a man who has values for humanity? Well where the hell did those values come from, etc.?
Maybe we can find come clues from the Parables about where these values come from using the hermeneutics of Ricouer, Tillich, Gadamer, etc., as has been provided almost uniquely by this podcast.
Really, enjoyed this discussion. I found myself constructing my own interpretations of the parables, so I found this very thought provoking.
I don’t know if the plan is to continue to do reviews of religious thought, but if there are any I’m wondering if they’ll include readings from the Sapiential books – Ecclesiastes, Sirach, Job… etc. – it seems like these might have a bit more “philosophy” to them.
A Job episode would be awesome!!!! A Tao Te Ching episode would also be great. It would give more of that at the bar after class feel that was talked about early on.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Yes, I’d like to eventually do Ecclesiastes like this, and would like to incorporate more clergy types beyond just Law, so folks that qualify should drop us a line. We’re always open to detailed topic proposals.
I’m a new listener, having only listened to a few episodes so far, and—as a Christian—I have to say I really enjoyed this one. I thought Law was a great addition, and I really appreciate his perspective. However, there were several instances where I wanted to pipe in and make some corrections. Now, Law obviously has knowledge of the Bible and of biblical scholarship, so it could be that I misinterpreted what was said. If that is the case, please forgive me! I may need to listen to the episode again. But as it is, I feel there are at least a couple of statements that need correction or further clarification.
At one point, nearing the end of the episode, Law stated that the parable of the ten virgins was deemed by the Jesus Seminar as “black” or “grey”, meaning that the scholars involved suspect it may not have been something Jesus actually said. This is true; that was the verdict of the majority of the members of that group. The part that concerned me was when Law included “even N. T. Wright” in his list of Jesus Seminar scholars who questioned this passage. In reality, N. T. Wright has never been a member of the Jesus seminar, but rather has publicly criticized the group and its methods of scholarship (http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Five_Gospels.pdf).
Also, earlier in the episode, when the conversation started veering toward the concept of hell, Law brought in the historical context of the Valley of Hinnom, which I believe was a good direction for him to go. I’m paraphrasing, but his words went something like this: “One interpretation is that Jesus, when he spoke about hell, was not actually referring to Gehenna, to Hell, but to the Valley of Hinnom.” And he explained that this is where people burned their trash, and the poor went there to find anything of value that they could use. This is true. But here’s the important point that I didn’t see Law make: The word “Gehenna” is actually another name for the Valley of Hinnom. It’s the same thing—the same geographical place. So the word in our Bibles that we see translated as “Hell” (when Jesus says it), literally refers to this place outside of Jerusalem where garbage and the bodies of criminals were burned. So, Jesus’ audience would have immediately understood that he was making reference to an actual place–and it was a place with a history.
Here’s the interesting thing about the history of Gehenna. It was a site where, in Israel’s history, child sacrifice used to take place. The Hebrew people, having turned away from God, offered up their sons and daughters to the flames in worship of the false god Baal in the Valley of Hinnom—also known as Gehenna. In Jeremiah 19:5 God says that this abomination of sacrificing children is “a thing which I never commanded or spoke of, nor did it ever enter My mind.” This was not what God wanted. So Jesus, in the Jeremiah tradition, uses this geographical location to illustrate the hell and the agony that we can create for ourselves when we do not follow the way of Love. And the irony is that now we have taken this symbol and said that it means that God will burn his children for eternity. But when God’s people turned away from him and burned their own children alive in this place called Gehenna, God said that he would never have commanded such a thing—that the burning of children would have never even entered his mind! No, WE are the ones who conceive of such things. Jesus was not talking about the concept of hell as we have been taught it.
I’m not saying that Jesus didn’t have some harsh words, or that he didn’t talk at all about judgement and punishment. But when you honestly look into the historical context and the actual words of the text, you see that the judgement and the punishment he speaks of is not punitive but rather is restorative. Jesus said that everyone “will be salted with fire”. We all have chaff that must be burned away, in this life and perhaps in the next. But that doesn’t mean that Jesus said anyone is going to spend an eternity in the torment of hell. Eternal life (Greek: aionian [look it up!]) is what we find here and now; it is the abundant life that Jesus said he came here to bring us. And some are living in death, in hell, in that Valley of Hinnom—and they are there right now, on Earth—but Jesus wants to set them free.
So I think that’s the point, and it is a very biblical one. It really isn’t a cop-out or a stretch of gymnastics with the text. One just has to do the proper research into the context around the hell passages. Of course, there are other interpretations as well. The restorative approach, which I have only scratched the surface of here, is just one tradition that has spanned these past 2,000 years. But there is a much stronger biblical case to be made there than many of the fundamentalist crowd would have you believe.
So, I’m not saying any of this to disparage Law in any way. Rather, I found him to be insightful and informative. I’d love to see him back on the show. He made me look at some things in new ways, and I always appreciate that! I think he made some great points. I just wanted to clarify and illuminate those two issues.
Thanks for commenting!
A few points of clarity.
I went back and listened, and you’re right. I misspoke about Wright. In the moment of talking fast, I accidentally lumped him in with the Seminar. He is a friend and frequent collaborator with Borg (well, was–RIP Borg), but he isn’t a part of the seminar.
And with the second issue, I meant to communicate that they were the same, but I was not clear.
Thanks for pointing that out. I can always count on the brilliant listeners to be meticulous.
No problem! That makes sense; I thought perhaps you had just misspoken. Gosh, I do that all the time in conversation. I’ll say something and think nothing of it, and then realize later that it didn’t come out quite right, or that I should have clarified or elaborated on this or that. So it goes!
But I love your engaging conversation style, your perspective, and the dynamic you add to the group. Made for a super fun and thought-provoking show. Hope to hear more from you on future episodes!
Thanks for the kind words!!
Peachy Keen Nietzsche Spleen says
I have loved all the other podcasts more or less up to this one, but I thought this was the worst podcast you’ve done. This whole project of hermeneutics just feels like a rationalization of christianity. I get nothing out of starting with the assumption that something has deep meaning and then trying to insert meaning into it to save it.
Otherwise, I love the podcast, you guys are great!
Wes Alwan says
Thanks for listening Sean!