as shown in the Parables
From Josef Ratzinger (Benedict
XVI), Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 183-217
(in this e-text, some
sub-headings have been added)
for Christians the images of God used by Jesus take precedence over
all other imagery in the Bible, and serve as a criterion for assessing
the usefulness, or even the validity, of the images we have studied
from the Old Testament
What does he
want to say to us?
There is no
doubt that the parables constitute the heart of Jesus' preaching.
While civilizations have come and gone, these stories continue to
touch us anew with their freshness and their humanity. Joachim Jeremias,
who wrote a fundamental book about Jesus' parables, has rightly pointed
out that comparison of Jesus' parables with Pauline similitudes or
rabbinical parables reveals "a definite personal character, a unique
clarity and simplicity, a matchless mastery of construction" (The
Parables of Jesus, p. 12). Here we have a very immediate sense
- partly because of the originality of the language, in which the
Aramaic text shines through - of closeness to Jesus as he lived and
taught. At the same time, though, we find ourselves in the same situation
as Jesus' contemporaries and even his disciples: We need to ask him
again and again what he wants to say to us in each of the parables(cf.
Mk 4:10). The struggle to understand the parables correctly is ever
present throughout the history of the Church. Even historical-critical
exegesis has repeatedly had to correct itself and cannot give us any
between allegory and parable
One of the great
masters of critical exegesis, Adolf Jülicher, published a two-volume
work on Jesus' parables (Die Gleichhnisreden Jesu, 1899;
2nd ed. 1910) that inaugurated a new phase in their interpretation,
in which it seemed as if the definitive formula had been found for
explaining them. Jülicher begins by emphasizing the radical difference
between allegory and parable: Allegory had evolved in Hellenistic
culture as a method for interpreting ancient authoritative religious
texts that were no longer acceptable as they stood. Their statements
were now explained as figures intended to veil a mysterious content
hidden behind the literal meaning. This made it possible to understand
the language of the texts as metaphorical discourse; when explained
passage by passage and step by step, they were meant to be seen as
figurative representations of the philosophical opinion that now emerged
as the real content of the text. In Jesus' environment, allegory was
the most common way of using textual images; it therefore seemed obvious
to interpret the parables as allegories on this pattern. The Gospels
themselves repeatedly place allegorical interpretations of parables
on Jesus' lips, for example, concerning the parable of the sower,
whose seed falls by the wayside, on rocky ground, among the thorns,
or else on fruitful soil (Mk 4:1-20). Jülicher, for his part, sharply
distinguished Jesus' parables from allegory; rather than allegory,
he said, they are a piece of real life intended to communicate one
idea, understood in the broadest possible sense - a single "salient
point." The allegorical interpretations placed on Jesus' lips are
regarded as later additions that already reflect a degree of misunderstanding.
Jülicher's basic idea of the distinction between parable and allegory
is correct, and it was immediately adopted by scholars everywhere.
Yet gradually the limitations of his theories began to emerge. Although
the contrast between the parables and allegory is legitimate as such,
the radical separation of them cannot be justified on either historical
or textual grounds. Judaism, too, made use of allegorical discourse,
especially in apocalyptic literature; it is perfectly possible for
parable and allegory to blend into each other. Jeremias has shown
that the Hebrew word mashal (parable, riddle) comprises a wide
variety of genres: parable, similitude, allegory, fable, proverb,
apocalyptic revelation, riddle, symbol, pseudonym, fictitious person,
example (model), theme, argument, apology, refutation, jest (p. 20).
Form criticism had already tried to make progress by dividing the
parables into categories: "A distinction was drawn between metaphor,
simile, parable, similitude, allegory, illustration" (ibid.).
parables not a single literary type
was already a mistake to try to pin down the genre of the parable
to a single literary type, the method by which Jülicher thought to
define the "salient point" - supposedly the parables sole concern
- is even more dated. Two examples should suffice. According to Jülicher,
the parable of the rich fool (Lk 12:16-21) is intended to convey the
message that "even the richest of men is at every moment wholly dependent
upon the power and mercy of God." The salient point in the parable
of the unjust householder (Lk 16:1 - 8) is said to be this: "wise
use of the present as the condition of a happy future." Jeremias rightly
comments as follows: "We are told that the parables announce a genuine
religious humanity; they are stripped of their eschatological import.
Imperceptibly Jesus is transformed into an 'apostle of progress' [Jülicher,
II 483], a teacher of wisdom who inculcates moral precepts and a simplified
theology by means of striking metaphors and stories. But nothing could
be less like him" (p. 19). C. W. F. Smith expresses himself even more
bluntly: "No one would crucify a teacher who told pleasant stories
to enforce prudential morality" (The Jesus of the Parables,
p. 17; cited in Jeremias, p. 21). I recount this in such detail here
because it enables us to glimpse the limits of liberal exegesis, which
in its day was viewed as the ne plus ultra of scientific rigor
and reliable historiography and was regarded even by Catholic exegetes
with envy and admiration. We have already seen in connection with
the Sermon on the Mount that the type of interpretation that makes
Jesus a moralist, a teacher of an enlightened and individualistic
morality, for all of its significant historical insights, remains
theologically impoverished, and does not even come close to the real
figure of Jesus.
Jülicher had in effect conceived the "salient point" in completely
humanistic terms in keeping with the spirit of his time, it was later
identified with imminent eschatology: The parables all ultimately
amounted to a proclamation of the proximity of the inbreaking eschaton - of
the "Kingdom of God." But that, too, does violence to the variety
of the texts; with many of the parables, an interpretation in terms
of imminent eschatology can only be imposed artificially. By contrast,
Jeremias has rightly underlined the fact that each parable has its
own context and thus its own specific message. With this in mind,
he divides the parables into nine thematic groups, while continuing
nevertheless to seek a common thread, the heart of Jesus' message.
Jeremias acknowledges his debt here to the English exegete C. H. Dodd,
while at the same time distancing himself from Dodd on one crucial
and proximate eschatology
the thematic orientation of the parables toward the Kingdom or dominion
of God the core of his exegesis, but he rejected the German exegetes'
imminent eschatological approach and linked eschatology with Christology:
The Kingdom arrives in the person of Christ. In pointing to the Kingdom,
the parables thus point to him as the Kingdoms true form. Jeremias
felt that he could not accept this thesis of a "realized eschatology,"
as Dodd called it, and he spoke instead of an "eschatology that is
in process of realization" (p. 230). He thus does end up retaining,
though in a somewhat attenuated form, the fundamental idea of German
exegesis, namely, that Jesus preached the (temporal) proximity of
the coming of God's Kingdom and that he presented it to his hearers
in a variety of ways through the parables. The link between Chnstology
and eschatology is thereby further weakened. The question remains
as to what the listener two thousand years later is supposed to think
of all this. At any rate, he has to regard the horizon of imminent
eschatology then current as a mistake, since the Kingdom of God in
the sense of a radical transformation of the world by God did not
come; nor can he appropriate this idea for today. All of our reflections
up to this point have led us to acknowledge that the immediate expectation
of the end of the world was an aspect of the early reception
of Jesus' message. At the same time, it has become evident that this
idea cannot simply be superimposed onto all Jesus' words, and that
to treat it as the central theme of Jesus' message would be blowing
it out of proportion. In that respect, Dodd was much more on the right
track in terms of the real dynamic of the texts.
of the Son
From our study
of the Sermon on the Mount, but also from our interpretation of the
Our Father, we have seen that the deepest theme of Jesus' preaching
was his own mystery, the mystery of the Son in whom God is among us
and keeps his word; he announces the Kingdom of God as coming and
as having come in his person. In this sense, we have to grant that
Dodd was basically right. Yes, Jesus' Sermon on the Mount is "eschatological,"
if you will, but eschatological in the sense that the Kingdom of God
is "realized" in his coming. It is thus perfectly possible to speak
of an "eschatology in process of realization": Jesus, as the One who
has come, is nonetheless the One who comes throughout the whole of
history, and ultimately he speaks to us of this "coming." In this
sense, we can thoroughly agree with the final words of Jeremias' book:
"God's acceptable year has come. For he has been manifested whose
veiled kinglmess shines through every word and through every parable:
the Saviour" (p. 230).
invitations to faith in Jesus
We have, then,
good grounds for interpreting all the parables as hidden and multilayered
invitations to faith in Jesus as the "Kingdom of God in person." But
there is one vexed saying of Jesus concerning the parables that stands
in the way. All three Synoptics relate to us that Jesus first responded
to the disciples' question about the meaning of the parable of the
sower with a general answer about the reason for preaching inparables.
At the heart of Jesus' answer is a citation from Isaiah 6:9f, which
the Synoptics transmit in different versions. Mark's text reads as
follows in Jeremias' painstakingly argued translation: "To you [that
is, to the circle of disciples] has God given the secret of the Kingdom
of God: but to those who are without, everything is obscure, in order
that they (as it is written) may 'see and yet not see, may hear and
yet not understand, unless they turn and God will forgive them' (Mk
4:12; Jeremias, p. 17). What does this mean? Is the point of the Lord's
parables to make his message inaccessible and to reserve it only for
a small circle of elect souls for whom he interprets them himself?
Is it that the parables are intended not to open doors, but
to lock them? Is God partisan - does he want only an elite few, and
If we want to understand the Lord's mysterious words,
we must read them in light of Isaiah, whom he cites, and we must read
them in light of his own path, the outcome of which he already knows.
In saying these words, Jesus places himself in the line of the Prophets - his
destiny is a prophet's destiny. Isaiahs words taken overall are much
more severe and terrifying than the extract that Jesus cites. In the
Book of Isaiah it says: "Make the heart of this people fat, and their
ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and
hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and
be healed" (Is 6:10). Prophets fail: Their message goes too much against
general opinion and the comfortable habits of life. It is only through
failure that their word becomes efficacious. This failure of the Prophets
is an obscure question mark hanging over the whole history of Israel,
and in a certain way it constantly recurs in the history of humansity.
Above all, it is also again and again the destiny of Jesus Christ:
He ends up on the Cross. But that very Cross is the source of great
and the Cross
unexpectedly, we see a connection with the parable of the sower, which
is the context where the Synoptics report these words of Jesus. It
is striking what a significant role the image of the seed plays in
the whole of Jesus' message. The time of Jesus, the time of the disciples,
is the time of sowing and of the seed. The "Kingdom of God" is present
in seed form. Observed from the outside, the seed is something minuscule.
It is easy to overlook. The mustard seed - an image of the Kingdom
of God - is the smallest of seeds, yet it bears a whole tree within
it. The seed is the presence of what is to come in the future. In
the seed, that which is to come is already here in a hidden way. It
is the presence of a promise. On Palm Sunday, the Lord summarized
the manifold seed parables and unveiled their full meaning: "Truly,
truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth
and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (Jn
12:24). He himself is the grain of wheat. His "failure" on the Cross
is exactly the way leading from the few to the many, to all: "And
I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself"
failure of the Prophets, his failure, appears now in another light.
It is precisely the way to reach the point where "they turn and God
will forgive them." It is precisely the method for opening the eyes
and ears of all. It is on the Cross that the parables are unlocked.
In his Farewell Discourses, the Lord says, apropos of this: "I have
said this to you in parables [i.e., veiled discourse]; the hour is
coming when I shall no longer speak to you in parables but tell you
plainly of the Father" (Jn 16:25). The parables speak in a hidden
way, then, of the mystery of the Cross; they do not only speak of
it - they are part of it themselves. For precisely because they allow
the mystery of Jesus' divinity to be seen, they lead to contradiction.
It is just when they emerge into a final clarity, as in the parable
of the unjust vintners (cf. Mk 12:1-12), that they become stations
on the way to the Cross. In the parables Jesus is not only the sower
who scatters the seed of God's word, but also the seed that falls
into the earth in order to die and so to bear fruit.
disturbing explanation of the point of his parables, then, is the
very thing that leads us to their deepest meaning, provided - true
to the nature of God's written word - we read the Bible, and especially
the Gospels, as an overall unity expressing an intrinsically coherent
message, notwithstanding their multiple historical layers. It may
be worthwhile, though, to follow up this thoroughly theological explanation
gleaned from the heart of the Bible with a consideration of the parables
from the specifically human point of view as well. What is a parable
exactly? And what is the narrator of the parable trying to convey?
every educator, every teacher who wants to communicate new knowledge
to his listeners naturally makes constant use of example or parable.
By using an example, he draws to their attention a reality that until
now has lain outside their field of vision. He wants to show how something
they have hitherto not perceived can be glimpsed via a reality that
does fall within their range of experience. By means of parable he
brings something distant within their reach so that, using the parable
as a bridge, they can arrive at what was previously unknown. A twofold
movement is involved here. On one hand, the parable brings distant
realities close to the listeners as they reflect upon it. On the other
hand, the listeners themselves are led onto a journey. The inner dynamic
of the parable, the intrinsic self transcendence of the chosen image,
invites them to entrust themselves to this dynamic and to go beyond
their existing horizons, to come to know and understand things previously
unknown. This means, however, that the parable demands the collaboration
of the learner, for not only is something brought close to him, but
he himself must enter into the movement of the parable and journey
along with it. At this point we begin to see why parables can cause
problems: people are sometimes unable to discover the dynamic and
let themselves be guided by it. Especially in the case of parables
that affect and transform their personal lives, people can be unwilling
to be drawn into the required movement.
and not seeing
us back to the Lord's words about seeing and not seeing, hearing and
not understanding. For Jesus is not trying to convey to us some sort
of abstract knowledge that does not concern us profoundly. He has
to lead us to the mystery of God - to the light that our eyes cannot
bear and that we therefore try to escape. In order to make it accessible
to us, he shows how the divine light shines through in the things
of this world and in the realities of our everyday life. Through everyday
events, he wants to show us the real ground of all things and thus
the true direction we have to take in our day-to-day lives if we want
to go the right way. He shows us God: not an abstract God, but the
God who acts, who intervenes in our lives, and wants to take us by
the hand. He shows us through everyday things who we are and what
we must therefore do. He conveys knowledge that makes demands upon
us; it not only or even primarily adds to what we know, but it changes
our lives. It is a knowledge that enriches us with a gift: "God is
on the way to you." But equally it is an exacting knowledge: "Have
faith, and let faith be your guide." The possibility of refusal is
very real, for the parable lacks the necessary proof.
translucence to God
can be a thousand rational objections - not only in Jesus' generation,
but throughout all generations, and today maybe more than ever. For
we have developed a concept of reality that excludes reality's translucence
to God. The only thing that counts as real is what can be experimentally
proven. God cannot be constrained into experimentation. That is exactly
the reproach he made to the Israelites in the desert: "There your
fathers tested me [tried to constrain me into experimentation], and
put me to the proof, though they had seen my work" (Ps 95:9). God
cannot be seen through the world - that is what the modern concept
of reality says. And so there is even less reason to accept the demand
he places on us: To believe in him as God and to live accordingly
seems like a totally unreasonable requirement. In this situation,
the parables really do lead to non-seeing and non-understanding, to
"hardening of heart."
To know God
though, that the parables are ultimately an expression of God's hiddenness
in this world and of the fact that knowledge of God always lays claim
to the whole person - that such knowledge is one with life itself,
and that it cannot exist without "repentance." For in this world,
marked by sin, the gravitational pull of our lives is weighted by
the chains of the "I" and the "self." These chains must be broken
to free us for a new love that places us in another gravitational
field where we can enter new life. In this sense, knowledge of God
is possible only through the gift of God's love becoming visible,
but this gift too has to be accepted. In this sense, the parables
manifest the essence of Jesus' message. In this sense, the mystery
of the Cross is inscribed right at the heart of the parables.
Parables from Luke
attempt an exposition of even a significant portion of Jesus' parables
would far exceed the scope of this book. I would therefore like to
limit myself to the three major parable narratives in Luke's Gospel,
whose beauty and depth spontaneously touch believer and nonbeliever
alike again and again: the story of the Good Samaritan, the parable
of the Prodigal Son, and the tale of the rich man and Lazarus.
Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37)
story of the Good Samaritan concerns the fundamental human question.
A lawyer - a master of exegesis, in other words - poses this question
to the Lord: "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" (Lk
10:25). Luke comments that the scholar addresses this question to
Jesus in order to put him to the test. Being a Scripture scholar himself,
he knows how the Bible answers his question, but he wants to see what
this prophet without formal biblical studies has to say about it.
The Lord very simply refers him to the Scripture, which of course
he knows, and gets him to give the answer himself. The scholar does
so by combining Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, and he is right
on target: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your
mind; and your neighbour as yourself" (Lk 10:27). Jesus' teaching
on this question is no different from that of the Torah, the entire
meaning of which is contained in this double commandment. But now
the learned man, who knew the answer to his own question perfectly
well, has to justify himself. What the Scripture says is uncontroversial,
but how it is to be applied in practice in daily life raises questions
that really were controversial among scholars (and in everyday life).
concrete question is who is meant by "neighbour." The conventional
answer, for which scriptural support could be adduced, was that "neighbour"
meant a fellow member of one's people. A people is a community of
solidarity in which everyone bears responsibility for everyone else.
In this community, each member is sustained by the whole, and so each
member is expected to look on every other member "as himself," as
a part of the same whole that gives him the space in which to live
his life. Does this mean, then, that foreigners, men belonging to
another people, are not neighbours? This would go against Scripture,
which insisted upon love for foreigners also, mindful of the fact
that Israel itself had lived the life of a foreigner in Egypt. It
remained a matter of controversy, though, where the boundaries were
to be drawn. Generally speaking, only the "sojourner" living among
the people was reckoned as a member of the community of solidarity
and so as a "neighbour." Other qualifications of the term enjoyed
wide currency as well. One rabbinic saying ruled that there was no
need to regard heretics, informers, and apostates as neighbours (Jeremias,
pp. 2o2f). It was also taken for granted that the Samaritans, who
not long before (between the years A.D. 6 and 9) had defiled the Temple
precincts in Jerusalem by "strewing dead men's bones" during the Passover
festival itself (Jeremias, p. 204), were not neighbours.
that the question has been focused in this way, Jesus answers it with
the parable of the man on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho who falls
among robbers, is stripped of everything, and then is left lying half
dead on the roadside. That was a perfectly realistic story, because
such assaults were a regular occurrence on the Jericho road. A priest
and a Levite - experts in the Law who know about salvation and are its
professional servants - come along, but they pass by without stopping.
There is no need to suppose that they were especially cold-hearted
people; perhaps they were afraid themselves and were hurrying to get
to the city as quickly as possible, or perhaps they were inexpert
and did not know how to go about helping the man - -especially since
it looked as though he was quite beyond help anyway. At this point
a Samaritan comes along, presumably a merchant who often has occasion
to traverse this stretch of road and is evidently acquainted with
the proprietor of the nearest inn; a Samaritan - someone, in other words,
who does not belong to Israel's community of solidarity and is not
obliged to see the assault victim as his "neighbour."
this connection we need to recall that in the previous chapter the
Evangelist has recounted that on the way to Jerusalem Jesus sent messengers
ahead of him and that they entered a Samaritan village in order to
procure him lodging: "But the people would not receive him, because
his face was set toward Jerusalem." The Sons of Thunder - James and
John - became enraged and said to Jesus: "Lord, do you want us to bid
fire come down from heaven and consume them?" (Lk 9:52^. The Lord
forbade them to do so. Lodging was found in another village.
now the Samaritan enters the stage. What will he do? He does not ask
how far his obligations of solidarity extend. Nor does he ask about
the merits required for eternal life. Something else happens: His
heart is wrenched open. The Gospel uses the word that in Hebrew had
originally referred to the mother's womb and maternal care. Seeing
this man in such a state is a blow that strikes him "viscerally,"
touching his soul. "He had compassion" - that is how we translate the
text today, diminishing its original vitality. Struck in his soul
by the lightning flash of mercy, he himself now becomes a neighbour,
heedless of any question or danger. The burden of the question thus
shifts here. The issue is no longer which other person is a neighbour
to me or not. The question is about me. I have to become the neighbour,
and when I do, the other person counts for me "as myself."
the question had been "Is the Samaritan my neighbour, too?" the answer
would have been a pretty clear-cut no given the situation at the time.
But Jesus now turns the whole matter on its head: The Samaritan, the
foreigner, makes himself the neighbour and shows me that I have to
learn to be a neighbour deep within and that I already have the answer
in myself. I have to become like someone in love, someone whose heart
is open to being shaken up by another's need. Then I find my neighbour,
or - better - then I am found by him.
Helmut Kuhn offers an exposition of this parable that, while
certainly going beyond the literal sense of the text, nonetheless
succeeds in conveying its radical message. He writes: "The love of
friendship in political terms rests upon the equality of the partners.
The symbolic parable of the Good Samaritan, by contrast, emphasizes
their radical inequality: The Samaritan, a stranger to the people,
is confronted with the anonymous other; the helper finds himself before
the helpless victim of a violent holdup. Agape, the parable
suggests, cuts right through all political alignments, governed as
they are by the principle of do ut des ('If you give, I'll
give'), and thereby displays its supernatural character. By the logic
of its principle it is not only beyond these alignments, but is meant
to overturn them: The last shall be first (cf. Mt 19:30) and the meek
shall inherit the earth (cf. Mt 5:5)" ("Liebe," pp. 88f). One
thing is clear: A new universality is entering the scene, and it rests
on the fact that deep within I am already becoming a brother to all
those I meet who are in need of my help.
topical relevance of the parable is evident. When we transpose it
into the dimensions of world society, we see how the peoples of Africa,
lying robbed and plundered, matter to us. Then we see how deeply they
are our neighbours; that our lifestyle, the history in which we are
involved, has plundered them and continues to do so. This is true
above all in the sense that we have wounded their souls. Instead of
giving them God, the God who has come close to us in Christ, which
would have integrated and brought to completion all that is precious
and great in their own traditions, we have given them the cynicism
of a world without God in which all that counts is power and profit,
a world that destroys moral standards so that corruption and unscrupulous
will to power are taken for granted. And that applies not only to
do of course have material assistance to offer and we have to examine
our own way of life. But we always give too little when we just give
material things. And aren't we surrounded by people who have been
robbed and battered? The victims of drugs, of human trafficking, of
sex tourism, inwardly devastated people who sit empty in the midst
of material abundance. All this is of concern to us, it calls us to
have the eye and the heart of a neighbour, and to have the courage
to love our neighbour, too. For - as we have said - the priest and
the Levite may have passed by more out of fear than out of indifference.
The risk of goodness is something we must relearn from within, but
we can do that only if we ourselves become good from within, if we
ourselves are "neighbours" from within, and if we then have an eye
for the sort of service that is asked of us, that is possible for
us, and is therefore also expected of us, in our environment and within
the wider ambit of our lives.
Church Fathers understood the parable Christologically. That is an
allegorical reading, one might say - an interpretation that bypasses
the text. But when we consider that in all the parables, each in a
different way, the Lord really does want to invite us to faith in
the Kingdom of God, which he himself is, then a Christological exposition
is never a totally false reading. In some sense it reflects an inner
potentiality in the text and can be a fruit growing out of it as from
a seed. The Fathers see the parable in terms of world history: Is
not the man who lies half dead and stripped on the roadside an image
of "Adam," of man in general, who truly "fell among robbers"? Is it
not true that man, this creature man, has been alienated, battered, and misused throughout his entire his tory? The great
mass of humanity has almost always lived under oppression; conversely,
are the oppressors the true image of man, or is it they who are really
the distorted caricatures, a disgrace to man? Karl Marx painted a
graphic picture of the "alienation" of man; even though he did not
arrive at the real essence of alienation, because he thought only
in material terms, he did leave us with a vivid image of man fallen
theology read the two indications given in the parable concerning
the battered man's condition as fundamental anthropological statements.
The text says, first, that the victim of the assault was stripped
(spoliatus) and, second, that he was beaten half dead (vulneratus;
cf. Lk 10:30). The Scholastics took this as referring to the two dimensions
of man's alienation. Man is, they said, spoliatus supernaturalibus
and vulneratus in naturalibus: bereft of the splendor
of the supernatural grace he had received and wounded in his nature.
Now, that is an instance of allegory, and it certainly goes far beyond
the literal sense. For all that, though, it is an attempt to identify
precisely the two kinds of injury that weigh down human history.
road from Jerusalem to Jericho thus turns out to be an image of human
history; the half-dead man lying by the side of it is an image of
humanity. Priest and Levite pass by; from earthly history alone, from
its cultures and religions alone, no healing comes. If the assault
victim is the image of Everyman, the Samaritan can only be the image
of Jesus Christ. God himself, who for us is foreign and distant, has
set out to take care of his wounded creature. God, though so
remote from us, has made himself our neighbour in Jesus Christ. He
pours oil and wine into our wounds, a gesture seen as an image of
the healing gift of the sacraments, and he brings us to the inn, the
Church, in which he arranges our care and also pays a deposit for
the cost of that care.
can safely ignore the individual details of the allegory, which change
from Church Father to Church Father. But the great vision that sees
man lying alienated and helpless by the roadside of history and God
himself becoming man's neighbour in Jesus Christ is one that we can
happily retain, as a deeper dimension of the parable that is of concern
to us. For the mighty imperative expressed in the parable is not thereby
weakened, but only now emerges in its full grandeur. The great theme
of love, which is the real thrust of the text, is only now oiven its
full breadth. For now we realize that we are all "alienated," in need
of redemption. Now we realize that we are all in need of the gift
of God's redeeming love ourselves, so that we too can become "lovers"
in our turn. Now we realize that we always need God, who makes himself
our neighbour so that we can become neighbours.
two characters in this story are relevant to every single human being.
Everyone is "alienated," especially from love (which, after all, is
the essence of the "supernatural splendor" of which we have been despoiled);
everyone must first be healed and filled with God's gifts. But then
everyone is also called to become a Samaritan - to follow Christ and
become like him. When we do that, we live rightly. We love rightly
when we become like him, who loved all of us first (cf. 1Jn 4:19).
The Parable of the Two
Brothers and the Good Father (Luke 13:11 - 32)
the most beautiful of Jesus' parables, this story is also known as
the parable of the prodigal son. It is true that the figure of the
prodigal son is so vividly drawn and his destiny, both in good and
in evil, is so heart-rending that he inevitably appears to be the
real center of the story. In reality, though, the parable has three
protagonists. Jeremias and others have suggested that it would actually
be better to call it the parable of the good father - that he is the
true center of the text.
Pierre Grelot, on the other hand, has pointed out that the figure
of the second brother is quite crucial, and he is therefore of the
opinion - -rightly, in my judgment - that the most accurate designation
would be the parable of the two brothers. This relates directly to
the situation which prompted the parable, which Luke I5:if. presents
as follows: "Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near
to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying,
'This man receives sinners and eats with them.'" Here we meet two
groups, two "brothers": tax collectors and sinners on one hand, Pharisees
and scribes on the other. Jesus responds with three parables: the
parable of the lost sheep and the ninety-nine who remained at home;
the parable of the lost drachma; and finally he begins anew, saying:
"A man had two sons" (15:11). The story is about both sons.
recounting this parable, the Lord is invoking a tradition that reaches
way back into the past, for the motif of the two brothers runs through
the entire Old Testament. Beginning with Cain and Abel, it continues
down through Ishmael and Isaac to Esau and Jacob, only to be reflected
once more in a modified form in the behavior of the eleven sons of
Jacob toward Joseph. The history of those chosen by God is governed
by a remarkable dialectic between pairs of brothers, and it remains
as an unresolved question in the Old Testament. In a new hour of
God's dealings in history, Jesus took up this motif again and gave
it a new twist. In Matthew there is a text about two brothers that
is related to our parable: one brother says he wants to do the father's
will, but does not actually carry it out; the second says no to the
father's will, but afterward he repents and carries out the task he
had been given to do (cf. Mt 21:28 - 32). Here too it is the relationship
between sinners and Pharisees that is at issue; here too the text
is ultimately an appeal to say Yes once more to the God who calls
us now attempt to follow the parable step by step. The first figure
we meet is that of the prodigal son, but right at the beginning we
also see the magnanimity of the father. He complies with the younger
son's wish for his share of the property and divides up the inheritance.
He gives freedom. He can imagine what the younger son is going to
do, but he lets him go his way.
son journeys "into a far country." The Church Fathers read this above
all as interior estrangement from the world of the father - the world
of God - as interior rupture of relation, as the great abandonment of
all that is authentically one's own. The son squanders his inheritance.
He just wants to enjoy himself. He wants to scoop life out till there
is nothing left. He wants to have "life in abundance" as he understands
it. He no longer wants to be subject to any commandment, any authority.
He seeks radical freedom. He wants to live only for himself, free
of any other claim. He enjoys life; he feels that he is completely
it difficult for us to see clearly reflected here the spirit of the
modern rebellion against God and God's law? The leaving behind of
everything we once depended on and the will to a freedom without limits?
The Greek word used in the parable for the property that the son dissipates
means "essence" in the vocabulary of Greek philosophy. The prodigal
dissipates "his essence," himself.
the end it is all gone. He who was once completely free is now truly
a slave - a swineherd, who would be happy to be given pig feed to eat.
Those who understand freedom as the radically arbitrary license to
do just what they want and to have their own way are living in a lie,
for by his very nature man is part of a shared existence and his freedom
is shared freedom. His very nature contains direction and norm, and
becoming inwardly one with this direction and norm is what freedom
is all about. A false autonomy thus leads to slavery: In the meantime
history has taught us this all too clearly. For Jews the pig is an
unclean animal, which means that the swineherd is the expression of
man's most extreme alienation and destitution. The totally free man
has become a wretched slave.
this point the "conversion" takes place. The prodigal son realizes
that he is lost - that at home he was free and that his fathers servants
are freer than he now is, who had once considered himself completely
free. "He went into himself," the Gospel says (Lk 15:17). As with
the passage about the "far country," these words set the Church Fathers
thinking philosophically: Living far away from home, from his origin,
this man had also strayed far away from himself. He lived away from
the truth of his existence.
His change of heart, his "conversion," consists in his recognition
of this, his realization that he has become alienated and wandered
into truly "alien lands," and his return to himself. What he finds
in himself, though, is the compass pointing toward the father, toward
the true freedom of a "son." The speech he prepares for his homecoming
reveals to us the full extent of the inner pilgrimage he is now making.
His words show that his whole life is now a steady progress leading
"home" - through so many deserts - to himself and to the father. He is
on a pilgrimage toward the truth of his existence, and that means
"homeward." When the Church Fathers offer us this "existential" exposition
of the son's journey home, they are also explaining to us what "conversion"
is, what sort of sufferings and inner purifications it involves, and
we may safely say that they have understood the essence of the parable
correctly and help us to realize: its relevance for today.
father "sees the son from far off" and goes out to meet him. He listens
to the son's confession and perceives in it the interior journey that
he has made; he perceives that the son has found the way to true freedom.
So he does not even let him finish, but embraces and kisses him and
orders a great feast of joy to be prepared. The cause of this joy
is that the son, who was already "dead" when he departed with his
share of the property, is now alive again, has risen from the dead;
"he was lost, and is found" (Lk 15:32).
The Church Fathers
put all their love into their exposition of this scene. The lost son
they take as an image of man as such, of "Adam," who all of us are
- of Adam whom God has gone out to meet and whom he has received anew
into his house. In the parable, the father orders the servants to
bring quickly "the first robe." For the Fathers, this "first robe"
is a reference to the lost robe of grace with which man had been originally
clothed, but which he forfeited by sin. But now this "first robe"
is given back to him - the robe of the son. The feast that is now
made ready they read as an image of the feast of faith, the festive
Eucharist, in which the eternal festal banquet is anticipated. To
cite the Greek text literally, what the first brother hears when he
comes home is "symphony and choirs" - again for the Fathers an image
for the symphony of the faith, which makes being a Christian a joy
and a feast.
But the kernel
of the text surely does not lie in these details; the kernel is now
unmistakably the figure of the father. Can we understand him? Can
a father, may a father act like this? Pierre Grelot has drawn attention
to the fact that Jesus is speaking here on a solidly Old Testament
basis: The archetype of this vision of God the Father is found in
Hosea 11:1-9. First the text speaks of Israel's election and subsequent
infidelity: "My people abides in infidelity; they call upon Baal,
but he does not help them" (Hos 11:2). But God also sees that this
people is broken and that the sword rages in its cities (cf. Hos 11:6).
And now the very thing that is described in our parable happens to
the people: "How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you
over, O Israel! . . . My heart turns itself against me, my compassion
grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will
not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One
in your midst" (Hos 11:8f). Because God is God, the Holy One, he acts
as no man could act. God has a heart, and this heart turns, so to
speak, against God himself: Here in Hosea, as in the Gospel, we encounter
once again the word compassion, which is expressed by means
of the image of the maternal womb. God's heart transforms wrath and
turns punishment into forgiveness.
the Christian, the question now arises: Where does Jesus Christ fit
into all this? Only the Father figures in the parable. Is there no
Christology in it? Augustine tried to work Chnstology in where the
text says that the father embraced the son (cf. Lk 15:20). "The arm
of the Father is the Son," he writes. He could have appealed here
to Irenaeus, who referred to the Son and the Spirit as the two hands
of the Father. "The arm of the Father is the Son." When he lays this
arm on our shoulders as "his light yoke," then that is precisely not
a burden he is loading onto us, but rather the gesture of receiving
us in love. The "yoke" of this arm is not a burden that we must carry,
but a gift of love that carries us and makes us sons. This is a very
evocative exposition, but it is still an "allegory" that clearly goes
beyond the text.
Grelot has discovered
an interpretation that accords with the text and goes even deeper.
He draws attention to the fact that Jesus uses this parable, along
with the two preceding ones, to justify his own goodness toward sinners;
he uses the behavior of the father in the parable to justify the fact
that he too welcomes sinners. By the way he acts, then, Jesus himself
becomes "the revelation of the one he called his Father." Attention
to the historical context of the parable thus yields by itself an
"implicit Christology." "His Passion and his Resurrection reinforce
this point still further: How did God show his merciful love for sinners?
In that 'while we were yet sinners Christ died for us' (Rom 5:8)."
"Jesus cannot enter into the narrative framework of the parable because
he lives in identification with the heavenly Father and bases his
conduct on the Father's. The risen Christ remains today, in this point,
in the same situation as Jesus of Nazareth during the time of his
earthly ministry" (pp. 228f). Indeed: In this parable, Jesus justifies
his own conduct by relating it to, and identifying it with, the Father's.
It is in the figure of the father, then, that Christ - the concrete
realization of the father's action - is placed right at the heart
of the parable.
older brother now makes his appearance. He comes home from working
in the fields, hears feasting at home, finds out why, and becomes
angry. He finds it simply unfair that this good-for-nothing, who has
squandered his entire fortune - the father's property - with prostitutes,
should now be given a splendid feast straightaway without any period
of probation, without any time of penance. That contradicts his sense
of justice: The life he has spent working is made to look of no account
in comparison to the dissolute past of the other. Bitterness arises
in him: "Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed
one of your commands," he says to his father, "yet you never gave
me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends" (Lk 15:29). The
father goes out to meet the older brother, too, and now he speaks
kindly to his son. The older brother knows nothing of the inner transformations
and wanderings experienced by the younger brother, of his journey
into distant parts, of his fall and his new self-discovery. He sees
only injustice. And this betrays the fact that he too had secretly
dreamed of a freedom without limits, that
obedience has made him inwardly bitter, and that he has no awareness
of the grace of being at home, of the true freedom that he enjoys
as a son. "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours"
(Lk 15:31). The father explains to him the great value of sonship
with these words - the same words that Jesus uses in his high-priestly
prayer to describe his relationship to the Father: "All that is mine
is thine, and all that is thine is mine" (Jn 17:10).
parable breaks off here; it tells us nothing about the older brother's
reaction. Nor can it, because at this point the parable immediately
passes over into reality. Jesus is using these words of the father
to speak to the heart of the murmuring Pharisees and scribes who have
grown indignant at his goodness to sinners (cf. Lk 15:2). It now becomes
fully clear that Jesus identifies his goodness to sinners with the
goodness of the father in the parable and that all the words attributed
to the father are the words that he himself addresses to the righteous.
The parable does not tell the story of some distant affair, but is
about what is happening here and now through him. He is wooing the
heart of his adversaries. He begs them to come in and to share his
joy at this hour of homecoming and reconciliation. These words remain
in the Gospel as a pleading invitation. Paul takes up this pleading
invitation when he writes: "We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be
reconciled to God" (2 Cor 5:20).
one hand, then, the parable is located quite realistically at the moment in history when Christ recounted it. At the same time, however,
it points beyond the historical moment, for God's wooing and pleading
continues. But to whom is the parable now addressed? The Church
Fathers generally applied the two-brothers motif to the relation
between Jews and Gentiles. It was not hard for them to recognize in
the dissolute son who had strayed far from God and from himself an
image of the pagan world, to which Jesus had now opened the door for
communion with God in grace and for which he now celebrates the feast
of his love. By the same token, neither was it hard for them to recognize
in the brother who remained at home an image of the people of Israel,
who could legitimately say: "Look, these many years I have served you,
and I never disobeyed one of your commands." Israel's fidelity and
image of God are clearly revealed in such fidelity to the Torah.
application to the Jews is not illegitimate so long as we respect
the form in which we have found it in the text: as God's delicate
attempt to talk Israel around, which remains entirely God's initiative.
We should note that the father in the parable not only does not dispute
the older brother's fidelity, but explicitly confirms his sonship:
"Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours." It would
be a false interpretation to read this as a condemnation of the Jews,
for which there is no support in the text.
we may regard this application of the parable of the two brothers
to Israel and the Gentiles as one dimension of the text, there are
other dimensions as well. After all, what Jesus says about the older
brother is aimed not simply at Israel (the sinners who came to him
were Jews, too), but at the specific temptation of the righteous,
of those who are "en regle" at rights with God, as Grelot puts
it (p. 229). In this connection, Grelot places emphasis on the sentence
"I never disobeyed one of your commandments." For them, more than
anything else God is Law; they see themselves in a juridical relationship
with God and in that relationship they are at rights with him. But
God is greater: They need to convert from the Law-God to the greater
God, the God of love. This will not mean giving up their obedience,
but rather that this obedience will flow from deeper wellsprings and
will therefore be bigger, more open, and purer, but above all more
us add a further aspect that has already been touched upon: Their
bitterness toward God's goodness reveals an inward bitterness regarding
their own obedience, a bitterness that indicates the limitations of
this obedience. In their heart of hearts, they would have gladly journeyed
out into that great "freedom" as well. There is an unspoken envy of
what others have been able to get away with. They have not gone through
the pilgrimage that purified the younger brother and made him realize
what it means to be free and what it means to be a son. They actually
carry their freedom as if it were slavery and they have not matured
to real sonship. They, too, are still in need of a path; they can
find it if they simply admit that God is right and accept his feast
as their own. In this parable, then, the Father through Christ is
addressing us, the ones who never left home, encouraging us too to
convert truly and to find joy in our faith.
Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)
story once again presents us with two contrasting figures: the rich
man, who carouses in his life of luxury, and the poor man, who cannot
even catch the crumbs that the rich bon vivants drop from the table
- according to the custom of the time, pieces of bread they used to
wash their hands and then threw away. Some of the Church Fathers also
classed this parable as an example of the two-brother pattern and
applied it to the relationship between Israel (the rich man) and the
Church (the poor man, Lazarus), but in so doing they mistook the very
different typology that is involved here. This is evident already
in the very different ending. Whereas the two brother texts remain
open, ending as a question and an invitation, this story already describes
the definitive end of both protagonists.
some background that will enable us to understand this narrative,
we need to look at the series of Psalms in which the cry of the poor
rises before God - the poor who live out their faith in God in obedience
to his commandments, but experience only unhappiness, whereas the
cynics who despise God go from success to success and enjoy every
worldly happiness. Lazarus belongs to the poor whose voice we hear,
for example, in Psalm 44: "Thou hast made us the taunt of our neighbours,
the derision and scorn of those about us. ... Nay, for thy sake we
are slain all the day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter"
(Ps 44:15 - 23; cf. Rom 8:36). The early wisdom of Israel had operated
on the premise that God rewards the righteous and punishes the sinner,
so that misfortune matches sin and happiness matches righteousness.
This wisdom had been thrown into crisis at least since the time of
the Exile. It was not just that the people of Israel as a whole suffered
more than the surrounding peoples who led them into exile and oppression - in
private life, too, it was becoming increasingly apparent that cynicism
pays and that the righteous man is doomed to suffer in this world.
In the Psalms and the later Wisdom Literature we witness the struggle
to come to grips with this contradiction; we see a new effort to become
"wise" - to understand life rightly, to find and understand anew the
God who seems unjust or altogether absent.
of the most penetrating texts concerning this struggle is Psalm 73,
which we may regard as in some sense the intellectual backdrop of
our parable. There we see the figure of the rich glutton before our
very eyes and we hear the complaint of the praying Psalmist - Lazarus:
"For I was envious of the arrogant, when I saw the prosperity of the
wicked. For they have no pangs; their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as other men are; they are not stricken like
other men. Therefore pride is their necklace. . . . Their eyes swell
out with fatness. . . . They set their mouths against the heavens.
. . . Therefore the people turn and praise them; and find no fault
in them. And they say, 'How can God know? Is there knowledge in the
Most High?'" (Ps 73:3-11).
suffering just man who sees all this is in danger of doubting his
faith. Does God really not see? Does he not hear? Does he not care
about men's fate? "All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed
my hands in innocence. For all the day long I have been stricken,
and chastened every morning. My heart was embittered" (Ps 73:13ff).
The turning point comes when the suffering just man in the Sanctuary
looks toward God and, as he does so, his perspective becomes broader.
Now he sees that the seeming cleverness of the successful cynics is
stupidity when viewed against the light. To be wise in that way is
to be "stupid and ignorant.. . like a beast" (Ps 73:22). They remain
within the perspective of animals and have lost the human perspective
that transcends the material realm - toward God and toward eternal
may be reminded here of another Psalm in which a persecuted man says
at the end: "May their belly be filled with good things; may their
children have more than enough. ... As for me, I shall behold thy
face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with beholding
thy form" (Ps 77:14f). Two sorts of satisfaction are contrasted here:
being satiated with material goods, and satisfaction with beholding
"thy form" - the heart becoming sated by the encounter with infinite
love. The words "when I awake" are at the deepest level a reference
to the awakening into new and eternal life, but they also speak of
a deeper "awakening" here in this world: Man wakes up to the truth
in a way that gives him a new satisfaction here and now.
is of this awakening in prayer that Psalm 73 speaks. For now the psalmist
sees that the happiness of the cynics that he had envied so much is
only "like a dream that fades when one awakes, on awaking one forgets
their phantoms" (Ps 73:20). And now he recognizes real happiness:
"Nevertheless I am continually with thee; thou dost hold my right
hand.... Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is nothing upon
earth that I desire besides thee. . . . But for me it is good to be
near God" (Ps 73:23, 25, 28). This is not an encouragement to place
our hope in the afterlife, but rather an awakening to the true stature
of man's being - which does, of course, include the call to eternal
has been only an apparent digression from our parable. In reality,
the Lord is using this story in order to initiate us into the very
process of "awakening" that is reflected in the Psalms. This has nothing
to do with a cheap condemnation of riches and of the rich begotten
of envy. In the Psalms that we have briefly considered all
envy is left behind. The psalmist has come to see just how foolish
it is to envy this sort of wealth because he has recognized what is
truly good. After Jesus' Crucifixion two wealthy men make their appearance,
Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who had discovered the Lord and
were in the process of "awakening." The Lord wants to lead us from
foolish cleverness toward true wisdom; he wants to teach us to discern
the real good. And so we have good grounds, even though it is not
there in the text, to say that, from the perspective of the Psalms,
the rich glutton was already an empty-hearted man in this world, and
that his carousing was only an attempt to smother this interior emptiness
of his. The next life only brings to light the truth already present
in this life. Of course, this parable, by awakening us, at the same
time summons us to the love and responsibility that we owe now to
our poor brothers and sisters - both on the large scale of world society
and on the small scale of our everyday life.
the description of the next life that now follows in the parable,
Jesus uses ideas that were current in the Judaism of his time. Hence
we must not force our interpretation of this part of the text. Jesus
adopts existing images, without formally incorporating them into his
teaching about the next life. Nevertheless, he does unequivocally
affirm the substance of the images. In this sense, it is important
to note that Jesus invokes here the idea of the intermediate state
between death and the resurrection, which by then had become part
of the universal patrimony of Jewish faith. The rich man is in Hades,
conceived here as a temporary place, and not in "Gehenna" (hell),
which is the name of the final state (Jeremias, p. 185). Jesus says
nothing about a "resurrection in death" here. But as we saw earlier,
this is not the principal message that the Lord wants to convey in
this parable. Rather, as Jeremias has convincingly shown, the main
point - which comes in the second part of the parable - is the rich man's
request for a sign.
rich man, looking up to Abraham from Hades, says what so many people,
both then and now, say or would like to say to God: "If you really
want us to believe in you and organize our lives in accord with the
revealed word of the Bible, you'll have to make yourself clearer.
Send us someone from the next world who can tell us that it is really
so." The demand for signs, the demand for more evidence of Revelation,
is an issue that runs through the entire Gospel. Abrahams answer - like
Jesus' answer to his contemporaries' demand for signs in other contexts - is
clear: If people do not believe the word of Scripture, then they
will not believe someone coming from the next world either. The highest
truths cannot be forced into the type of empirical evidence that only
applies to material reality.
cannot send Lazarus to the rich man's father's house. But at this
point something strikes us. We are reminded of the resurrection of
Lazarus of Bethany, recounted to us in John's Gospel. What happens
there? The Evangelist tells us, "Many of the Jews ... believed in
him" (Jn 11:45). They go to the Pharisees and report on what has happened,
whereupon the Sanhedrin gathers to take counsel. They see the affair
in a political light: If this leads to a popular movement, it might
force the Romans to intervene, leading to a dangerous situation. So
they decide to kill Jesus. The miracle leads not to faith, but to
hardening of hearts (Jn 11:45-53).
our thoughts go even further. Do we not recognize in the figure of
Lazarus - lying at the rich man's door covered in sores - the mystery
of Jesus, who "suffered outside the city walls" (Heb 13:12) and, stretched
naked on the Cross, was delivered over to the mockery and contempt
of the mob, his body "full of blood and wounds"? "But I am a worm,
and no man; scorned by men, and despised by the people" (Ps 22:7).
the true Lazarus, has risen from the dead - and he has come to
tell us so. If we see in the story of Lazarus Jesus' answer to his
generation's demand for a sign, we find ourselves in harmony with
the principal answer that Jesus gave to that demand. In Matthew, it
reads thus: "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but
no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the Prophet Jonah.
For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale,
so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart
of the earth" (Mt 12:39f). In Luke we read: "This generation is an
evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign shall be given to it
except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah became a sign to the men of
Nineveh, so will the Son of man be to this generation" (Lk 11:29f).
do not need to analyze here the differences between these two versions.
One thing is clear: God's sign for men is the Son of Man; it is Jesus
himself. And at the deepest level, he is this sign in his Paschal
Mystery, in the mystery of his death and Resurrection. He himself
is "the sign of Jonah." He, crucified and risen, is the true Lazarus.
The parable is inviting us to believe and follow him, God's great
sign. But it is more than a parable. It speaks of reality, of the
most decisive reality in all history.