Drinking Deeply

Wednesday, August 16, 2006 at 12:49 PM

Crowns(6) - Interpreting parables

Revisiting a topic from long ago.

The question was, “Are there additional treasures in heaven for people who are especially obedient?” Namely, “if I live out my life (by God's grace) seeking and pursuing life lived for the glory of God, will there be some additional “treasure” for me compared to someone who, say, was a mass murderer but then was convicted of his sin and regenerated by the Holy Spirit prior to his execution? "

Today, I'd like to deal with some parables because at first glance, it would seem that there are parables that answer the question fairly decisively. I'd like to examine the genre of parables and their intent and use that to interpret a few parables that look like they might answer the question to demonstrate that they don't actually answer the question.

I do need to acknowledge that I haven't figured out every single parable. Some of them are more difficult to me than they are clear. Indeed, even the apostles did not understand Jesus' foundational parable (Mark 4:2-13) and it is only when Jesus explained everything in plain speech (John 16:29-30) that they "got it". So if something seems amiss here, chances are that it's my fault. That said, here's my current understanding.

To begin with, it's necessary to understand that parables aren't allegories. Each object doesn't have a correlation with reality. Instead the parables are basically stories that wrap up in a proverb. They're meant to hammer home a point. Just like we don't look at the parable of the persistent widow and conclude that God is like the unrighteous judge, we shouldn't look at parables and conclude things that are not what their intents are. Instead, parables are like stories that are used to tell a proverb. Indeed, many parables begin or end with a short proverb-like statement that help us interpret it.

First up is the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16. Jesus tells a parable saying that the kingdom of heaven is like the master in the house who hires laborers throughout the day promising them whatever is right. At the end of the day each person gets one danarius. The ones hired earlier in the day get annoyed because they thought they got more for working longer hours, but the master rebukes them and says “15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

Upon first glance this sounds like a decent parable to say “see, look, each person gets the same thing,” but if we take the focus of the parable, we find that the parable isn't really meant to teach that. Take a look at verses 1 and 15-16:
v.1)For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house ...

v.15) “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?' 16So the last will be first, and the first last."
With these two lines guiding our interpretation, we understand that the parable is not necessarily telling us anything about the state of heaven, but rather that the kingdom of heaven will be ruled by a generous king, one to whom the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Notice how the idea of the “last shall be first, and the first last” seems to itself contradict the entire parable if we thought that the parable taught a leveling of the playing field. Wouldn't it be better “everyone shall be the same”? But the parable is not about rewards, but rather it's about a generous king who is allowed to do what he chooses with what is his, not about people all getting the same thing.

A second parable that seems relevant is the parable of the ten minas (a mina is about three months wages) in Luke 19:11-27. Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven being like a man going on a journey to be made king. He leaves ten mina among ten servants and when he returns two have wisely invested their minas and made ten and five more. They get charge over ten and five cities. One servant comes back and has hidden away his mina because he was afraid of those who opposed the man being made king. He gets nothing and cast out.

Once again, at first glance (at least, my first glance) it looks like it answers our question. Ah, see some people are more faithful with their talent and they get more. That servant got ten cities and the other one got five and the last one got none. But again, that would be a false inference. Look at the purpose of the parable, which is found in verses 11 and 26:
v.11) [Jesus] proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.

v.26) I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
From these two lines we see that the intent of the parable is to caution those who assume that the kingdom was going to appear immediately. That cautionary note is found in the last verse: “everyone who has, more will be given, but from one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” The parable does not consider three (or ten, for ten servants) classes of people who were each differently faithful with what they were given, but rather just two: those who are faithful and those who are not. The ones who are faithful (who have) will be given more, and the ones who are not will receive nothing. So if we might summarize it in our own words, the parable is teaching those who expected the kingdom of heaven to come any moment to, “be faithful and don't give up, your rewards are in heaven” with no evidence that you will get more or less if you are “more faithful” or “less,” but simply that if you are faithful, then you will get more rather than none.

This does raise the bar fairly high for parables, so high that I haven't come across one that had a compelling answer to this question. But there are still some passages that may lead us to a conclusive answer. Hopefully I'll deal with them soon.

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