Images from the Prodigal Son

Typikon DecodedThe second of the Pre-Lenten Sundays is that of the Prodigal Son based on the Gospel Lesson of Luke 15:11-32. 

According to Archimandrite Job Getcha, THE TYPIKON DECODED, this Gospel in a more ancient tradition was read on the second Sunday of Great Lent in Jerusalem.  The Prodigal Son became a pre-Lenten Gospel lesson in Constantinople in the 9th-10th Century.  It was mentioned as being used in Palestine by St. John of Damascus in the 8th Century. 

I found a few of the hymns from the Saturday evening Vespers to contain interesting imagery, somewhat only tangential to the Gospel lesson.  The first has a theme of planting and the harvest.  The earth is portrayed as being “rich and fertile” – in other words, there is nothing wrong with the earth we live on.  But all that we humans planted on earth were “the seeds of sin” and thus could harvest nothing but “the sheaves of evil.”  In the hymn we humans fail to use sorrow/repentance to properly thresh the harvest, so now we have to beg God to allow His love to “become the breeze to winnow the straw of our worthless deeds.”  God has to do the work that we should be doing for ourselves.

“RICH AND FERTILE WAS THE EARTH ALLOTTED TO US, BUT ALL WE PLANTED WERE THE SEEDS OF SIN. WE REAPED THE SHEAVES OF EVIL WITH THE SICKLE OF LAZINESS; WE FAILED TO PLACE THEM ON THE THRESHING‑FLOOR OF SORROW.

NOW WE BEG YOU, LORD, ETERNAL MASTER OF THE HARVEST: MAY YOUR LOVE BECOME THE BREEZE TO WINNOW THE STRAW OF OUR WORTHLESS DEEDS.

MAKE US LIKE PRECIOUS WHEAT TO BE STORED IN HEAVEN, AND SAVE US ALL!”

The hymn ties in the theme of Adam being cast out of the Garden of Eden by God and being sent to cultivate the ground of earth out of which Adam had originally been fashioned (Genesis 3:23).  The earth is fertile but humans end up planting only the seeds of sin.  But in the end of the hymn there is a prayer for God the Lord of the Harvest (Matthew 9:37) not to accept any offering we might make from the fruit of our labors, but rather to transform us humans so that we might be “like precious wheat to be stored in heaven.”  (see Matthew 13:30).  No longer is the fruit of our labor the issue, but rather we become the harvest which God is really concerned about and which He will store in heaven.  The hymn is a metaphorical marvel with the most interesting images.

“BRETHREN, OUR PURPOSE IS TO KNOW THE POWER OF GOD’S GOODNESS, FOR WHEN THE PRODIGAL SON ABANDONED HIS SIN, HE HASTENED TO THE REFUGE OF HIS FATHER.

THAT GOOD MAN EMBRACED HIM AND WELCOMED HIM: HE KILLED THE FATTED CALF AND CELEBRATED WITH HEAVENLY JOY!    

LET US LEARN FROM THIS EXAMPLE TO OFFER THANKS TO THE FATHER WHO LOVES ALL PEOPLE, AND TO THE VICTIM, THE GLORIOUS SAVIOR OF OUR SOULS!”

In the above hymn, it is interesting that the Prodigal’s father is referred to as “that good man” who celebrates “with heavenly joy” – obviously the Gospel lesson is being read more as a parable than as an allegory.  For reading the father as a good man indicates he is not God the Father, an interpretation which is actually closer to the Gospel text itself.  In the Gospel parable that Jesus teaches, the Prodigal says he has sinned both against heaven and against his father (Luke 15:18, 21) which would tend to indicate that his father is his earthly father and the sin against heaven (God) is an additional offense (the Prodigal has offended both his dad and God).  We tend unthinkingly to slide into allegorical interpretation and assume the father of the parable is God the father.  But the hymn calls upon us to imitate the Prodigal’s father and “to offer thanks to the Father who loves all people”. This is a surprising take on a Gospel lesson we have so totally allegorized that we never think of ourselves as imitating the father of the parable.

 Indeed the father sacrificing the fatted calf in the parable is an offering of thanksgiving to God;  thus the Prodigal’s dad does not represent God the Father but is the earthly father of the Prodigal and his older brother.   The parable’s father, 2 sons and servants are all humans under the dominion of God.  The hymn extracts from the Gospel a number of lessons we sometimes ignore.  The hymn tells us to imitate the thanksgiving of the Prodigal’s father!  We Orthodox almost exclusively these days think we are supposed to imitate the Prodigal’s repentance, but if the Gospel pericope is read as parable (and not pure allegory) we are being taught to imitate the thanksgiving of the parable’s father as well. We are to be thankful when lapsed parishioners and sinners return or turn to the Church.  We are not to be like the older brother and judge them as fallen, but to be like the father and welcome them as full members of the family.  We are to imitate the parable’s father and try to reconcile the faithful with the lapsed.

The hymn tradition in our Church has not so narrowly pigeon-holed the parable as we sometimes do by assuming it has only a (pre-)Lenten theme.  For beyond the usual theme of personal repentance, the parable of the Prodigal Son and Forgiving Father also calls us to thanksgiving, to forgiveness and to reconciliation.  If Lent is only about fasting, then it becomes very self-centered which is just the opposite of what Lent is about.  For Lent is about learning to love God and love neighbor.   We are to love as the prodigal’s father loved in order to be reconciled with those from whom we have become alienated – even family members and those who have offended us.  This is the true story of Great Lent.  We are to become thankful for those who repent, seek reconciliation, salvation and forgiveness.  The Lord God reminds us about the true nature of fasting through the Holy Prophet Isaiah (58:6-7):

 “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”

Is not this the lesson of the parable of the Prodigal Son:  loosing the bonds of wickedness of the Prodigal and of his older brother.   It is a year of jubilee  parable – forgiving debts, letting the oppressed go free rather than oppressing them, breaking the yokes that bind us, sharing our bread with the hungry even with a prodigal son and brother who squandered his riches.  We are not to avoid our brothers and sisters who suffer as a result of their own sins, but we are to be reconciled with them should they ask.  They may come back as hired servants and not children, but they are to be embraced even on those terms for wishing to be reconciled to God and neighbor.

The other surprise of the hymn is the unexpected reference in the last line of the hymn to Christ “the victim” to whom we are to direct our thanks just like the Prodigal’s father does to God.  This very much ties in with the opening line of the above hymn which says the purpose of the parable is to help us learn the power of the goodness of God.  It doesn’t focus on what today we assume the parable is about: the repentance of the prodigal child.  Rather it directs our attention to the power of God’s goodness.  We can return to God, not because of our repentance but because of the sacrifice of Christ.  Christ has made reconciliation possible.

Finally, we take a look at the Ikos hymn from Matins for the Prodigal Son.   In this hymn (below) we are reminded that when we listen to the Gospel lesson proclaimed in church we are hearing the very voice of the Savior.  These are the words by which He chose to teach us.  Christ Himself speaks to us through the Scriptures so we really need to listen, paying careful heed to what we hear.

“Every day our Savior teaches us with His own voice: so let us listen to the Scriptures on the Prodigal Son who regained wisdom, and let us follow the good example of his repentance with faith, and with humility of heart cry out to Him who knows all secrets: 

We have sinned against You, merciful Father, and are not worthy ever again to be called Your children as before. 

But since by nature You are the Lover of mankind, RECEIVE ME A PENITENT AND MAKE ME AS ONE OF YOUR HIRED SERVANTS.”

The hymn points to another theme of the parable: humility.  We are not asking God to restore us as His children – our sins have proven we are not worthy to be called the children of God.  Rather we can through repentance seek only to become like God’s hired servants.  In other words we embarrassingly have to acknowledge we don’t do God’s will because we love Him,  but only seek God because He rewards us – that is how hired servants behave!  We are not God’s children loyal to Him for no other reason but love.  NO, our true wish is to get paid for what we do – we want to get into heaven and avoid hell.

The parable calls us to be brutally honest about our motives!  God does accept us even on those terms just as the forgiving father welcomed his prodigal son.   We can even repent of this self-serving attitude and humbly teach ourselves to serve Him in love not for reward.  We can imitate Christ and learn how to be His loving children by denying ourselves and taking up our crosses to follow Him.

Methodology: How we read the Bible (A)

This is the 3rd  blog in this series which began with Reading the Bible: Hermeneutics & Typology.  The previous blog is  Christ is the Key to Reading Scriptures. While reading the Scriptures “in Christ” is the Orthodox way to come to a full understanding of the text, through history the Patristic writers and theologians of the Church used a number of methods for interpreting the Bible.  In this blog and the ones to follow, we will consider some of the terminology Orthodox writers have used to allow themselves to read the Scriptures in a Christocentric manner.  To see the Scriptures as pointing to Christ, revealing Christ or being explained and interpreted by Christ who shows their full meaning is to read the Bible in this Christocentric manner.  But there are several different specific methods of reading the text which enable the reader to maintain the Christocentric interpretation.  And yes, there is an assumption that the texts do and are supposed to speak of Christ.

“When we think of the doctrine of the senses of Scripture we commonly think of them as consisting of three or four: the literal, first, then the moral or tropological, the mystical or allegorical, and finally the anagogical.  Reduced to three, they become the literal, the moral and the mystical…  The literal sense teaches what happened, allegory what you are to believe, the moral sense what you are to do, anagogy where you are going. … the movement to allegory is not at all a movement away from history, but we might say a movement into history, into the significance of the sacred events that are the object of our faith.  The literal sense is the object of faith: this is what we are to believe, to believe in, in a God who meets us in history, becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth.  The allegorical sense represents our attempt to understand the mystery we discern here.”  (Andrew Louth, DISCERNING THE MYSTERY,  pp 112-113)

The different ways of reading the Scriptures –  for their moral teachings (tropological), their mystical sense (allegorical), or for their higher meaning (anagogical) – are all different ways of reading the text to discover the divine meaning which God has placed in the text.  To find the meaning which God has placed in the text – the revelation God intends us to find – is to read the text literally even when we are not reading the text merely for its historical or factual sense.  Going beyond the literal is the proper reading of the text if it gets us to the meaning God placed in the text, and when it helps us to see the Christological purpose of the Scripture.  Many early church theologians believed God placed in the text clues to lead us beyond the literal reading of the Scriptures to find the revelation which was in the text if we have the eyes of faith to see it.

Origen (d. 254AD) several times remarks that inconsistencies in the historical narrative presented in Scriptures are there to alert us to the fact that the true meaning of Scripture is not to be found at the level of the historical narrative (or literal meaning) at all.”  (Andrew Louth, DISCERNING THE MYSTERY,  pp 112-113)

Chrysostom (d. 407AD) expresses his own deep appreciation of scriptural koinonia.  For him the biblical authors are the means by which communication (omilia) with God occurs, a communication which can be withheld…   The Scriptures, like the Incarnation, come to us as a gesture of divine considerateness, synkatavasis, a loving gesture… nothing to suggest ‘condescension’…  The Incarnation, after all, does not represent a patronizing gesture on God’s part towards human beings – only love and concern. …  (Chrysostom writes -) ‘remember that with the patriarchs as well, when he was sitting by the oak tree, he came in human form as the good man’s guest in the company of the angels, giving us a premonition from on high at the beginning that he would one day take human form to liberate all human nature by this means from the tyranny of the devil and lead us to salvation.’” (Robert Hill, READING THE OLD TESTAMENT IN ANTIOCH,  pp 36-37)

God takes on forms or speaks to us in words that we can understand, but then does it in such a way as to lead us beyond the literal and the obvious to the divine meaning and purpose which is at first glance hidden from our view.  The Patristic writers used

“… a hermeneutic that viewed the entire history of Israel as foreshadowing events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth and his followers.  The words of the prophets were said to have been written not for their own day, but for ‘the time of the end’; the voice of the preincarnate Jesus was heard echoing throughout the Psalms.  The underlying principle was summed up by the Apostle Paul in Rom. 15:4:  ‘For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.’”  (Christopher Stanley in EARLY CHRISTIAN INTERPRETATION OF THE SCRIPTURES OF ISRAEL, (eds) C. Evans and J. Sanders, p 18)

Scriptures were recorded not for the sake of biblical characters, just to preserve their story, but for our sake, the readers of the Scriptures in every generation, to instruct us in God’s way and revelation.  The Scriptures are thus written not just to preserve history and fact, but to give us God’s revelation.  This is why they must be read not merely literally, but Christocentrically

Next:  Methodology: How we read the Bible (B)

Christ is the key to Open the Scriptural Treasure

This series of mediations began with the blog,  Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasury.    That the Scriptures are a Treasury to which we go to discover the depth and riches of theology, is a theme sounded by the Patristic writers, and is the very attitude we should have today when we read the Bible.  The Bible is the text to which we turn to encounter Christ, but it exists in a bigger context of Tradition which gives it meaning that helps us to fathom these depths of theology.   The Scriptures are the Scriptures of a people, a community, and the Bible was written in, by and for that community, the one, holy and apostolic Church.   The community proclaims those Scriptures and interprets them within the assembly of believers at the Liturgy.   The immediately preceding blog  Scriptures and Liturgy addressed the relationship between community, Eucharist, Scriptures and Christ.  In this concluding blog we look one more time at the themes this series has addressed.  

 “As Christ is the treasure hidden in the scriptures, the scriptures will themselves yield abundant riches as disciples continue to contemplate the precious pearl that is Christ.  As St Ephrem of Syria, in the fourth century, put it:  ‘If there were only one meaning for the words [of scripture], the first interpreter would find it, and all other listeners would have neither the toil of seeking nor the pleasure of finding.  But every word of our Lord has its own image, and each image has its own members, and each member possesses its own species and form.  Each person hears in accordance with his capacity, and it is interpreted in accordance with what has been given to him.’  This is a creative task, to be engaged in by each generation as it appropriates the apostolic deposit and proclaims it anew under the inspiration of the same Spirit, so preserving the youthfulness of the Church.”  (John Behr, THE MYSTERY OF CHRIST, p 69)

If there were but one meaning for all the words of the Bible, we would no longer need to seek truth, wrestle with the meaning of the text, strive to understand the Scriptures.   For long ago there one meaning would have been stated, and there would be nothing left to do but to mindlessly obey them.  Israel had shown  – as recorded in the Sricptures! – that absolute obedience to the written word was not possible due to sin lurking in our hearts.   If obedience had been possible and sufficient for salvation, then Christ was unnecessary for the incarnate God would have not changed anything.  God had shown that He didn’t want mere obedient automatons for He created us as free willed humans not as robots.  God wished that humans would freely choose to love Him, and one another.  Obedience alone was not going to bring about the salvation of the world, and so a deeper reading of the Scriptures was neccessary to understand the will of God.

“Our exegesis [of the Psalms] will be historical and strictly literal.  We shall not rule out a higher meaning or theoria, for history is not opposed to theoria; on the contrary, it is the basis and substructure of higher insights.  But one must beware lest theoria appear to do away with the subject: this would not longer be theoria but allegory, for where it is necessary to search out another sense alongside the text, there is no longer theoria but allegory.  In fact the Apostle by no means did away with history by introducing theoria and calling this theoria allegory.  He was not ignorant of the terminology, but he wished to teach us that it is necessary to understand even the term ‘allegory’ if it is determined by the context, according to the rules of theoria, without doing any damage to history.”   (Diodore of Tarsus – d. 390ad – in THE WAY OF THE FATHERS  by John Chryssavgis, p 67)

As we have seen, even those Patristic writers of the Antiochian School of biblical understanding – who emphasized reading the scriptures literally – recognized the Scriptures are revealing God to us, and so their meaning is deep, leading us to true theology not just to history: to an encounter with Divinity.  So while we must be careful not to allow our imagination to run wild with the Scriptures and to destroy history, neither are we to limit the Triune God by human logic and rationality.  God is not circumscribed by what we can make ourselves believe about Him, nor is He limited by how we think He should be or act. The very revelation of the New Testament is that Jesus Christ is the key to unlocking the treasure found in and hidden in the Old Testament.  The method by which the New Testament interprets the Old Testament is based Christ not in a literal reading of the Old Testament.

 “The significant difference between Paul and his contemporaries… is seen in his underlying assumption that Christ himself is the key to the meaning of scripture.  It is not that Christ expounds the scriptures… as was perhaps expected of the Messiah—but that he is himself the one about whom all scripture spoke.  He is himself the mysterion, hidden by God through all ages and now revealed to men, he is the ‘Amen’ to all God’s promises.  In 2 Cor 3, Paul has moved beyond the idea of Christ as the passive content of scripture, to seeing him as the active agent; he is the Lord, whose glory is reflected in scripture; he is to pneuma, the life-giving spirit, the one who writes in men’s hearts the truth to which scripture bears witness. … For (Paul), God’s word is living, not static, and scripture is the witness to that word, not its embodiment.”  (Morna Hooker, FROM ADAM TO CHRIST: ESSAYS ON PAUL,  pp 152-154)

Christians read the Scriptures, not so much literally, as Christologically.  The Scriptures bear witness to Him, and it is to Him, not to the Bible, that we must come in order to find eternal life (John 5:39-40).

St. Paul Interpreting Scripture

In today’s Epistle (1 Corinthians 9:2-12), St. Paul engages in a form of Scriptural interpretation which we might call allegory – he obviously rejects a literal reading of Deuteronomy 25:4, and gives the text a spiritual meaning.

St. Paul the Apostle

Do I say these things as a mere man? Or does not the law say the same also? For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.” Is it oxen God is concerned about? Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope. If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things?

This form of “allegorical” interpretation of Scripture was commonly used by the first Christians in the apostolic era and carried on into Patristic Christianity as well.   Since we find it used in the New Testament as a way to interpret the Old, we have to admit it is a biblical form of interpreting the Scriptures.

“…whatever language the Fathers use to describe their exegetical practice (and there is no great consistency here), they all interpret Scripture in a way we would call allegorical, and allegoria is the usual word the Latin Fathers use from the fourth century onwards to characterize the deeper meaning they are seeking in the Scriptures.  Some of the Fathers, it is true, attack what they call allegory and its use; but what they are attacking are the results (particularly the results that Origen came up with) and not the method.… Even the Antiochen Fathers admit of a deeper spiritual meaning (which they call not allegoria but the ‘contemplative’ meaning—kata theorian).…   the idea that the text means what the author meant it to mean—the idea, almost, that the meaning of a text is a past historical event—give us a sense that the meaning of a text is something objective, something unproblematic…(Augustine) takes it for granted that the meaning of a text is what the author intended.”   (Andrew Louth, DISCERNING THE MYSTERY: AN ESSAY ON THE NATURE OF THEOLOGY, pp 96-98)

Origen: Discerning the Mystery in Scripture’s Treasury

This blog continues the series dealing with the Bible and scriptural issues.  It began with the 1st blog:  Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasury.  The immediately preceding blog is The Orthodox reading of the Scriptural Treasury.  In this blog I am continuing to consider the comments of some modern biblical scholars on the 3rd Century biblical scholar known as Origen.

Origen acknowledge there is a literal sense to the scriptures, and he often felt that literal sense was most important to those who were just beginning their faith sojourn as disciples of Christ.   But Origen was most concerned about what St. Paul tells Timothy scripture is for:  “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).   The literal truth of Scriptures is not so much their “factualness” but the truth they convey to us about God, His plan of Salvation, and how we should live in His world.  This was the deeper meaning, or hidden mystery, which Origen felt all Christians should strive to discover from the Bible.

What Origen acknowledged first was that a literal reading of the Scriptures will make the reader aware that the biblical narratives do have inconsistencies in them.   This is true of the Gospels as well as the Old Testament.

“Origen points out, there are so many discrepancies in the accounts presented by the Gospels, that one must admit that their truth does not lie in their literal sense.”   (John Behr,  THE WAY TO NICEA, p 177)

While some patristic writers went to great length to try to harmonize the varied biblical narratives and their apparent contradictions, Origen was willing to accept that since all Scripture is inspired by God, the inconsistencies must be put in the text for a purpose – to remind us that there are deeper mysteries and so we shouldn’t get stuck on the literal inconsistencies but rather should strive to discover the deeper truths that must be found by getting beyond the literal reading.   Origen understood that as the early church accepted four Gospel accounts, they didn’t accept those efforts that tried to harmonize all the inconsistencies into one problem free text (such as Tatian’s Diatessaron in the 2nd Century).  Harmonizing the text did not lend to the credibility of the text but rather made it an artificial construction.  The differing and even contradictory accounts of the Scriptures are part of what the men inspired by God recorded for the benefit of future believers to edify the Church.

“…Origin several times remarks that inconsistencies in the historical narrative presented in the Scriptures are there to alert us to the fact that the true meaning of Scripture is not to be found at the level of the historical narrative (or literal meaning) at all. … ‘he aimed not so much to depreciate the events of Biblical history as to proclaim that their significance was richer and fuller than an uncomprehending analysis would allow…”    (Andrew Louth, DISCERNING THE MYSTERY: AN ESSAY ON THE NATURE OF THEOLOGY, pp 112-113)

“…Origen did regard Adam as a historical figure, as the first man and the ancestor of the human race.  The story of the garden of Eden and the fall does include details which cannot be taken literally even on the narrative level, but it none the less really happened, while at the same time, like other Old Testament stories, pointing to hidden mysteries and containing deeper levels of meaning as well.”   (C. P. Bammel, in THE MAKING OF ORTHODOXY: ESSAYS IN HONOR OF HENRY CHADWICK,  p 63)

 “Origen, however, is continually waving his theological antennae over the literal sense of the biblical text.  And if a text fails to satisfy or make sense to him on a literal reading, Origen will employ the larger symbolic field he has culled from Scripture as a whole to discern a deeper, allegorical sense.  Greek philosophers had done so for years in studying Homer, and in what Heine calls ‘one of Origen’s most significant borrowings from Greek philosophy,’ Origen does the same with the Bible itself.”   (Christopher Hall, READING SCRIPTURE WITH THE CHURCH FATHERS, p 154)

It is because Origen and the Patristic writers understood the Scriptures to be God’s Word and not merely human composition and conjecture that they looked for greater meaning in the biblical texts.  They were searching to encounter the Divine, not merely human words and ideas.

Because they believed the Scriptures to be inspired, they believed they need to look beyond the mere literal meaning of the words, in order to encounter God Himself.  Especially in Origen’s thinking, the literal meaning was the human meaning of the text, but they believed the Scriptures also pointed beyond the mere human, beyond what human reason could conceive, to the divine revelation in which God revealed to us the mystery hidden from all eternity, namely, the Word become flesh, even Jesus the Christ (Romans 16:25, Ephesians 3:9, Colossians 1:26).

Next:  What is the Bible?

Reading the Bible: The Treasury of Allegory

This is the 3rd blog in this series, the 1st blog being Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasury; the 2nd is Reading the Bible: The Treasury of the Parables.

Allegory is an interpretive way to read a biblical text in which things in the text stand for or mean something other than what they literally are.  The New Testament uses allegory as one means to interpret the Old Testament.  For example St. Paul writes in Galatians 4:22-31,   “For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar.  Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. Now we, brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise.  But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now.  So, brethren, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.”  In the text Paul interprets the real women Hagar and Sarah to stand for two types of covenants; he interprets the real persons, Hagar and Sarah, to mean something other than just being two women.  This method of interpretation does not deny the literal meaning of the text, but says there is a deeper meaning if you read the text with the right understanding.  If you take the time to study Paul’s allegory, you realize it is quite complex, and far beyond that to which the plain reading of the passage leads.  Because the New Testament does use allegory in interpreting the Old, it has been considered by Christians an acceptable interpretive method for other texts as well.  It was abuses of allegory in interpreting scriptures which caused many Reformers to reject it as a legitimate method of reading the Bible.  Some feel the Reformers reaction is an example of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

 “…whatever language the Fathers use to describe their exegetical practice (and there is no great consistency here), they all interpret Scripture in a way we would call allegorical, and allegoria is the usual word the Latin Fathers use from the fourth century onwards to characterize the deeper meaning they are seeking in the Scriptures.  Some of the Fathers, it is true, attack what they call allegory and its use; but what they are attacking are the results (particularly the results that Origen came up with) and not the method.  …  Even the Antiochene Fathers admit of a deeper spiritual meaning (which they call not allegoria but the ‘contemplative’ meaning—kata theorian).   …   the idea that the text means what the author meant it to mean—the idea, almost, that the meaning of a text is a past historical event—give us a sense that the meaning of a text is something objective, something unproblematic. …  (Augustine) takes it for granted that the meaning of a text is what the author intended   (Andrew Louth, DISCERNING THE MYSTERY: AN ESSAY ON THE NATURE OF THEOLOGY, pp 96-98)

For example, St. Gregory of Nyssa in looking at a passage from Genesis, writes:

“But let us, if we may, interpret the meaning of the sacred history (Gen 12:1-4) according to the profound insight of the Apostle (Hebr 11:8-10) by transposing the story to an allegorical level, even though we allow the validity of the literal meaning.”     (FROM GLORY TO GLORY, p 119)

St. Gregory claims in allegorizing to simply be following the pattern of interpretation already established in the Scriptures themselves.  That texts within the Scriptures are reread and re-interpreted and given new meaning can be seen in how St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:1-5 makes use of Exodus 17:1-7

St. John Chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom, who like many in the Antiochian school of biblical interpretation, downplays allegory in interpreting Scriptures acknowledges:

 “We ourselves are not the lords over the rules of interpretation, but must pursue scripture’s understanding of itself, and in that may make use of the allegorical method.”              “This is everywhere a rule in Scripture: when it wants to allegorize, it tells the interpreters of the allegory, so that the passage will not be interpreted superficially”   (Brevard Childs, THE STRUGGLE TO UNDERSTAND ISAIAH AS CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURE, p 106)

Chrysostom’s claim that the Scriptures are clear about when allegory is needed to interpret the text is not so obvious in St. Paul interpreting Exodus mentioned above, nor in 1 Corinthians 9:7-11 or 1 Timothy 5:17-18 where St. Paul takes Deuteronomy 25:4 (a completely straight forward passage which seems certain to be read literally) and gives it an entirely new meaning.

Next:  Reading the Bible Literally

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 6:17-18 (b)

See:  God Questions His Creation: Genesis 6:17-18 (a)

Genesis 6:17 For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life from under heaven; everything that is on the earth shall die. 18 But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.

Apostle Peter

In the New Testament, St. Peter uses the story of the flood and Noah’s ark as a prototypical story proving God does separate the good from the wicked, saving the good from a world awash in sin, and punishing the wicked for the sinfulness.  “For if God … did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven other persons, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority” (2 Peter 2:4,5,9-10) .  For St. Peter the story of the flood is not as important as a record of past history, its full meaning is found in God’s Judgment Day at the end of the world.

“a flood of waters upon the earth…”   God does not threaten the earth and its people with total annihilation – a return to absolute nothingness – rather God threatens the world with a return to chaos, the waters returning to the cover the earth and to bring an end to the order He had willed for creation.  And He promises an ark of salvation for the faithful, righteous remnant.  He is destroying wickedness in order to protect and preserve His chosen ones.

The ark.   In Wisdom 10:4, it is Wisdom herself who guides Noah to build the ark.  “When the earth was flooded because of him, wisdom again saved it, steering the righteous man by a paltry piece of wood.”  The comparison of the ark to a piece of wood will also connect it to the wood of the Lord’s Cross in Christian poetic imagery.

“…destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life from under heaven; everything that is on the earth shall die.”   Everything may be an exaggeration for later fish and sea animals do not seem to be included in the list of all that dies.   Perhaps the ancients did not think of fish/sea creatures as having the breath of life since they lived under water.  St. Basil the Great noted that “A fish does not resist God’s law, and we men cannot endure His precepts of salvation!  Do not despise fish because they are dumb and quite unreasoning; rather, fear, lest, in your resistance to the disposition of the Creator, you have even less reason than they.”

The ark.   St. Symeon the New Theologian interprets the ark using an allegorical typology, as a way for us to understand the New Testament.  “Again, the ark was a type of the Theotokos and Noah of Christ and the men with Noah were a first-fruit of the portion of the Jews, of those who would believe  in Christ, while the wild beasts … constituted a type of the gentiles.”  St. Symeon tempers the analogy a bit noting that the ark saved those who were in it, while Christ saved both his ark (Mary) and all the world from the flood of sin.

In the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews, Noah is upheld as a man of faith – he begins building the ark one hundred years before the flood comes.  But Hebrews also uses the story to contrast Noah with the wicked people who no longer believed in God.  Noah alone may have kept faith in God, but by remaining faithful to the Lord he was also calling into judgment all who had forgotten God.   There was no excuse for their forgetting God – Noah was able to remember and so should have they.  “By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith” (Hebrews 11:7).

Covenant.   This is the first time the word covenant is used in the Bible.  A covenant is an agreement “legally” binding two parties together.  God is promising to bind Himself to a particular people on earth – not necessarily to all people but perhaps to all people through this chosen people.

Next:   God Questions His Creation: Genesis 6:17-18 (c)

Hearing God Through the Parables of Jesus

This is the first in a series of three reflections on the Parables of Jesus.

When reading the Parables which Jesus tells throughout his earthly ministry, it is important to have some sense what a parable is and how we should try to understand it.  A parable and a miracle story are different from the point of view that the miracle is based in an historical event, while the parable is a story with a message.  A parable can use a historical event as part of the story, but the parable is not dependent on the story being historical fact.   A miracle on the other hand is truly special because it is an unusual and perhaps unique historical event – something unexpected that goes against what we would consider to be the normal order of events.  In the Gospels, both parables and miracles serve a purpose of being signs of the Kingdom of God; in other words, their significance lies not in the miracle or parable itself, but in pointing out to us something beyond our historical frame of reference.  A miracle and a parable are efforts to reveal to us the Kingdom of God.  If we seek Jesus out only for a miracle or to hear His wisdom, we in fact are limiting His power and mission, and failing to see what He was trying to point out to us or to point us toward.  A miracle and a parable both can somehow help us have a better life in this world, but their purpose is to point out life in the world to come.

A Parable and an allegory are not exactly the same thing, though in history the two have been intertwined and sometimes the words have been used interchangeably.  In an allegory proper, each name or noun stands for something else (King = God, seed = the word of God), and we read the allegory to help us understand some other reality (so we hear a story about a farmer but realize it is telling us something about  a prophet).  On the other hand, in a parable, one has to read the entire parable and look for meaning in the entire story not just in each separate word.  In a parable, a seed = a seed, a king = a king.  The meaning in a parable is found not in replacing each word with another word (like solving a code), but the meaning is revealed in the “big picture” of the entirety of the story.  

A parable invites interpretation.  For though the parable can stand alone as a story and be sensible, its purpose is to get the hearers of the parable to discern what the purpose, meaning or moral of the story is.   So the parable always points to some reality and meaning beyond its details.  In Jesus’ teachings, parables like miracles are signs of the Kingdom of God – they point to the reality, and help reveal it to us.  In Luke 19:11, we are told the parables were told precisely to refute the idea that the Kingdom of God was to appear immediately, the parables are the signs that point to a future reality, which was just beginning to appear.  The parables point to the coming Kingdom because the Kingdom has not yet arrived – they point to the Kingdom already given yet which is to come.  A parable helps point beyond a purely literal reading of the text.   The significance of a parable, as versus an allegorical parable, lies not in decoding what each noun stands for, but in sitting back and contemplating the entire story and trying to see what is the story revealing.

Though the Gospels have Jesus telling parables, Jesus sometimes interprets the parable allegorically (as he does, for example with the sower and the seed in Mark 4).  And since Jesus Himself did it, so too did many early Christian preachers apply allegory to most of the parables of Jesus.  And while this is a possible way to understand the story, we need also return to the fact that the Gospel says these are parables not allegories and so we should also consider the stories as such.

In Matthew 13, after Jesus tells the parable of the sower and the seed, Jesus invites his hearers to contemplate what they had heard:  “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”   And even this statement is a parable – for all those who came to listen to Jesus had ears, but Jesus is saying hearing isn’t enough, one has to interpret and understand and comprehend the meaning of the parable.

Sadly, it is possible to understand to whom a parable is directed, and even to understand the purpose of the parable without understanding its meaning and power.  ” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them”  (Matthew 21:45).   They could understand that the parable was directed to them and even against them and yet could not hear what the parable was really saying and so be moved toward God.  They did not bother to try to comprehend the parable’s meaning because they had already rejected the parable teller and parables as a means for conveying God’s truth.  The opponents of Jesus were firmly embracing the Law and a very literal interpretation of the Torah, and so their hearts were not opened to revelations of the Kingdom of God.  This is also a warning for us post-Enlightenment Christians and are penchant for reading the Bible only literally, always seeking sound bites, and trying to proof text everything.   When our approach to Scripture is limited in this way, we limit the power, beauty and creativity of God, and we miss the signs of the kingdom which are evident in the big picture of the parables, longer biblical passages and entire books of the Bible.

Next:  Part 2   The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13)