Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French
The Parabels of Jesus and the Rabbinic Parables
Dominique De La Maisonneuve
The fact that the rabbinic texts quoted here were put into writing at a later date than the gospels should not prevent us comparing one with the other. In fact, even if it were put into writing at a later date, oral tradition had been in existence for many centuries, handed down from generation to generation. Even when a parable or a saying was attributed to a master belonging to a certain period, it only meant that, in this form, the opinion had been held by so-and-so; this does not prove that the gist of the words had not in fact existed prior to his time, in oral tradition.
For a long time it has been both thought and taught that the radical innovation which was Jesus himself, brought with it the no less radical innovation of his teaching, in content as well as method. But reasoning such as this surely negates the reality of the Incarnation. Not that the humanity of Jesus is explicitly questioned, but has this man no background? Is he without both cultural heritage and tradition?
On the contrary, the newness of Jesus will he all the more easily recognized if one realizes that, as a Jew, born of Jewish parents, he was brought up on the oral tradition of his people, a tradition from which his own words derive their savor and their earthy tang.
The Pedagogy of the Parabolic Method
Thus, far from introducing something new by teaching in parables, Jesus made use of one of the most widespread forms of popular wisdom. Moreover, one has only to flick through the pages of the gospel to realize that Jesus very often uses the language of parable when speaking to the people. "All this Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable" (Mt 13:34).1 But if Jesus used this form when speaking to people who were for the most part unlettered, was it really "so that they may indeed hear but not understand" as one abrasively literal translation of Mk 4:12 suggests? To affirm this would result in making Jesus contradict himself, for he says "I thank you, Father._ that thou lustrevealed (these things) to babes..." (Mt 11:25).
Therefore it is clearly with the intention of making himself understood that Jesus speaks in parables. This literary genre, easily accessible to everyone, is in fact universal; for ordinary people, wisdom is born of reflection on those concrete and 'material realities which make up the warp and weft of daily life. This is why Scripture in the first place and then Oral Torah, will use this narrative form embodying simple and familiar images. In this way the listener can easily recognize himself in the persons involved: so-and-so has given a banquet recently, someone else hires workers or servants, each one is a parent...
However, it must be repeated the the parable is not only a narrative, but also a teaching method. This latter enables one to discover, through the concrete reality presented, another much deeper reality, that is to say, the wisdom which sees in life here below a path leading elsewhere, linking the present life to that other one to which the whole of humanity is called. The narrator also slips an unexpected, even shocking element into a very familiar scene which, because of the surprise it evokes in the listener, raises a question, makes him ponder more deeply.
Take, for example, the parable of the lamp (Mt 5:10): the action evoked is so commonplace that it no longer arouses any particular attention: at the close of the day the mistress of the house lights the lamp and places it "on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house". Who on earth would think of hiding it? Nevertheless, Jesus envisages this senseless behavior in order to being the listener to see, by means of this light, that other light, to perceive that the work/ here below and the world above are profoundly ONE, to discover in the most ordinary actions a sign of the Kingdom.
The maxims of popular wisdom that Jesus uses so freely are typical of Jewish wisdom ("Physician, heal thyself" Lk 4:23 "Many that are first will be fast, and the last first" Mk 10:31);3 similarly, his parables echo many of those which embellish rabbinic literature. In fact, when one compares the gospel parables with those of the rabbis, one of the most striking things is the similarity of subjects (apart from the stereotyped formula which introduces them: "(it) IM a y be compered to..." or, more frequently "parable of..."). Here are some examples:
1) The theme of the payment of workers by their master:
"Parable of a king who had hired many workers. There was one who took too much trouble over his work, What did the king do? He rook him for a walk, In the evening the workers came to receive their wages and the king gave a full wage to this worker also (who had been out walking) The others complained, saying: We exerted ourselves throughout the day, while this one only worked for two hours, yet he gives him a full wage like the rest of us! The king said to them: this one exerted himself more in two hours than the rest of you did during the entire day" (Jer. Berakhot I1,8,5c).
The workers of the eleventh hour (Mt 20.1-16) have exactly the same idea of retributive justice.
2) The theme of the maskr who confided his goods to servants
"Parable of a king who had two much-loved servants. He gave to both of them a measure of wheat and a bundle of flax, What slid the shrewdest of the two do? He wove a cloth with the flax, then he took the wheat, ground it into fine flour, kneaded it, cooked it in the oven, and placed the bread on a table spread with the cloth: then he set it aside until the arrival of the king. The stupid one did absolutely nothing. Some days later the king returned home and said to them: My sons,3 bring me the things I gave to you. The one brought the bread on the table covered with the cloth and the other brought the wheat in a basket with the bundle of flax on top. How shameful!" (Seder Eliyahu Zuta 2).
The parable of the talents (Mr 25:14-30) presents a similar situation, and the servants act in exactly the same way with the goods confided to them.
3) The theme of the relationship of a father with his son:
"This can be compared to the son of a king who took to evil ways. The king sent a tutor to him who appealed to him saying: Repent, my son. The son, however, sent him back to his father (with the message): How can I have the effrontery to return? I am ashamed to come before you. Thereupon his father sent back word: My son, is a son ever ashamed to return to his father? And is it nor to your father that you will be returning?" (Deuteronomy Rabba 11,24).
Jesus, in the parable of the son who was found again (Lk 15:11-32), did nothing other than take up the eternal story of the son who leaves home and the father who watches for his return.
4) The theme of the banquet:
"Parable of a king who prepares a banquet for his friends and says: No-one can enter without first showing my seal."
Matthew, who develops at length this theme of the wedding feast (22:1-14), replaces the seal with the wedding garment, sign of hekmging to the kingdom.
Motifs common to Rabbinic and Gospel Parables
Gospel parables and rabbinic parables resemble each other not only in subject-matter but also in the motifs (4) around which the narrative is structured. On both sides, at a given moment one stumbles upon an unlooked for element which breaks the expected unfolding of the narrative, whether it is answering an invitation late (or even refusing it), inadequate clothing, a dosed door or a treasure to be discovered.
"Parable of a king who prepared a banquet and invited the guests. The fourth hour passed, and the guests did not come. The fifth and sixth hours passed, and still the guests did not come. By evening the guests began to arrive. The king said to them: I am beholden to you. Had you not come, I would have had to throw the whole banquet to my dogs" (Midrash of Ps. 25:7b).
Arriving late for the banquet is analogous to the refusal of those invited to the wedding feast in Mt 22:1-14 and Lk 15:24: the King, God, respects the freedom of each one.
On the same subject, another parable puts the accent elsewhere: it is not a question of participation or refusal, but the attitude, the indispensable behavior for sitting down at a banquet:
"This may be compared to a king who summoned his servants to a banquet without appointing a time. The wise ones adorned themselves and sat at the door of the palace, (for) said they: is anything lacking in a royal palace? The fools went about their work saying: can there be a banquet without preparations? Suddenly the king desired (the presence of) his servants; the wise entered adorned while the fools entered soiled. The king rejoiced at the wise but was angry with the fools: Those who adorned themselves for the banquet, ordered he, let them sit, eat and drink. But those who did not adorn themselves for the banquet, let them stand and watch" (Shabbath 153 a).
One could believe oneself at the wedding feast of Matthew! The closed door on which the foolish virgins knock (Mt 25:1-12) echoes, in its turn, another rabbinic parable:
"Parable of a traveller journeying on the highway. As it grew dark, he came to a military post. The commander said to him: Come into the post away from wild beasts and away from robbers! But the traveller replied: It is not my custom to go into a military post. As he went on his way, midnight and thick darkness overtook him, and he returned to she post and cried and prayed to the commander that he open up for him. The commander answered: It is not customary for a military post to be opened at night, nor is it the commander's custom to receive at such an hour. When I asked you in, you were unwilling; now I cannot open up for you" (Michas', Ps. 10:1).
The "treasure hidden in a field which a man discovered" (Mt 13:44) is another well-known motif:
"To what can this be compared? To a man to whom there had fallen as an inheritance a residence in a far off country which he sold for a trifle. The buyer, however, went and discovered in it hidden treasures and stores of silver and of gold, of precious stones and pearls. The seller, seeing this, began to choke with grief" (Mekilta Exodus 14:5).
Familiar to the listeners, these motifs form a kind of codelanguage, a symbolism which establishes a symbiosis between the narrator and his listeners:
the closed door is the time of Teshuvah (the favourable time) which one has allowed to slip by;
the working-day represents the human life-span; the wise are the just and the foolish are the unjust;
the master of the house who issues invitations, as well as the master who hires laborers, is always God.
These habitual connections must not make us conclude there is an 'automatic response; this would trap the narrator in a system which precluded the introduction of something new.
Quite the contrary! Thus the "birds of heaven" which represent Saran in Mt 13:4,19 are offered to us as models of confidence in Lk 12:24. It is one kind of leaven which makes the bread rise (Mt 13:33) and another variety which must be avoided (Mt 16:5).
Look for the Point of the Story
In this way everyone can grasp the story, in that all the elements forming its weft are those making up daily life at that period. Nevertheless, as in the preceding examples, there is an element which is out of the ordinary and therefore catches one's attention and piques curiosity. Would one really send out an invitation without notifying either the day or the hour? Is it not justice that wages should take into account the length of time worked? Is it really likely that a father would give a banquet on the return of a son who has squandered his substance?
Thus, by evoking surprise, the point of the story makes the listener think. This is the true aim of the parable, to go beyond reality and open it up to something further that may otherwise be obscured by daily routine. The whole art of the story-teller consists in shaping the anomaly in view of the reaction he wants to provoke.
There is therefore a very close relationship between the parables of Jesus and those in rabbinic literature: the same cultural context, same subjects, same motifs and, what is more, apparently the same teachingl The absolute God/Master asks man, his servant, to cause the good things received to hear fruit; God/Father constantly waits for his son, because he wants to give him a place at the banquet prepared for all. One must thus live vigilantly, in daily preparedness, so as not to miss the moment of encounter.
Note the Differences
Nevertheless all these things which arc held in common must not obscure the differences which exist between rabbinic and gospel parables.
First and foremost it should be noticed that the meaning of the comparison (the nimshal) is rarely spelled out in the gospel parables unless expressly asked for by the disciples, while the parable is addressed to the multitude (cf. Mt 13: the sower, the tares...).' By not defining the meaning of the parable, Jesus throws out a question to which each one is called to respond according to his or her own understanding of it.
C. H. Dodd s explains in this way the fact that Luke added a series of models to the difficult parable of the unjust steward (16:1-7):
a) "For the sons of this world are wiser in their own generation than the sons of light' (v. 8);
b) "Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon" (v. 9);
c) "If then you have nor been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches?" (v. 11).
The last conclusion is very like a rabbinic parable:
"To give a parable. A king had appointed two administrators. One was appointed over the store of straw and the other was appointed over the treasure of silver and gold. The one appointed over the store of straw was held in suspicion. But he used to complain about the fact that they had not appointed him over the treasure of silver and gold. The people then said to him Rana! If you were under suspicion with the store of straw how could they trust you with the treasure of silver and gold!" (Mekilta Exodus 20:2).
Sometimes Jesus, by way of a nimsbab asks his listener a direct question: "Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" (Lk 10:36); or again: "Which of the two did the will of his father?" (Mt 21:31).
Jesus knows that the answer given by each one to him or herself is more likely to bring about conversion than one imposed from outside. Jesus not only respects the liberty of the individual in that he suggests and does not constrain, he also respects the path taken by each one, his capacity to understand and to act bin et nuna While a question remains a call, an explicit moral lessons risks imprisoning a person within the confines of his present incapacity.7 Nevertheless, this freedom has another inherent danger, that of closing the eyes, stopping the ears and hardening the heart. In spite Of this however, Jesus is satisfied, as is God throughout Revelation, with suggestMg conversion by means of the parable.
In addition to being generally explicit, the rabbinic parables, since they are written down, also have an exegetical purpose' In fact, the parable is the normal procedure for trying to iron out a biblical difficulty. Here is an example,
"The day of death is better than the day of birth" (Qo 7:1):
"It can be compared to two ocean-going ships, one leaving the harbor and the other entering. Whilst everyone was rejoicing over the one that was setting out on her voyage, few seemed to hail with pleasure the one arriving. Seeing which, a wise man there reflected: I see here a paradox; for surely, people should not rejoice at the ship leaving the harbor, since they know not what conditions she may meet, what seas she may encounter, and what wind she may have to face. Whereas everybody ought to rejoice at the ship that has returned to the harbor for having safely set forth on the ocean and having safely returned" (Exodus Rabba XLV111:1).
Jesus, on the other hand, does not explain Scripture, except in the case of the first commandment:
"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 10:2737; cf. Deut 6:5; Lev 19:18).
Normally he does not need to invoke this authority because "he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes" (Mt 7:29). And if, as Luke remarks, "his word was with authority" (4:32), his life is in harmony with that word; it is impossible to find fault with it. This is perhaps the stone, one of the stones at least, which was a stumbling block to certain of his contemporaries.
To understand this, reference must be made to another procedure in rabbinic literature which, in an attempt to say what God is like, contrasts him with human beings (kings, masters, fathers), making use of another equally stereotyped formula: "The Holy One, blessed-be-IIe,° is not like this!"
Here are a few comparisons which try to describe God's way of acting, his standards," compared to those of men and women:
"These are human standards: if someone is in debt to the king and wants to ask for another favor, he must first pay his outstanding debt. But the Holy One, blessed-be-lk, is not like this: even if a man is deeply in debt to Him, when he asks for something else He answers (favorably). Such is His goodness." " (No. 14)
The king who forgives the debt to his servant acts in his way (Mt 18:23-35):
"These are human standards: if a man is accused before the king, he is not put to death as long as he denies the charge, but when he admits it, he is immediately executed.
But the Holy One, blessed-be-Ile, is not like this: on the contrary, as long as a man denies (his fault) saying: I have not sinned, he is liable to death, but as soon as he admits it, saying: I have sinned, he is no longer guilty, as it is said: He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, hut he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy" " (Prov 28:13). (No. 15)
These are the standards of the Father of the Prodigal Son.
This procedure seems to undcrly a number of the parables of Jesus which are about God. In the parable of the workers called at the eleventh hour (Mt 20: 1-16), Jesus does not paint a portrait of the ideal employer. A certain type of social justice proclaimed by the prophets would not have tolerated the employer's behavior. Because he was in need of workers, these latter, by their lobar, became his partners. As a result, his money no longer belonged entirely to him, and he should have shared it according to the work of each one. But God is not like this. Master of all he possesses, he is free to give it to whom he will. All gift from him is pure mercy!
This mercy, this limitless love for sinners, is the teaching to which Jesus constantly returns in his parables. Moreover, "This man receives sinners and cats with them"
Let us leave the domain of the parable to illustrate how Jesus behaves in direct opposition to human standards.
""These are human standards: if a man is condemned to death before the authorities, he will not be saved hut executed; if he is condemned to a beating, he will not be saved but beaten; if he is given a reprieve, he will not be acquitted without payment.
But the holy One, blessed-be-He, is not like this: if a man is condemned to death before him, he will be saved by his words (that is to say, his avowal)." " (No. 16)
This is the same case as that of the woman taken in adultery (Jn 8).
""These are human standards: if a man has stolen and robbed for a certain length of time, when he gives up and repents, immediately reproaches are heaped upon him.
But the Holy One, blessed-he-He, is not like this: on the contrary, when a person has sinned for a long time, as soon as he gives it up and repents, immediately his faults are blotted out, as it is said: None of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him"" (Kr 33:16). (No. 17)
This is the way Jesus behaves with Mary Magdalen (Lk 7:36-50) and with Matthew and the tax-collectors (Mt 9,9-13). Jesus therefore acts in perfect conformity with what Scripture tells us about God.
His authority does not flow from his knowledge of the Torah, but from the fact that, as "Word made flesh", he lived the Torah, From this comes his tranquil self-assurance in the face of all questions, all objections, even all traps. This is the origin of the crisis he provokes: the Kingdom is there, in his person. Because his behavior, rather than what he says, judges them, he is a scandal for many of his contemporaries. He warns people against those who "preach but do not practise" (Mt 23:3). Like the creditor who remits all
the debts (Lk 7:41-44), Jesus pardons sinners. He reaches out to the lame, the deaf, the dumb, prostitutes. The Kingdom is already present in such activity.
The Kingdom in the Parables
In fact, it really seems that it is on this precise paint of the Kingdom of Heaven that the parables of Jesus introduce something new in relation to the rabbinic parables. It is not that the expression Kingdom of Heaven (malkut shamayim) could astonish his contemporaries." By the daily recitation of the Shema Israel (Dt 6:4-9), the Jew shows his desire to "welcome (today) the yoke of the Kingdom of heaven" (leqabel 'ol malkut shamayim) "Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God..." (Mt 10:15). But, "to welcome the yoke of the Kingdom of heaven" is to observe the mitzvot and by doing so to show that one recognizes God as king. In this sense, the Kingdom is a reality to be brought about, made present, by accomplishing the Torah. Thus it depends on the fidelity of Israel. But at the same time, the Kingdom designates as reality yet to come, towards which Jewish prayer daily reaches out in the recitation of the kaddish: "May he establish his Kingdom in your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime of the whole house of Israel.12
In the gospel parables also, the Kingdom is to come. Judgment is for a later date, which explains Jesus' severity towards those Pharisees and Sadducees who would already make a separation, who would already pronounce a judgment which would effectively close the door. The Day will come but only the Father knows the hour (Mt 24:36) when the master will say to the servants: "Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my ham" (Mt 13:30); when "the angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth" (Mt 13:49-50; 22:13); when "the last will be first and the first last" (Mt 20:16); when the bridegroom will say: "Truly I say to you, I do not know you" (Mt 25:12), whereas the virgins who were ready "went in with him to the marriage feast and the door was shut"; when "to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away" (Mt 25:29); when the king will say to those at his right hand: "Come, 0 blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world", then he will say to those at his left hand. "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Mt 25:34,41).
The Kingdom to come is the great tree where the birds of heaven come to build their nests (cf. Mt 13:32), it is the dough in the process of rising (Mt 13:33), it is the marriage feast (Mt 22:4).
The "Already" and the "Not Yet"
Nevertheless, Jesus says clearly that "the Kingdom of God has come"; the context within which Luke(10:19) reports this revelation proves that the coming of the Kingdom does not depend on men and their fidelity to the mitzvot: "Wherever... they do not receive you, go into its streets and say... Nevertheless, know this, that the Kingdom of God has come near." It is a fact, an historical fact, made known in the person of Jesus. In the parable of the son who returns, the already and the not yet exist side by side: the Kingdom is there, in Jesus; but it has still to come for humankind en route towards its consummation.
We must therefore hold together both ends of the chain, without a very clear idea as to how, or where, they join each other. Although already here, the Kingdom is to come, ,and it is up to humanity to make it arrive a little more each day. Judaism is right to recall, in season and out of season, this verse from Scripture (Deut 4:1): "And now, 0 Israel, give heed to the statutes and the ordinances which I teach you, and do them"; statutes and ordinances which Jesus did not come to abolish (Mt 5:17).
According to an idea which is dear to the heart of Matthew, the Kingdom is today a mixture of tares and wheat, of good and bad fish, the wise and the foolish, good and less good workers; it is a complexity of soils which have been prepared in different ways for the seed. Just as good and bad tendencies share a person's heart, so just and sinners together make up the workforce of the Kingdom. But, just as the laborer cannot render the seed productive if there is no life-giving force hidden within it, so the efforts of humanity, even though indispensable, will not bear any fruit without the hidden life-force which works within both one and the other, The Kingdom is here, but it is necessary to work for its coming us unprofitable servants. The Kingdom is present in Jesus who is the victor over evil, and in whom justice is perfected by love. The treasure for which one must leave everything is Jesus himself.
Thus the parabolic form taken by the teaching of Jesus should come as no surprise. As a Jew living at a particular time, in a particular place, he, in common with the other teachers around him, made use of a common fund of subjects and motifs, into which he had only to dip in order to describe a situation both old and new at the same time. By doing this he spoke a language which all could understand.
But Rabbi Ishmael told us the same thing about God himself: "The Torah speaks the language of men" (dibberch torah ki-lechon benev 'adam )3 God speaks the language of men in order to make himself known and at the same time to reveal to man what he is, and the happiness to which he is called.
This is indeed the purpose of the man-Jesus-Son-ofGod: to describe the Kingdom of his Father and to mark out the road BACK. To do this he used the simplest form possible that could give access to the mystery, to intimacy with God. But this is where we also stumble, just as the contemporaries of Jesus did, over our difficulty in passing from everyday reality to signified reality. It is not a question of intelligence: "to such (little children) belongs the Kingdom of heaven" (Mt 19:14), it is question of acceptance by the heart, of conversion.
By the very fact of its simplicity, the parable possesses an inherent danger: the one who hears it can listen in a detached way or, on the contrary, accept to become involved in it. The prophet has this to say to the former:
""You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive.
For this peoples heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing"" (Is 6:910 quoted by Mt 13:1415).
To the latter, these words are proclaimed: "Blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears, for they hear" (Mt 13:16).
Never at any time does Jesus ask us to build the Kingdom but only to enter it . . because the Kingdom is already there, in his person: -1 am the Way..."; it is entered by faith, which calls us to do the works of Jesus himself and greater ones besides (cf. Jn 14:12). To enter it is to accept the charter, implementing it day after day, until that Day when we will take our place at the banquet, clothed in the wedding garment, reminding ourselves that the standards of God are not human standards; in fact, many whom we do not judge fit for the Kingdom of heaven will enter it before us because: "I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy" says the Lord (Ex 33:19).
* Sr. Dominique de La Maisonneuve, N.D.S. is a member of the SIDIC-Paris Center. She teaches Hebrew at the Institut Catholique of Paris after having spent several years in Jerusalem. She has just published Les Paraboles Rabbiniques, Cerf, Paris 1984.
1. The translation of the Scriptures and the titles given to the parables are taken from the R.S.V. Bible.
2. Cf. R. Bultmann, Die Geschiebte des Synoptischen Tradition (Forschungen zur Reh and Lit. des A, and NT., 29) 4th ed. Goettinguer 1971, p. 108.
3. The servant, like the disciple, is called son. This shows that the relationship of the master to the disciple is comparable to that of father to son.
4. This terminology is borrowed from Prof. 13. FLUSSER, in his study on the relations between the gospel parables and the rabbinic parables. Yahadut um"qoroth ha-natnut, Jerusalem, 1979, pp. 161-183.
5. Elsewhere it is generally admitted that these explanations are more the work of the evangelists than of Jesus himself. Cf. C.II. DODD, The Parables ol the Kingdom, The Scribner Library, New York, 1961, p. 145.
6. C.H. Dodd, op. cit., pp. 17-18.
7. There are numerous rabbinic texts which show that God watches to see that each one has the food he requires at any given moment; Exodus Rabba 2,2; 25,3...
8. Even if the direct relation to scripture is a late one, already in the Bible the mashal aspires to explain the Word of God, and this continues to be its purpose in the Oral Torah.
9. Out of respect for God, rabbinic literature avoids naming Him; it often prefers the paraphrase: the Holy One, blessed-beHe.
10. Human standards middoth in opposition to the behavior of God, are listed in the Misbna of Rabbi Eliezer or Midrash of the 32 Middoth.
11. C.H. Dodd, op. cit., p. 28.
12. This prayer of the first cent. echoes the pe of the Our Father: Thy Kingdom come!
13. According to this rule of interpretation, the school of Rabbi Ishmael (2nd cent.) diverges from that of on Rabbi Aqiba for whom every word of scripture has a meaning.