Monday, February 18, 2013

Going The Extra Mile

There is a series of four parables at the end of the Gospel of Mathew that are central to the hymnology and psychology of the Orthodox Church. These are the parable of the servant who is unfaithful as his master tarries, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, the parable of the servants entrusted with talents and the separation of the sheep and the goats at the end of the age (which isn't technically a parable, but I'm not sure what to call it). In all of these parables, the servants or virgins are put in situations that reveal what is really in their hearts. In each situation, the servants' or virgins' reasonable expectation is not enough.  

There is a distinction in the spiritual life from what proceeds only from the head and what proceeds from the heart. What proceeds from the heart must also pass through the head--mindlessness is not a Christian virtue even for the apparently pure in heart. However it is possible to live a Christian life based predominantly on the head, based on figuring it out, based on knowing the rules and expectations and fulfilling them. And while doing good is always better than doing evil, part of the message of these parables is that merely doing what's required, merely meeting the minimum, is not enough. It's not enough because God wants our love, not merely our conformity to expectations.

One of the reasons why we should not judge one another--for good or for ill--is that we can't see one another's hearts. Nevertheless, according to these parables there is a way love manifests itself through our behaviour through which God reveals the motives of the heart. This way of love is manifest through going the extra mile, praying and fasting in secret, being kind to the weak, and showing mercy to the apparently ungrateful or unworthy.

This interpretation of the parables become clearer when you read them as a group so that the unclear parts of one parable are interpreted by the clearer parts of the others. In the first parable, as the master delays His coming, the servant whom He has put in charge--the one with the authority to feed the other servants--lets this power go to his head. This is a particularly frightful parable for priests. Losing compassion and forsaking kindness, this arch-servant begins to use his power for his own advantage, to over indulge his own needs and wants, and to oppress those he is supposed to feed. Like those who didn't see Jesus in the needy, this arch-servant doesn't see the under-servants as important. This is one of the ways God reveals what is in our hearts. What teachers, parents, police officers, priests, or bosses of any kind do with the authority entrusted to them and to those subjected to that authority reveals to God what is in their hearts.  

The next parable deals with ten virgins, completely dedicated people. The hymns of the Church liken these ten to monks, but they could just as easily represent dedicated laity. All are dedicated, all have their lamps, yet all fall asleep--that is all are subject to human weaknesses despite their great zeal. What's the difference? All did what was required, but five did something more. The extra that these five had was that they had shown mercy (the words 'oil' and 'to show mercy' sound similar in Greek and share the same root). Further, the context of the proceeding and following parables lead us to understand the meaning of the extra oil in this way. All of the virgins did what was required. All followed God with their mind, but five loved from their heart and this manifest itself in mercy--the quality God is looking for, but that is not found on any fasting calendar.

The next parable is the parable of the talents (a talent is a measure of money equal to 75 pounds of Gold--worth about two million dollars nowadays). Here we see the servant with the one talent figuring with his mind only: "my master will be upset if I lose this; I better not take any chances." The servants who received five and two talents went out and traded with the talents. Because they loved, they were not afraid. I sometimes wonder if this parable could be applied to fundamentalism. That is, I wonder if sometimes fundamentalism is motivated by a fear that something might be lost, resulting in a kind of entrenchment, a burying of the talent, an unwillingness to trade with (to interact with) the heretics, pagans and schismatics. Yes, perhaps the faith can be preserved unchanged this way, but it doesn't grow either.  

However, burying the talent of our Orthodox faith does indeed change it. It becomes the faith of the ghetto instead of the faith that conquered the world, as we proclaim in the Synodikon of Orthodoxy. The servant with the one talent says to his Master, "I knew you were a harsh man.... I was afraid and hid.... Here, take what is yours." And so to the servant who believed his master was harsh, his Master is indeed harsh. But the servants who risked, who believed in the love of their Master, who were not afraid of the market place, of the arena of interaction with others, these increased the gift given to them. Perhaps my application of this parable to fundamentalism is off base--you, my readers, be the judge. Certainly the hymns of the Church teach that the talents refer to Grace freely giving to us. This grace is manifest in virtues that can be increased, but they can only be increased through use. We increase patience by being patient, mercy by being merciful, kindness by being kind, and so on with all of the virtues. It is not enough just to hold on to and bury what we have received. We must exercise the Grace given us and thus increase it.

Finally we have the parable of the Last Judgement, the separation of the sheep and the goats. What I find most interesting in this parable is that nether those on the right (sheep) nor those on the left (goats) realized the significance of what they did in their life. The sheep cared for the "least of these" not realizing that they were caring for Jesus: they were just caring for those who needed care (like the faithful arch-servants giving the others their food in due season). Similarly, the goats did not know that they were not caring for Jesus: they were just ignoring yet another needy person (like the lazy, wicked arch-servant who over feeds himself while others suffer). If they had known, they would have acted differently. But that's the point. We don't know. We don't know when the Master will return. We don't know how much oil (acts of mercy) is needed. We don't know if our talent, our virtue, will increase as we use it. And we don't know with our mind alone, that the least, the weak, and the unimportant really are our salvation. It is not revealed to our minds, but it is know in the heart. The heart that loves God loves as God loves, especially the theologically lost, the morally weak, the socially confused and the economically disadvantaged: the poor, the naked, the blind, and the wretched.


Peter T Chattaway said...

I'm not sure how I'd connect this to the other parables, but it has long seemed to me that the Parable of the Talents needs to be read in light of the fact that Jewish law forbade the collecting of interest (at least among fellow Jews) -- and this does, indeed, cast the Master of that Parable in a rather harsher light than we find in most traditional interpretations of the parable.

The Master looks even harsher when we consider that Luke's version of this parable (the Parable of the Minas) draws a pretty explicit parallel between this Master and the murderous Herodian dynasty.

So when the Master says, "Whoever has will be given more, and whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them," it is hard not to hear that as just another version of "The rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer."

None of this is to suggest that the Master couldn't possibly be a stand-in for God, on some level; Jesus also told parables in which he compared God to an unjust judge, etc. And there is certainly a long tradition (going back to the New Testament itself) of applying new meanings to the scriptures that the authors of those scriptures never would have imagined.

But I'm reluctant to breeze past the primary meanings, and I wonder how an awareness of the more difficult parts of this parable might illuminate the others with which it is grouped here. (For example, I have long thought that it wouldn't be too hard to link this parable to the sheep-and-goats passage through a sort of "social justice" lens.)

Plus, I think ignoring the Jewish laws against interest while reading this parable would make about as much sense as ignoring the Jewish laws against pork while reading the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It might not be the detail that the parable hinges on, but without knowing what the Old Testament says about such things, you miss an important nuance.

Fr. Michael said...

Dear Peter,
This is an excellent point. I think one of the purposes of such parables is to (by allegory) say that God is not predictable, not manageable. The God with whom we have to do is both harsher and more merciful that we expect: A paradox that we can let work on us and that might just break through our theological boxes and introduce us to the Living God.