Sunday, June 25, 2006

Parables of Doing, the "Four-Item" version of Jesus

In our previous post, we showed how Jesus' parable of the housebuilders imitated the flavor and point of others like it circulating in the Rabbinic world.

But scholars have so far not noticed that Jesus uttered another such gem like it. It too elaborates on Exodus 24:7's "Do - Hear" dichotomy, which in Jewish culture is the dichotomy between the doing of Torah and the hearing (or study) of Torah. Jesus, however, expands the comparison structure from the familiar two item comparison to the novel version comparing four items. Probably the most well-known of Jesus' parables is a four item, compare-contrast parable - the Parable of the Sower (or the Parable of the Four Soils).

Compare-contrast aphorisms of four items are well known in Rabbinic writings and are among the most ancient of Jewish homiletic delights. Some famous examples are found in the compilation of Rabbinic sayings Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Fathers), which contains some of the most ancient teachings of Jewish tradition:

Pirke Avot 5:13. There are four characters among men: he who says, "What is mine is mine and what is thine is thine," his is a neutral character; some say, "This is a character like that of Sodom"; he who says, "What is mine is thine and what is thine is mine," is a boor; he who says, "What is mine is thine and what is thine is thine," is a saint; he who says, "What is thine is mine and what is mine is mine," is a wicked man.

14. There are four kinds of tempers: he whom it is easy to provoke and easy to pacify, his loss disappears in his gain; he whom it is hard to provoke and hard to pacify, his gain disappears in his loss; he whom it is hard to provoke and easy to pacify is a saint; he whom it is easy to provoke and hard to pacify is a wicked man.

15. There are four qualities in disciples: he who quickly understands and quickly forgets, his gain disappears in his loss; he who understands with difficulty and forgets with difficulty, his loss disappears in his gain; he who understands quickly and forgets with difficulty, his is a good portion; he who understands with difficulty and forgets quickly, his is an evil portion.

16. As to almsgiving there are four dispositions: he who desires to give, but that others should not give, his eye is evil toward what appertains to others; he who desires that others should give, but will not give himself, his eye is evil against what is his own; he who gives and wishes others to give is a saint; he who will not give and does not wish others to give is a wicked man.

17. There are four characters among those who attend the house of study: he who goes and does not practise secures the reward for going; he who practises but does not go secures the reward for practising; he who goes and practises is a saint; he who neither goes nor practises is a wicked man.

18. There are four qualities among those that sit before the wise: they are like a sponge, a funnel, a strainer, or a sieve: a sponge, which sucks up everything; a funnel, which lets in at one end and out at the other; a strainer, which lets the wine pass out and retains the dregs; a sieve, which lets out the bran and retains the fine flour.

Save except for the last, all of the above sayings contain the structure: A-B, a-B, A-b, a-b. Remember high school biology class, and your fruit fly experiments? Think of this as that Mendel chart you drew:

AB | aB
Ab | ab

Now read the Parable of the Sower and see if you can ascertain the "Mendelian Chart" structure:

Luke 8:4 When a large crowd was coming together, and those from the various cities were journeying to Him, He spoke by way of a parable: 5 "The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell beside the road, and it was trampled under foot and the birds of the air ate it up. 6 "Other seed fell on rocky soil, and as soon as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. 7 "Other seed fell among the thorns; and the thorns grew up with it and choked it out. 8 "Other seed fell into the good soil, and grew up, and produced a crop a hundred times as great." As He said these things, He would call out, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." 9 His disciples began questioning Him as to what this parable meant. 10 And He said, "To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is in parables, so that SEEING THEY MAY NOT SEE, AND HEARING THEY MAY NOT UNDERSTAND. 11 "Now the parable is this: the seed is the word of God. 12 "Those beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, so that they will not believe and be saved. 13 "Those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away. 14 "The seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity. 15 "But the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.

It may not immediately be clear to the reader that the "Hear - Do" elements are the contrasting traits of the four soils. In particular the differences between the four soils can be said to be their different qualities of a) the "Hearing"--that is, the reception/implantation of the Word (the seed) and b) the "Doing", the ability of the soils to allow growth to happen. Thus, lets label our Mendel-chart traits as follows:

A -- "Much Study" (the Rabbinic take on "hearing Torah")
a -- "Little Study"
B -- "Much Doing"
b -- "Little Doing"

The logic (and genius) of the Parable of the Sower suddenly pops out:

1) a-b: The soil exposed to the birds (does not study, does not do)
2) A-b: The rocky soil (studies enthusiastically but does not follow through in action)
3) a-B: The thorny soil (fleeting study because it has way too much "doing" going on)
4) A-B: The good soil (studies and does)

As you can see, the purpose of the Parable is purely admonitional (what scholars call "hortative"). Jesus is pointing out the foils that can impede the progress of the Kingdom in our lives. Recognize that soil #2, the shallow soil, above is the exact same foolish fellow we encountered in the "Parable of the Housebuilders", the guy who likes to study but is shallow in execution. He is the hypocrite. But there is another "Kingdom underachiever", the guy who over-executes everything, the ambitious, busy fellow who drowns out the Kingdom among the weeds of his various exploits. These two soils are in fact not far from the Kingdom, but they have recessive deficiencies that prevent true growth...and they can be us at various stages of our lives. Ben, Christy and I discussed that we could all recognize our own stages in life as progressing through all four soil types. In fact, I recognize in myself the recessive soil traits of both shallowness and thorniness. Looking honestly, I think the vast majority of us exist in similar soils. The parable tells us we need to go back to the "Do - Hear" staples of the Kingdom, and to prioritize our lives. If we read this parable fatalistically (as a "mechanics" of predestinary salvation/damnation) we miss the broader hortative point. In simple but revelatory dichotomies (such as those in Pirke Avot above), the parable encourages us to reset our priorities: we need to deepen our soils and push out the distractions that foil our walk in the Word.

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