This book study begins June 30, 2019.
This will be the fourth Parables book we have done as a group, including titles by Brandon Scott, John Dominic Crossan and Amy-Jill Levine. An important point made by all these authors is that the parables of Jesus were meant to be totally open ended and make you think about your own situation, rather than providing answers for you to accept. The Gospel writers sometimes let Jesus speak for himself, but they often book end their descriptions of the parable and situation with their own morality and conclusions. I like the open ended presentations. However, this book is different as the author is using Jesus' parables to help us think about specific situations in the world today. By doing this, he must include his interpretations of Jesus' stories. It's not a bad thing in this case.
From Amazon: Remarkable is how extensively in each parable Jesus provides a subtle but rich array of unexpected possibilities hidden within the hierarchies of power so commonplace in his world. By doing so he profoundly addresses the perils inherent in the prerogatives of many of us living in today's world. In these ancient interpersonal tragedies, readers can discover modern global analogues-where the powerful still control the powerless and where others of us, immersed as we are in privilege, are still willing to side with control.
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Week 7 Questions
1 – About the Kingdom of God: are you most interested in the what, how, where, when or why? Explain. 148
2 – How do you feel about the amount of energy you have put into your interpretations of these parables as you’ve studied this book? 150
3 – How much of our identification with the master in these parables do you think comes from ourselves being in a first world society? 152
4 – Coercion in our society comes about through advertising. How do you compare Jesus’ parables to modern advertising? 154
5 – Has reading this book opened up for you any ways that you might be an unaware oppressor? How? 157
6 – Does a God who shares in the immense sadness of the world resonate with you? 158
7 – Comment on any of the questions raised in the third paragraph on pg. 160, starting: “The ways we grasp these parables...”
8 – If: “The only way into these narratives is through a disciplined empathy. Subverted is any attempt more directly to capture decisive meaning.” then why are the parables so often explained allegorically? 161
9 – Further reading for the over curious: Find any more parable gook-ends that move Jesus’ parables later in history. 166
Responses to Questions for Week 7
Chapter 12: The Luring of Jesus and the Longing God
1. About the Kingdom of God: are you most interested in the what, how, where, when or why? Explain. [p.148]
If you can actually discern “what” it is, “how” one can realize it in this lifetime, “where” it already exists, and “when” it always appears, it seems to me that the question “why” becomes the most compelling. Ask yourself, “Why is it here and not there – and just what accounts for the difference?” It seems as if you’d have enough worth pondering in your own life to then dedicate yourself to see that it’s recreated and experienced as often as it is humanly possible.
2. How do you feel about the amount of energy you have put into your interpretations of these parables as you’ve studied this book? [p.150]
I feel privileged to have had all the time that I needed to ponder each of them week-after-week with very few distractions. One joy of retirement is that there’s really nothing draining me of energy. For the most part, my time is my own – that, in itself, is precious. I am blessed.
3. How much of our identification with the master in these parables do you think comes from ourselves being in a first world society? [p.152]
I think identifying in that way happens quite a lot. When we’ve become so used to being in such a position of dominance, privileges (of any sort), make it very difficult for us to do without them or even imagine having to live from a different point of view. So I think Ford is correct when he says:
“By drawing us into this work, Jesus embodies how his God wants us
to be the ones to struggle across the seemingly impenetrable barriers
of dominance and so be with and for each other” (p.153).
4. Coercion in our society comes about through advertising. How do you compare Jesus’ parables to modern advertising? [p.154]
I see very little, if any, comparison. Our author is correct in observing here that it’s up to us to uncover “how each parable’s tragedy…is the consequence of an earlier coercion.” Slavery is marked by unrelenting coercion; advertising, on the other hand, is just seduction from which we can turn away at any time. A slave has no such choice.
5. Has reading this book opened up for you any ways that you might be an unaware oppressor? How? [p.157]
With every item I purchase that is manufactured or assembled in a Third World Country (or even under an oppressive regime like China), I have been complicit in perpetuating poverty and injustice that continues to exist in those places. Regrettably, however, that doesn’t actually make me an “unaware oppressor,” it simply makes me an oppressor who doesn’t care enough to cease buying those products. Our author’s challenge to us – and now, to me, personally – to be more empathetic and less apathetic in such things is significant. From now on, I’ll watch more closely what I buy and from whom.
6. Does a God who shares in the immense sadness of the world resonate with you? [p.158]
No, it doesn’t. Such empathy, however, is how I see Jesus relating to the world. Contrary to our author’s title of this chapter, then, I think that the “luring” and “longing” behind these parables both come from Jesus himself. That he may have felt as if they had originated with his idea of God, is simply one definition of the concept of inspiration. That’s the true genius of the entire Bible.
As I’ve suggested about this still very compelling book, though, we need a new theology – a new way of conceiving God – not an apocalyptic God who will intervene with fire-and-brimstone to finally make all things right, and yet neither a distant but grieving God who “feels” our pain, “weeps” with a widow, and “longs” for us to do the right thing. The first is an image borrowed from Pax Romana that was Rome’s way of bringing “peace” – brutally crushing any and all of its enemies. The other seems to be the empathy that our author hypothesizes is at the heart of the parables. I agree that that surely must have been the way of Jesus, but it’s quite an anthropomorphic leap to portray God in this way.
Again, the very important concept of theodicy would argue against such a God whose divine attributes (especially love and justice) must be vindicated while allowing the existence of physical and moral evil. To my mind, the profoundly mysterious Force that I envision as God has none of these human characteristics – and yet has created a world in which love and enmity, justice and injustice, kindness and cruelty, beauty and ugliness, …blessings and curses, all exist side-by-side. It is entirely up to us, however, to distinguish the difference between them and then to make the better choice.
In the end, this is what Jesus, himself, is doing and has tried to show that way of being in the world to his contemporaries – and now to us as well. But there is no omnipresent god-figure looking over his shoulder and whispering into his ear, “Do the right thing, my son.” That would’ve been his real father, Joseph. After all, this is what family and community are for: we must be carefully taught.
In the July-August issue (Vol. 32, No. 4) of The Fourth R – the magazine which is “An Advocate for Religious Literacy” published by the Westar Institute – Clayton Crockett has an excellent article about all of this entitled “What’s Wrong with Classical Theism?” It was his contribution to Westar’s Seminar on God. I share his conclusion when he says, “It is not credible in scientific terms to continue to imagine God as a Very Big Person” (p.11 of that article). He goes on to say that the “theistic God suffocates our need to live and breathe beyond the confines of literalistic religion and the politics that literalism expresses” (Op. cit., p.24). On the other hand, his closing comment is still worth pondering:
“…but that doesn’t necessarily mean letting go of any notion of divinity
whatsoever. That is the gambit of our seminar, to dare to think of God
outside of this frame, just as the Jesus Seminar has liberated Jesus from
the stifling framework of the biblical text and its orthodox theological
Elsewhere in this same issue, there’s a report from the 2019 Spring Meeting about “The Seminar on God and the Human Future” compiled by W. David Hall that is also worth reading. In part it says this:
• “In past years, the seminar has attempted to come to grips with the fact that all
philosophical and theological claims are advanced from “somewhere;” our claims
to knowledge of reality and God are socially, culturally, economically, etc., influenced”
(Op. cit., p.13).
• “Theology [must be] a post-theistic enterprise that entails thinking about God as a
reality other than a supreme, sovereign, and immutable being.” (Ibid., p.14).
• “Theological language is theopoetic, which means that it employs metaphor and
symbol to think and speak creatively about God” (Loc. cit., p.14).
These kinds of well-considered conclusions have led me to believe that we still have much more creative thinking to do before we can come up with an image for God that is truly believable. What’s more, I truly believe that this theological issue remains to be at the very heart of the crisis facing the institutional Church. With its overemphasis upon orthodoxy, the Church has ceased to be a challenge for people to create more just and compassionate communities and has, instead, simply made itself irrelevant.
7. Comment on any of the questions raised in the third paragraph on pg. 160, starting: “The ways we grasp these parables...”
As our author points out there, we of the First World are not as aware as we should be of “how much our violence provokes the hatred of others…[of] how our dominance can so infiltrate and condition those we dominate.” In both openly flagrant and seductively hidden ways, we present an often racist and xenophobic face to the strangers and immigrants among us. We look to our own desires and comforts before we even consider the longing and comfort of others less fortunate than we are. I would reshape Ford’s conclusion in the next paragraph, however, to say that it is Jesus who is shown to be the “locus of a consummate empathy,” not God – even though orthodoxy continues to identify the two as one-and-the-same (three, if you count the Holy Spirit).
8. If…“The only way into these narratives is through a disciplined empathy. Subverted is any attempt more directly to capture decisive meaning.” …then why are the parables so often explained allegorically? [p.161]
It’s one of the most grievous of ecclesiastical tragedies that the early Church fathers (and they were practically all men) reshaped these profound parables into a simplistic catechism. By doing so, the deep wisdom, challenges, and judgment given to us in these words of Jesus have been either ignored or replaced by the gospel authors’ emendations.
9. Further reading for the over curious: Find any more parable book-ends that move Jesus’ parables later in history. [p.166]
I’ll have to give this challenge a great deal more thought – more than just these next few days before we close our study of this book on Sunday, August 11, 2019.
Through Crossan’s The Power of Parable to Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus, our group has taken a number of deep dives into the real significance of how and why Jesus used this method of teaching. I actually think that the Church needs to spend far more time with the parables than it has proclaiming its orthodox views of the gospels. Levine stated the importance of parables this way:
“The parable should disturb. If we hear it and are not disturbed, there is
something seriously amiss with our moral compass. It would be better if
we perhaps started by seeing the parable not as about heaven or hell or
final judgment, but about kings, politics, violence, and the absence of justice.
If we do, we might be getting closer to Jesus” (Short Stories by Jesus, p.304).
Crossan was helpful to me back in 1973 through his book In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus. In that book he pointed out, time after time, where so many of the passages actually reflect a later expansion of the earlier form of the parables – that the words of Jesus, and therefore the richer meanings and power of the parables themselves, had been changed.
From my first attendance at the so-called “Jesus Seminar,” however, and then through a burgeoning friendship with its founder, Bob Funk (a theologian who became my mentor), his books about Jesus literally kept me in the ministry and serving the Church when I thought that I could no longer, in good conscience, do either of those things. My first read of Funk’s thoughts were in his 1994 book Jesus as Precursor. He talks about “parabolic speech” there and that it absolutely requires an alert sense of hearing Jesus’s words in a way that ought to be very much like what we call a double-take – a sort of “Wait,…what?”-response as we’re led to take a second, or a third, or even a fourth look or more again at the narrative. Funk explained to me that the parable isn’t so much teaching us something as it is gesturing toward something. It’s when we then look in those other directions that we discover the real power of the parable. Funk concluded that “To describe Jesus is to let him speak for himself.... But he cannot easily do so from out of and under a long tradition of interpretation that may have muffled his voice” (Jesus as Precursor, p.140). Sadly, the Church and tradition have done just that.
It’s been through my own avocation as a poet, remarkably enough, that Funk has most touched a deeper recognition within me. In this same book he says this:
“If theology is to address the human question, the study of theology ought
to begin…with a study of poetry – not a study of verse, but a study of poiesis
in the root sense. … Poiesis is liberating when it dispels illusion. …the poet’s
destination…is, after all, the real… – the rediscovery of the bedrock of the real
buried beneath the obfuscating debris of habituated tradition. Theology, like
poetry, has a history of altering the face of the world, of reconfiguring reality”
(Op. cit., p.141).
Poiesis, it might be helpful to know, literally means “bringing something forth,” but more importantly, it’s something that transforms and continues the world – and it often happens through someone, like Jesus, who creates for us such new understandings. Through his parables, Jesus has done exactly that.
I owe Robert W. Funk and his wife, Char, a lot. It was not only by attending many of his seminars for scholars, but in spending time with them both over dinners at their house in Santa Rosa, that my passion for poetry and its links to theology was revived and given new direction in my ministry.
The next book of Bob’s that I went through with him was his 1996 book Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium. I found it a satisfying affirmation of my seminary training at Duke University when Funk reminds us in this book that “Jesus did not say everything ascribed to him in the ancient sources” (Honest to Jesus, p.143). Most lay people, unfortunately, have not been told that fact. While Jesus’s basic metaphor may have been “God’s reign,” he never spoke about it directly; his language is always highly figurative, non-literal and metaphorical. As Funk says, Jesus chose parables…
“…to challenge the entrenched, self-evident façade of the received world.
Things, he avers, are not what they seem. He forms his challenge by
lampooning what others take for granted. His parables and aphorisms
bring to the surface the homespun features of the everyday in order to
poke fun at them” (Op. cit., p.154).
Bob told me one time, with a smile on his face, that Jesus challenged the kinds of things “we’ve learned at our mothers’ knee – and other joints.” I guess this is one reason why Bob Funk came to be convinced that “Jesus was a comic savant” – someone who mixed humor with subversive and troubling knowledge born of direct insight, but also someone who was a poet redefining what it means to be wise (Ibid., p. 158). Not surprisingly, Funk declared that the entire New Testament of the Bible was “a highly uneven and biased record of various early attempts to invent Christianity” (Op. cit., p.314). What’s more, “the authority of an iconic Bible is gone forever” (Ibid.). I sincerely hope that one day, finally, the Church will admit that and really begin to help us move on into the next millennium as true followers of that rabbi from Nazareth named Jesus.
Week 6 Questions
1 – Do fossil fuel magnates really think they can successfully ignore the laws of physics? What do you think they “really” think? 122
2 – Why do you think the judge is acting the way he is? 122
3 – Where do you put yourself on a scale AND how do you feel about your position? 126
4 – What can you do to slow global warming? Are you? 131
5 – Can an oil corporation “give up” like the judge did? Comments? 134
6 – Is climate change the apocalypse found in Revelation? 136
7 – Comment on the images of God presented on pgs. 137-8.
8 – Which of the parables do you “like” best and which least? Why? Chpt. 11
Responses to Week 6 Questions
Chapter 10: A Widow and a Judge, Climate Change and Fossil-Fuel Executives
1. Do fossil fuel magnates really think they can successfully ignore the laws of physics? What do you think they “really” think? [p.122]
No, they aren’t ignoring the laws of physics; they’re just determined to make as much money for their companies until the law requires them to stop. Only then will they make a determined effort to diversify their financial portfolio But they will always focus on maximizing their profits in any way that they can. That’s what they “really” think about.
2. Why do you think the judge is acting the way he is? [p.122]
He is simply obsessed with his own power to control others. The widow doesn’t represent much more than a whining child to him – someone to whom he’d toss a piece of candy just to be rid of her so he then could go back doing what he’s always done. The widow’s bothersome behavior is only a momentary distraction – an irritant to be done away with so that he could return to business as usual.
3. Where do you put yourself on a communal-to-independent scale AND how do you feel about your position? [p.126]
I would be lost without a supportive and compassionate community. I cherish those connections. In many ways, however, I operate pretty independently – more so, now, that I’m retired. For the most part, I do what I want when I want. I’m responsible for no one else but myself and my wife – and only “on-call” for any emergencies that might arise within our family. So, one day is very much like the next (I’ve been known to remark, “Every day is Saturday!”). I seem to be smack in the middle of this scale.
4. What can you do to slow global warming? Are you? [p.131]
I recycle and/or reuse products as often as I can. I rarely buy things that I don’t need. I’ve refrained from eating beef. I have not given up my gas-guzzling cars, however; I just drive less – while I’ve talked about trading in our cars for a hybrid or electrical vehicle, so far it’s just talk. I am, however, a staunch supporter of The Green New Deal* being sponsored by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The sooner that we rid ourselves of our dependency upon fossil fuels, the better.
5. Can an oil corporation “give up” like the judge did? Comments? [p.134]
They do…all the time. Sometimes they even clean up their messes – usually, however, only when forced to do so by legal means – but then they move on and go back to managing their businesses they way that they always have. So did the judge.
6. Is climate change the apocalypse found in Revelation? [p.136]
No. That apocalypse is a figment of the overactive imagination of some ancient theologians. The fact that some still believe in it, literally, is a tragedy. It only has caused us to ignore our innate responsibility as human beings and turned it over to an imaginary deity who is neither there to rescue nor condemn us. Again, as Walt Kelly’s cartoon character, Pogo the ‘possum, said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” We better get that right this time. Never mind the Book of Revelation.
7. Comment on the images of God presented on pgs.137-8.
I find it interesting that the initial imagery here gives God an almost angel-like quality that hovers “alongside the poor, the dispossessed, and the oppressed” and, in our author’s words, “is assuredly with the widow.” It’s certainly where we find Jesus, but the questions of theodicy force us to face the reality of a God who will not intervene – even in the most horrifically evil circumstances. Ask yourself, why not? To say that “God endures [the widow’s] ordeal,” creates a troublesome image for a god who’s so often equated with love.
That troublesome anthropomorphic portrayal of God becomes even more glaring on the following page as Ford claims that “God sits down beside the widow and weeps.” It is a very poignant and poetic image, possibly, but it’s not my idea of who or what God is. God is not a “grieving presence” filled with overwhelming “divine distress.” We must be. Then we must be moved to do something to confront the evil and injustice that happens all around us every single day. It is the only way that God is present in such situations as this – in and through us. The ineffable Mystery that is God, finally – at least for me – is far, far more mysterious than the way that our author has portrayed God here (on pages 137-138) and in his summary of this parable on p.147. If Ford makes one overwhelming mistake throughout this book, I think it’s as he continues to portray God in this way – a loving presence, but doing nothing.
Ford comes a bit closer to my own understanding with questions and statements like these:
• “Does not Jesus here give us resources whereby we might better understand the sources of our own (still not abundantly clear) miscalculations?” [p.16] -- even, I would ask, our miscalculations about God?
• “Jesus embodies his understanding of God’s desire: first, as longing for all to share equally in what the earth provides; second, as yearning for us to make it so; and third, as fully aware of the costs to us should we attempt to establish such equality” [p.28]. But, as I see it, that’s Jesus’s desire, longing, and awareness, not necessarily God’s
• “The kingdom is identified not with divine intervention but with divine emptiness” [footnote 11, p.60]. Ponder that one for a while.
• “If one lifts God from some sole locus within the father and allows oneself to become more uncertain about where God is, one can also become a little more bewildered about where to place the blame – and whom to forgive” [p.63].
• “God cannot come to us unless we enter God’s domain” [p.149].
• “…the historical Jesus was focused on the immediate, here-and-now advent of the reign of God, a coming that was available to all who were open to reach for it” [Ibid.].
• “…the parables are narrative metaphors – that is, stories through which the world of God’s kingdom might come to life in the imagination of the listener” [loc.cit.].
• “Jesus embodies how his God wants us to be the ones to struggle across the seemingly impenetrable barriers of dominance and so be with and for each other” [p.153].
Chapter 11: Summaries of This Book’s Interpretations
8. Which of the parables do you “like” best and which least? Why?
To begin with, I think that our author is on to something when he says this in a section that he’s entitled “How Do We Listen?”…:
“Because we in the West tend to listen from the point of view of privilege,
we must struggle doubly hard to see the irony in how we have allowed
ourselves to be misled by the very person we believe should be most able
to lead us” [p.51]
Donald J. Trump, tragically, is the current model of this kind of thinking. Parables do this to us.
That being said, oddly enough, my favorite parable has become “A Woman with a Jar” [pp.52ff.]. I’d never considered “God’s imperial realm” to have parallels with a woman who’s experiencing a miscarriage – when all that she loves the most at the moment is being spilled out upon the ground wherever she passes, until she is empty of it. What a stunning and poignant image! What’s more, I found myself disagreeing with our author’s commentary here when he calls it a “malfunction” and “a hard failure” [p.55]. Yes, on the surface, if you stick with the physical imageries of either a pregnant woman bleeding out a very precious gift into the dirt of the road, or – if you want to follow it more literally – “a jar full of meal” which is meant to feed her whole family, it does appear to be both a malfunction and a failure. But what if draining from her is the kind of love and sustenance that ought to be shared with everyone – at all cost? Ponder that thought.
This theme of self-emptying (kenosis in the Greek) has been very much the way that Jesus has been portrayed in the New Testament. We hear it most clearly illuminated in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi:
“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who,
although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God
a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and
being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death – even
death on a cross” (Philippians 2: 5-8).
Now, never mind for a moment, that this image also gave rise to a very problematic form of theology called Docetism (from the Greek dokein meaning “to seem”) – that Jesus only appeared to be a human being but was, in fact, God walking around in human skin, the mere semblance of a human being without any true reality. Tragically, the Church decided to make him both human and divine, and we’ve struggled with that impossible image, as well, ever since – from within Jesus’s so-called “miracles” on into the dogmatic conclusion of the Doctrine of the Trinity.
But what if this self-emptying imagery only means that that’s the way that we are being called to love each other? We are being called to empty ourselves of all that we often consider to be most precious to us: our ego, self-centeredness, deepest desires, and the need to hold power and control over others – to let all of that go and simply love extravagantly, even wastefully. We’re then given a very different portrait about how and who we are supposed to be.
This is why this particular parable, at the moment, has gripped me the most.
Paradoxically, the parable that I found I “like” the least, our author has a paired with the very one above; it’s the one from the Gospel According to Thomas that he’s called “A Man with a Sword” (also pp.52ff.). Our author explains it by saying that “an intensely calculating man…risks his life…[and to] his great relief, he succeeds” (p.55). Then Ford compares this to “the human tendency to destroy what contains us” (p.56). Maybe I have to ponder this one a bit more, but I don’t get it – yet – that by taking such a risk this “upstart first tears down what he hopes later to refashion, namely, the very fabric of society” (Ibid.).
We also have come to believe that Jesus said “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26: 52). So, when is violence ever justified? I ask that now, again, as I did myself, at the time I was an officer in the Marine Corps. When is it ever rational and justifiable to kill another human being? I couldn’t legally call myself a CO (conscientious objector) back in 1968 to then avoid serving in America’s war against the Vietnamese, because I could envision myself killing someone who directly threatened the lives of my wife and children. I am profoundly grateful, therefore, that I never found myself in combat so never raised my weapon in anger against another human being. And yet,…I wonder, still, what I would have done had I ever been ordered to do such a thing.
I’ll stop, because I’ve just revealed another genius of this genre called the parable. Just when you think that you know what its meaning is, a shade is pulled aside to shine light on a deeper truth. So, maybe, any parable that you “like” the least might be the very one you ought to spend more time with. We always do resist facing our shadow selves and – if we’re truly paying attention and listening to them – these parables push against that resistance. Again, in the words of Fagin from the musical Oliver: “I think I’d better think that through again.”
Week 5 Questions
1 – How does your historical Jesus reflect you? 95
2 – How is the father’s surrender of control different than today’s Power of Attorney? 98
3 – What are the son’s ages? 99
4 – Explain the family dynamics before and after the younger son leaves. 99
5 – Do you understand the reconciliation as true or false? Why? 103
6 – Where do you today see people being chosen and people being excluded? 103
7 – How have honor and shame entered your life? 108
8 – How often do these ideas of honor and shame enter into your invitations? 110
9 – In what way are our final meeting potlucks A) similar and B) different from this banquet? 111 This is a very old question in my mind, from shortly after our book studies began.
10 – How do you think economics would be different if 7 year and 49 year jubilee were truly followed? 115
Responses to Week 5 Questions
Chapter 8: A Younger Son and a Father: Waiting for God’s Restoring or Restoring God’s Waiting?
1. How does your historical Jesus reflect you? [p.95]
This is a very presumptuous question. My first thought must be that there’s no way Jesus “reflects” anything about me. I don’t think that I try to “make” him into any salvific image from my own imagination. It’s the other way around: I try to reflect at least a portion of his examples of compassion in the ways in which I try to treat others – especially those different from me.
Yes, his “complex metaphors are open to an array of possible understandings,” as our author rightly points out – and, also, as we’ve discovered in our studies of these parables. The not-so-subtle point that Ford is trying to make here, I think, is that the traditional “apocalyptic Jesus” was an invention of the Church – if not to try to “scare the hell out of people,” then to elevate the clergy in positions of power over the laity (often referred to as “the unwashed multitude”) who then must come through the Church to be rewarded with salvation.
It’s a good question that our author asks here: “How did Jesus conceive that change was supposed to come about?” My answer always has been that, collectively, it’s up to us, not Jesus. If that’s a reflection of my own “face in the well,” then so be it. But I think that is the heart of Jesus’s message. It’s certainly not going to happen through some kind of second-coming of the Christ figure in a sweeping moment of divine intervention that will separate “the sheep from the goats.” It’s not going to come about through any such momentous event as that but in all of the constant and continuous interactions between human beings that happen every single day. We realize “the empire of God” in and among us…or it never will happen. It’s that profoundly simple and yet that spectacularly difficult.
2. How is the father’s surrender of control different than today’s Power of Attorney? [p.98]
The first is about a very poor decision made by a father in a dysfunctional family. The other is being given the legal authority to make decisions or act for another person in his or her absence.
3. What are the son’s ages? [p.99]
Who knows? The question is moot. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that, in ancient Judaism, for a son to ask his father for his share of the inheritance before his father is dead is tantamount to saying to him, “I wish you were dead.” As Ford notes here, according to Deuteronomy (21:17) a firstborn son was supposed to inherit twice as much as any other heir. And at the time of this parable, a father was expected to have complete control over his property during his lifetime. So, it was extremely offensive for this “prodigal son” to ask for anything.
4. Explain the family dynamics before and after the younger son leaves. [p.99]
The father seems to be ridiculously solicitous toward his younger son’s wishes. He seems to dote upon him. According to custom, the elder son’s rage over the inequity of it all should lead him to intervene in his dysfunctional father’s decision. He would be justified in doing so.
5. Do you understand the reconciliation as true or false? Why? [p.103]
It is fundamentally false because both the father and the younger son have failed to behave like reasonable adults. I can only imagine the dysfunction that must continue to exist within that family – even long after the father finally dies and his elder son inherits everything. What will he do with his younger brother? What should he do? You tell me.
6. Where do you today see people being chosen and people being excluded? [p.103]
People of privilege continue to be given the greater portion of everything – and they’re usually white males – while everyone else is either excluded or expected to be more intelligent, talented, gifted or accomplished than their white male counterparts. That’s just the way that it is. It is still unjust.
That’s our author’s final point: “…how does the God of some become the God of all?” Again, I believe that it’s up to us to make such universal equality happen. As Ford notes, we here in the United States have been uniquely “gifted” and we are “therefore responsible” to do all that we can toward that end (p.104). What’s more, in this parable, Ford rightly points out that “Jesus entrusts to his listeners the work of pondering the responsibilities of both father and son” (p.145) – I would include pondering the responsibility of the elder son in all of this as well.
Chapter 9: The Poor and a Householder, the Third World and Debt
7. How have honor and shame entered your life? [p.108]
It has been my honor to have served my country, my family, and my community in a number of different ways: in the first sense as an officer in the Marine Corps, then within my family as a husband, father and now grandfather, and also from within the community as a teacher, counselor and pastor.
Shame has entered my life as I’ve seen the Church that I’ve loved go “backwards” in terms of its theology and practice of ministry. It has shamed and ostracized far too many who’ve deserved neither simply because they were different – most often simply because of their gender, sexuality, or theology. I’ve also been ashamed of my country’s leadership – first for its reprehensible actions in the war against Vietnam and now because of the xenophobic, racist and misogynistic buffoon who currently occupies the White House and has encouraged like-minded individuals to act in the same way.
8. How often do these ideas of honor and shame enter into your invitations? [p.110]
I rarely think of my “invitations” in either of these ways – they’re solely based upon love and friendship, never upon concepts like rewards or punishments. If I fail to invite someone to an event its either because I don’t know them well enough or I simply don’t like them. Neither honor nor shame enter into my focus in this kind of decision making.
9. In what way are our final meeting potlucks A) similar and B) different from this banquet? [p.111]
It’s only similar in that it’s about a dinner. But the dissimilarities are numerous: I wouldn’t call it a “great” dinner (only, however, in its quality and wonderful camaraderie!) and “many” are simply not invited; but the lack of such an invitation is never based upon any social hierarchy; it hasn’t purposely been opened to “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” – as we understand those categories; the householders haven’t become angry (so far as I know!); and no one is compelled to come just so that the “house may be filled.”
On the other hand, many of us have made “excuses” from time to time as to why we can’t make it – but, hopefully, none of them have been lame excuses (i.e., that then might cause feelings of shame to arise in either of the householders – has that ever happened, Peter or Evelyn?).
As I’ve understood the purpose of this group, fundamentally, it’s been about trying to strengthen the ties that exist in our community – and not just the United Methodist community. As Peter has put it on the introductory page of his website, we’re “better in small groups” because we “become a community of friends,” have extensive opportunities to “clarify our own views as we help others do the same” and our “evening format allows for more time, and fewer interruptions.”
10. How do you think economics would be different if 7-year and 49-year jubilee were truly followed? [p.115]
Well, capitalism might take a big hit, and the Republicans (no doubt) would scream about a communist conspiracy, but such cycles might move us toward a more just, compassionate and egalitarian society as “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” – along with all others without equal opportunities – would then, periodically, be given another chance at achieving a good life.
Week 4 Questions
1 – How does this parable change (for you) with the change from talents to denarii? 70
2 - How were you affected by the 2008 financial crash? 72
3 – Why does scene 3 of the parable (pg. 68) NOT happen on Wall Street? 75
4 – What would it (have) take(n) for the outcome to be better in both ancient and modern cases? 77
5 – How much do you feel your own wealth is keeping you out of the Kingdom of God? 79
6 – In today’s culture, a person fired from a job is escorted off the premises by security so they can not do anything. Why didn’t that happen in the parable? 82
7 – Do you think the accusations were true, false or unknown? Why? 86
8 – Why do you think the manager squandered his master’s resources? Do you agree with the author’s analysis? 91
9 – What might have led to a better outcome in the parable? Why do you think that didn’t happen? 92
10 – Did you reach the richer level of response to this parable? How? 93
Responses to Week 4 Questions
Chapter 6: A Slave and a Master, Main Street and Wall Street
As we look into this chapter (and as Ford has pointed out earlier), it’s very important for us to remember that the word for “slave” in these parables is the Greek word “doulos.” In the ancient world it is in no way a benign term – something, say, like an indentured servant – but a situation in which “one human being retains complete control over the life choices of another” (p.18 footnote). That’s the reality of every slave who ever lived in the Ancient Near East.
So, while we might want to think of this slave’s master as “extraordinarily generous” (p.69), he isn’t and never has been. From his perspective, all of his holdings – including these slaves – are a major investment and he exploits them for only one reason: to add to his own wealth, privilege and power. As Ford correctly observes, then, everyone is “enmeshed in a culture of greed” (p.72). That’s the “trickle-down” economics of the ancient world. That the very same system continues to exist today, centuries later, is an outrage and an ongoing tragedy.
1. How does this parable change (for you) with the change from talents to denarii? [p.70]
In the story that Jesus was reported to have told by the author of Matthew’s gospel (20: 1-16), the amount of one day’s wage was one denarius. Just how much that one coin could buy back then isn’t clear, so it’s hard to determine what a person’s wage would’ve been when compared to a worker’s salary today. Nevertheless, as Ford points out here, “To earn ten thousand denarii a day laborer, working every day, would need over twenty-seven years” to earn that much! That the second slave owed only “one hundred denarii” to that first slave, however, is almost as ridiculous – it would take years for either one of them to even come close to paying back what they owed.
In the end, then, whether talents or denarii, the amount isn’t as significant as just how difficult it would be to get out from under any such large debt. Given the realities of the ancient world for slaves, either one of those value simply represents a debt that would be virtually impossible for any slave to overcome – regardless of his station in the household or his skills. In reality, the first slave’s debt to his master is insignificant when compared to his owner’s net worth. What’s more, if the torture didn’t kill him, that first slave would’ve died of old age long before he’d be able pay off his debt to his master. The second slave’s debt to that first slave probably wouldn’t have been paid off either – even if the disparity between the two figures seems relatively less. It’s all literary hyperbole.
2. How were you affected by the 2008 financial crash? [p.72]
When I retired, just three years later, I was able to get a favorably low percentage loan for a relatively undervalued home – i.e., the “financial crash” didn’t affect me as seriously as it did many others. On the other hand, not many people have had to take out a 30-year real estate loan at age 66 as I have had to do.
3. Why does scene 3 of the parable (pg. 68) NOT happen on Wall Street? [p.75]
The answer is cruelly simple: corporations and their investors don’t want it to happen. It would be against their own self-centered interests.
4. What would it (have) take(n) for the outcome to be better in both ancient and modern cases? [p.77]
It would take a society that is more invested in people than it is in profits. It would take greed being replaced by an equal opportunity for all to earn a good education and receive a livable wage. It would take establishing a more reasonable level of debt for anyone to incur while still allowing them to find meaningful work, have a home or find shelter, and be able to live comfortably and raise a family.
5. How much do you feel your own wealth is keeping you out of the Kingdom of God? [p.79]
If we were to include that bracketed phrase of our author’s there in reference to wealth – “that is, for those whose lives are controlled by the ability to control others” – there is absolutely nothing keeping me “out of the Kingdom of God” except my own ability to choose what is required of me. In that, I hear the echo of Micah 6:8 – “What does the Lord require of you? Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”
Chapter 7: A Manager and a Rich Man, Afghanistan and the United States
6. In today’s culture, a person fired from a job is escorted off the premises by security so they can not do anything. Why didn’t that happen in the parable? [p.82]
The man in Jesus’s parable had not been fired yet. As our author points out here, “he possessed considerable ability” and his employer had “entrusted him with large amounts of both responsibility and authority.” Why would he fire him without concrete proof that his manager had, in fact, been “squandering” the rich man’s property? As Ford correctly points out, “Each required the other in order to function.” In short, the manager had value and the rich man desperately needed to know, finally, whether he would be worth keeping.
7. Do you think the accusations were true, false or unknown? Why? [p.86]
I think Ford is right to point out that in the translation “clarity and ambiguity are intertwined.” The manager could’ve just been doing his job, but the rich man’s greed caused him to be suspicious because he expected more from him. And, as Scott says in the footnote on that page, “The parable offers no answers to these questions.” The parable may not want us to focus on a “dishonest manager.” As Ford says, in the end, what we ought to focus on is “the behavior of the rich man” (p.87).
8. Why do you think the manager squandered his master’s resources? Do you agree with the author’s analysis? [p.91]
I don’t agree, completely, with Ford’s analysis. The rich man’s greed blinded him from seeing his manager’s worth. He just expected his manager to find more ways to make a rich man even more rich than he already was. Again, the parable seems almost intentionally unclear. The manager, in fact, may not have “squandered his master’s resources.” In the eyes of a greedy owner, the manager just wasn’t continuing to make him as rich as he desired to be.
9. What might have led to a better outcome in the parable? Why do you think that didn’t happen? [p.92]
If the rich man truly valued his manager’s skills, he would’ve sat down with him and allowed his manger to make the case that “a glass half-full is better than an empty one” – i.e., that his clients debts probably wouldn’t be fully paid anyway, so why not be smart, take what he can get and weed out the more disreputable ones from ever doing business with him again. Sadly, the manager knew that he couldn’t do that; his rich boss just wanted to squeeze as much money out of others as he could until he destroyed them. The manager didn’t want that to happen to him as well.
10. Did you reach the richer level of response to this parable? How? [p.93]
I think I did. Our author is right to say “What you are seeking is willing collaboration.” So, I think that I do “respect the parable” and its message that it is far, far better for us to try to find equitable solutions to our problems and differences than to continue to insist, simply, that some will win while others must lose. As Ford points out later in his summary interpretation of this parable:
“In the end the manager is destroyed while the rich man departs. …
the one dominating reduces the one dominated to incompetence –
all the while declaring the unfortunate subordinate to be the one
There is a better way, and Jesus constantly challenges us to choose that way.
Week 3 Questions
1 – Why do you think there is no discussion in the Bible of what “a day's pay” SHOULD be? 44
2 – What difference does it make to our story (and the comparison of vineyard workers to Iraqi oil) that payment was made in the first case but not in the second? 46
3 – Would a better comparison rather than Iraqi oil, be between the parable and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation? Why? 46
4 – Where does the same come from? 48
5 – How does the Bible help us listen to the parables? Comments? 51
6 – After reading the parables, but before reading our author, how do you see these parables related? 52
X – One thing you might do is count the number of question marks in this chapter.
Y – I found this chapter extremely difficult. But since our author has asked so many questions, I would like to propose that you choose some of his questions and propose answers or at least comments. I particularly liked the set starting with “What if God is the one watching the woman who carries the jar?” Give it a shot. 65
Responses to Questions Raised in Week 3
Chapter 4: Laborers and a Vineyard Owner, Iraqi Oil and the United States
1. Why do you think there is no discussion in the Bible of what “a day's pay” SHOULD be? [p.44]
The Bible does say quite a bit about paying workers for their work (e.g., Genesis 30:28-34 and 31:7, Leviticus 19:13, Proverbs 3:27-28 and 14:31, Jeremiah 22:13, Malachi 3:5, Deuteronomy 15:10 and 24:14-15, Luke 3:14 and 10:7, Acts 20:35, Romans 4:4, 1 Timothy 5:8,17-18, et.al.). However, when justice is considered, maybe the closest (oddly enough) might be these words from James 5:4 –
“Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you
kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the
harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”
The tragic answer to this question, though, is that a just wage might never have occurred to anyone – not even to the workers themselves. The impoverished, all too often, were just grateful to have some kind of work that allowed them to survive. Throughout ancient history, then, the demand for a just wage didn’t come up, not so much because religion or the issues of justice failed to demand it, but because the majority of people simply weren’t sufficiently motivated to even consider such a change.
More often than not, communities have failed to provide better economic conditions by saying some version of: “But we’ve always done it this way!” – or its corollary, “We’ve never done it that way!” So, not surprisingly, when it comes to paying a just wage, more often than not a firm acceptance of the status quo has been the response. Of course, this always has been the position most firmly taken by those with power and privilege who’ve simply found it convenient to keep the powerless and the disadvantaged in their place. So, they say to themselves, “Why mess with what’s worked for so long?”
2. What difference does it make to our story (and the comparison of vineyard workers to Iraqi oil) that payment was made in the first case but not in the second? [p.46] (Note: The Iraqi's have never agreed to the oil "deals" we offered, so we are not paying – as I understand our author.)
The only difference that I can discern is that at least the vineyard owner was brazenly obvious about his privilege and power. The Western multinational oil companies, on the other hand, hid their nefarious intentions behind a classic shell game – a deceptive ploy that would, as Ford exposes, “deliver to Western oil corporations rates of return…from 42 to 162 percent, far in excess of the usual industry return of 12 percent” (p.45). It’s bad enough that the entire “occupation is paid for by U.S. citizens” while “the oil profits would revert entirely to Western corporations”…, but these corporations then hid their egregious profits through another sleight of hand by renaming the PSAs (“Production Sharing Agreement”), calling them RECs (“Risk Exploration Contracts”) (p.46). By comparison, the vineyard owner isn’t even in the same league when it comes to such global malfeasance.
3. Would a better comparison rather than Iraqi oil, be between the parable and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation? Why? [p.46]. (Note: The Gates foundation is rich people giving away their absurd amount of wealth rather than working to change the system so that few have less and all have more.)
I don’t know that Bill and Melinda Gates have enough influence “to change the system” like this that is virtually worldwide. In the meantime, and in their own way, I think that they’re still doing good in the agencies that they’ve chosen to support – focusing on improving people’s health and giving them the chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty.
4. Where does the shame come from? [p.48]
There is none. Under the guise of spreading “freedom and prosperity,” Dick Cheney and his oil magnates have just continued to do what they want – long after they left the White House. As Ford notes:
President Bush consistently told the American people that his war aims
were to provide Iraqis with democracy, liberty, hope, freedom, prosperity,
But it was a lie. Bush, himself, however, may have been naïve enough to actually believe what he said, but (urged on by the petrochemical lobbyists) his own Vice President deceived him.
5. How does the Bible help us listen to the parables? Comments? [p.51]
Fundamentally, the parables of Jesus were meant to confront us with a more enlightened understanding of the nature of “the kingdom of God” – as Jesus, himself, envisioned it. While the majority of his parables have this central theme, elsewhere in the Bible psalmists, prophets and other such authors have been lifting up very similar themes: “Who is God and how can we know God’s will?” As the Gospel According to Matthew (11:15) has Jesus putting it, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Curiously enough, it’s worth noting that in the 1st century CE parables were a far more common teaching device than they are now.
The difficulty is that, for centuries afterward, the Church has transformed them into orthodox allegories with definitive answers (i.e., suggesting to us which characters mirror divine attributes and which are far from the kingdom of God). I’ve come to believe that the parables are neither meant to be allegories nor stories with clear conclusions – in fact, if you think that you know exactly what they mean and where you would place yourself in the parable, you may very well be missing the point.
What also makes them problematic is that they’re meant to be understood from the perspective of the cultures that dominated the Ancient Near East (i.e., at the time of Jesus). If we must extrapolate their meaning and apply their messages to our contemporary landscape, we must first understand how they would’ve been heard in their original context. Only then might we be able to speculate how their message could be understood within our own culture here in the 21st century. That, I think, is exactly what Ford has tried to do in this book.
Chapter 5: A Woman with Leaven, a Woman with a Jar, and a Man with a Sword: Gender Inequities
6. After reading the parables, but before reading our author, how do you see these parables related? [p.52]
Obviously, I would expect that all of them were meant to reveal something about the nature of the kingdom of God (or, as Ford and other scholars have translated that phrase, “the Father’s imperial rule”). Other than that, initially, I saw no relationship between them at all, other than they presented characters with whom the original listeners could relate at many different levels.
[Note from Peter: “…since our author has asked so many questions, I would like to propose that you choose some of his questions and propose answers or at least comments.”]
To begin with, I think that our author is asking so many questions in this chapter simply as a literary device to get us pondering, ourselves, about the full meaning and messages that are coming from these parables. Much like the parables, themselves, his questions are meant to be parabolic.
Out of my experiences as a Marine Corps officer, then a teacher and counseling psychologist, and finally a pastor, the parable that caused me to recall my own journey and to ponder our author’s questions was the Parable of the Sword.
7. The Parable of the Sword, Ford says, “appears to applaud the man for wresting himself into control”…(p.58). The questions that arise for him are these:
“A hidden irony seems insistent: if you capture power by the courageous
use of force, are you not thereafter vulnerable to overthrow by that same
use of force? …. Or have you, at great risk, merely reproduced through
lawlessness the same lawlessness you thought you had overcome?”
He comes back to this same theme, later, by repeating “…how can justice be established through courageous violence without falling prey to corrupting coercion?” (p.66).
I find it interesting that he repeatedly uses that adjective “courageous” – seeming to presume that the man’s initial decision was an ethical one – but such use of force could be later corrupted and then repeated in unethical ways. I think that he makes a good point. Flexing the muscles of our military (let alone using weapons of mass destruction) is all too often seductively easier than committing us to the time and effort required by diplomacy. Ford puts it yet another way:
“…if we destroy (rather than transform) the powerful other, we run the
risk of rendering ourselves vulnerable both to further destroying and to
being destroyed. …. In short, how can the oppressed evade the awful
possibility of themselves becoming oppressors?” (p.66).
How, indeed. Ford’s postscript rightfully reminds us that, all too often, the powerful provoke violent attack and then “twin forms of violence…are now poised to reverberate endlessly” (p.143). Consider what’s happening all across Asia and the Middle East right now. So many of the wars we have fought there only have sowed the seeds for still more. Tragically, as in most wars, many of the victims are innocent noncombatants – “collateral damage” being the unfortunate euphemism used by the military.
In an uncanny way, the history of the Church, itself, has been guilty of such violence through its heresy trials, pogroms and religious wars of its own. While it may no longer be literally killing people, with its dogmatic rigidity it’s inflicted damage almost as reprehensible. It has destroyed people’s souls.
8. [Peter’s question again:] I particularly liked the set starting with “What if God is the one watching the woman who carries the jar?” [p.65]
To begin with, it’s an unfortunately orthodox (i.e., anthropomorphic) imagery for God as Ford speaks here of a God who “chooses to wait, for human responsiveness” – that righting any inequity in the world is finally up to us. I agree with him. It is up to us to respond in the face of injustice, but this just isn’t my image of the ineffable and mysterious Force that I envision God to be.
In addition, oddly enough, I don’t ever remember understanding the image of this parable to refer to a woman in the midst of experiencing a miscarriage (How did I miss that?). But it does work as a metaphor for any kind of miscarriage of justice in which the victim is totally blameless. It’s led Ford to confront us, directly, as we stand by watching this happen and (as so often is the case) failing to intervene: “Does God indeed not intervene when the creation, under human stewardship, so badly miscarries?” (p.142). My answer is decidedly, no. I can see nowhere in history where that has happened. Even in the cases of innocent victims, it’s left up to us to see that justice is done – to make right whatever has gone wrong. God will not intervene. We must. This goes back to my own response to the fundamental question posed by the concept of theodicy: “If God is a god of love, why is their evil?” My answer has always been that we were the ones who perpetrated the evil; so, it’s up to us, now, to repent (that word in Greek is metanoia – literally meaning to have a change of heart, a spiritual conversion, turn around, and go in the other direction) and choose its opposite.
Then Ford asks: “Does God stand aside while our heritage spills out on the ground?” (Ibid.). Apparently, yes – if that is your image for God. “Or does God instead sit down beside the woman with her broken jar – and weep?” (loc. sit.). No, I think not. On the other hand, that’s exactly what Jesus did – and so has embodied the kind of empathy and compassion that he then expects from the rest of us.
I’m reminded again of the quote of the cartoonist, Walt Kelly, who had his character, Pogo, say (during the turmoil of the 1960s caused by the Vietnam War), “We have met the enemy and he is us.” In the end, what I think is being called for in the situations presented in such parables as these is a kind of righteous indignation – fueled by a community of Christ-followers – that, collectively, will lead us to find ways to see that these situations are resolved in much more equitable and compassionate ways. Again – and as it always has been – it’s up to us.
Week 2 Questions
1 – Does it matter whether our “wealthy man” is a Jew or a Roman? Which do you think, and why? 20
2 – Compare this parable to capitalism. 22
3 – How does the choice of Steven Spielberg as the analog to the third slave feel to you? 24
4 – The author is describing the system of patronage and hierarchy in place 2000 years ago. How is our current system different? 27
5 – Do you agree that it is God’s desire for all to share equally in what the earth provides? Why? If so, how are you helping to make this happen? 28
6 - “the aristocratic minority...are...entitled to whatever they can take from the vast majority.” How well does this describe our current government? 30
7 – Compare the move from small holder peasants to landless tenants TO today’s homeless situation. 32
8 – Find out more about the prosbul measure. 32
9 – Does “Our Perception of the Master” represent what happened to many blue collar Trump supporters? Explain. 36
10 – What is another possible reason “Why would Jesus so completely imitate the behavior of the oppressors?” 38
Responses to Week 2 Questions
Chapter 2: Slaves and a Master, the Sudan and China
1. Does it matter whether our “wealthy man” is a Jew or a Roman? Which do you think, and why? [p.20]
I think it does. If he’s a Jew, he’d be a quisling and therefor an offense to his own people and its religious values. If he’s a Roman, it’s just what you’d expect of an oppressive and powerful foreigner who’s occupied your country – without any concern of the injustice of it – simply because they can.
2. Compare this parable to capitalism. [p.22]
In its current expression in these “United” States, capitalism actually has enabled the very wealthy to become even more wealthy, while the middle class is steadily disappearing, and the poor have no chance at all as they become even more impoverished. So, there may be some comparison here in the 21st century, but at least we don’t have to deal with the inevitabilities of slavery as once we did. The closest to it might be the kinds of indentured servitude that keep people trapped in low-end jobs that never will provide a livable wage.
3. How does the choice of Steven Spielberg as the analog to the third slave feel to you? [pp.24-25]
Ford could’ve come up with a better one. He seems to be aware of this when he’s noted that “Spielberg faced considerably less risk than the third slave…” (p.24). It was, as some realists pointed out, more than a bit quixotic on Spielberg’s part. I feel the same way.
4. The author is describing the system of patronage and hierarchy in place 2000 years ago. How is our current system different? [p.27]
Our version is just more pervasive and widespread, otherwise, for all practical purposes, it’s just the same.
5. Do you agree that it is God’s desire for all to share equally in what the earth provides? Why? If so, how are you helping to make this happen? [p.28]
First, in order for me to speak of something like “God’s desire” I would have to buy into an anthropomorphic image for God, which I don’t. Second, even if God were some kind of sentient Supreme Being emoting such longing, it looks, instead, like that god has left it entirely up to us to decide what living compassionately and equitably ought to look like. While it is the just and right thing to do, most of us in the First World, however, don’t appear to be motivated enough to “share equally” in that way. Instead, behind the false security of our isolationism, we now seem to be saying something like this to the rest of the world: “We’ve got ours. You get yours as best you can; just don’t take anything away from us as you do. What’s more, don’t expect us to willingly give up what we do claim is ours.”
Chapter 3: Jesus’s Parable of the Talents: The Imaging and Mimicry of Empire
6. “the aristocratic minority...are...entitled to whatever they can take from the vast majority.” How well does this describe our current government? [p.30]
It pretty well describes the ways in which Donald J. Trump operates. And the longer he’s in power, the more his wealthy and powerful supporters will continue to move the government toward their like-minded penchant for selfishness and greed.
7. Compare the move from small holder peasants to landless tenants to today’s homeless situation. [p.32]
I don’t know that the majority of today’s homeless were ever persons of property who then lost everything due to the pernicious and enforced indebtedness of the ruling class. As I understand it, the greatest cause of homelessness for women in this country is domestic violence. In the case of families, maybe there is a parallel, because far too many either can’t find affordable housing, employment, are already poor, or have such low wages they’re close to the poverty line already. Some of that goes back to their inability to get a good education, but with the current state of affairs in the public school system, more often than not the families aren’t to blame; the government is. Much of our homelessness in this country is demographic – the result of disruptive events that have negatively affected the lives of youth, LGBTQ persons, or others who have no support network – but a significant number are, tragically, those many who remain in the grip of either mental illness or substance abuse.
8. Find out more about the prosbul measure. [p.32]
This is just a bit of what I found in an article entitled “Abrogation of Laws” by Moses Mileziner from the Jewish Encyclopedia:
“The ancient rabbis claimed authority, not only to make new provisions and to
establish institutions as a "hedge" for the protection of the Biblical laws, but under
certain circumstances even to suspend and to abrogate a Biblical law. They derived
this authority from the passage in Deut. xvii. 8-11, in which mention is made of a
supreme court consisting of priests, Levites, and ‘the judge that shall be in those
days.’ Doubtful questions of law were to be brought before this court, and
unconditional obedience to this supreme authority in all religious, civil, and criminal
matters is emphatically enjoined in [these] words: …
‘A later court has a right to reject a decision based on the interpretation of a former
though higher court, for Scripture says: 'Go to the judge who will be in those days,'
meaning, you shall go according to the authority of your own time (ibid. ii. 1).’
“Any religious court [kol bet din] has the power to set aside even a Biblical law as a
temporary measure. If they find it necessary to suspend for the time being an injunction,
or to permit one to act against a prohibition in order to bring the masses back to the
Torah, or in order to prevent a greater evil, those in authority may do according to the
exigency of the time. Just as a physician is sometimes compelled to amputate the limb
of a patient in order to save his life and general health, so those in authority [bet din]
may at any time decree the temporary suspension of some laws in order to secure the
fulfilment of the religious law in general (ibid. ii. 4).” ….
“Hillel the Elder enacted a measure, termed Prosbul, which was tantamount to an
abrogation of the Biblical law in Deut. xv. 2, concerning the release from debt in the
Sabbatical year. Finding that this law, which was intended to benefit the poor, proved
in the course of time rather a disadvantage to them, as no one was willing to lend them
money lest he lose his claim at the approach of the Sabbatical year, Hillel, by virtue of
his authority as head of the Sanhedrin, caused a law to be enacted by which the creditor
could transfer the debt to the court in writing, so that the latter might collect it in spite of
the Sabbatical year (Mishnah Sheb. x. 3, 4).”
“While the Sabbatical year, especially in so far as it concerned the fallow land (Lev. xxv.
3-7), was strictly observed during the period of the second Temple, and even after its
destruction, there is no historical record of the observance of the jubilee year as ordained
in Lev. xxv. 8-12. According to the Talmud ('Ar. 32b), the observance of the jubilee ceased
from the time when the tribes of Reuben and Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh were
carried off by the king of Assyria. The Talmud justifies the abrogation of this Biblical
institution by a rather too literal interpretation of the words in the law concerning the
jubilee year: ‘And ye shall proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants
thereof’; only when all the inhabitants were in the land was the jubilee to be observed,
but not when some tribes were exiled from it ('Ar. ibid.).”
So, not unlike our own Supreme Court today, apparently the judges of ancient Judaism also reframed set law to meet their perceived “need” for a new interpretation – even though it actually seems like attempts to justify their own preconceived conclusions.
9. Does “Our Perception of the Master” represent what happened to many blue collar Trump supporters? Explain. [p.36]
There certainly has been an “insidious erosion of integrity” within the Republican party as far too many of his loyal supporters have put up with his lies simply to remain in power. The “blue collar Trump supporters,” however, are either ignorant, naïve, or simply white supremacists who’ve come out of hiding and jumped on Trump’s xenophobic band wagon. In fact, they’ve always been racists but now, with an exemplar in the White House, are being encouraged to fight back against the ways in which their neighborhoods are becoming more diverse and open to all people.
10. What is another possible reason “Why would Jesus so completely imitate the behavior of the oppressors?” [p.38]
If you accept our author’s conclusion that Jesus purposefully used irony in these parables in an attempt to make his point, this may just be one more example of it. As Ford says in his conclusion of this section, the final irony is that “By choosing to locate themselves either against or with the third slave, parable listeners themselves adopt or resist these same distorting strategies so essential to imperial control” (p.39). As part of his later summary, our author also says this:
“Jesus thus envelops his listeners in pressures similar to those the master imposes
on his slave – …. Exploit, keep distance from your inherent criminality, and you will
be rewarded. Resist, stand up for the exploited, and you will either be ignored or
hammered into the ground” (p.141).
That it then happened to Jesus, himself, is the most tragic and final irony of all.
Week 1 Questions
1 – Before reading any of our author’s choice of parables, pick one that you have read in more than one way and describe the difference(s) in you reading. 2
2 – Who do you think is/was most responsible for the assumption that the dominant character represents God? 3
3 – Describe how well you think you understand Jesus’ parables. 4
4 – What is our author really saying on pg. 10: Mark thus wrests … as if it were an imperial sword.
5 – How is the vineyard owner’s enterprise A) lawful and B) unlawful? 12
6 – Why does the world look so different from the top down and from the bottom up? 13
7 – Describe a situation in which your view(point) of a situation was very different from someone else. 14
8 – How much are you lured into the uncomfortable position of suspecting? 16
9 – Why are all these questions concerned with Jesus’ original parables and now about the modern parallel?
Responses to Week 1
1. Before reading any of our author’s choice of parables, pick one that you have read in more than one way and describe the difference(s) in your reading. [p.2]
I was told, many times, that the Parable of the Prodigal Sons (There were two, you know.) had three main characters: the father represented God who is loving and merciful and welcomes back repentant sinners like the younger son. The elder brother represents an attitude that none should hold against repentant ones, namely, resentment and an unforgiving spirit. This was and is the orthodox position of this parable.
As Amy-Jill Levine rightly has pointed out (see"The Christian Century," August 25, 2014), all biblically literate people would recognize the opening words of this parable: “There was a man who had two sons.” I, too, am one who remains unconvinced that the elder brother was an addition to Jesus’ parable. Still, most would be inclined to identify with the younger son – remembering the stories of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, or Jacob and Esau. But those same biblically literate listeners would be in for a surprise in this parable when the younger son turns out not to be the righteous Abel, the faithful Isaac, or the clever Jacob, but an irresponsible, self-indulgent, and probably shamefully indulged child. His behavior, even at the end, sounds too much like conniving and not true contrition.
The whole parable, for me then, is not an allegory; it’s about a real family and the struggles that many of us all go through to live out our life together. All three characters have their flaws as well as their redeeming qualities. The danger is that each of them seems unaware when they’ve crossed the line between the two. In that they are exactly like us.
2. Who do you think is/was most responsible for the assumption that the dominant character represents God? [p.3]
Without a doubt, it was those nascent church leaders – first represented by the apostles, but also it was the actual authors of the gospels, along with later contributors to the legend, that then edited and/or added to the manuscripts in the decades that followed. In the end, sadly, it was the institutional Church, though, that solidified these kinds of additional assumptions within the parables, effectively emptying them of their creative power and turning them into dogma.
3. Describe how well you think you understand Jesus’ parables. [p.4]
I am both amazed and gratified to have discovered that these stories are far more profound than the simple allegories into which they were shaped and solidified by the Church. In that, I owe a great debt to modern biblical scholarship (especially to Bob Funk and the scholars of “The Jesus Seminar”) in helping me rediscover my own theology and hear – as best we can – the original voice of Jesus of Nazareth. So, even after a lifetime of having grown up in the Church, of struggling with its restrictions, and yet coming back to its deep giftedness, and then achieving a Masters Degree in theology from a prestigious university, these parables continue to open up new understandings where once I felt that I knew what they meant. But that is their genius – and the genius behind the one who first spoke them. They remain as fresh, new, and profoundly compelling to me as ever they first were.
Chapter 1: Tenants and a Landlord, Iraq and the United States
4. What is our author really saying on pg. 10:
"Mark thus wrests this ambiguous parable away from the imagination of a
supremely nonviolent Jesus and returns it to him – at the very moment he
is most determined to accept death rather than fight – as if it were an
Like most of us who, at first, were dumbfounded by these parables, Mark and his surrogates have wrestled with their meaning and messages and tried to make sense of them. Regrettably, their conclusions have been passed on to the rest of us as certainties when, in fact, there is much more to them than we first thought. I think Ford is saying here, then, that it’s more than likely we have misread these parables – but, more importantly, by doing so we have misunderstood the life and meaning of the one who first presented them to us. Jesus’ vision of the “kingdom of God” is nothing at all like the kingdoms and governments that we’ve created. We have completely missed the point. Through the lessons given in these parables, we ought to learn how to live together so that we can begin to turn away from models of imperialism (be they ancient Roman or modern American) and finally begin to create a truly egalitarian community – a community which then will be very close to the ancient images that Jesus imagined as the “kingdom of God.”
5. How is the vineyard owner’s enterprise A) lawful and B) unlawful? [p.12]
Within the law that existed at that time, he is the recognized owner of the vineyard so he’s free to do with it as he pleases. On the other hand, his wealth and privileged position have allowed him to effectively steal this land from those who first owned and worked it. In that, he’s every bit as much of a thief as anyone who takes from another by force or guile. As Ford rightly points out, I think, here:
"Time and again, peasant smallholders were forced off their
ancestral lands and left with no choice other than to become
tenant farmers. Having reduced the peasantry to retaining
only a fraction of their production, the aristocracy made off
with both their property and its profit."
6. Why does the world look so different from the top down and from the bottom up? [p.13]
In so many ways those two positions are simply from two different “worlds” – as, in much the same way, we have come to speak of the “First World” (consisting of the U.S., Western Europe and their allies) while the “Third World” was the more impoverished and still developing parts of the globe (Note: Originally, the “Second World” was the then-called Communist Bloc – made up by the former Soviet Union, China, Cuba and their friends). I discovered that this “three worlds, one planet” imagery was first introduced in 1952 by a French demographer named Alfred Sauvy. All of that has become blurred since then, but the concept remains. If you live in one world, it’s difficult to comprehend – let alone appreciate – what living in the other is really like. It’s simply beyond your experience and maybe even beyond your ability to imagine.
I do appreciate, then, how our author closes out this section by asking, “might we not be wise to reengage this parable…to better understand how we are seen by others?” Indeed, we should. That kind of empathy is the heart of his thesis and maybe, just maybe, also within the heart of the one who gave us these parables to ponder in the first place. The choice is up to us.
7. Describe a situation in which your view(point) of a situation was very different from someone else. [p.14]
I could get inappropriately personal in response to this question by exposing what it’s been like to be married and to raise a family with my partner of fifty years…but I won’t. Two of the closest other things in my experience of life, that I can think of, happened when I was a teacher and, later, a pastor.
While I was a classroom teacher in a public high school in North Carolina, one of my students abruptly stood up in class and literally threw his desk across the room in frustration and rage. After calming things down and walking him to the principal’s office, I made an appointment with his mother to meet with her at their home. What I discovered was that they lived in a one-room home (that they didn’t own), that he was the eldest son of an unwed and single mother, and that there were four other siblings living in the same home. She said of her son, through tears, “I don’t know what to do. I’ve lost him. Please do whatever you can to help him.” Part of his issue was that he was a sophomore in high school but had a reading level equivalent to a fourth grader. While the reasons for his frustration and anger became more understandable to me, I could only be his surrogate parent during the times he was in my classroom. But, I never saw him again. I heard that he’d thrown a two-by-four at the shop teacher one day so was expelled from school. I am still haunted by hearing the rumor that months later he’d ended up in prison and might be languishing in the North Carolina penal system to this day.
A second experience happened much later – after I became a pastor. I came to know a woman in my congregation in Sacramento who’d grown up on the island of Grenada – many miles to the east of the island of Aruba where I grew up. When I told her how we had lived when I was a child – in a company compound separated from the local population – she smiled, looked at me, and said, “Oooh, I remember you white devils! When I was a child, my girlfriends and I used to sneak peeks through the fence that surrounded a community just like yours.” Back then I had no idea people like her existed.
8. How much are you lured into the uncomfortable position of suspecting? [p.16]
I’m not quite sure what this question is asking, but if in this parable – as in life – we doubt or mistrust who we think we really are, we may be in deep denial. That could lead to all kinds of trouble. We may be unable to clearly see both our strengths as well as our weaknesses, our insights as well as our assumptions, and what we might see in ourselves but remain blind to other things about ourselves. There is much to be said, then, for learning what our “shadow” self (in the Jungian sense) is truly like and how it functions within our whole personality.
9. Why are all these questions concerned with Jesus’ original parables and now about the modern parallel?
While it’s important – vital even – to hear these parables in their original context (i.e., the culture of the Ancient Near East), there is real power in discovering insights for their application here in the 21st century. What makes them deeply significant, for me, is that we may be able to figuratively resurrect the “voice” of Jesus and effectively apply his message to our own lives and within our own culture and time.
In the final analysis, the parables of Jesus must be heard as condemnations of those who continue to initiate, tolerate, endorse or simply perpetuate situations and systems of victimization and injustice. As participants in the social structures portrayed in these parables – and at every step along the way – each of us is given a choice. Whose side will we be on: the side of the oppressor or the oppressed? How will we know the difference? The danger, always, is assuming too soon that we think we know where we stand. In fact, we may be standing on the wrong side. It is the parable that then confronts us with the most important and pointedly personal question of all: “Now, what will you do?”