“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink…I was imprisoned in a brothel and you rescued me.”
So begins Daniel Walker’s book God in a Brothel. It’s a bold and blunt beginning and the rest of the book is nothing but boldness and bluntness. The book is a primer on the ugly reality of human slavery—particularly sex trafficking.”
That’s how United Methodist pastor Roger Wolsey begins his review of the book, which he titles “Santa in a Brothel.” He explains the name by noting that, having just read the book, the Christmas season will soon upon us.
He continues, “The basis of the Santa Claus myth is memory of a real life good guy who helped people in need. Nikolaos was a historic person who was born in Patara in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) in the 4th Century A.D. Nikolaos’ wealthy parents died when he was young and he was raised by his uncle, the Bishop of Patara. Nikolaos became a bishop of the early Christian Church Myra in Lycia (who wore red clerical robes). While bishop he learned of three young sisters who were destined to a life of poverty, and likely prostitution. Nikolaos intervened by providing dowries—an abundance of gold—to each of the girls (placing it in their stockings according to legend).”
As he says, we have lost the deep sense of compassion of the man. Life-changing hospitality has become, as a shopping season, an economic barometer.
As for the parable of the sheep and the goats itself (Mt 25:31-46), what really opened my own eyes to it was the song by Keith Green. My roommate at Bible college introduced me to the artist who died in a plane crash in 1982.
At the end of the parable of the faithful and evil servants in Matthew 24, we’re told the fate of the inattentive servant who goofs off when the master is away. This servant “begins to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards” (v. 49). When the master returns and catches him unaware, he is not pleased. The servant is consigned to an unpleasant outcome. He is to be “cut…in pieces and put…with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v. 51).
The primary focus of the parable is on watchfulness. But that word “hypocrite,” or some variation of it, occurs over twenty times in the New Testament—the vast majority being in Matthew’s gospel. This is the only parable in which it appears.
Our word “hypocrite” comes directly from the Greek hupokritēs. It originally meant “interpreter” (as in interpreter of dreams) or “one who explains.” Later, it took on the meaning of “actor,” like one who performs in a play. It had the idea of speaking the lines in a play. It’s this definition of “actor” that was the commonly-understood meaning of the word for centuries. There was not necessarily a derogatory sense associated with being a hypocrite. That is, unless someone was in a position of trust, like a political or religious leader!
In fact, it appears that it’s only after the New Testament era that “hypocrite” takes on the metaphorical sense: people pretending to be something other than what they are.
Can we think of ways in which, in the morally neutral sense of the term, we are hypocrites? Can we think of ways in which we act or play a role? Could it be that our interpretation is messed up?
Does that ever cause us to weep and gnash our teeth?
Our Bible study will be taking on the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:23-35. It’s quite a colorful story! It features a king releasing a slave from his debt, that slave then grabbing his fellow indebted slave by the throat, and last but not least, God being pictured as a vengeful torturer.
(Of course, the amount owed by the slave to the king, ten thousand talents, should clue us in that the details of the story are fantastically exaggerated. One denarius was the usual wage for a day’s labor. With one talent equaling ten thousand denarii, ten thousand talents would equal one hundred million days of labor!)
The parable is introduced by Peter’s question to Jesus regarding how often he should forgive a brother or sister (vv. 21-22). “As many as seven times?” he asks. Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
I’ll avoid the temptation to go off on a tangent about our embrace of hateful, unforgiving practices and policies. Often quoted in justifying those practices and policies is the principle of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” This is the lex talionis, the “law of retaliation” (Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:19-20, Deuteronomy 19:21). However, this wasn’t intended as a command to commit violence; it was meant to limit violence. It was designed to keep blood feuds from spiraling out of control.
An example of vengeance gone wild is shown in the song of Lamech (Genesis 4:23-24). We see that “Lamech said to his wives: ‘Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.’”
Seventy-seven. Why is that number familiar? Jesus quite deliberately turns the song of Lamech on its head. In so doing, he turns plenty of our practices and policies on their head. Can we think of ways in which we want revenge? Can we think of ways in which we hold grudges?
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). That’s a story we’re looking at in our study of the parables of Jesus.
We can see ourselves as the field with the hidden treasure. How could we not be? We are made in the image of God. Still, we tend to settle. We settle for the 2nd best we can be. Or is it the 3rd best? How about the 15th best? Actually, putting any number on it misses the mark.
I would think that one lesson we can learn is that we’re always capable of more than we think we are. But often we’re too distracted, too lazy, or too uncaring for it to make a difference.
“The incarnation of Christ accomplished the most significant in-breaking of God into human history.” That’s how Ruth Ann Foster and William Shiell begin their co-authored article on the parables. (Cited below.) Most Christians would probably agree with that statement, at least, those who understand their faith to be trinitarian.
Jesus not only preached about the kingdom of God, the reign of heaven, but he himself personified it. Wherever Jesus was, there was the kingdom. Foster and Shiell say that his “miraculous works and parabolic words are not merely pointers to kingdom truth, but in actuality become vehicles delivering the reality of the kingdom itself. In the passing on and the reception of the parables the one ‘who has ears to hear’ then truly experiences the presence of the kingdom.” (259)
This is a viewpoint which sees the parables as more than comparisons and stories. Rather, the parables are windows into deep reality. For those who are truly open to them, they are a powerful means in which life itself is opened up. However, the light they shine “may be too revealing for comfort.” Still, as the authors add, we should “keep in mind that the mystery and paradox of the kingdom unnerves a culture which seeks immediate resolution of the tension of paradox.” (265)
How willing are we to gaze through these windows that are the parables of Jesus?
After taking the summer off, our Bible study will return in September. We’ll be looking at the parables of Jesus. There are a number of opinions on how to interpret them, but keeping something in mind is a big help. The word “parable” comes from the Greek word parabolē, which means “bringing something alongside,” or in a figurative sense, “comparison.”
Parables are comparisons. Not every word in those stories has some deep meaning.
Some of them appear in more than one of the gospels. We’ll look at how they compare among the synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. “Synoptic” comes from two words that mean “seeing together.”
We’ll get a good chance to test our comparative vision!