In 1922 the highly respected Jewish scholar Joseph Klausner claimed that any sound methodology critically examining the historical Jesus must meet at least two requirements. First, critical research must place Jesus believably among the Jewish people in first-century Israel. Second, the historical analysis should explain how the church and the synagogue parted ways, resulting in the formation of the new Christian religion. In 1985 Sanders upheld the validity of these foundational principles in his widely acclaimed book, Jesus and Judaism. Since one-third of the recorded sayings of Jesus appear in parables, these Gospel illustrations have the potential to solve a number of mysteries surrounding the nascent faith. Who is Jesus of Nazareth and how did Christianity originate? How has the presence of Jewish traditions in the parables of Jesus influenced Christianity?
-Brad H. Young
Epilogue: Jesus, the Parables, and the Jewish People, pg 297
The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation
I sometimes (often) think that last question should read, “Do the presence of Jewish traditions in the parables of Jesus influence Christianity at all?” Even in the church I currently attend which is “Jewish-friendly” and “pro-Israel,” I’d have to say, “not very much.” Here’s what I mean:
He thereupon says to them, “Permit me to go repent!” And they answer him and say, “You fool! Do you know that this world is like the Sabbath and the world whence you have come is like the eve of the Sabbath? If a man does not prepare his meal on the eve of the Sabbath, what shall he eat on the Sabbath?”
-from Ruth Rabbah 3:3
quoted by Young in
Chapter 15: Death and Eschatology: The Theology of Imminence, pp 281-2
In this rabbinic parable, two wicked men have associated together in doing evil in this world for many years. Before they die, one repents and the other does not. The man who did not repent sees his friend who did repent standing among the righteous while he stands among the wicked. He “reasons” that a wicked man can repent and appeals to the company of the righteous but is rejected, for he failed to repent while still alive.
This compares well to Jesus’ parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens (Matthew 25:1-13) as well as to the following:
“Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’”
–Luke 16:19-31 (NASB)
This illustrates that the parables of the Master compared favorably with other rabbinic parables. His audience would have known well what he was communicating since what Jesus taught was similar to the topics and methods employed by other teachers in late second-temple period Israel (and remember what I’ve said before about repentance and eternal judgment).
But what you may have missed earlier is the comparison of the current life to the eve of Shabbat and the life of the world to come to the Shabbat.
Particularly in Orthodox Judaism, Friday afternoon can be a rush to get everything ready before Shabbat arrives at sundown. All the meals that will be consumed during Shabbat must be prepared ahead of time, the Shabbat table must be set, special clothes should be laundered and ready to wear, everything that must be purchased and organized before the Shabbat has to be taken care of, all with an eye on the lowering Sun and the purpose for all the labor…the Shabbat rest and the drawing near to God.
This is a pattern that happens every week. For one-seventh (and a little more) of the week, observant Jews experience a foretaste of the world to come, of the Messianic Era of peace and tranquility when the problems of the world and regular life are set aside and a greater apprehension of God through the Torah study, prayer, and worship becomes available.
But day-to-day life is just like the afternoon prior to Shabbat. We have our work, our labors, our worries, our concerns. What we are working for makes a difference. If we are working just to accumulate wealth and the illusion of material security, when the “Sabbath” comes, when we die, when we are judged, we finally realize that all of our work has been wasted.
If, on the other hand, we are working to authentically prepare for “Shabbat,” that is, to prepare our lives and our souls for an encounter with God in a life beyond this one, after the resurrection, in the face of Divine judgment, then our work is not in vain and will be rewarded. We will have prepared our home in the Kingdom.
But if you’re a Christian who has no true understanding of a Jewish Sabbath, all of this will be missed in reading the parables of Jesus. What a pity.
But there’s more we’re missing:
It is like a consort who had a Cushite maidservant. The consort’s husband went off to a foreign province. All night the maidservant said to the consort: I am more beautiful than you. The king loves me more than he loves you. The consort replied: Let morning come,and we will know who is more beautiful and whom the king loves.
Similarly, the nations of the world say to Israel: Our deeds are more beautiful, and we are the ones whom the Holy One, blessed be He, desires. Therefore Israel says: Let morning come, and we will know whom the Holy One, blessed be He, desires — as it is said, “The watchman replied, Morning comes” (Isa. 21:12): Let the world to come, which is called morning, arrive, “and you shall come to see the difference between the righteous and the wicked” (Mal. 3:18).
-See Midrash Tanchuma, ed. Buber (Num. Rab. 16:23); trans. Stern, Parables in Midrash, 116
quoted by Young, pg 286
This parable can be applied in a number of ways, not the least of which is how arrogantly western nations, the mainstream news media, and the sadly deluded BDS crowd believe they are so much more “righteous” than “apartheid” Israel. However, at least historically, this parable also tells us a tale about the Church and how Christianity has viewed itself in comparison with Judaism and the Jewish people. Classic supersessionism is illustrated in the above-quoted parable, with the Church believing itself more beautiful than Israel and more loved than Judaism, as if the maidservant would ever be able to replace the consort in the heart of the King.
Imagine this to be the result of the arrogance of such a belief:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’
–Matthew 7:21-23 (NASB)
I’ve previously applied this parable to those disciples of Jesus who failed to count the cost of following him and thus failed to commit the effort required to serve the great King of Israel. However, as part of being the King’s slave, we must be prepared to serve what he deems as his first love, Israel. If we place ourselves as Gentile servants higher than the Jewish nation, are we not committing lawlessness? For after all, even the Master said “Salvation comes from the Jews” (John 4:22) [to the nations], not the other way around.
And He began speaking a parable to the invited guests when He noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then in disgrace you proceed to occupy the last place. But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
–Luke 14:7-11 (NASB)
There are still many Christians who believe because they “have Christ,” they are inherently better than Jewish people, sometimes even those Jews who are considered “Messianic”. If you believe God replaced Israel with the Church, then you believe you deserve the bridegroom’s place at the head of the banquet table. And you believe you, the maidservant, are more beautiful and better loved by the King than the consort.
And you are wrong.
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?
–Romans 11:17-24 (NASB)
See how all this fits together? How can we believe anything else except what Jesus taught and what Paul wrote about?
But some of you reading this may think that I’m saying Christian faith is meaningless because we are not Jewish, we are not Israel. I’m saying nothing of the kind. I just don’t want you to “reverse causality.” It is through the covenant promises God made to Israel that the people of the nations even have a shot at repentance, redemption, and salvation, through faith in King Messiah, the King who is in a far off land but who will soon return.
Let the morning come and show who the King loves, but let us put our hearts and lives in order, as if we were preparing our homes for the coming Shabbat. Then we will be ready when the bridegroom arrives.
In many ways, the Gospel parables belong to the rich cultural heritage and folklore traditions of the Jewish people. No one will grasp the meaning of Jesus’ parables without an extensive knowledge of ancient Judaism. Christian interpretations have tended to sever the parables from their cultural roots and apply them to new situations. In the destiny of humankind, the transcendence of the colorful illustrations goes beyond a single interpretation at one time and place in history.
-Young, pg 298
I sometimes encounter words and phrases such as Sola Scriptura, “let scripture interpret scripture,” and “Biblical sufficiency” as indicators that we only need a Christian reader and a Bible to fully and completely derive all of the meaning of the teachings of Jesus. I hope that I (and Young) have been successful in bringing into question the validity of such a simple equation.
We want the Bible to be easy to understand because otherwise, it would take a lot of time and effort to even begin to comprehend the parables in a similar manner to the original first-century Jewish audience. We want to think that when Jesus was speaking, he was speaking to us…to 21st century American Christians.
He wasn’t. Not even close.
No, I’m not saying that his teachings don’t apply to our lives today, but in order to see just how they apply, we must attempt to grasp how they were understood and applied to Jewish lives nearly twenty centuries ago in a land, culture, and linguistic context far removed from our own.
I can only say that the more I study, the more I’m convinced that in order to understand Jesus, you have to understand the Judaism in which he lived and taught. You have to study ancient and arguably modern Judaism. It is said that a disciple is a student who learns from doing, from imitating his or her Master. We are disciples and we are slaves. Our Master is a great teacher and a King. Learning through imitation isn’t a matter if cheap pantomime or cosplay where we play “dress up” and attempt to superficially mimic our Master, it’s drawing near to his every wish, desire, and command in order to deeply comprehend his meaning and intent in all things. Only then can we apply this to our lives and behave in obedience in every aspect of our daily existence.
Only then will we be worthy of his praise when he says to us, “Well done, good and faithful slave” (Matthew 25:21). Only then will we be properly prepared for the Sabbath. Let the morning come.