OF ALL recent books on the parables, this unpretentious volume is the best. The author seems to have read everything, but every piece of knowledge produced contributes to the understanding of the message of Jesus and the Evangelists.
It is all simply explained in a way that shows the author’s respectful love both for her readers and for all the characters who appear in her narrative. Even the Pharisees are treated sympathetically. We meet all the characters on friendly terms and on their own ground, the boy herding half-a-dozen sheep and a couple of goats, the wealthy farmer who owns a hundred sheep, and so probably has a slave-helper. One can feel the hard soil of the stony hills of Galilee and the hunger of the labourers waiting for their meagre pay on a lucky day of full employment.
All the Gospel parables (and paroimiae, as John calls them) are considered, grouped according to their imagery: weeds and wheat, vineyards, fishing, shepherds, building, etc., each chapter being summed up at the end by a gentle reflection. Most pages include a box that explains more technical issues of words, customs, money, differences between the Evangelists, the relative advantages and disadvantages of being a slave or a servant, the contrast between the rough, coarse barley bread of the feeding of the multitude and the heavenly bread of manna.
From many of these I learnt a lot: it throws a valuable light on the sums of money in the parables to know that the tribute paid to Rome for the whole of Herod’s kingdom was 9000 talents. For understanding the parables of the wineskins and the patch of cloth, the ancient process of preparation of these fabrics is crucial. At the end of each chapter comes a page that sums up some of the lessons learnt in the chapter. This, too, is in ordinary, chatty, non-didactic language, so that by the end of the book the reader feels that not only is the author herself a familiar friend, but so are also most of the characters whom we have met in the course of the stories.
One of the most interesting topics comes in the chapter on slaves and their masters. There is a whole row of moral business problems. As secure banks did not exist, it was common to bury treasures and money for security; what has this to say about the morals of the merchant who finds a treasure in the field and whistles off to buy the field and pocket the treasure? What about the harsh penalties meted out to unsatisfactory agents; is this God’s idea of forgiveness? Ought we to approve of the shrewd manager who fiddles the accounts? (David Daube long ago suggested that he merely cuts off the interest, which his master had no right to add to the prices.) Could the successful slaves entrusted with money have profiteered to the extent described without some pretty aggressive trading?
The author does have the honesty to throw up her hands in defeat and frustration (p. 151). It adds to the delight that she knows her limits.
Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.
Canterbury Press £16.99
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