Thursday, March 7, 2013

How Not to Read the Parables (BOOK REVIEW: KINGDOM, GRACE, JUDGMENT: PARADOX, OUTRAGE, AND VINDICATION IN THE PARABLES OF JESUS)

Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), pp. 522.

Robert Farrar Capon's Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus collects three previously published books in one volume. Capon identifies three major themes in the parables of Jesus--kingdom (which Jesus teaches prior to the miraculous feeding of five thousand), grace (which Jesus teaches between this miracle and his entry into Jerusalem), and judgment (which Jesus teaches after entering Jerusalem and before dying) (p. 20). The book's three parts (formerly books themselves) each focus on one of these kinds of parables. Capon employs readable prose, but what the back cover calls "authorial flair" will be described less kindly by some readers--clichés and colloquialisms abound here, to the point of distraction.

Capon's most compelling insight comes early--Jesus prefers "left-handed power" (a phrase borrowed from Martin Luther) to the more common right-handed power. Right-handed power is coercive; left-handed power is non-coercive. "Left-handed power...is precisely paradoxical power: power that looks for all the world like weakness" (p. 19). In one of his best pieces of interpretive work, Capon reads the Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30) in a way that argues convincingly for left-handed power (pp. 83-93).

Many of Capon's readings of other parables are less compelling, however; and one is arguably even ugly. He repeatedly makes two questionable interpretive moves. First, he reads Martin Luther's interpretation of Paul into Jesus' parables; the sad irony of this move is that it makes a first-century Jewish peasant (Jesus) sound like a sixteenth-century anti-Semitic Christian who supported violence against peasants (Luther). Second, Capon tends to allegorize the parables, including stories for which Jesus offers no allegorical interpretation; for example, the fatted calf in the Parable of the Prodigal Son is "the Christ-figure in this parable" (p. 298).

A look at two of Capon's discussions--first of the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and then of the Parable of the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8)--will show why the two moves in question are problematic. Capon thinks that the Parable of the Good Samaritan has been misnamed--that the parable is more about the dying man, who is--in allegorical fashion--seen as a Christ-figure (despite the fact that he doesn't die). The reason Capon wishes to downplay the importance of the Samaritan is that his soteriology (after Martin Luther) makes him suspicious of even a whiff of works-righteousness: "Calling it the Good Samaritan inevitably sets up hearers to take it as a story whose hero offers them a good example for imitation.... But the common, good-works interpretation of the imitation to which Jesus invites us all too easily gives the Gospel a fast shuffle" (pp. 212-213). It may be Capon, however, who has given "the Gospel a fast shuffle"; he seems to have reduced the good news of and about Jesus to the Protestant principle--"justification by faith alone." In Capon's hands, parables that at face value are ethical instruction rather than soteriological instruction become examples of Martin Luther's soteriology--namely, that we are saved by grace through faith alone (Luther's addition to Paul), and not by works. This formula devalues works (faithfulness) to the point that Luther and Capon regard them with suspicion; it is hardly surprising to find not a single reference to the book of James in Capon's work--Luther, after all, dismissed it as a work of straw! Capon writes, "Salvation is not some felicitous state to which we can lift ourselves by our own bootstraps" (p. 213). Jesus and Paul would no doubt agree that we do not save ourselves; but it's just as clear that they both taught ethics. The Parable of the Good Samaritan presents a Samaritan--a despised outsider--as an unlikely hero and example to imitate; like Jesus, he loves the other and acts as a healer. The story simply is not about salvation (at least, not in the narrow sense of a personal and future deliverance); Jesus is concerned about this-worldly matters, too.

(A parenthetical paragraph to show the deficiency--and even danger--of Capon's reading: Capon, in the middle of his discussion of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, writes, "The extermination of six million Jews, for example, was done precisely in the name of a perverse vision of goodness--of a totally Aryan society that would bring in the millennium just as soon as the non-Aryans were weeded out" [p. 214]. This comment is curious. After all, many of the Germans who did this exterminating were baptized Lutherans--people who had been raised on a theology that idolized the Protestant principle and minimized the importance of ethics. Had they been taught to love the other [the plain meaning of the Parable of the Good Samaritan], Hitler might not have had the manpower to do what he did.)

Capon's interpretation of the Parable of the Unjust Judge is even uglier. Allegorizing freely, Capon identifies the judge in this story as "a perfect stand-in for God" (p. 331)--despite the fact that the text says the judge "neither feared God nor had respect for people" (Luke 18:2). This move requires that the widow be seen as something less than a hero, because she and the God-figure judge are in an adversarial relationship. The widow is marginalized and vulnerable, Capon admits, but she should be willing to accept her situation ("her death") instead of trying "to make a buck out of her loss." The judge "arrives at his judgment...not on the merits of the [widow's] case but simply on the basis of his own convenience." The story shows that "God is willing to be perceived as a bad God"--even judging for people who have weak cases (which is everyone) (pp. 331-333). Here again Capon manages to read "justification by faith alone" into a parable: God shows mercy to people regardless of whether their causes are just.

The problem with this eisegesis is that it fails to affirm what Jesus affirms--namely, the persistence of a marginalized and vulnerable person seeking justice. The parable is better interpreted as an a fortiori (lesser to greater) argument--Jesus is saying, "If an unjust judge will show mercy to a persistent widow, then how much more will a just God hear our cries?" Capon cannot accept this reading of the parable because it suggests that God rewards persistence, and this suggestion does not fit neatly with the Protestant principle.

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