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Infuriating grace

Books | Using cultural context, Kenneth E. Bailey gleans fresh wisdom from the truths embedded in five of Jesus' parables

Issue: "Ethiopia's new flower," May 31, 2008

We review Kenneth E. Bailey's Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes in this week's issue. Here are some of his insights into five parables of Jesus.

WORLD: In the parable of the great banquet, why are the excuses-just bought a field, just bought five yoke of oxen-so evidently insincere and insulting?

BAILEY: When guests in a traditional Middle Eastern village are invited to a banquet they are obliged to appear or offer face-saving excuses. The excuses must be believable. The guest can say, "My wife has just come down with a high fever, I must stay with her," or something of that kind. Such an excuse will preserve the personal honor of the host.

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But in the story that Jesus tells, the first man says, "I have bought a field, I must go and see it." No one anywhere in the world buys real estate without seeing it. This excuse is paper thin; the guest can visit his field the next day. The second man says, "I have bought five yoke of oxen and I must examine them." Everyone knows buying a pair of oxen is like buying a used car; you must test it before you buy it.

The flimsy excuse is a public insult. The last guest is even more rude. Put bluntly, he says, "I have a woman in the back of the house and I am busy." He will be home that night. This is intensely offensive. Naturally the master gets angry but with great dignity and nobility he reprocesses that anger into grace.

WORLD: What's going on in the parable every Sunday school teacher finds difficult, the parable of the unjust steward?

BAILEY: The unjust steward is a rascal and is condemned by Jesus as "one of the sons of this world." The steward, who is caught cheating, is fired and ordered to turn in the accounts. He agrees, which means an admission of guilt. He then dreams up a clever scheme. Pretending that he is still in charge, he orders his staff to invite the debtors to come and see him. On arrival, he talks with them one at a time. Pretending to be making authorized reductions, he has them sign the bills in their own handwriting which the master will see and recognize. Signing in private keeps the transactions secret from the community. But having signed, in the future, the debtors will have to remain silent lest they implicate themselves. With a sly grin the steward turns in the bills. The community will never trust this man but will want him working for them rather than for someone else.

The master has two choices. He can announce to the village that all debts must be paid in full. Such an action will damage his reputation as a noble, generous man. If he remains silent his reputation will be enhanced. He opts instead to pay the price for his steward's salvation. In short, the steward was a rascal but he was smart enough to throw himself on the mercy of his master, confident that his master's nobility would win the day.

WORLD: How does the parable of the employer who gives every worker the same, regardless of how long he labored, illustrate the compassion of the employer? Why does he pay the workers in the way most likely to infuriate those who labored all day?

BAILEY: The unemployed in a traditional village gather in a corner of the public market. Standing there is like standing in the center of a mall with a sign around one's neck reading, "Unemployed."

The master is intelligent enough to know how many workers he needs. He hires some and encourages others. Later in the day, he checks the "unemployed corner" and out of his compassion hires a few more. He repeats this trip to the market throughout the day. When he comes to pay them, he knows that each of them has a needy family and so he pays each a full day's wage. Starting with the last one hired, he obliges the entire workforce to observe his compassion.

If he had paid the 12-hour workers first, everyone would have gone home happy. The master prefers to teach all of them a lesson in compassion. The difficulty is that those who were hired first can't stand compassion for others. The master reminds these justly paid workers that he has the right to be compassionate and that they have no right to complain. Jesus is discussing social justice and is also talking about the grace of God which is extended to those who repent late in life like the thief on the cross. Grace is not only amazing, it is for some infuriating.

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