Bishop Alexander (Mileant)
Translated by Dimitry Baranov
The meaning of the Gospel parables.
1. Parables about the Kingdom of God.
The Sower. The tares. The seed growing in the ground, The mustard seed. The leaven. The treasure hid in the field.
2. Parables about the Mercy of God and about repentance. The lost sheep The prodigal son The publican and the pharisee.
3. Parables about Good Works and Virtues.
а) Forgiveness: The wicked servant. b) Good works: The good samaritan. The unjust steward The rich man and Lazarus. c) The virtues. The rich fool. The talents. d) Discretion and prayer. The tower builder and the king going to make war. The friend asking for loaves and the unjust judge.
4. Parables about responsibility and Grace.
а) The Responsibility of a man. The wicked husbandmen. The barren fig tree. The wedding dinner (The men called to the marriage), b) Grace. Laborers in the vineyard. (The laborers who received equal pay). The ten virgins. The men waiting for their Lord.
Index of parallel texts.
The meaning of the Gospel parables.
The Lord Jesus Christ often taught the Gospel in the form of short allegoric stories, taking examples from nature or contemporary social life. Such short stories are called parables. Parables were already known in the Old Testament times; however, they acquired their specific perfection and beauty through the lips of the God-Man.
There were several reasons for the Savior to put His teaching into parables. First, the deep spiritual truths He spoke about were hard for His listeners to understand. But a specific, colorful story based on the details of everyday life could impress the memory for many years, and a man who tried to articulate the sense of that story would contemplate it, get into the depth of its contents, and thus approach the underlying wisdom. Second, people who did not fully understand the Savior's teachings could interpret them in their own ways and disseminate the misinterpretation. But the parables saved the integrity of Christ’s teaching by shaping its contents into a specific tale. Third, parables may prevail over direct instructions because they not only contain the universal Divine Law, but also demonstrate its applicability to one’s private and social life. Christ’s parables are also remarkable because, in spite of the centuries that have passed, they have lost none of their visual clarity and marvellous beauty. Parables are the living witnesses of the close unity that exists between the spiritual and physical worlds, between the internal cause and its manifestation in life.
In the Gospels, we find over thirty parables. They can be classified according to the three periods of the Savior's public ministry. The Savior told the first group of parables soon after the Sermon on the Mount, in the time between the second and the third Passovers of His public ministry. These initial parables told about the conditions for dissemination and strengthening of the Kingdom of God, or the Church amongst men. This first group includes the parables about the sower, the tares, the seed growing in the ground, the mustard seed, the goodly pearl and others. These will be discussed in chapter 1.
The second group of parables was told by the Lord by the end of the third year of His public ministry. In these parables the Lord told about God’s infinite mercy to those who repent, and worded various ethical rules. In this group we find the parables about the lost sheep, the lost son, the wicked servant, the good Samaritan, the rich fool, the wise builder, the unjust judge, etc. These parables will be discussed in Chapters 2 and 3.
In the third and last group of parables, which were told shortly before His sufferings on the Cross, the Lord spoke about God’s grace and man’s responsibility before God; he also foretold the punishment for the Jews who did not believe in Him, His Second Coming, the Last Judgement, the reward of the righteous, and eternal life. This last group includes the parables about the barren fig tree, the wicked husbandmen, the men called to the wedding, the talents, the ten virgins, the laborers who received equal pay and others. These parables are in Chapter 4.
1. Parables about the Kingdom of God.
In the first group of parables, the Lord Jesus Christ delivers the Divine Teaching about the spreading of the Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven amongst people. These names stand for Christ’s Church on the earth, the Church that initially consisted of the twelve Apostles and the closest disciples of Christ, but which started to spread rapidly throughout the countries of Apostolic preaching after the descent of the Holy Spirit onto the Apostles on Pentecost. By its spiritual essence, the Church of Christ is not limited by any territory, race, culture, language or other external distinctions, for the Grace of God penetrates into and resides in the souls of people, illuminating their mind and conscience and directing their will toward the good. In the parables, people who become members of the Church of Christ are called the "sons of the Kingdom," as opposed to non-believers and impenitent sinners who are referred to as the "sons of the evil one." The conditions of the spreading and strengthening of the Kingdom of God in people are described in the parables about the sower, the tares, the seed growing in the ground, the mustard seed, the leaven and the treasure in the field.
Chronologically, this is the first of the Savior's parables. It tells how the Divine word is like a seed, and how differently people receive it, depending upon the disposition of their souls. This is how the Evangelist Matthew recorded this parable:
"Behold, a sower went forth to sow; and when he sowed, some seeds fell by the wayside, and the fowls came and devoured them up: Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear" (Mt. 13:1-23).
In this parable, ethically roughened people are likened to a wayside. The word of God cannot penetrate into their hearts, as if it falls on the surface of their consciousness and is soon razed from memory, without getting under their skin or arousing high feelings. People of variable mood are likened to stony places because their good impulses are as shallow as a thin coat of earth that covers the surface of a rock. These people, even if the truth of the Good News intrigues them for a moment in their lives, are neither able to give up their ambitions for the sake of this truth, change their habitual way of life, nor start a steady struggle against their sinful nature. They despond and fall to temptation after the first trial. When speaking of the seed falling amidst thorns, Christ means people burdened with earthly labours, greedy for gain, and fond of pleasures. Like weeds, vanity and the chase after illusory comforts has choked up everything good and holy in them. And, finally, people with hearts sensitive to the good, ready to change their life and put it in line with the teaching of Christ, are likened to the rich earth. These people hear the word of God, firmly decide to follow Him, and bring forth the fruit of their good works — hundredfold, sixtyfold, and thirtyfold — depending upon their capabilities and effort.
The Lord ends this parable with the significant words: "Who hath ears to hear, let him hear." By these final words the Lord knocks at the heart of every man, calling each to a deeper look into his own soul, for better understanding of his own self — does this soul not resemble the barren land, covered only with the weeds of sinful wishes? Even so, He is not calling us to despair, for the earth unsuitable for sowing is not condemned forever. The effort and labor of one who tends the earth can make it fertile. So we can and must put ourselves right by fasting, repentance and good works; and thus struggle to become faithful and pious, even if we be spiritual idlers and lovers of sin.
The Church of Christ on the earth, being a spiritual kingdom by its nature, of course, has a visible form of existence, for it consists of people embodied in temporal flesh. Unfortunately, not everyone accepts Christian faith by internal conviction and with the desire to follow God's will in everything. Some people become Christians by force of circumstance, e.g., they follow a common example or unconsciously, after having been baptized by parents in childhood. Others, though taking the path of salvation with a sincere desire to serve God, weaken in their zeal after a while and begin to surrender to their previous sins and vices. Due to these reasons, the Church of Christ may include (and in fact often does) quite a few people who commit bad things and sin manifestly. Of course, their exceptionable conduct engenders criticism and casts a shadow onto the entire Church of Christ, which they belong to formally.
In His parable of the tares, the Lord speaks of the deplorable fact that, in this temporary life, the faithful and righteous members of God's Kingdom cohabit with disgraceful members, whom the Lord calls the 'sons of the evil one' as opposed to the 'Sons of the Kingdom'. Below is the Evangelist Matthew's record of this parable:
"The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? From whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest; and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn" (Mt. 13:24-30).
In this parable, the tares are to be understood both as temptations in ecclesiastical life, as well as people of irreverent and non-Christian behavior. The history of the Church is full of events that could not have come from God, e.g., heresies, ecclesiastical distempers and schisms, religious persecutions, parish hassles and intrigues, and provocative acts of people who sometimes held prominent or even leading positions in the Church. Seeing it, a man far from the spiritual life would be ready to throw a stone of accusation at the Church and the very teaching of Christ.
In this parable the Lord shows us the actual origin of all acts of darkness, the devil. Were we to have spiritual sight, we would see that there exist real, evil persons, called demons, who relentlessly and insidiously push people towards all things evil, cunningly playing with human weaknesses and manipulating them. According to this parable, the instruments of this invisible evil power — people — are not innocent: "But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares," i.e., the devil has a chance to influence men because they do not keep vigil.
Why doesn't God destroy the people who do evil? The parable says, 'lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them', which means that the sons of the Kingdom, the good members of the Church, should not be hurt while the sinners are being punished. The relations between people in this life are interconnected as closely as roots of plants that grow together in a field. People are tied together by multiple family and social links; they depend on each other. A deplorable drunkard and lecher, can be a caring father for righteous children; the welfare of honest workers may rest in the hands of a sordid and rough master; a disbelieving ruler may be a wise law-maker, beneficial for his subjects. Had the Lord punished all and every sinner without distinction, then the entire order of life on the earth would inevitably collapse and hurt some good people who depend on those sinners (children of a sinful parent, for example). Moreover, it often happens that an errant member of the Church suddenly — after a life shock or event — improves himself, becoming wheat from tares. History holds many cases of 'modi vivendi' ending up in this way: Manasseh, an Old Testament king, the Apostle Paul, the Saint Prince Vladimir and others. It should be remembered that in this life no one is doomed for perdition; everyone has a chance to repent and save his soul. Only when the full count of one's years runs down does the 'harvest' come, the day to reckon the past.
The parable of the tares teaches us to be watchful, i.e., to watch our spiritual condition carefully and not to rely on our righteousness, lest the devil take advantage of our carelessness and sow sinful wishes into us. At the same time, the parable of the tares teaches us to have an understanding attitude towards the life of the church, and to remember that negative things are yet inevitable in this temporary life. Has there ever been wheat without any tares? But as the tares have nothing in common with the wheat, so the spiritual Kingdom of God has nothing in common with the evil which may occur inside the church wall. Not everyone in the parish roster, bearing the name of a Christian, does in fact belong to the Church of Christ.
The Kingdom of God does not only contain a teaching, for people to accept by faith. It has a great and grace-filled power, able to transform the entire world of a human soul. It is this internal power of His Kingdom that the Lord speaks about in the next parable of
The seed growing in the ground,
which was recorded by the Evangelist Mark in his Gospel:
"So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground; And should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how. For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear. But when the fruit is brought forth, immediately he putteth in the sickle, because the harvest is come" (Mk. 4:26-29).
A plant, coming out of a seed, undergoes various stages of growth and development; in the same manner, a man who accepts Christ's teaching and receives baptism undergoes an internal transformation, and grows step by step, through the work of God's grace. At the beginning of his spiritual journey, a man is full of good impulses which seem fruitful, but turn out to be as immature as the offsets of growing plants. The Lord does not enslave human will by His All-Mighty power but allows a certain time for a man to become rich in this grace-filled power and gain in goodness. Only a man spiritually mature is able to give God the perfect fruit of good works. Yet when God sees a spiritually grown and mature man, He takes him from this life to Himself. This is the "harvest" of the parable.
Following the instructor of the parable about the seed growing in the ground, we must learn to have patience and indulgence for the people around us, for we are all in the process of spiritual growth. Some reach spiritual maturity earlier, others later. The following parable about the mustard seed adds to the previous one; and tells about the external manifestations of the power of grace in people.
The mustard seed.
"The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof " (Mt. 13:31-32).
In the East, the mustard plant can grow as high as 12 feet, though its seed is extremely small, so that the Jews in the times of Christ used to have a saying: "As small as a mustard seed." That the comparison of the Kingdom of God to the mustard seed was true was made visible by the rapid outspread of the Church in pagan countries. The Church, while starting as a small religious association insignificant for the rest of the world, represented by the few uneducated Galilean fishermen, spread throughout the entire world of that time within two hundred years, from barbaric Scythia down to parched Africa, from far away Britain to exotic India. People of the most different races, languages and cultures found salvation and the world of the Spirit in the Church, in the same way that birds find shelter in the branches of a great oak in a storm.
The transformation of a human by grace, discussed in the parable of the seed growing in the ground, is also seen in the next very short parable about
"The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened" (Mt. 13:33).
The "three measures of meal" symbolize the three powers of the soul transfigured by God's grace: mind, will and feelings. Grace enlightens the mind, opening new spiritual truths before it; it strengthens the will in good works, and appeases and cleanses the feelings, implanting light joy into the man. Nothing in the world is comparable to the grace of God: the earthly things feed and strengthen the temporal body, but the grace of God feeds and strengthens the immortal human soul. That is why a human must first of all value the grace of God and be able to sacrifice everything else for the sake of this grace, as our Lord said in His next parable.
The treasure hid in the field.
This parable tells of the inspiration and joy which a man experiences when God’s grace touches his heart. Warmed and illuminated by the light of this grace, a man sees clearly all the emptiness and misery of material goods.
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field" (Mt. 13:44).
The grace of God is the real treasure, and by comparison to it all earthly goods are insignificant (or dung, as expressed by the Apostle Paul). However, a man cannot take possession of this treasure until he sells all his property and buys the field where that treasure is hidden; and in the same way, he cannot receive the grace of God until he makes up his mind and gives up all his earthly goods. For the sake of the grace delivered in the Church, a man must sacrifice everything: his prejudice, his spare time and quietness, as well as success and the pleasures of life. The man who found the treasure "hid it," so that others would not steal it. In a like manner, a member of the Church who receives God’s grace must carefully keep it within his soul; for if he exhibits this gift, he will lose it because of his pride .
As we see in this first group of Gospel parables, the Lord gives us a complete and harmonious teaching about the internal and external conditions needed for the increase of the blessed Kingdom of God amongst people. In the parable of the sower, we read about the need to clean off the worldly interests from our hearts and to make our hearts receptive for the Good Word. In the parable of the tares, the Lord warns us about the invisible power which consciously and artfully sows temptations among humans.
The next three parables hold the teaching of how the power of grace acts in the Church: the transformation of the soul is gradual and unnoticeable (the seed growing in the ground), the power of God’s grace is unlimited (the mustard and the leaven), and this power of grace is the most precious thing anyone would ever want to purchase (the treasure hid in the field). Jesus Christ added more to this teaching about God’s grace in the parables about the talents and the ten virgins, which are from His last, third group of parables; they are discussed below in Chapters 3 and 4.
2. Parables about the Mercy of God and about repentance.
We learned many of the Gospel parables in childhood and can remember them well, regardless of however many years have passed. This is because they read as vivid and bright stories. The Lord Jesus Christ shaped certain religious truths as parabolic stories, just so they would be easy to remember and hold in memory. Mention the name of a parable, and it will bring up a colorful image of the Gospel in the mind. Of course, though we can call the parable to mind, we often go no further than this, for there are many things in Christianity that we understand, but few that we do. A Christian needs to make an effort of the will in order to sense the vital significance of the truth, and desire to follow it. It is only then that this truth will shine with a new and warm light.
After a relatively long break, and a few months before His sufferings on the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ told us His new parables. Conventionally, they make up the second group of parables. In these parables the Lord revealed God’s infinite mercy in the salvation of sinners, and also gave a series of graphic instructions on how we must love each another, following God. We will start the review of this second group of parables, discussing the three which depict God’s mercy on those who repent; these are the parables of the lost sheep, the lost son, and the tax collector and the Pharisee. These parables must be studied in their connection to the great drama initiated by the original sin that results in disease, suffering and death.
Sin has defiled and distorted many aspects of human life since time immemorial. Numerous Old Testament offerings and ritual washings of the body gave people hope for the forgiveness of their sins. However, this very hope was based upon the expectation of the Advent of a Saviour who would release people of their sins and return them the lost beatitude of communion with God (Is. ch. 53). The parable about
The lost sheep
clearly depicts the long-awaited turn towards the better, towards Salvation, when the Good Shepherd, the Only-Begotten Son of God, comes into the world to find and save His lost sheep, which is humanity wallowing in its sins. The parable of the lost sheep, as well as the two parables that follow, were Christ's response to the clamor of the rancorous Judaic scribes, who were reprimanding Him for His compassion to public sinners.
"What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine, in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbors, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance" (Lk. 15:1-7).
The proud and complacent Judaic scribes expected the Messiah to come and establish a powerful and glorious kingdom, in which they would take the ruling positions. They did not understand that first of all the Messiah was the Heavenly Shepherd, not an earthly ruler. He came into the world to save those who felt themselves hopelessly lost, and to regain them for the Kingdom of God. In this parable, the shepherd’s compassion for a lost sheep was particularly evident, for he neither punished the errant sheep, nor forcefully drove it to the flock, but laid it on his shoulders and carried it back. It is the symbol of the salvation of sinful mankind, for, on the Cross, Christ took our sins onto Himself and cleansed us. Since then, the atoning power of Christ’s sufferings on the Cross makes it possible for a man to revive morally, returning him to his lost righteousness and his blessed communion with God.
The next parable about
The prodigal son
adds to the first one and tells about the other side of salvation — the voluntary return of a man to his Heavenly Father. While the first parable shows the Savior looking for the sinful man in order to help him, the second parable tells about the moral effort of a man required for reunion with God.
"A certain man had two sons: And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found" (Lk. 15:11-24).
The parable of the lost son points out the peculiar features of a sinner’s life. A man, captivated by earthly pleasures, after many errors and falls, finally ‘comes to himself’; he begins to understand the emptiness and filth of his life and decides to come back to God in repentance. Psychologically, this parable is very life-like. The lost son could only value the happiness of being with his father after suffering much far from him. In exactly the same way many people start to appreciate their communion with God only after they have sincerely felt the falsity and aimlessness of their lives. From this standpoint, this parable truly reveals the positive aspect of worldly sorrows and failures. The lost son may never have ‘come to himself’ if misery and starvation had not made him sober.
God’s love for fallen people is also depicted in this parable by the figure of the suffering father, who goes out to the road every day in the hope to see his son coming back. Both the parable of the lost sheep and that of the lost son tell how important and significant it is to God for a man to be saved. The ending of the parable of the lost son, omitted here, tells how indignant the elder brother is when the father forgives his younger brother. The elder brother is Christ’s depiction of the envious Judaic scribes. On the one hand, they despised sinners (tax collectors, whores and the like) and abhorred any communion with them, but on the other, they were outraged that Christ mixed with them and helped them to take the right way.
The publican and the pharisee.
This parable adds to the two previous parables about God's grace, showing that a man's humble recognition of his own depravity is more important to God than the mock virtues of the proud.
"Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in a week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted" (Lk. 18:9-14).
It is quite likely that the Pharisee depicted in this parable was not a bad man; he did no harm to anyone. The parable does not say, however, that he has done any real good works; rather, he strictly follows the various, minute, secondary religious rites, even those of them which were not required by the Old Testament laws. Following these rites, he had no mean opinion of himself. He fits this expression of St. John Chrysostom, "He judged the whole world but justified himself!" People of this disposition are unable to evaluate themselves critically, repent and start a good life. Their moral self is dead. More than once, the Lord Jesus Christ publicly castigated the hypocrisy of Judaic scribes and Pharisees, but in this parable Christ only remarks that it was the tax collector who ‘went down to his house justified rather than the other’; in other words, it was the tax collector's sincere repentance that was accepted by God.
These three parables let us understand that a human being is fallen and sinful. A human has nothing to boast of before God. But with sincere repentance he must come back to his Heavenly Father and expose his life to the leadership of God’s grace, like the lost sheep who passed the work of its salvation to the good shepherd!
The following parables teach us to follow God in His mercy, and how to forgive and to love our neighbors — people both close and distant alike.
3. Parables about Good Works and Virtues.
Having absolutely no need, God created this world and man out of His excessive goodness alone. He gave people life, adorned them with His divine image and gave them free will so that they could participate in His beatitude. When they sinned, He did not in His just judgement reject them completely, but, in His infinite mercy He desired to lead them out of the abyss of the Fall and return them to eternal life, through His Only-Begotten Son. With his Creator and Savior as the ideal of perfect love, a man must in turn forgive and love his own neighbors, because we are all brothers by substance.
In the following four parables, the Lord Jesus Christ gives us instructions on how we must evince our love for people. These are the parable about the wicked servant, the good Samaritan, the rich man and Lazarus, and the unjust steward. The conclusion of these parables is that the works of mercy may be very different in their visible manifestations. The works of mercy may include all the good things we may do for others: forgive those who offend us, help the suffering, comfort the sorrowful, give good advice, pray for our neighbors and a variety of other things. External indications alone do not allow us to judge which good works are worth more in God’s eye. Good works are not counted but given value according to the spiritual content, the depth of love and the power of will which a man applies to perform them. The first and most vital, though not the easiest work of mercy, is the forgiveness of offences. The Lord teaches us to forgive our neighbors in His parable about the wicked servant.
The wicked servant.
The Savior told this parable in response to Peter’s question about how many times one had to forgive one’s brother. The Apostle Peter thought that it would be enough to forgive up to seven times. Christ replied that one should forgive one’s brother "seventy times seven" times, implying that forgiveness must be given always, for an unlimited number of times. As an explanation, He told the following parable:
"Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellow servants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses" (Mt. 18:23-35).
In this parable God is likened to a king who lent certain amounts of money to his servants. A human is an insolvent debtor before God not only because of his sins, but also because of his lack of good works; those good things which he could have done for others but did not do. These undone works of love are our debts also. In the Lord’s prayer we ask, "And forgive us our debts," not just our sins! By the end of our life, when we await our turn to God to account for the life we have lived, we will find out that we all have been insolvent debtors. The parable of the unjust steward says that we can rely on God’s mercy only if we wholeheartedly forgive offenders. That is why we must remind ourselves every day, "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."
Furthermore, with regard to this parable, the offences our neighbors incur upon us are negligible compared to our debt to God; it is like small change compared to capital worth over a million dollars. It must be said that the feeling of injury is very individual. One person might not take notice of the occasional word or act of an acquaintance, while the same words or acts may cause another to take offense his entire life. From the spiritual standpoint, the feeling of injury originates from piqued ambition and hidden pride. The more self-loving and proud a man is, the more touchiness he has. Resentment, if one does not get rid of it at once, may gradually become rancor. Rancor, according to St. John of the Ladder, is the "rust of the soul, worm of the mind, opprobrium of prayers, alienation of love … ceaseless sin." Rancor is hard to fight. In another of his counsels, St. John of the Ladder writes, "Recollection of the sufferings of Jesus will heal the rancor, [which will be] reproached by His goodness." Further on, he says, "When after a long good fight you are not able to remove this thorn, then at least in your words repent and humble yourself before the one whom you are angry with, so that you become ashamed of your sustained hypocrisy and able to love this one perfectly."
It is very important that we pray for those whom we feel offended by, and that this help us to overcome our unkind feelings towards them. If we could see the multitude of debts for which we have to give account to God, we would gladly make haste to forgive all our enemies, even our worst, and to win God's mercy. Unfortunately, such recognition of our wrongs and our guilt before God does not come to us on its own, but requires the continuous and strict trial of our conscience in the Evangelical light. Whoever forces himself to forgive his neighbors will, as a reward for this effort, receive the gift of genuine Christian love which our Holy Fathers called the Queen of Virtues. These works of love are discussed in the parables which we cover in the following Chapter.
b) Good works:
The good samaritan.
Christ told this parable in answer to a Judaic lawyer’s question, "Who is my neighbor?" The lawyer knew the Old Testament commandment that instructed one to love one’s neighbor, but he did not act according to this commandment. Wanting to clear himself from fault, he said he did not know who his neighbor was. In response, the Lord gives this parable with the example of the good Samaritan, to explain that one should not care about distinguishing friends from foes, but must make oneself a neighbor to anyone in need.
"A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him. And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee. Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves? And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise" (Lk. 10:30-37).
Fearing to help an outsider, a Judean priest and a Levite passed by their brother who was in trouble. But the Samaritan, who did not speculate whether the poor wretched man lying before him was a friend or foe, helped him and saved his life. The Lord’s parable of the Samaritan’s shows that after his initial aid he also took pains to help the sufferer’s future, bearing expenses and taking the trouble to ensure his recovery.
The Lord’s example of the good Samaritan teaches us to love our neighbors actively, not to confine ourselves to good wishes and the empty expressions of compassion. It is not he who sits in the quiet of his home and dreams of extensive benefaction, but he who helps people in deed, sparing neither time, nor effort nor funds, who loves his neighbor. To help your neighbors, you need not make a program of humanitarian activity: great plans do not always come true. Every day our life offers us chances to manifest our love for people: by giving comfort to someone sorrowing, visiting someone sick, helping him to visit a doctor or prepare business documents, giving to the poor, taking part in church actions or charity, giving good advice, preventing a quarrel, and so forth. Many of these things seem insignificant, but over one’s life one may accumulate them for a real spiritual treasure. Good works are like small amounts of money put into a savings account. As the Lord says, in heaven they will make up a treasure, which moths will not corrupt and thieves cannot steal.
In His wisdom, the Lord permits people to live in various material conditions: some in great prosperity, others in need and some even in dearth. Often a man acquires his material welfare by back-breaking labor, persistence, and skills. However, we shall not deny that the economic and social status of a man is often to a great extent determined by favorable, external conditions, beyond his control. Even the most capable and industrious man may be doomed for poverty in an unfavorable environment, while another, a stupid idler, will enjoy the comforts of life because fortune smiles upon him. Such disposition may seem unjust, but only if our life is considered to be merely natural. The conclusion is totally different if we view these things from the perspective of the future life.
In two parables, that of the unjust steward, and that of the rich man and Lazarus, the Lord Jesus Christ reveals the mystery of God's tolerance for material "injustice." These two parables demonstrate that God wisely transforms apparent, earthly inequality into a means for gaining salvation: tolerance for the poor and suffering, works of charity for the rich. In the light of these two notable parables we can also see how negligible our worldly agonies and riches are when compared to perpetual bliss or perdition. The first parable of
The unjust steward
is the example of consistent and thoughtful benefaction. Upon a first reading, one may get the impression that the lord in this parable commends his steward for crookedness. However, the Lord told this parable in order to make us think about the depth of its meaning.
"There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods. And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? Give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? For my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. So he called every one of his lord's debtor's unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore. And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations" (Lk. 16:1-9).
In a miserable and hopeless condition, the steward finds a way to acquire patrons and provide for his future with great ingenuity. The rich lord of this parable is God, and the steward that 'wasted his goods' is a man who carelessly wastes the gifts he has received from God. Many people, like the unjust steward, fiddle away God's riches of health, time and abilities, for things vain and sinful. But at some time, everyone, like the steward, must give account to God for the material goods and opportunities entrusted to him. The unjust steward knew that he would no longer have the stewardship then and thought about his future beforehand. His inventiveness and ability to provide for his future is exemplary.
When a man comes up before the Justice of Heaven, he understands that it is not the acquisition of tangible goods which is meaningful, but the good works done by a man. According to the parable, the material goods are "unrighteous richness" because a man frozen onto them becomes greedy and heartless. Very often the riches become the idol that the hardened man worships. The man relies on riches more than on God. That is why the Lord called the earthly riches 'the mammon of unrighteousness'. Mammon was the ancient Syrian god who patronized wealth.
Now we will think about our attitude to material goods. We consider many things our property and use them only for our comfort and whims. But in fact all worldly goods belong to God. He is the Master and Lord of all; we are only His temporary agents or stewards, as in the parable. That is why to share God's goods with the people who need them is not a breach of law, as in the case of steward in the Gospel, but just the other way around, it constitutes our direct obligation. The conclusion of the parable must be interpreted in this light: "Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations," i.e., the needy people whom we have helped will become our solicitors and patrons in the future life.
In the parable of the unjust steward the Lord teaches us to be genuinely resourceful, inventive and persistent in the works of mercy. But as the Lord also notices in this parable, "the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light," i.e., pious people often lack the skills and quick mind which the unrighteous use to set up their living.
An example of an extremely unwise use of material goods was given by the Lord in the parable of
The rich man and Lazarus.
Here God's Providence put the rich man in favorable conditions, so that without any trouble or inventiveness he could have helped the pauper lying at the door of his home. But the rich man was totally deaf to his sufferings. He was only fond of his feasts and caring for himself.
"There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence. Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead" (Lk. 16:19-31).
Poor Lazarus' destiny in the future life is consolatory for all paupers and sufferers. Due to his poverty and illness, he could not help others or do any good works but he received celestial bliss from God only for his tolerant bearing of sufferings without complaint. The mention of Abraham in this parable confirms that the rich man was not condemned for his riches: Abraham was a very rich man as well but, as opposed to the rich man of this parable, he was distinguished for his compassion and care for pilgrims.
Some people ask if it is not unjust and cruel to doom the rich man for eternal damnation when his physical delights were only temporal. To answer this question, we need to understand that future bliss or perdition cannot be viewed as abode in paradise or hell. Paradise and hell are in the first place the state of the soul! For if, according to Christ's word, the Kingdom of God is "within us," then hell is also within the soul of a sinner. When the grace of God rests within a man, then he has paradise in his soul. But when passions and the pangs of conscience come thick upon him, he does not suffer less than sinners in hell. Remember the cheeseparing knight's remorse in Pushkin's famous poem, "The Cheeseparing Knight": "Conscience is a clawed beast that claws the heart; Conscience is an unbidden guest, pestering companion, coarse lender!" The agony of sinners will be especially unbearable in the other world because they will neither have a chance to satiate their appetites, nor to repent and unburden the reproach of their conscience. That is the reason why the agonies of sinners will be eternal.
The parable of the rich man and Lazaurus uncovers a little the veil over the world to come, and gives us an opportunity to understand worldly existence with eternity in view. In the light of this parable, we see that earthly goods are not so much happiness as they are a test of our ability to love and help our neighbors. "If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon,"says the Lord in the conclusion of the previous parable, "who will commit to your trust the true riches?" This means that if we do not know how to manage the illusory riches we have today, then we will not be worthy to receive the real treasure from God, the treasure which was intended for us in the future life. Thus let us remind ourselves that our worldly goods in fact belong to God. He uses them to test us.
c) The virtues.
Like the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the next parable about the rich fool tells of the harm caused to a man by his attachment to his worldly riches. But while the two preceding parables about the unjust steward and the unwise rich man were predominantly about good works, the practical activity of a human, the following series of parables is mostly about a person’s self-cultivation and development of moral virtues.
The rich fool.
"The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which though hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God" (Lk. 12:16-21).
This parable was told as a warning, so that a man would not save worldly riches. Because his life does not depend on his abundant property, his wealth will not add more years or health to his life. But death is particularly terrible for those who never think on it and never prepare for it: "Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee." The phrase "rich toward God" implies the spiritual treasures. This is the treasure discussed in the parables of talents and minaes.
In our Savior's lifetime, a talent was a significant amount of money. A talent was equal to 60 minaes, and a mina was equal to 100 dinarii (pence). A worker might earn one dinarius a day. The parable says 'talent' for the sum of all goods God gives to a human, those material, psychical, and spiritual. Material "talents" are riches, favorable conditions of life, beneficial social status, and good health. The psychical "talents" are a bright mind, good memory, a variety of abilities in the arts and handicraft, the gift of eloquence, courage, delicacy, compassion and many other qualities that the Creator put in us. Moreover, to facilitate our success in doing good, the Lord sends diverse gifts of grace to our help, the spiritual "talents." The Apostle Paul wrote about them in his First Epistle to Corinthians: "But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge…To another faith…to another the gifts of healing…To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy…But all these worketh that one and the self-same Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will" (I Cor. 12:4-11).
"For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey. Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents. And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two. But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money. After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them. And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more. His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them. His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; though hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed: And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine. His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed: Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury. Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him, which hath ten talents. For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Mt. 25:14-30).
In line with this parable, it should be concluded that God does not require anyone to do something above his power or abilities. However, the talents they have received make one accountable. A person must "multiply" them for the benefit of the Church and his neighbors, and it is important to develop one's good properties. In fact there is a very tight connection between visible works and the state of the soul. The more good one does, the richer one becomes in spirit, and the more perfect in virtues. Things external are inseparable from things internal.
The parable of the minaes is very much like the parable of the talents, and we omit it here. In both parables, people self-loving and slothful towards good are depicted by the wretched servant who hid the riches of his lord. The wretched servant did not have to rebuke his lord's cruelty, for the lord asked less from him than from the others. The phrase, "put my money to exchangers" must be understood as an instruction that a man who does not have the initiative and ability to do good must at least try to help others to do so. In any case, however, there is no person who has none of these abilities at all. Everyone can believe in God and pray for himself and others, and this prayer is such a holy and useful act that it can substitute for many good works.
"For unto every one that hath shall be given, but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath." These words are mostly about the reward in the future life: whoever is becoming spiritually rich in this life will become yet richer in the life to come, and contrariwise, one lazy in the spiritual life will lose even the little that he used to possess. To a certain degree, the truth of this quote is confirmed every day. People who do not develop their spiritual capabilities lose them little by little. When a man stays sated and supine, his intelligence gradually dulls, his will weakens, his senses wane and his entire body and soul languishes. The human becomes disabled and vegetative, like grass.
If we thoughtfully review the deep meaning of these parables about the rich fool and the talents, we will recognize what a tremendous crime we commit against ourselves when we waste away the time and power that God has granted to us in idleness or unnecessary fuss. In this we steal from ourselves. This is why we must attune ourselves to doing good every minute of our life, directing our every thought and wish toward God’s glory. Serving God is not a necessity but a great honor!
The following series of parables is dedicated to the two virtues that are especially significant in human life:
d) Discretion and prayer.
Eagerness is not enough for success in good works; guidance of the reason is necessary. Reason enables us to concentrate our efforts on those works which most accord with our capabilities and strength. Reason helps us to choose the way of action which will lead to the best results. In the patristic texts, reason is also called discretion, or the gift of reasoning. The highest degree of reason is wisdom that integrates knowledge, experience and the ability to see the spiritual essence of appearances.
With a lack of reason, even well-intended actions and words may result in bad consequences. St. Antony the Great had this to say about it: "Many virtues are beautiful but sometimes ineptitude or utter excitement may cause harm…reason is the virtue which teaches and prepares a man to walk the straight way and not to skew at the partings. If we walk the straight way, then we will never be lured by enemies, neither from to right, to excessive abstinence, nor to the left, to lack of diligence, carelessness and idleness. Reason is the eye and lantern of the soul…With reason, a man will review his desires, words and acts and give up all which remove him from God" (Philokalia). The Lord Jesus Christ spoke about reason in the following two parables:
The tower builder and the king going to make war.
"For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish. Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and desireth conditions of peace. So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple" (Lk. 14:28-33).
The first of these two parables says that we must properly evaluate the strengths and abilities we have available to us before taking on something we want to do. Of this, St. John of the Ladder wrote: "Our enemies, the demons, often intently incite us to take on works which are above our powers so that we, being unsuccessful, become despondent and leave even those activities that are adequate to our powers…" (The Ladder, Chapter 26). The second parable cited tells about fighting the difficulties and temptations which inevitably arise when one undertakes some good work. Not reason alone, but selflessness also is required for success here. That is why these two parables are linked to the teaching in the Gospel of bearing one’s cross: "And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple" (Lk. 14:27).
Sometimes the circumstances of life are so hard that it is extremely difficult to find the right decision. In such case, one must ask God for edification very intensely: "… cause me to know the way wherein I should walk…Teach me to do thy will; for thou art my God" (Ps. 142:8-10). These and the like were the words of our saint, David, the King and Psalmist, who was given edification for his prayers to God.
In order to strengthen our confidence that God hears and complies with our requests, the Lord Jesus Christ told the parables about
The friend asking for loaves and the unjust judge.
"And he said unto them, Which of you shall have a friend, and shall go unto him at midnight, and say unto him, Friend, lend me three loaves; For a friend of mine in his journey is come to me, and I have nothing to set before him? And he from within shall answer and say, Trouble me not: the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give thee. I say unto you, Though he will not rise and give him, because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him as many as he needeth" (Lk. 11:5-8).
"There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. And shall not God avenge His own elect, which cry day and night unto Him, though He bear long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth?" (Lk.18:2-8).
The great persuasion of these parables about the power of prayer is that if a man at midnight helped his friend who asked him about things unimportant and absolutely untimely, then all the more will the Lord help us. In a like manner the judge, though he ‘feared not God, nor regarded man’, still decided to help the widow so that she would not weary him. All the more, the infinitely Merciful and All-mighty God will give His hoping children what they ask. The key to prayer is constancy and patience, though, when needed, the Lord will comply with a man’s request immediately.
"All who wish to know the will of the Lord," wrote St. John of the Ladder, "must first deaden their own will within themselves. Some people proving God’s will free their thoughts from any prejudice to this or that advice of their soul … and with earnest prayer they gave the Lord their mind, cleared of their own will, for an appropriate number of days. And they reached knowledge of His will in that the bodiless Intelligence mysteriously talked to their minds, or one of those thoughts absolutely disappeared in the soul … Doubts in judgements and long hesitation in choosing one of the two is indicative of a soul vain and not enlightened from above" (Chapter 26).
When the rhythm of life has become so strained and life itself so limitlessly complicated, when the very foundations of faith and morality seem to collapse before our very eyes, more than ever we need God’s guidance and help. Amidst these concerns, prayer will gain for us a great wealth, for it is the key to the great and inexhaustible treasury of God’s gifts. All of us must learn how to use this key!
4. Parables about responsibility and Grace.
The time of the Savior's public ministry was nearing its end. In His previous parables, the Lord taught about the preconditions for the dissemination of God's Kingdom amidst and within people. In His last six parables, the Lord spoke also about His Kingdom, full of grace, and stressed the idea of a person’s responsibility before God for disdaining the chance of salvation, or, even worse, for directly rejecting God's grace. These parables were told in Jerusalem in the last week of the Savior's life on earth. They revealed the teaching about the truth, or justice of God, the Second Coming of Christ and the Last Judgement. The last six parables include the parable about the wicked husbandmen, the barren fig tree, the wedding dinner, the laborers who received equal pay, the men waiting for their lord, and the ten virgins.
а) The Responsibility of a man.
The Lord who knows the hearts of men knows who have the most spiritual gifts, and to them He sends His grace in greater measure than to others. In ancient times, the Jewish people were distinguished for their exclusive spiritual gifts, and in the time of the New Testament these were the Greek and Russian peoples. God evinced extreme care of these peoples and poured out His gifts of grace onto them. This is witnessed by the great number of God's servants who shined amongst them. However, this abundance of the gifts of grace imposes a particular responsibility before God onto each nation and every single person. The Lord expects an effort of will from each of these people and also the tendency to go towards moral perfection, for "unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required." Of course, it is far from true that everyone in these nations tends toward moral perfection; some people consciously turn away from God. Often the result is that an abundance of grace creates a certain polarization among the representatives of a select people: some of them attain to great spiritual heights, even sainthood, while others, contrarily, turn away from God and become hard-hearted, even becoming theomachists. In the parable of
The wicked husbandmen.
Christ shows what conspicuous obstinacy towards God is like in this parable, where the spiritual leaders of the Jews, the high priests, scribes and Pharisees, are depicted by the wicked husbandmen.
"A certain man planted a vineyard, and let it forth to husbandmen, and went into a far country for a long time. And at the season he sent a servant to the husbandmen, that they should give him of the fruit of the vineyard: but the husbandmen beat him, and sent him away empty. And again he sent another servant: and they beat him also, and entreated him shamefully, and sent him away empty. And again he sent a third: and they wounded him also, and cast him out. Then said the lord of the vineyard, What shall I do? I will send my beloved son: it may be they will reverence him when they see him. But when the husbandmen saw him, they reasoned among themselves, saying, This is the heir: come, let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours. So they cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. What therefore shall the lord of the vineyard do unto them? He shall come and destroy these husbandmen, and shall give the vineyard to others" (Lk. 20:9-16).
The implication of this parable is that the servants sent by the lord of the vineyard were the Old Testament prophets and the Apostles who then carried their work forward. Indeed, the majority of the prophets and Apostles died by the hand of the 'wicked husbandmen'. The fruit that the Lord expected from the Jewish people were faith and good works. The prophetic part of the parable — the punishment of the wicked husbandmen and the bestowal of the vineyard to others — came true 35 years after the Ascension of our Savior, when, in the time of the captain Titus, all of Palestine was devastated and the Jews were dispersed around the world. However, by the efforts of the apostles, the Kingdom of God was given over to other peoples. The compassion of the Son of God for the Jewish people, and His intention to save them from the approaching disaster is expressed in the parable of
The barren fig tree.
"A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down" (Lk. 13:6-9).
God the Father, like the owner of the fig tree, was expecting repentance and faith from the Jewish people over the three years of His Son's public ministry. The Son of God, like a kind and caring dresser, asked the Lord to wait while he would try to make the fig tree, the Jews, fruitful again. But His efforts were not crowned with success and the dreadful prophecy was fulfilled in that God did cast off the people who steadfastly resisted Him. The Lord Jesus Christ depicted the fulfillment of this fearful moment when, on His way to Jerusalem, several days prior to His sufferings on the cross, He withered the fruitless fig tree growing at the side of the road (See Matthew 21:19).
The bestowal of the Kingdom of God from the Jews to other peoples is described in the parable about
The wedding dinner
(The men called to the marriage),
where again the Jewish people are referred to as ‘the called’, but the apostles and the messengers of the Christian faith, 'the servants'. As 'the called' did not want to come to the wedding dinner, the Kingdom of God, the gospel of faith moved 'out into the highways', to other nations. Some of these nations probably did not possess very high religious qualities at the time, but they became very zealous in serving God.
"The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son, And sent forth his servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding: and they would not come. Again, he sent forth other servants, saying, Tell them which are bidden, Behold, I have prepared my dinner: my oxen and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come unto the marriage. But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise: And the remnant took his servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them. But when the king heard thereof, he was wroth: and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city. Then saith he to his servants, The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden were not worthy. Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage. So those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together as many as they found, both bad and good: and the wedding was furnished with guests. And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment: And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen" (Mt. 22:2-14).
In the context of the two previous parables and what was explained above, this parable does not require specific explanation. As we know from history, the kingdom of the Lord, the Church, came over from the Jews to the rest of the world, successfully spreading among the peoples of the ancient Roman Empire and shining in the hosts of the uncountable servants of God.
The ending of the parable of the wedding dinner speaks of a man lying at the table, 'not in the wedding garment’, which is a bit mysterious. To understand this phrase one must be aware of the customs of the time. When kings called guests for their celebrations, for example in the marriage of a king's son, they presented garments to their guests so that the dress of everyone at the banquet be clean and beautiful. But, according to this parable, one of the guests preferred his own clothing to that of the royal dress. He obviously did so out of pride, as he considered his attire to be better than the king's. Having rejected the royal garment, he lacked decorum and grieved the king. And for his pride he was cast from the feast into the 'outer darkness'. In Holy Scripture, a garment is the symbol for the state of one’s conscience. The light, white garment symbolizes a clean soul and righteousness, which God, out of His grace, gives to a person so that it can be taken freely. The man ignoring the king's dress depicts those arrogant Christians who deny God's grace and consecration, which are given them in the mysteries, or, sacraments, of the Church. These self-confident righteous may include those contemporary sectarians who deny confession, communion and other mysteries that are given to the Church by Christ for the salvation of people. Setting themselves up as saints, the sectarians also belittle the meaning of the Christian struggles of fasting, voluntary chastity, monasticism, and so forth, though Holy Scripture clearly tells us about these ascetic practices. By the words of the Apostle Paul, these seemingly righteous are just "having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof," because the power of piety is not in appearance alone but in the unseen, personal struggle (2 Tim. 3:5).
The parables about the wicked husbandmen and the men called to the marriage were told first of all about the Jewish people; however, they are not limited to this interpretation. All other nations towards whom God manifests His great mercy became accountable as well. The ancient Byzantine Empire was devastated by the Turks for her sins. The events of this century speak of God's judgement over Russia, which, during the last century before the revolution, was beguiled by materialism, nihilism and other non-Christian teachings. "One's sin is the tool of one's punishment!" Everyone knows how the Russian people were punished for their denial of faith and the salvation of the soul!
"As breathing is necessary for the body, and without breathing a man cannot live, so without the breathing of God's Spirit a soul cannot live the genuine life," wrote the Righteous St. John of Kronstadt, in My Life in Christ.
In the last three parables, the Lord Jesus Christ taught about God's grace. The first parable, which is about the laborers who received equal pay, reveals how God gives grace and the kingdom of heaven to people, not because of their specific services to Him but exclusively out of His infinite love. The second parable, which is about the ten virgins, tells us we must consider gaining God's grace the purpose of life. Finally, in the third parable of the servants waiting for the return of their lord, the Lord teaches us to sustain diligence and a burning spirit by the expectation of His Advent. This is how the three parables add up to one another.
The grace of God is the power sent by God for our spiritual revitalization. It cleanses our transgressions, heals our spiritual infirmity, directs our thoughts and will towards good, conciliates and enlightens our senses, and restores vigor, confidence and ethereal joy. Grace is given to people for the sake of the sufferings on the cross of the Son of God. Without grace, man cannot succeed in good works, and his soul will remain lifeless. "The Holy Spirit the Comforter, filling the Universe," wrote the Righteous St. John of Kronstadt, "passes through all faithful, gentle, meek, kind souls, and becomes everything for them: light, power, peace, joy, success in work and especially in righteous life for all the good"(ibid).
In Jesus' time, the Judaic attitude towards religion started to become utilitarian. For following some ritual instructions they expected an appropriate and specific reward from God in the form of worldly goods. A living communion with God and spiritual revival were not the basis of their religious life. That is why the Lord shows the wrongs of such a utilitarian approach to religion in the parable about the
Laborers in the vineyard.
(The laborers who received equal pay)
In the work of a man's salvation so little is fulfilled by the man himself that it is not even worthwhile to talk about the reward for one’s works. For an example, the Lord told about the laborers who received pay above their work.
"For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the market place, And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth hour and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when the even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen" (Mt. 20:1-16).
For the Jews, the first hour was equal to 6 a.m. today, and the eleventh hour to 5 p.m. When the lord of the vineyard paid the laborers, he did not give more to those who worked from daybreak but paid the same amount to everyone. Those who had come earlier received their pay as they had agreed, and the latecomers received the same amount out of the lord's kindness. In this parable the Lord teaches us that the grace of God and that eternal life are given to people not on the basis of a mathematical calculation of their works or the time that they have belonged to the Church, but out of God's grace. The Jews thought that they had been the first members of the kingdom of the Messiah and deserved a greater reward than the Christians who joined this kingdom later. But God's measure of righteousness is totally different. On His scales, sincerity, assiduity, genuine love, humbleness are more precious than the external and formal side of human activity. The penitent thief who, in the last hours of his life, so fully and sincerely repented on the cross and so wholeheartedly believed in the outcast and suffering Savior, received the Kingdom of Heaven alongside the righteous who had served God since early childhood. God gives mercy to all for the sake of His Only-Begotten Son, not for the sake of their merits. Here lies the hope for the sinners who can attract God's mercy and eternal salvation with one repentant sigh coming out of the depths of a torn soul. The good works of a man and his Christian way of life are the witness of his sincere religious persuasions; they strengthen the gracious gifts received within him, but they do not constitute a service to God in the legal meaning of this word.
The need that a man has in God's grace is revealed by the Lord in the parable about
The ten virgins.
"Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight there was a cry made, behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out. But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves. And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut. Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not. Watch therefore; for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh" (Mt. 25:1-13).
The parable about the ten virgins has been clearly and convincingly explained by St. Seraphim of Sarov in his conversation with Motovilov.
"Some say that the shortage of oil of the foolish virgins signifies their shortage of good works in their lives. Such understanding is not exactly correct. How can they be short of good works if they, though foolish, are still called virgins? Chastity is a supreme virtue, the state of being equal to angels, and could itself serve as a substitute for all other virtues. I humbly think that they were actually short of the grace of God's All-Holy Spirit. These virgins did good, and out of their spiritual foolishness supposed that doing good was exactly the point of Christianity. They did good works and by this obeyed God, but they did not care in the least beforehand whether they had received or reached the grace of God's Spirit…This very gaining of the Holy Spirit is that oil which the foolish virgins lacked. They were called foolish because they forgot about the necessary fruit of virtue, the grace of the Holy Spirit, without which no one is saved and no one can be saved, for: ‘it is by the Holy Spirit that any soul is vitalized and exalted in chastity, and any soul is lit by the Trinitarian unity in holy mysteries’. The Holy Spirit moves into our souls, and this installation of the All-Mighty into our souls, and co-existence of His Trinitarian Unity with our spirit is given only through the gaining by all means, the Holy Spirit, which prepares in our soul and body the throne for God’s creative co-existence with our spirit in strict accordance with the word of God: ‘I will dwell among them and will be their God, and they will be my people’. This is the oil in the lamps of wise virgins, oil that burnt bright and long, so that the virgins with the burning lamps could wait until the Bridegroom who came at midnight, and enter with Him into the house of joy. But the foolish virgins, seeing that their lamps were going out, went to the marketplace to buy oil but would not come back in time, for the doors were already shut. The marketplace is our life; the door of the house of marriage (that was shut and did not lead to the Bridegroom) is our human death; wise and foolish virgins are Christian souls; the oil is not works but the grace of the All-Holy Spirit of God which is received through these works, and which converts things perishable into things imperishable, transforms spiritual death into spiritual life, darkness into light, the manger of our being, with passions tied like cattle and beasts, into the Divine Temple, into the glorious palace of never-ending rejoicing in Christ Jesus."
The Savior’s teaching about the Kingdom of God in the last group of parables is close to the very real prospect of His Second Coming. Foretelling His Second Coming and the judgement that follows, the Lord urges us to be "ever-watching," always working to correct oneself. Indeed, nothing can so much dispose a person to assiduity as preparing oneself daily to report before God. To be more matter of fact, when death comes, the world stops to exist for us; we arrive at the hour of judgement. The Lord told the following parable so that the moment of death would not be sudden and tragic for us:
The men waiting for their Lord.
"Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning; And ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their lord, when he will return from the wedding; that, when he cometh and knocketh, they may open unto him immediately. Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching; verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to seat down to meat, and will come forth and serve them. And if he shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants. And this know, that if the goodman of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched, and not have suffered his house to be broken through. Be ye therefore ready also: for the Son of man cometh at an hour when ye think not" (Lk. 12:35-40).
In this parable, as well as the previous one about the ten virgins, the "burning lights" must be understood as spiritual burning, i.e., vigilant service for God, when the light of Divine Grace dwells in our hearts. "The grace of God," by the witness of St. John Cassian, "always directs our will to the side of the good, however it requires or expects from us appropriate efforts. To avoid giving its gifts to the careless, grace seeks occasions that wake us up from cold carelessness, and gives its gifts away only onto our desire and labor so that this open-handed gift-giving would not be reasonless. However, the grace is always given free of charge, because the reward for our little effort is immeasurably generous." A similar thought was expressed by St. Isaac of Syre: "The extent to which a man comes nearer to God by his intentions, is the same as the extent to which God comes nearer to man with His gifts."
We have seen that the parables told by Christ were bright and visual stories, which contain an integral and harmonious teaching about the salvation of man and the kingdom of God, the Church. In the initial parables, the Lord spoke about the conditions favorable for people to receive the Kingdom of God. In the subsequent parables, He spoke about God's mercy on repentant people and taught us to love our neighbors, do good works and improve our inner moral character. He also gave us instructions to be discreet and to pray thoroughly. The final parables were about each person’s accountability before God and about the necessity to be vigilant and to draw the light of God's grace into the heart.
In this work, devoted to the Gospel parables, we did not did not try to provide the reader with complete and comprehensive explanations of the hidden spiritual wisdom. We put before us a much more modest task: to present the basics of Evangelical teaching, as given in the parables, to the reader. Christ's parables are the ever-true pictorial instructions that show us the way to Salvation.
Index of parallel texts.
1. Parables about the Kingdom of God
The Sower: Mt. 13:1-23, Mk. 4:1-20, Lk. 8:4-15
The Tares: Mt. 13:24-30, 36-43
The Seed Growing in the Ground: Mk. 4:26-29
The Mustard Seed: Mt. 13:31-32, Mk. 4:30-32, Lk. 13:18-19
The Leaven: Mt. 13:33-35, Mk. 4:33-34, Lk. 13:20-21
The Treasure Hid in the field: Mt. 13:44
2. Parables about God's Mercy and about Repentance
The Lost Sheep: Mt. 18:11-14, Lk. 15:1-7
The Lost Son: Lk. 15:11-32
The Publican and the Pharisee: Lk. 18:4-14
3. Parables about Good Works and Virtues
The Wicked Servant: Mt. 18:13-35
b) Good Works:
The Good Samaritan: Lk. 10:25-37
The Unjust Steward: Lk. 16:1-13
The Rich Man and Lazarus: Lk. 16:14-31
The Rich Fool: Lk. 12:13-21
The Talents: Mt. 25:14-30, Lk. 19:11-28
г) Discretion and Prayer:
The Tower Builder: Lk. 14:28-30
The King Going to Make War: Lk. 14:31-33
The Friend Asking for Loaves: Lk. 11:5-8
The Unjust Judge: Lk. 18:1-8
4. Parables about Responsibility and Grace
а) Responsibility of a Man:
The Wicked Husbandmen: Mt. 21:33-46, Mk. 12:1-12
The Barren Fig Tree: Lk. 13:6-9
The Wedding Dinner: Mt. 22:1-14, Lk. 14:16-24
The Laborers in the Vineyard: Mt. 20:1-16
The Ten Virgins: Mt. 25:1-13
The Men Waiting for Their Lord: Mt. 24:42-44, Lk. 12:35-40
The Gospels also have the following parables (missing from this article):
The Goodly Pearl: Mt. 13:45-46
The Net: Mt. 13:47-50
The Householder Which Bringeth Forth Things New and Old: Mt. 13:51-52
The Lost Piece of Silver: Lk. 15:8-10
Two Sons: Mt. 21:28-32
The Lord of the Household: Mt. 24:45-51, Lk. 12:42-48
The Good Shepherd: Jn. 10:1-21
The True Vine: Jn. 15:1-8
Index of topics covered in the parables
(With pages specified)
Grace: 7, 8, 25, 34, 35
Watching: 5, 36, 39
Advertence: 3, 4
Good Works: 16, 18, 22, 25
Alms and Compassion: 14, 16, 22, 24
Prayer: 13, 28
Persistence: 25, 27, 34, 39
Repentance: 11, 13
The Cause of Evil: 5, 30
Discretion: 27, 36
Humbleness and Pride: 13, 32, 34
Multiplication of Good Qualities: 25
Diligence: 9, 16, 25, 36, 39
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Missionary Leaflet # E19
Copyright © 2001 Holy Trinity Orthodox Mission
466 Foothill Blvd, Box 397, La Canada, Ca 91011
Editor: Bishop Alexander (Mileant)
Edited by Donald Shufran.