Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Matthew 22. 1 – 23, 18. 23 – 35 Kings, citizens and slaves

The story of the marriage feast exists in three different versions. Most comparisons between them come to the conclusion that Luke’s version is most likely to be nearest to that which Jesus told, and Matthew’s the furthest removed. Certainly Luke’s version fits more easily into salvation history: the excuses offered by the guests make their failure to attend more culpable: the host’s behaviour in inviting the outcasts is more generous and less compulsive, and there is no weeping and gnashing of teeth at the end.

However, even for Matthew’s version, the standard interpretation goes something like this: God, the king, invites people to the wedding of his Son, but the honoured guests (the scribes and Pharisees and temple leaders and presidents of the synagogue) refuse the invitation. In fact, not only do they refuse the invitation but they murder his servants, (the prophets). Consequently the temple in Jerusalem is razed to the ground as God’s punishment on them. When those who do turn up come into the feast the king notices one of the guests improperly dressed. This is interpreted as insubordination and he is cast out into weeping and gnashing of teeth. The story goes that Revd Ian Paisley was thundering forth on this text until a little old lady near the pulpit interrupted and says to him, "That's all very well, Reverend, but what about those of us who don't have any teeth left to gnash?!" Without pausing in his stride Paisley comes back with, "Mother, have no fear! Teeth will be provided!" (Brian McGowan).

Thus as Marianne Blickenstaff shows Matthew transforms a wedding reception into a frightening hall of judgment: “While Luke's version of the parable ends with the replacement of the unworthy guests, Matthew's redaction continues his focus on judgment to include even the newly invited company. When the king discovers a guest not wearing a wedding garment, he commands that the unfortunate man be bound hand and foot and expelled "into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth" (22:13). The king's abrupt action shocks the reader into realizing that those who manage to gain entrance to the feast are not guaranteed a place at the table, and that the Bridegroom's fictive family is perhaps not as all-inclusive as it seemed. Though one can never cease to be a biological relation, even if disinherited, one can be expelled from this new adoptive family and be forced to remain in the "outer darkness," the opposite of the joyful wedding banquet, a place where the Bridegroom is never present.
That a joyful wedding feast can turn to sorrow in the rhetoric of apocalyptic judgment is a theme also voiced by the prophets: "I will bring an end to the sound of mirth and gladness; the voice of the bride and bridegroom in the cities of Judah…" (Jer. 7:34; cf. 16:9; 25:10); and "Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her canopy" (Joel 2:16). Like the prophets, Matthew warns that there is a nebulous boundary between joy and sorrow in the liminal stage between waiting for the eschatological banquet and its fulfillment, between promise and final consummation, between being "out" and being "in." In this liminal stage, the members of the fictive family come to understand that their place at the banquet is not guaranteed, and that even their adoption into the Bridegroom's family does not assure an escape from violence in the final judgment.

But what if the Greek at the beginning of the parable is read in a totally different way: it literally reads “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man, the king……” Let us look at the story without the preconception that the king stands for God. A king sends out a summons to those who had been invited informing them that everything is now ready and he expects them to be there at the wedding of his son. For some reason they seem reluctant to come. Who would turn down and invitation to a royal wedding? He sends out more slaves instructing them to summon the guests to the wedding. Most of them just ignored the slaves and went about their ordinary business trying to pretend they had not been invited. Others beat up the slaves and some of the slaves were killed. Why should the invited ones behave in this way? The king was enraged and sent out troops with instructions to kill the murderers and burn down their city. The slaves are then commanded to go into the streets and make sure that there are guests for the wedding to prevent the king losing face. So they gathered in good and bad alike – anyone would do – to make sure that the king was not embarrassed by having no guests for the marriage of his son. But when the king came in he saw one guest improperly dressed. He interrogates him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” The man is speechless. The slaves throw him out of the party into the bitterness of the night.

Perhaps that last action explains why people did not want to come to the wedding in the first place. Does this king remind us of God or Caesar? Jesus or Herod? We have already heard an account of Herod’s birthday party which ends up with the head of a man who dressed in camel’s skin presented on a platter to the queen. Ancient literature is bulging with stories of dinner parties that were the sort of events from which sensible people tried to excuse themselves.

The sequence of emperors from the death of Augustine until the death of Nero was marked by a decadence that was, even its own time, regarded as deeply shocking Already Matthew has given us a shocking portrait of a king: a king with colossal resources who apparently governed not only through violent force but with a shocking disregard for budgetary control presumably keeping the goodwill of his civil servants by allowing them to cream off millions from the exchequer. We are introduced to one of them: this man owes 10,000 talents: the talent was worth 10,000 denarii. A denarius was a day’s pay. So the poor man owed 10,000 x 10,000 days’ pay: or 10 million days’ pay. Now if we say that the average working life is 50 years that adds up to 15.000 days. In modern money, the debt is about £4 billion. It beggars belief how any king could be so incompetent as to have one of his managers owing quite so much, or on what the manager could have spent so much money.

Of course the figure 10,000 x 10,000 was just the Jewish way of saying the largest number you could think of. Even so, on the day of reckoning, the poor debtor had no hope: it was all very well the king saying I’ll sell you, your wife, your children and all your possessions: the average selling price for a slave was about 100 denarii: sometimes a slave could just fetch 200: so allowing 100denarii for him and his wife and his children he would only be able to pay off 0.0001% of the debt! Even if he had eight children.

Even more implausible is the manager’s promise to work off the debt! Thus the king might as well let the man off: in terms of the debt any other action would amount to punishment for the sake of it. So filled with compassion for a man in such a state he did so.

On the way home from his encounter with the king the manager met a client who owed him 100 denarii -100 days’ pay - or – the price of his own head as a slave. This was a sum that could realistically be raised. When the client said “Be patient and I will repay you” he meant it. The action of the manager was gratuitous and stupid: he clamped his client in prison thus depriving the him not only of the means of work to pay back the debt but also of feeding his family. Putting him in prison until he should pay was sheer vindictiveness.

Now colleagues of both men enter into the story: they are outraged with the manager who has slung their workmate into prison: they report the matter to the king who calls in the manager and reinstates the debt he had cancelled. The man is to be tortured until he should pay up: which of course meant for eternity since there was no means of him ever paying.

Since it was illegal under Jewish law for a man to sell his wife into slavery, and there was no institution of slavery for debt in Israel, and torture was illegal under Jewish Iaw this story would ring true in Jewish ears primarily in a Roman context. Such behaviour towards those sub-governors behind with the tax was common in the Roman Empire: the sub-governor was therefore likely to take a harsh line towards those behind with their tax since he would be held responsible by the king for it personally. “There was a liquidity crisis in 33CE in which interest rates rose, loans were called in and land prices collapsed. Tiberius loaned a substantial sum of money to landowners without interest for three years to restore liquidity.”

The parable, then, at its face value is all about accounts, ledgers, debts and credit. It is also about tax, duties, relationships between governor and governed. The parable ends with the manager languishing under the eternal torture of his king. This proud, hard hearted manager discovers his master to be the sort of king who reinstates debts that once have been wiped off the slate. This is a king who gives way to popular pressure in his treatment of an unpopular manager. He is untrustworthy. Obviously this king is no more meant to be like God than the unrighteous judge in Luke 18.

The point is that even tyrannical and venal Roman kings expected to find some compassion in their managers and could sometimes rise to the occasion and show mercy themselves. How much more will a merciful God who has released human beings of such colossal debts expect those made in his image to be forgiving in the way he is. But such forgiveness requires a total change of heart. That change of heart can only be effected when a love relationship takes over from a contractual relationship in our attitudes not only to God but our fellow human beings. Since God breaks the contract by giving his forgiveness that contractual way of looking at the world is no longer valid. Law is trumped by grace. Thus forgiveness is dependent of the one forgiven as well as on the one who forgives. Like love it is a two way process. Forgiveness has to be fully accepted to be effective, it is possible to remain unforgiven irrespective of the attitude of the wronged person. The manager in the story never knew himself to be relieved of debt – never experienced the release of his burden and so continued to behave in a mean-minded way. Far from liberating him to be a different person - he felt humiliated and thus determined to exercise the shreds of power he had left over the other poor unfortunate. Sometimes forgiveness only doubles the debt. It humiliates the debtor even more. He still wanted to pay the debt off. If we are unable to be forgiving ourselves then we are likely to be those who will never in the bottom of our heart be able to believe that we are forgiven: we therefore will live with our debts - tortured by them - unable to pay them off - burdened by the guilt for eternity. Only those who have had their heart of stone replaced by a heart of flesh can know what it is to be loved and forgiven.

So we return to the other royal parable. If the king in the story of the debtors can easily be equated with Tiberius, so can the king in this parable. How did the listeners interpret this? They discovered that Jesus “did not regard people with partiality”. In other words they interpreted his parable as being subversive to the Romans. Of course at no point had Jesus made it clear enough that he was talking about Caesar ‘s corrupt banquets and political wedding feasts for him to be indicted. So they sought to trap him with questions about Roman taxation, and force his him to come out openly as a dissident.

The quotation that Matthew appends to the parable simply thickens the fog. Who were called and who chosen? The chosen were surely those sent the named invitations – they after all were those whose names were on the guest list. They were chosen. Nothing in the text suggests that they were many. The many would appear to be those who were dragooned into coming. The other person to be chosen was the man thrown out into weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Assume for one moment you were sitting next to him and witnessed his embarrassment at the hands of the king and then saw the slaves bodily throw him out into the abyss. What if he were your friend, your father, your son, your husband? Would you be able to eat your canap├ęs with joy after that? John the Baptist had been beheaded for refusing to refrain from criticizing Herod’s marriage to Herodias. At a banquet of sycophants he remained obstinately non-conformist. He had refused to dance to the music of the pipes. But then so had Jesus.
Dramatically Marianne Blickenstaff has suggested that the silent one who is cast out represented Jesus himself. Jesus, enigmatically taking upon himself the title of Son of Man, resolutely refused to wear a garment thrust upon him by either his opponents or his supporters. The cardboard cut-out of Messiah was spurned whether it was placed on him by Peter or Caiaphas. He was the one thrown out into darkness and the gnashing of teeth, silently bearing the wrath of the regime because he alone would not conform to a code of ostentatious righteousness that was at odds with his humanity and fellowship with the poor and sinful. Many (which usually means all) indeed were called: few (in fact only he) was chosen.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

nuremberg chronicle

I managed to acquire something of a minor treasure during the summer: a leaf from the first edition (in Latin) of the Nuremberg Chronicles printed in 1493. This book purports to tell the story of the history of the world from the creation right up to the present day. It was immensely popular in its own day: 2500 copies were printed, many in German, and was possibly the first ever book to be pirated: a cheaper version was published in Augsburg in 1497.

The glory of this book lies not so much in the text as in the illustrations. It contains 1804 pictures, mostly of people, towns, genealogies and Bible stories. My leaf as you can see from the top left illustration is quite modest, but very typical.
However the 1804 illustrations are created from only 652 woodblocks, meaning that many images were used more than once. Thus an image depicting a Biblical king was used again for a contemporary king. And a prophet could quite easily reappear as a pope. In the same way the picture shown below which purports to be of Alexandria is also used in other parts of the book to represent Athens, Pavia, Austria, Carinthia, Prussia and Amazonia. The repetition of woodcuts was a common practice during this time, both in order to save money and because many readers of the Chronicle accepted these as idealized renderings of distant locales. However, there are 32 authentic city views in the Chronicle, based on both contemporary illustrations and models already existing in the printer's archives.
Of course the world whose history the chronicle purported to describe was narrow and flat. Columbus had only just sailed the ocean blue in1493 and his conclusions remained to be formulated let alone believed.

The best notion of the world’s shape was taken from Ptolemy’s Geographia, published in 150, rediscovered in 1300 and reprinted in the 1480s. Thus the world view that appears in the Nuremberg Chronicles was that formed 1350 years earlier. Within less than 50 years that view was itself history.

The credit for compiling these chronicles is usually given to a Nuremberg doctor, Schedel. And here another issue arises: just as the printers were quite happy to use any old picture in their stock of woodblocks so Schedel did little more than copy chunks of narrative from other sources and link them with the occasional conjunction or linking phrase. Over 90% of the text was lifted straight out of other histories. There is nothing new in plagiarism. Of course not all of these were in print so he made more widely accessible documents that existed in manuscript only.

So why the fuss about the Nuremberg Chronicles? It is not rare: a modest original double sided leaf of an early German edition with some illustration is available on the internet for around £50. The whole book can be bought in a fine facsimile for around £200. Many international libraries will carry an original copy and pages can easily be seen on the internet.

Some of the pictures are original and show interesting views of the places as they were in 1490. Some of the pictures were carved into the wood by significant artists such as the young Durer, who was born in Nuremberg and whose godfather Koberger oversaw the book production.

But perhaps what is most fascinating is the fact that these chronicles were produced right on the cusp of a significant change in human attitude to events and to mankind itself. In 1490 Germany it was quite acceptable to portray an obscure Judean king with the same features as a remote medieval one. It was their kingliness that was important not their appearance. Similarly a legendary , even make-believe, place like Amazonia (the Amazon itself was not yet discovered and was named after the myth—not the other way round) could be portrayed with the same features as Athens since both were reckoned to be places of significance: what was portrayed was aura not architecture. And yet in the same book there are magnificent realistic depictions of contemporary cities like Bamberg: we visited Bamberg this summer. It is still recognizable from this picture. Already people and places were being depicted with astonishing verisimilitude. When Cromwell, 150 years later, was painted warts and all he was by no means the first.

There is, though a further interesting side to the Nuremberg Chronicles. They do not end in 1493 when the book was printed. There is one further chapter in which the future is predicted. It was widely believed that the end of the world would come in 1500. This belief was based on an interpretation of the prophecies of Daniel that the time and a half of time referred to a period of 1000 and 500 years respectively. Since it was believed that Jesus had been born in the year 0 the year 1500 took on a huge significance.

So the book of the Chronicles has a purpose beyond that of simply providing Germany with a luxury picture book. It was produced to prepare a people for judgment. Durer’s first published book in his own name followed but 5 years later. It was a full, dazzling and terrifying illustrated edition of the Apocalypse. This end to the book was not speculative it was as certain as the stories of the past.
What was so amazing was that far from 1500 bringing the end of the world in the terms they envisaged it only brought the end of the world as they knew it. Far from closing down the world the demi millennium opened it up. For 500 years every year brought new discoveries, new continents, new rivers, new species of animals, new civilisations, new myths and new perspectives. By 1830 geologist Archibald Lyell was stating about the earth that there was no vestige of a beginning and no prospect of an end. And no longer could two people be given the same face for the very variety of the world and its peoples rather than its homogeneity is its glory. Our young people trek the frontiers of heaven from monastery to monastery in the mystic heights of the Himalayas, our old people traverse the oceans on cruise ships to the frightening ends of the earth at Terra del Fuego, in the Magellan Straits named after the man whose crew first circumnavigated the world less than 30 years after the Chronicles were printed. Now round the world racing is an annual and almost unremarkable event.

Above all the Nuremberg Chronicles were a triumph for the recently invented printing press. They showed the glory of what could be produced. And in what numbers. It was the printing press that facilitated the Lutheran Reformation. It was the printing press that revolutionised the sharing of knowledge. In many ways it was the very medium of which the Chronicles were one of the finest examples that brought about the end of its world. That ultimately is what fascinates in this extraordinary work. Not only does it stand on the cusp of two ages, it is in itself that cusp.

But in the same way we live on the cusp of a new age. Computers and the world wide web are to our age a not dissimilar revolution to that of printing in the 15th century. The exploration of the universe, the discovery of DNA, the ability to create life, all these are about to change our world as dramatically as did the discoveries of the sixteenth century.
To some extent we have learnt our lesson: not even many theologically anchored history books are bold enough to end with the last judgment as if it were an historical event. The church may laugh at the naivety of the soviet astronaut who returned to earth saying he had been out there an found no trace of heaven or God. And yet I received a book this week from an American publisher purporting to prove modern science wrong and the Bible right about the creation of the world. This book is wondrously illustrated, weighs about 8 kilos and is but the second volume in a total work of 7. It concentrates all this page power on Darwin, who lived and died an honest Christian struggling to discover a little more about God’s world than was revealed in the closed minds within which the church had imprisoned it.

Brothers and sisters once it was a best seller but now the Nuremberg Chronicles are no longer read. No one is going to take a world view for our age even from such an impressive tome. It belongs in museums and glass cases. Its pages are just a curiosity for collectors: one of the last great works o the middle ages, one of the first great printed books. What message is the church proclaiming for this new world in which we live? Fifty years ago the gospel was still being delivered in virtually Victorian ways. In the last 50 years things have changed a little. But sadly much that the church says today is as irrelevant as the maps of the Nuremberg Chronicle were to Magellan and Drake.