07 August 2006

Wiser than the Children of Light: Parables

Parables are interesting things. The way in which they convey their meanings is somewhat of a mystery, and yet they do it so effectively and consistently. Reading these simple stories brings all who read them to an understanding of very specific doctrines, so much so that the gospels rarely need to provide explanation outside of the story, other than the context in which Christ provided it. For a more eloquent explanation of the wonder of parables, I turn to the OSC:

It's no coincidence that so much of Christ's labor in this life was devoted to creating [parables]. . . . The Church he founded eventually failed him. His doctrines were distorted, forgotten, and lost. His followers were slain. The people he healed eventually died. But his stories, those deceptively simple parables, persisted. Where doctrines consisting of language can be and usually are reinterpreted into convenient new meanings, stories consisting of causal relationships between events are very hard to reinterpret without the audience noticing and crying "Foul!"

. . . If I tell you that the "so-called Good Samaritan" was really a clever businessman who acted as he did so as to impress the innkeeper in order to get a purchasing contract with him later, and if I tell you that Christ's message was that you must do good PR in order to succeed in business, you know I'm lying. (Orson Scott Card, "Art as an Act of Charity," A Storyteller in Zion, p. 112-113)
Generally, the meanings of the parables are just as obvious as that of the Good Samaritan. But in my scripture reading yesterday, I stumbled across the one parable that I view as an exception. And it's become one of my favorite parables not only because of it's meaning, but because it is not as obvious. (Maybe it's just the elitist in me.) For your reference, here it is, the Parable of the Unjust Servant from Luke 16:
1 And he said also unto his disciples, There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had awasted his goods.
2 And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an aaccount of thy bstewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward.
3 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.
4 I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.
5 So he called every one of his lord’s debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord?
6 And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty.
7 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.
8 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 achildren of blight.
9 And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the amammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.
10 He that is afaithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.
11 If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your atrust the true briches?
12 And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own?
A very strange parable indeed. Here are a few of the things I draw from it. First, we must be able to obey lesser commandments before receiving higher ones. If we cannot be trusted to keep the lesser law, how can God reveal more unto us? We must make better use of what we have. And rushing at the last minute like the unjust servant will not do. The gospel demands the "tranquil and steady dedication of the lifetime" (Elder Oaks, "The Dedication of Lifetime" --the half not on dating!). If not, when we are called to be accountable for our actions, we will be found short.

In that same vein, I believe that the master commends the unjust servant because, even though what he did was wrong, at least he went after what he wanted with zeal. He found himself in a dilemma, weighed his options, "resolved" what to do, and pursued it full-throttle. In this way, those who work evil are often better than those who are good: how many of us go after truth and righteousness with the same determination and single-mindedness that the unjust servant shows towards evil?

Not many, I think. Rather, we wonder and worry about not receiving a special witness that our course is right, and hestitate to act. I am as much guilty as the next person of faith. We want a voice from God to confirm our every action, when He has told us plainly that "it is not meet that I should command in all things" and men should "do many things of their own free will" (D&C 58:26-27). Thus "the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light." (Thanks to James Joyce for that bit of insight, even if it's the only thing I've ever gotten from him. Cursed Dubliners!)

The usually most troubling passage of this parable is "Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations." Is the Savior telling us to make friends with evil people? Perhaps yes. Perhaps not. I could see it either way. First, if we are friends with the unrighteous, then we can lift them up, and, in spite of our imperfections, they will testify of our goodness at the last day. Or, the Savior could merely be encouraging us to have many friends, for when our own situation or willpower fail us. If we lack the strength to bring of our salvation on our own, it is our friends who create the tide that we will drift along in.

I love thinking about this parable--so complex and so satisfying.

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