Midrash and the Search for Jesus’ Meaning

By Rick Fabian

Good tales get retold. Jesus was a great storyteller, and the gospel writers give us dozens of his tales, called parables because he deliberately planted more meaning there than first appears. By the time Jesus’ followers wrote them down, his parables had been retold many times, as changing circumstances brought them to mind for Christian preachers seeking fresh answers to community problems. This process is called midrash, the Hebrew word for a sermon. Most gospel parables come down to us with some preacher’s application already attached: hence some form of midrash crops up everywhere in the gospel records.

While always well intentioned, midrash may or may not help us catch Jesus’ point. For example, Luke’s gospel (chapter 18) preserves a parable about a corrupt judge who decides one poor widow’s case with unusual fairness. Alas, the original tale offers little ethical comfort. The storyteller tells us twice that this magistrate does not fear God: that means he takes bribes rather than judging as God commands throughout Scripture. Nor does he respect persons: he gouges everyone the same, whatever their social place or office. Of course, his evil reputation helps him get rich, as citizens learn to pay up when suing in his court and so bring ready money along.

But this poor widow has no powerful connections anyhow and no money to bribe him; yet she keeps running into court empty-handed, shouting, “Give me justice against my opponent!” The more days she returns after his refusal, never learning what other litigants learn, the more the weary judge worries that she must be mad and might even smack him in the face. (So some texts have it.) At last he grants her one plea fairly, without a bribe. This widow’s crazed relentlessness makes justice the best way to get rid of her. Nevertheless, the judge insists that his ethics haven’t changed. Probably he’ll crack down harder on everyone else afterward, to shore up his reputation and keep the bribes coming.

How can we put this wicked little tale to use in daily life? The gospel editor supplies a hopeful gloss, the simplest kind of midrash: we should expect at least as much generosity from our good God as from a corrupt judge, so we ought to keep faithfully praying, just as the widow kept running into court with her plea. We can imagine what situations may have led early church preachers to offer such advice, say, during a persecution. And their advice may make decent life coaching for the timid everywhere. But it distorts the parable by likening God to a bribe-taker: the worst civic villain in Old Testament priestly and prophetic warnings. No wonder people today imagine that God wants some painful sacrifice from them before they can gain God’s blessing or even a decent shake in life!

On the contrary, the original storyteller (the gospel writer says this was Jesus) cannot have meant the corrupt judge to stand for God. Jesus’ parable focuses rather on the aggressive widow’s success, as she achieved justice even with no power whatever to enforce it. For a midrash more faithful to the parable, we may say that she represents God far better than the corrupt judge can. God achieves amazing wonders with no apparent force beyond persuasion. The widow exemplifies God’s mysterious influence within our evil world of power politics and corruption. Many an Amnesty International volunteer letter-writing committee has seen it happen.

Because well-intentioned early preachers may have twisted a parable’s original thrust to serve sundry applications, deflecting readers’ attention and sometimes even reversing an argument, today scholars employ historical and literary criticism to identify each parable’s earliest form and pare midrash away. They aim to recover Jesus’ “authentic” voice in the text—an urgent task for orthodox Christian believers, although historical certainty may never be possible.

But midrash need not always obscure Jesus’ message. His parables typically support many applications: that is one reason they survive in Christian memory. And everyone must midrash parables in order to live by them. Therefore each sermon application wants testing to see how clearly it carries Jesus’ point and helps his followers apply this in faithful living.

One of the most engaging midrash styles is called halakah (literally, “walking about”). Halakah tells a teacher’s teaching not in the form of religious propositions but rather as a fictional story: for example, a story pretending to tell how the teacher discovered that teaching. To suit this fiction, of course, the teacher must appear stupid or wrongheaded at the start, and someone else must hammer the bright ideas in. Thus for charming rhetorical effect the story briefly reverses historical truth.

Two related Hebrew Bible tales probably inspired such rabbinic halakah. Abraham bargains with God in a vain effort to save Sodom (Genesis 18); and Moses more successfully bargains with God to spare the Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf (Exodus 32). Both stories retail an almost comical bargaining process familiar to the Near East and to any westerner who has ever bought an oriental carpet. In carpet bargaining, the seller’s reluctance is a fiction, as both parties know; if anything, it encourages the buyer to invent further reasons for the compromise both expect—or else the bargaining would cease. Our two Hebrew tales recall that bargaining convention: God appears angry and reluctant until overcome by human wheedling. But the full stories tell the opposite truth: God forgives freely and will rescue a whole self-destructive nation just to save the tiniest minority of decent humanity (ten in Sodom, Moses alone in the desert). All that bargaining only dramatizes the breadth of God’s compassion for bumbling, conniving humans. Here is storytelling technique at its best.

The gospels contain similar halakah, though the likeness escapes many commentators, who can therefore seriously misread a tale. Mark 7 and Matthew 15 tell of a Syro-Phoenician woman, a pagan heir to the ancient animosity between Jews and Philistines, who asks Jesus to heal her daughter. The storyteller has Jesus reply coarsely that it is not fair to feed pagan dogs like her daughter with healthful food that belongs to the children of Israel. Yet the mother persuades him to heal her daughter nevertheless. The conflict embarrasses most modern translators, who mangle the original Greek grammar, repainting the scene as a rational rabbinic discourse. But in Greek the woman’s reply is as abrasive as Jesus’ insult. (Her word nai! for “yes,” though commonplace today, was strongly emphatic in Hellenistic times.) “It is too fair!!” the pagan mother hollers back. “Because even we dogs get to eat scraps your overfed Jewish brats drop on the floor!” And Jesus yields to her without admitting a logical or ethical error, but because he appreciates that she will fight for her convictions. “Lady, have you ever got big faith! Okay, Okay, your daughter’s healed!”

Modern Christians unfamiliar with midrash may wince at the mean figure Jesus cuts here. On its face the story tells how a chauvinistic Jewish male healer was forced to accommodate women and non-Jews. But the gospel writer knows that among contemporary religious leaders, Jesus was uniquely generous in dining with outcasts and counted women among his closest disciples: this radical openness above all led to his death. So in classic halakah fashion, the evangelist spins a yarn about Jesus learning the very principles he became famous for. And like God in the Genesis and Exodus bargaining stories we examined above, Jesus appears wrongheaded and reluctant at first, until someone pounds his most distinctive teaching home to him. Here is classic storytelling rhetoric—not at all diminishing Jesus but rather exalting him as a teacher parallel to God in Scripture.

Indeed, this halakah may be the finest midrash in the New Testament. The woman’s pagan identity reflects the storyteller’s own immediate situation, as a proper midrash should do. Soon after Jesus’ death, the earliest Christians debated whether his messianic victory was meant for Jews only or should be spread among the heathen worldwide, as Paul was already doing. Gentile peoples might never become proper Jews (Paul frankly argued they should not try) but instead must receive salvation by their faith alone. Mark’s halakah shows which side he believes Jesus would take in that debate: by making the woman a citizen of Israel’s ancient enemy nation, the story poignantly dramatizes Jesus’ real openness to all. And by evoking God’s parallel behavior in Hebrew Scripture, he implies that Jesus settles the debate with divine authority.

More authoritatively yet, Mark founds his argument on Jesus’ own words. Formal comparison indicates that the Syro-Phoenician mother’s story is a halakah on the same parable of the corrupt judge, which Luke gives us and we examined above. Evidently both gospel writers know some version of this tale. In both stories a woman achieves by importunate aggression what seems hopelessly out of her reach. In both, a man yields without renouncing an attitude familiar to listeners at the time; he only recoils from her assault. By copying Jesus’ narrative form, Mark’s tale persuades us to accept what no logical argument could prove: that Jesus’ faithful followers must spread his good news among pagans as well as Jews. If Mark seems at first to make Jesus a fool or a moral wretch, he expects us to recognize that convention and recall its theological associations. The true butt of his story is not its fictional Jesus but Mark’s real contemporary opponents, who hold that the heathen cannot share a Jewish messiah’s salvation.

Mark’s halakah excels in faithfulness to Jesus’ distinctive message, neither twisting nor redirecting the parable Luke presents us but applying it powerfully to a question Jesus himself may not have foreseen. Let the modern preacher, fortified by historical and literary critical scholarship, go and do likewise.

Founding rector of St Gregory’s, Rick Fabian takes time off from his vocations of snowboarding, swimming, cycling, and harpsichord playing to serve as presbyter and deacon there. He taught New Testament and liturgy at the California School for Deacons until 1999 and is a member of the North American Academy of Liturgy, Societas Liturgica, and the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation. He has led courses at St. Gregory’s and the San Francisco Zen Center on the teaching of Jesus and Paul.

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