When nearly precise rabbinic parallels to stories and sayings in the Gospels exist, it may indicate that the Gospels are preserving traditions of the early Jesus movement and, perhaps, the historical Jesus.
Supposing that these twin parables once belonged to the same narrative-sayings complex as the Rich Man Declines the Kingdom of Heaven incident enables us to understand their message. Jesus’ demand that the rich man sell everything wasn’t an onerous or unreasonable request; to the contrary, Jesus had offered the rich man an extraordinary bargain.
The growing value placed on charity in the first century C.E. cannot be overstated. As a new sensitivity developed within Judaism that challenged the compensatory “blessings and curses” paradigm of the Hebrew Bible (cf. Deut. 28) as a basis to serve God, so there was a shifting emphasis towards altruistic love embodied in the Levitical commandment, “…and you shall love your neighbor as yourself (וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי יי; Lev. 19:18).”
The order of The Four Types usually implies ascending gradation from worst to best. When I read The Parable of the Sower, I am inclined to see the third group as representing the category in which most of us fall—including me.
What is the relationship between the preaching of Jonah and putting a lamp on a lampstand? The prophet Jonah in classical Jewish thought calls to mind repentance. In Rabbinic literature we read that many prophets were sent to Jerusalem and the people did not listen, but to Nineveh one prophet was sent, and the people repented.
Couched within Jesus’ teaching is an idiom which is difficult to translate, “If your eye is single, your whole body is full of light” (Matt. 6:22). The Hebraic expression, “good eye” to denote generosity is well known in the Bible (Deut. 15:9; Prov. 22:9; 23:6; 28:22; Eccl. 14:10) and the writings of Israel’s Sages (m. Avot 5:15). Nevertheless, in Matthew 6, where you would expect to find the idiom, “good eye,” the adjective used in our saying is not καλός (kalos, good, pleasant) but ἁπλοῦς (haplous, single, simple).
In the time of Jesus, by rabbinic ruling, the giving of alms, or charity, was an acceptable substitute for sacrificial offerings. Jesus seems to have preferred the giving of alms. The story of the widow who put two small copper coins into the temple treasury (Luke 21:1-4) may be an example of someone who brought an offering of alms to the Temple rather than an animal sacrifice. The widow was very poor and could not afford to purchase an animal, or even small birds, to be sacrificed.
The Gospel writer Luke recorded a story that Jesus told about an anonymous rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. Living in splendor, the rich man enjoyed his wealth, whereas Lazarus pined away outside the rich man’s gated home. The story gives the reader the impression that the rich man did little to alleviate Lazarus’ pain. He probably reasoned that what was his was his, and what was Lazarus’ was Lazarus’.