The Parable of the Servant: An Alternative Myth of the Fall

The story of humanity’s fall into sin and subsequent expulsion from the Garden of Eden has long captured the imagination of Christian thinkers, poets, and artists. We can see the importance of this story from the earliest strands of the tradition; in the passage directly following this past Sunday’s Epistle reading, Paul writes: “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Romans 5.18). And to the Corinthian church, he likewise wrote: “for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15.22). Where Adam went wrong, Christ was a ‘second Adam’ who remained faithful, ushering in a new creation. And so from its earliest times, Christianity understood the story of Jesus as a response to the story of the Fall. Today I’d like to look at a parable that was revealed to Julian that acts as a complement to the Genesis story about the origins of sin and the human condition, while incorporating Paul’s teaching of Christ into it. We’ll then see how it fits into Julian’s theological understanding of God, sin, and the work of Jesus, which has been the major theme over our Lenten study so far.

Before we get into Julian’s parable, let’s quickly remind ourselves of the story in Genesis 3 and how it’s been interpreted over the centuries. This is the famous story of the Woman (she is not yet ‘Eve’ until after the story ends) and the Serpent. God places the Man and Woman in the Garden, where they are able to eat from any tree, except for one: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2.17). But the Serpent twists God’s words and convinces the Woman to try its fruit. She then shares it with the Man. Suddenly they are given a new awareness of themselves and the world, symbolized in the story by their sudden shame at their nakedness (3.7). God sees what has happened and they are cast out of the Garden, with both facing harsh new realities: for the Man agricultural toil, and for the Woman dangerous childbirth and patriarchy (3.19). Over the millennia, this story has been interpreted in different ways. For the most part, within Judaism it has been simply understood as an origin for the human condition, but they don’t read much into that. (One might say without exaggeration that while the story is Jewish, ‘the Fall’ is a specifically Christian idea.) For its part, the Christian East reads this story in terms of ‘generational sin’, in which we become sinful simply by being in a sinful world. (I like to call this the “Jam Hands” theory of sin: you get jam on you because somehow everything is covered in jam — anyone who has ever spent time with toddlers will understand the analogy, I think!) Western Christianity took a harsher approach to the story. Its dominant interpretation, fed through the likes of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, became the doctrine of ‘Original Sin,’ which posits that Adam and Eve’s sin fundamentally changed human nature such that we carry their guilt within us from the moment of birth, an idea which, since the Early Modern period, both Protestants and Roman Catholics have taken in extreme directions. All this is to say that there has never been just one way of reading the Genesis 2-3 story, or of understanding sin and salvtion. So if what Julian has to say seems novel, it isn’t necessarily wrong or untrue.

At any rate, by Julian’s time, the most common analogy used to describe God’s saving activity to deal with this problem of sin was that of Anselm of Canterbury. He imagined God as a feudal lord whose servants have violated his due honour and so he demands satisfaction; but being good, he punishes his heir instead of the servants. This is most certainly the idea that would have circulated around Julian as she was raised and instructed in the Church. It’s a model that focuses on human guilt and the way God’s justice deals with that guilt. In light of this, the parable that is revealed to her serves as a particularly interesting corrective. She too uses the analogy of a lord and a servant, but takes it in a very different direction. She writes:

I saw two persons in bodily likeness, that is to say a lord and a servant … The servant stands before his lord, respectfully, ready to do his lord’s will. The lord looks on his servant very lovingly and sweetly and mildly. He sends him to a certain place to do his will. Not only does the servant go, but he dashes off and runs at great speed, loving to do his lord’s will. And soon he falls into a dell and is greatly injured; and then he groans and moans and tosses about and writhes, but he cannot rise or help himself in any way. And of all this, the greatest hurt which I saw him in was lack of consolation, for he could not turn his face to look on his loving lord, who was very close to him, in whom is all consolation; but like a man who was for the time extremely feeble and foolish, he paid heed to his feelings and his continuing distress … [In addition to his bodily impairment, the pain accompanying it, the discomfort of the ditch, and and his lack of help] he was blinded in his reason and perplexed in his mind, so much so that he had almost forgotten his own love …. I looked carefully to know if I could detect any fault in him, or if the lord would impute to him any kind of blame; and truly none was seen, for the only cause of his falling was his good will and his great desire. (Ch 51)*

What a different theological world this is from Augustine’s or Anselm’s! Here humanity is going off about its (and God’s) business, when it tumbles into a ravine. It experiences several consequences: physical impairment, pain, immobility, and unable to find help out. Over time, humanity becomes so distressed by its predicament that it loses sight of God or anything good. In the parable, Julian can find no fault or blame at all in the human condition. While this story reads as perhaps being a little naive about humanity’s innocence, it also strikes at some important truths about sin that have gotten lost in the dominant understandings of it. Very few people get up in the morning excited about a fresh new opportunity to be short-tempered with their children, to yell at their employees, or cut a stranger off in traffic, or participate in unjust economic systems. Like the servant in the parable, most of us want to do good in the world, but just get thrown off course because we get tired or hungry, or upset because someone cut us off in traffic, or whatever. And some times, as in our day-to-day economic decisions, we aren’t really given a ‘sinless’ option, since everything is tied to multiple, complex systems over which we have no control. Julian’s parable here seems to be getting at the point I made here back in 2021: that we need to normalize sin: Saying “I’m a sinner” shouldn’t mean “I think I’m a horrible person and am going to wallow in my shame,” but rather, “I’m human and I’m finite and caught up in a complex world and so I can’t always be the person God created me to be.”

Returning to the parable, when the lord sees the servant lying in the ditch, he says:

See my beloved servant, what harm and injuries he has had and accepted in my service and for my life, yes, and for his good will. It is not reasonable that I should reward him for his fright and his fear, his hurt and his injuries and all this woe? (Ch 51)

This is such an interesting shift in the lord/servant dynamic popularized by Anselm. Instead of being motivated by anger at what hasn’t gotten done around the manor or a perceived slight to his honour, this lord is motivated out of love and concern for his servant and not only is not angry about the job not getting done, but even wants to reward the servant for his trouble and distress. This is how Julian understands God’s relationship to humanity and our sinfulness:

For in the sight of God all men are one man, and one man is all men. This man was injuried in his powers and made most feeble, and in his understanding he was amazed, because he was diverted from looking on his lord, but his will was preserved in God’s sight. I saw the lord commend and approve him for his will, but he himself was blinded and hindered from knowing this will. (Ch 51)

The way Julian incorporates the work of Jesus into her understanding of this parable is instructive. She writes: “In the servant is comprehended the second person of the Trinity, and in the servant is comprehended Adam, that is to say all men” (Ch 51). When God sees the fallen servant, according to Julian, God sees Adam, the wayward one, the primordial sinner. But God also sees the fallen servant as Jesus, the eternally faithful one, Suffering Servant who is the archetypal victim of sin. And in the fallen servant and in both Adam and Jesus, God sees us, all of us:

And for the great endless love that God has for all mankind, he makes no distinction in love between the blessed soul of Christ and the least soul that will be saved. … [W]here the blessed soul of Christ is, there is the substance of all the souls which will be saved by Christ. (Ch 54)

Basically, what all this says, and what I’d like the main takeaway from this post to be, is that when God see us, God sees both Adam, his beloved servant who has gone astray, and Christ, his beloved servant who remained faithful and yet was still battered and bruised by the world. And God sees us and loves us, has compassion and mercy upon us. For that is God’s nature.


* Unless noted, all quotes are taken from the long text of Julian or Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love as translated and set in Julian of Norwich, Showings, translated by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh. The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978.

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