Jesus and His Parables: Interpreting the Parables of Jesus Today

  • V. George Shillington
  • Mar 1, 2000
  • Series: Volume 3 - 2000

V. George Shillington, ed., Jesus and His Parables: Interpreting the Parables of Jesus Today. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1997. xvi + 198 pp. Pap. ISBN # 0-567-08596-1

The back cover blurb proclaims that “this book brings together in a single volume all the modern approaches to interpreting the parables. Ten leading scholars from around the world each focus upon a different parable, and bring to bear their own special interests and expertise.” Neither of these sentences comes anywhere close to proving true. The approaches reflected range from the mainstream to the idiosyncratic but are hardly comprehensive. Half of the scholars are from the Winnipeg area; only four of the five who are not would be considered “leading”--J. I. H. McDonald, J. C. O'Neill, Richard Rohrbaugh and Willard Swartley--and then only by some. Nevertheless, the book makes for fascinating reading and one does get a feel for a fair cross-section of approaches and not a few poignant applicational insights for the contemporary world.

The ten expositions are divided into four sections, dealing in turn with the temple, land, economy and people. Michael Farris presents a fairly typical approach to the Pharisee and Tax Collector, but highlights the shock value of Jesus' verdict in favor of the latter over against the former by stressing the features of the temple that would have made the audience even more predisposed to reverse Jesus' judgment. McDonald does much the same for the Good Samaritan, showing how Jesus “appears to censure the elevation of cultic over moral duties, and thus to criticise cultic values” (p. 49).

Under parables of the land, Mary Ann Beavis examines the Rich Fool, whose obligations in a society based on corporate solidarity would have involved sharing his surplus with the poor nearby. But she buys too much into William Herzog's unconvincing views of parables as “codifications” of problems in Jesus' society (rather than answers to them) and winds up pitting Luke against Jesus. Donald Peters treats the parable of the Sower fairly conventionally; the most interesting part of his chapter is his closing observation from work in Brazil that today's peasant farmer will naturally focus more on the unexpectedly great harvest than on the unproductive seeds.

George Shillington treats the first of three parables on the economy, the Laborers in the Vineyard. Also interacting with Herzog, but recognizing his limitations, he correctly stresses that the landowner is exemplary in looking out for all the indigent workers. He also ties this conclusion in with theological reflection on the Sabbath--an important check in ancient Judaism against unbridled greed and hence ceaseless work--though it is not entirely clear how he gets there from this parable. Joel Wohlgemut's exposition of the Talents explores suggestions that the wicked servant wasn't so wicked after all, but ultimately rejects them in favor of a more conventional conclusion seeing the story as “a more general call to appropriate responses in light of God's in-breaking kingdom” (p. 119). Paul Trudinger discusses some relatively older interpretations of the Unjust Steward, toys with Herzog as well, and ultimately concludes that “Jesus tells the story in anger to expose the depth of oppression inflicted on the poor,” apparently a variation of the approaches that see irony or sarcasm in Luke 16:8. But this approach seems even less persuasive than those he rejects.

Finally, a triad of expositions appear on parables of people. In perhaps the most helpful piece in the collection, Rohrbaugh follows an approach to the Prodigal Son very similar to Kenneth Bailey's but with the added dynamic of the father having to overcome the probable displeasure of the villagers at his own overly gracious reaction to his son(s). O'Neill convincingly demonstrates that a Messianic meaning behind the use of the son-figure in the Wicked Tenants goes back to Jesus and was conceivable in a Jewish milieu that would have known of Messianic Son references like those now found in Qumran. Finally, Swartley surveys various approaches to the Great Banquet. The greatest merit of his chapter, too, is his closing application in which we in the West may prove more like the original invitées, and Third World Christians like the replacement guests, than we might care to admit.

Overall Herzog's work is given far more attention than it deserves and some recent approaches are neglected altogether (e.g., Blomberg, Sider, Hedrick). But the articles are both scholarly and quite readable, and one is reminded in short compass of quite a few suggestions in the modern history of the interpretation of the parables treated, many of which turn out to be quite helpful. Devotional or applicational insights conclude most of the chapters and prove both provocative and stimulating. As long as one doesn't expect the grandiose promises of the book's advertisers to be fulfilled, one may read these essays with a fair amount of enjoyment and profit.

There are a smattering of typos (a disproportionately large number of which are in the indexes), the most glaring of which are Mary Ann Beavis' repeated references to David Wenham as “Richard Wenham.”

Craig L. Blomberg
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary

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