The Voice of Jesus: Studies in the Interpretation of Six Gospel Parables

  • Stephen I. Wright
  • Jan 1, 2002
  • Series: Volume 5 - 2002

Stephen I. Wright The Voice of Jesus: Studies in the Interpretation of Six Gospel Parables. Carlisle: Paternoster. 2000. � 19.99. xiv + 280 pp. Pb. ISBN 0-85364-975-8.

Is it possible to say anything that is both new and valid about the parables? Amazingly, yes! Stephen Wright, younger brother of Tom Wright, and recent recipient of the Ph.D. under Jimmy Dunn in Durham, brings his literary critical expertise to bear on the parables, recognizing that figures of speech are a key to understanding the "voice" of the historical Jesus. Wright is looking both for the intention of the author of the parables, as a part of the interpretive process that cannot be jettisoned, and for the influence of previous textual tradition on the interpreter.

As a test case, Wright chooses six narrative parables all in Luke, three of the classic "example stories"--The Good Samaritan, The Rich Man and Lazarus, and The Pharisee and the Customs Officer, and three usually not so classified--The Prodigal Son, The Shrewd Steward, and The Judge and the Widow. Wright likewise takes key soundings in the history of the interpretation of the parables, with reference to each of these six passages, by scrutinizing in successive chapters Luke, the Pre-Modern period, J�licher, and B. B. Scott.

Wright believes that Luke understands Jesus' parables as metonymies (where something is represented by one of its own attributes or aspects), as they allude to the larger narrative that Luke has composed, centering on the theme of the great reversal, especially with reference to poor and rich. Wright studies numerous key words and concepts in each of the six texts, showing how they tie in with Luke's frequent use of those elements elsewhere.

Wright next shows that the allegorizing of the early Church Fathers and medieval commentators has often been misconstrued. For the most part they were seeking divine meaning not human authors' intention. Their expositions were more applicational and homiletical in nature than exegetical. Still, the straightforward meaning of these parabolic narratives is often preserved, with more fanciful allegorizing playing only a secondary role. Ambrose, Bede, and Bonaventure are his main pre-Reformation sources, with Calvin representing the Reformation as a foil. Each moved successively further away from unbridled allegorizing.

J�licher, too, has at times been misrepresented. Among other things his one-point truths for each parable were not always as bland as has been claimed. Still, simile was the key for him, even when not explicit in the narrative, leading to fairly general truths. On the other hand, even J�licher could not avoid all allegory. The father of the prodigal, for example, represents God at least by synecdoche (a part for the whole). And J�licher recognized that the Gospel writers have not uniformly allegorized the parables, which leaves him open to the critique that perhaps they never intended to do so in the first place.

Quick soundings into the works of Jeremias, Via and Crossan, spanning the twentieth-century, bring us to B. B. Scott's large commentary of 1989. Scott focuses primarily on the effects, not the intentions, of the parables, and notes how they regularly subvert conventional expectation. But his discussion is often painfully anachronistic in reading specific modern irreligious ideologies back into a world that probably had not yet invented them.

Wright's own approach intends to set the parables against the historical background, agreed on across the theological spectrum, of peasantry, purity and patriarchy in first-century Jewish covenantal nomism. Central to Jesus' enterprise were both realism and surprise. Wright presents Bloom's six literary tropes, showing why five prove inadequate as ways of categorizing the parables. Wright then opts for synecdoche as the interpretive key, following closely the work of Madeleine Boucher from the 1970s and resembling Ruth Etchells' quite recent book--at least in results if not in terminology.

These six parables, then, portray a new world order breaking into human history with the ministry of Jesus by the use of surprising, exemplary characters. The division between example story and metaphorical narrative breaks down. The parables all invite one to identify with their various characters, not in isolation but in relationship with one another and in turn. Here Wright seems to be very close to the approach I take in my book on parables, perhaps modified by John Sider's work on proportional analogies among parables' characters in relationship; though, while Wright acknowledges both of our works elsewhere he does not draw directly on either of us at this specific juncture. We are both probably a little too formulaic in our approaches for him, not allowing for enough diversity of form in the parables of Jesus, a critique I am willing to grant, at least in part.

A short final chapter on parables and their Scriptural precursors links Jesus' parables with wisdom literature via its short proverbial synecdoches, with biblical (OT) narrative as expanded embodiments of the same synecdochical truths, with Law when it is couched in general, apodictic terms, and with prophecy given the surprising extent and pointed nature of its applications. In all of this, Wright eschews the iconoclasm of a J�licher, preferring more modestly to claim that he has divined genuine but not comprehensive insights into the voice of the historical Jesus. He has surely done this and more--showing the inadequacy of numerous previous critical approaches, rehabilitating certain pre-critical approaches, and demonstrating how literary criticism still has new insights to share with biblical scholars.

The book, as with most doctoral dissertations, is not for the faint-hearted, and will not help in many aspects of detailed commentary on or exposition of individual parables. But as an example of methodological precision, it is, like its approach to the parables, helpfully synecdochical--not the whole story but representing a large and important portion of it!

Craig Blomberg
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary