The Challenge of Jesus' Parables
Richard N. Longenecker, ed., The Challenge of Jesus' Parables. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2000. $28.00. Pap. xii + 324 pp.
This is the fourth annual installment of a superb new series entitled "The McMaster New Testament Studies," designed to address key topics of biblical scholarship and particularly biblical theology in a form that is accessible to lay people while reflecting state-of-the-art academic studies. Although the parables of Jesus have produced a voluminous flood of literature, little of it, particularly from an evangelical viewpoint, remains in print at the start of this new millennium, so this volume is a welcome contribution. Not all the authors are "card-carrying evangelicals" but all are right-of-center across the whole theological spectrum. All but four are well established in their fields. Three of the remaining four are up-and-coming scholars associated with McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. The "odd man out" is Stephen Wright, director of the College of Preachers in London.
The first of four main sections of the book treats the "history, genre, and parallels" of the parables. Klyne Snodgrass offers a very helpful, succinct overview of the history of interpretation, especially in the modern period, and notes how we have come full circle from one ancient form of allegorizing to a more cautious and legitimate modern form. Robert Stein deals with the genre question. He, too, recognizes, though with much less enthusiasm, the need for limited allegory but is more concerned properly to stress that parables contain both an informative dimension and an affective one (against various strands of interpretation that have tended to stress only one of these at the expense of the other). Craig Evans offers an excellent survey of Old Testament, intertestamental and the very earliest rabbinic parables, noting both similarities and differences with those of Jesus.
Part two also contains three chapters, one for each of the Synoptics, on their distinctive perspective on kingdom parables. Morna Hooker offers the chapter on Mark, summarizing many of the themes found in her Black's commentary. Above all, these parables confront us with the demand to bear fruit, to find salvation in the person of Jesus himself and to trust that the kingdom will come in its fullness despite present appearances to the contrary. Donald Hagner, author of an even more detailed WBC commentary on Matthew, surveys the parables of Matthew 13 in mini-commentary form, noting particularly their function as forming a major turning point in the ministry of Jesus. Following the Jews' widespread rejection of Jesus' message of the kingdom, "He makes use of teaching devices that could both conceal and reveal the mysteries of that kingdom" (p. 122). Least helpful in this section is the editor's own contribution, on Luke, not so much because of the study itself but because Luke's explicit kingdom parables are only three in number and not all contained in one segment of Luke's gospel. It is a bit odd, given the widespread recognition that most if not all of Jesus' parables are about the kingdom whether or not the word "kingdom" appears explicitly, that this symposium should treat only Mark 4 and parallels according to the distinctive theology and interests of the three synoptic evangelists, while proceeding in the remaining two portions of the volume to group parables from all three gospels together in broader thematic categories.
But that is how part three proceeds. Allan Martens studies the stories of Matthew 21:28-22:14 and Luke 13:6-9, under the heading of parables of judgment against the Jewish religious leaders and nations. More so than most of the other contributors to this volume, Martens separates off distinctive (and apparently unhistorical) redaction on the part of each evangelist, while nevertheless aptly summing up the theological emphases throughout. R. T. France elaborates on the parable of the sheep and the goats and its larger context in lines already familiar to readers of his Tyndale commentary on Matthew. But it cannot be stressed often enough that the "brothers" of Matthew 25:31-46 are fellow Christians, in light of widespread expositions to the contrary in today's age.
Finally, part four, under the heading of God's love and forgiveness, includes a chapter on the parables of Luke 15 by Stephen Barton. Barton is particularly interested to demonstrate that these parables do not present what Bonhoeffer calls "cheap grace." Stephen Wright proceeds to unpack the three Lukan parables on poverty and riches, depending too exclusively on Herzog's somewhat idiosyncratic interpretations. He nevertheless well underlines the warnings against having too much that "can destroy that humanity-in-relationship that is our greatest treasure" (p. 238). Walter Liefeld also deals with a trio of Lukan parables--on prayer--and deftly navigates the difficult exegetical problem surrounding the anaideia of Luke 11:8. He concludes that this "shamelessness" is ascribed to the petitioner but only as a means of directing attention to the man in bed, who will deal with and vindicate this behavior. Had Brad Young's new work on the parables come out in time for Liefeld to use it, he would have found confirmation in Young's appropriation of the Yiddish concept of chutzpah as a dynamic equivalent rendering. Sylvia Keesmaat deals with the parables of the unforgiving servant, the great banquet and the good Samaritan with particularly poignant contemporary applications. We must remember that forgiveness of sins and forgiveness of debts were not separated in the ancient world, that those who wish to partake of Jesus' new kingdom must be willing to join at table all kinds of people they had never expected to have to associate with, and that in order to be righteous we are called "to go and do the likes of what an immoral Samaritan would do" (p. 282). Finally, Michael Knowles deals with a smattering of parables on discipleship--the two builders, the tower builder and warring king, the unworthy servant and the laborers in the vineyard. Here only the vaguest of themes--proper response to God's kingdom--unify the disparate material chosen.
Each author is asked to conclude his or her chapter with a select bibliography of no more than sixteen works. These are generally extremely well chosen, although Martens did manage to sneak a seventeenth into his list! Otherwise, the chapters have no footnotes or endnotes but put parenthetical notes into the text itself. In several instances this material is quite full, but in the majority of cases is kept to a minimum and does not distract from the author's flow of thought. Subject, author and scripture indexes (along with other ancient literature) round out the volume. While some articles are inevitably a little stronger than others, overall the quality is superb, the authors are well-versed in the issues of contemporary parable scholarship, communicate them in a very clear and direct fashion and offer incisive applications for our contemporary church and world. One hopes that anthologies of this quality continue to emerge in this series for many years to come.