In Jesus the Storyteller, Stephen Wright takes a fresh look at the parables of Jesus, focusing particularly on reading these stories as stories. The first part of the book is a wide-ranging, though necessarily incomplete, survey of how past historical Jesus scholarship has understood the parables.
Since the time of Augustine, these stories of Jesus have often been seen as highly allegorical, making The Good Samaritan, for instance, primarily an allegory for the drama of salvation, with the Samaritan being a symbol for Christ (p.9). Regardless of how spiritualized or overly-imaginative some of these interpretations may have been, they did at least preserve the rich narrative dynamics of these stories, something that was often a casualty of the 19th and 20th century “quests” for the historical Jesus (p.9).
The portraits of Jesus painted by 19th century scholars were often of a decidedly Romantic sort. Ernest Renan’s La Vie de Jésus (1863) assumed Jesus to have been a relatively simple-minded country boy, captivated by the beauties of the surrounding countryside and blind to the overbearing presence of Roman rulers (p.16). Another 19th century scholar, Adolf Jülicher, is rightly honored for authoring one of the earliest modern works of parable scholarship. However, he was overly-influenced by the prevailing intellectual climate of his day, according to Wright, leading to the transformation Jesus’ core teachings into more culturally acceptable “expressions of universally recognized truth” (p.17).
This 19th century trend began to shift at the dawn of the 20th century (partly) because of Albert Schweitzer’s hugely important The Quest of the Historical Jesus. He emphasized the importance of eschatology for understanding Jesus, and also helped foster interest in studying the longer parables not merely as strict analogies or simple similes, but as dynamic stories (p.22). According to Wright, this interest in studying the parables as historically-grounded narratives has continued thanks to more recent research carried out by the likes of Ben F. Meyers, Richard Horsley, and N.T. Wright.
In summary, Wright states that past scholarship has been “laden with blindness as well as insight” (p.43). Specifically, he sees in it a detrimental tendency to lump the longer stories of Jesus together with His shorter metaphors, aphorisms, and other sayings under the category of “parables,” despite the significant differences between these rhetorical forms. Wright also thinks that Jesus’ parables have often been lifted out of their dusty first century world, keeping interpreters from noticing some of the social implications they likely would have had in the minds their original hearers.
So what is Wright’s solution to this plight? A sensitive reappraisal of Jesus’ parables, drawing “on several areas of current scholarly theory and interest: orality, memory, testimony, performance, reception history, and narrative criticism” (p.47).
By orality, Wright means to emphasize that Jesus lived and taught in an ancient culture where the majority of people couldn’t read. Of course there were some well-educated Jewish men and women who were literate, but nevertheless:
The orality of the stories is important. To modern readers schooled in literacy and private modes of encountering texts, it takes an effort of imagination to reinhabit a world where, by and large, you heard stories, in the company of others, without either reading them or watching them on a screen. (p.48)
Of all the interpretative tools Wright employs, he calls narrative criticism “the most important analytical lens for studying Jesus’ stories” (p.53). This is a literary approach that seeks to understand stories by analyzing their narrative elements—things like setting, character, point of view, plot, and the various rhetorical techniques used (pp.54-58).
So how exactly does narrative criticism help bring about a fuller understanding of specific stories of Jesus? We will now attempt to answer this question by looking at Wright’s reading of The Prodigal Son, looking at how he hears it both as a composed Gospel account and an original oral performance by Jesus.
In the context of Luke’s Gospel, The Prodigal Son (15:11-32) comes after the parables of The Lost Sheep and The Lost Coin. Those listening to Jesus ranged from tax collectors, who were likely incredulous at Jesus’ inclusion of them in His vision of God’s kingdom, to teachers of the law and Pharisees, who were probably suspicious of Jesus for the very same reason. Hence, this parable formed part of His rebuttal to those grumbling around him (p.79). How would this narrative have resonated with the first audiences of Luke’s Gospel? According to Wright:
Jesus speaks with both ‘Pharisees’ and ‘sinners’, sometimes in each other’s presence… But all the time a gaggle of disciples is observing at close quarters, and, as we see Jesus turning to them at a point like this, we can also see Luke alerting his hearers to the lessons they can learn from these interactions (p.79)
Turning to the topic of Jesus’ original hearers, it should be noted that the story is set in a believable “this-world scene from which hearers are invited to maker wider application to their this-worldy behavior” (p.119). Granted, of course, that even everyday life was seen to be permeated with the presence of Israel’s God and the traditions of the Torah. Kenneth Bailey’s work has highlighted the insulting nature of the prodigal son’s demand (p.119). Jesus’ hearers may well have found the father’s lack of concern for dignity upon his son’s return troubling. Wright explains:
[T]he elder son’s response to events is more conventional. Jesus’ hearers would recognize his reactions as being normal and expected… The compassion and forgiveness shown by the father in the story, meanwhile, imitate the compassion of God which his children were called to imitate (p.119)”
The story’s characters would have been particularly recognizable to the listening scribes and Pharisees. The presence of things like hired hands and a fatted calf available for slaughter would have informed listeners of the family’s wealth and honor, things that may have made many of them imagine a family much like their own (p.119).
They probably would have been against the younger son from the start, rightly noting the son’s shameful request and subsequent life of excess in “a distant country” (Luke 15:13 NRSV). Many might have seen the son’s decline as his “getting what he deserved.” All of this leads Wright to claim that, “The real shock of the story, its invitation to its hearers to take a stance, comes with the graphic portrait of the father’s actions in verse 20” (p.120). The father’s response to his son’s return is subversive. Wright notes the parallel between the feel of the narrative and Jesus’s actual circumstances:
Here, in the story, is a feast at which a father is welcoming with widespread arms a wastrel son who has brought shame on his house. Here, in the flesh, is Jesus sharing a table with toll-collectors and ‘sinners’. Imagine the thought process: is there not something in the behavior which is deeply natural, logical, human? Is this not, in fact, the way things should be? (pp.120-121)
Having already initially identified with the predicament of the father, some of Jesus’ listeners would also have sympathized with the elder brother. After all, “He has worked like a slave for years… yet he has received no special treats from his father” (p.121). Jesus’ audience would have listened closely to the father’s verdict on the matter. They are invited to understand the elder son’s anger as an unfortunate consequence of his blindness to his father’s generosity, which he could have been enjoying. “His father’s response invites him to see things differently. Through that response, the storyteller invites his hearers to see things differently too” (p.121).
There is no direct or explicit condemnation of any characters in the narrative; that is left for the listeners to ponder. Nevertheless, Wright suggests that we can learn something of Jesus’ point of view from “the portrayal of the father as vulnerable to deep compassion, and allowing human love to overrule considerations of honour and shame” (p.122).
The Prodigal Son has traditionally been seen as “making its appeal on the basis of the character of God, reflected in the figure of the father” (p.123). Wright doesn’t disagree with this, but does suggest that Jesus makes this point in a more subtle manner that is usually recognized. Jesus invites his listeners to understand this message by invoking a familiar, this-worldy scene, which “appeals to the hearers’ sense that, surely, primordial family love must override the demands of codes of honour” (p.123).
In the conclusion of the book, Wright steps back to see what his reading of Jesus’ stories reveals about the character of Jesus himself. In general, Wright’s proposes that the stories be understood primarily as realistic. He avoids moving too quickly to allegorical interpretations of them. While they may be rich in suggestiveness, allusions to Israel’s Scriptures, and loaded with potential for retrospective understanding(s), he doesn’t see them as direct “teachings.” Wright asserts that “to overlook the story in the interests of such ‘meanings’ is to overlook what prima facie the Evangelists have left us” (p.176).
Almost all of Jesus’ stories contain complex characters that invite extended reflection. As a storyteller, Jesus was truly concerned with the themes of sin, violence, love, injustice, and reversals of fortune. The parables also show Him to have been passionate about compassion, forgiveness, and reconciliation, and able to identify in solidarity with the harsh cruelty and suffering frequently present in the lives of His listeners (p.179).
Wright anticipates some of the potential pushback to his overall argument, adding that:
It is important, in conclusion, to say that neither my hearing of the stories nor that of other recent scholars need imply that they lack theological significance. To say that Jesus was not ‘teaching about God’ in his stories does not mean that a theological vision does not lie behind them. Nor does it challenge any Christian convictions about the identity of Jesus himself. (p.187)
In the end, I remain slightly skeptical of Wright’s proposal, valuable as it is. I wonder if he gives enough credit to the ability of Jesus’ listeners to make the imaginative leap from the realistic settings of the parables to the larger theological vision present in them. After all, the Israel of Jesus’ day seems to have been rife messianic expectations, and people were asking real questions about what their God was up to given their current, oppressed circumstances.
That being said, Wright’s insistence that we spend significant time listening to the stories on their own terms reminds us not to move on too quickly to more abstract horizons of theological thought. Before we can answer the question of “what does this mean for us now?” we surely must try to thoroughly understand “what it originally meant for them then.”
As far as I know, this is one of the first books to use narrative criticism to specifically study the parables. Wright is aware of this gap in scholarship, so I applaud him for doing something pioneering and original. Jesus the Storyteller is a great example of how valuable narrative criticism can be as a tool, and reading it will be useful even for those not normally found reading academic texts.
*Disclosure: I received this book free from Westminster John Knox Press for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.