Approaches to Reading the Parables

fancy-treeIn each of the four canonical Gospels, extended attention is given to the events that led up to and culminated in Christ’s death and subsequent resurrection. It’s for this reason that the gospel accounts have sometimes been described as “passion narratives with extended introductions.” Without taking away from the obvious importance placed by the gospel writers on the cross and resurrection, though, I think it’s also worth pointing out how much space is given (at least in the synoptic Gospels) to Jesus’ parables.

Jesus was known for being a storyteller. In fact, Richard Lischer notes in Reading the Parables that in the synoptic gospels, “the parables constitute approximately 35 percent of everything Jesus is reported to have said” (2014, p.5). Mark even tells his readers that when it came to the surrounding crowds, “He [Jesus] did not say anything to them without using a parable” (4:34a, NRSV). Of course, the function of the parables in Jesus’ proclamation and enactment of the Kingdom is not without controversy. In some places—especially in Mark—it is uncertain whether the parables were told in order to conceal or reveal. Regardless, it’s clear that the telling of parables formed an important rhythm in Jesus’ ministry. Continue reading

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Four Gospel Texts and One Christ: A Review of Francis Watson’s “The Fourfold Gospel”

fourfold gospelA few years ago, Francis Watson penned Gospel Writing, a mammoth-sized piece of scholarship that investigated the origins of how the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) became a fourfold collection placed at the head of the New Testament. In The Fourfold Gospel, therefore, Watson chooses to dwell not so much on the origin of the fourfold gospel as on its theological “form and significance” (p.viii).

The gospel narratives have long been considered by Christians to be both four individually distinctive accounts and yet also one unified whole. In other words, Watson explains, Christians can both speak of four gospel accounts and “of a singular ‘gospel according to…’ in four different versions” (p.vii). What is the significance of this? And what, theologically, does it mean to affirm that these gospels speak most truly of Jesus when read canonically, in conversation with each other? These are the kinds of questions Watson explores throughout The Fourfold Gospel. Continue reading

Reading Israel’s Scripture with Fresh Eyes: A Review of Richard B. Hays’ “Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels”

echoes of scriptureIn the Gospel of John, Jesus makes a pretty astonishing claim: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me” (5:46, NRSV). Similarly, Luke remarks in his account of Jesus’ conversation with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus that “he [Jesus] interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (24:27, NRSV).

In one way or another, this claim that the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection took place “according to the scriptures” sits at the heart of the Christian confession. But what does it mean to say that Moses wrote about Jesus? In the modern era, these sorts of claims have fallen on rather hard times. In the introduction of Echoes of Scripture in the GospelsRichard B. Hays brings up the German scholar Udo Schnelle, who brushes aside the possibility of doing “biblical theology” because “the Old Testament is silent about Jesus Christ” (p.3). Hays suggests that the writers of the New Testament would be surprised to learn this. For them, Christ’s resurrection provided the integrative “hermeneutical clue” that allowed them to reread Israel’s Scriptures with fresh eyes and find Jesus prefigured in them (p.3). Hays explains that one of the goals of his book is to offer: Continue reading

The Parable of the Two Lost Sons: A Review of Tim Keller’s “The Prodigal God”

prodigal god*This post is by guest writer Ryan Parsons. He’s a longtime friend and great conversation partner. Ryan recently graduated from Appalachian State University with an M.A. in History and plans to begin seminary in the near future.

Celebrated pastor and author Tim Keller has identified a perplexing problem in the American Church, a particular discrepancy between belief and behavior. Churches do not appear to be drawing the same crowds that Jesus Himself drew. Keller argues in The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith that churches are actually drawing flocks of people who resemble those who were most offended by Jesus’ message (pp.18-19). Even among lifelong churchgoers, there seems to be a lack of understanding as to how the gospel should shape everyday life (pp.xv-xvi). Keller takes pains to stress that “God’s reckless grace” should be “our greatest hope” and “a life-changing experience” (p.xx). How can a genuine experience and knowledge of God’s grace not change how we live?

Keller uses the Parable of the Prodigal Son as a platform to convey the gospel to both seekers and lifelong Christians, contending that “if the teaching of Jesus is likened to a lake, this famous Parable … would be one of the clearest spots where we can see all the way to the bottom” (pp.xvi-xvii). He argues that the traditional focus of the parable is wrong, given that both the younger brother and the elder brother represent “a different way to be alienated from God” (p.9). Perhaps we should instead think of it as the “Parable of the Two Lost Sons” (p.20). Before salvation, Keller suggests, each believer was either a younger brother or an elder brother; that we either tried to find happiness and fulfillment through self-discovery or moral conformity (p.34). In other words, we can rebel against God and be alienated from him either by breaking his rules or attempting to keep all of them diligently (p.42). Continue reading

The Tales of Jesus: A Review of Stephen Wright’s “Jesus the Storyteller”

jesus the storyteller

In Jesus the StorytellerStephen 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). Continue reading

To Bring Good News to the Poor: The Mission of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel

theology of lukeJoel B. Green’s book, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke, is a concise and insightful exploration of the major contours of Luke’s theology, beginning with an exploration of the Gospel’s social context, moving on to a discussion of Jesus’ identity and mission, and ending with a pair of chapters looking at discipleship and the role that Luke’s Gospel has played (and continues to play) in the life of the Church. Luke’s narrative frames the words and actions of Jesus within the rich and ongoing story of God’s redemptive purposes in creation, giving salvation important meanings at both the individual and community level. Green writes that “Luke situates human salvation, even when understood in personal terms, within larger social conventions and institutions—a strategy foreign to many of us” (p.135). Indeed, such a community-centered vision of salvation’s scope can seem odd thanks to the individualistic emphasis of many in the Western world. What does it mean to hold together the assertion that salvation has important personal and social implications in Luke? This is the kind of question that Green wants to explore. Continue reading