The Challenge of Jesus' Parables

By Richard N. Longenecker, gen. ed.
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (2000). 324 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. James Rosscup
12.1 (Spring 2001) : 110-111

This is the fourth volume in The McMaster Divinity College NTS Series from Hamilton, O ntario, Canada. Thirteen scholars write on such subjects as the history of interpreting the parables (with much detail arguing against allegorizing), genre, parables in early Judaism, parables of the kingdom in Mark 4, Matthew 13, Luke 8 and 13, and parables on judgment, preparedness, love and forgiveness (Luke 15, etc.), poverty and riches, prayer, discipleship, and other emphases.

The book displays a deep grasp of literature on the subject. A bibliography ends each chapter. Also evident is much insight based on probing study and careful inquiry.

In Chapter 1 dealing with the history of interpretation, a good survey looks at the contributions of Adolf Julicher, C. H. Dodd, and J. Jeremias. Among other things, the chapter is helpful in assessing strengths and weaknesses of studies on Palestinian culture related to the parables. It shows, for example, that Kenneth Bailey, while offering many beneficial insights, errs at times when he assumes that customs in modern Palestine were the sam e in Jesus’ day (17). The work also points out problems in using rabbinic materials to explain N T parables, one such difficulty being that many rabbinic parables were written much later than Gospel parables (19) and another problem lying in the rabbinic use of their own creations to support exegetical interpretations of Scripture (19). A beneficial focus is a warning against recent (since ca. 1978) works that allegorize in a new way by assigning several meanings to a text, even giving it new contexts (i.e., polyvalence). Many will feel those are eisegetical and will confuse rather than contribute insight from seeing NT parables in relation to their own contexts in Jesus’ day (19-22).

Morna Hooker’s chapter on Mark 4 lacks clarity about what and when the kingdom is. Conservatives will reject her view that verses in Mark 4 in their present form and context originated when the parables had become puzzling to the early church, “probably because their original context had been lost” (91). One has arbitrarily to reject Mark’s context as original in order to reach such a conclusion. She suggests that the explanation of the Parable of the Sower in 4:13-20 originated in the later church, not in Jesus’ ministry, because she assumes that explanations do not fit well in the time of Jesus (93). That is highly debatable; many see a very natural relevance to Jesus’ own setting.

Donald Hagner’s chapter 5 on Matthew 13 offers much perception. He does not agree with many who see the Sower and Seed or the Wheat and Tares as additions that the early church devised in creating Jesus’ teaching (105, 110). However, Hagner is not specific on whether the second and third soils represent really saved people or not; his expressions obscure his conclusion. He is helpful on the scribe in 13:52 blending new truth with old, conveying continuity and discontinuity.

R. T. France on the Ten Virgins in most cases treats the details sensibly, but causes unnecessary perplexity in saying that the bridegroom’s statement “I do not know you” appears “strangely out of keeping with the way the rest of the story is told.” “Why?” one might ask. France’s good explanations at times mingle with disturbing narrowness. He says that “enter into your master’s joy” (25:21, 23) “hardly rings true as a real-life businessman’s response to his slave’s successes” (188). So, he reasons, the story’s application dictated what was true only of the kingdom of heaven, and could not be natural for an earthly master to speak. Further, he generalizes reward and does not explain how it may relate to reward taught later in the NT.

Some other stimulating chapters are by Robert Stein (genre), Craig Evans (parables in early Judaism), Walter Liefeld (prayer), and Michael Knowles (discipleship).

All in all, this is probably the best up-to-date summary on parables by a collection of scholars. It shows awareness of views on key passages, and provokes thought. It will assist teachers and students at times, even though it often evinces no interest in making clear how differing viewpoints can answer some key questions in ministry.