The Parables: Jesus’s Friendly Subversive Speech

Jesus’s parables used familiar situations to convey deep spiritual truths in ways that are provocative and subversive of the status quo. Prayerfulness was pictured by a persistent widow. The joy of salvation in the homecoming of a lost son. Love of neighbor by a marginalized Samaritan. If we’re not careful, we can easily miss details in the parables that reveal their subtle meanings as well as their contemporary relevance.

Drawing on scholarship on the parables as well as theological, pastoral, and practical insights, Douglas Webster guides the reader through each of Jesus’s parables, pointing out the important nuances that allow us to understand them and be transformed by them. Reflection questions at the end of each chapter can be used for personal or group study, and an appendix for pastors provides guidance for preaching the parables. Pastors, Bible teachers, and serious students of Scripture will find this tour through Jesus’s parabolic teaching to be a feast for both the mind and the soul.

Potential readers of the work can get a sense of its author’s intention by visiting the link above and clicking on the ‘read excerpt’ tab.  There, the front matter, table of contents, and first several pages of the volume are available.

There have been a lot of books written on the parables of Jesus.  The present is more accurately described as a series of sermons on the parables than an academic investigation of their intricacies.  Each parable treated is sermonized.  Accordingly, pastors and seminary students will find the book very useful for sermon prep (though to be sure the material found in the pages of this book should not be clipped and preached!  That would be both wrong and lazy).  The meaning of the parables is described and application to modern Christian believers made.

The subtitle of the book is a bit unnecessary.  Indeed, I get the impression that it was included in order to appeal to the folk enthralled by the idea of a historical Jesus who is a subversive.  But the book itself certainly does not paint Jesus with the colors of the subversive trouble maker.  Instead, the Jesus here encountered is the Jesus familiar to evangelicals from their years of attendance in Sunday School and church services.

Even the sources which Webster cites are the sort one finds read by and admired among evangelicals.  Calvin, Luther, Snodgrass, Thielicke, and Capon appear frequently but there’s nary a hint of Bultmann or Dibelius or even Jeremias.

There’s nothing new here.  There isn’t new light shed on the parables.  There isn’t a remarkable, revolutionary, epoch making, paradigm shifting insight provided.  It’s standard fare on the parables.

And that’s not a bad thing.  Some things are just simple to describe and the more people try to make them complicated, the more senseless they become.  That’s the way things are with the parables.  We know what they mean.  There’s no new light to be shed upon them (barring some amazing discovery).  They are what they are.  And they say what they say.  So trying to say something about them that ‘hasn’t been said before’ is a complete waste of time.

And that’s ok.  Anyone who wants to write a book on the parables, and is academically qualified to do so, should feel free to do so.  Perhaps someone new to Christianity will pick it up and learn something.  But the stream of such books that have already appeared are enough, for me.  Another one, whether pastoral sounding or academically focused, simply does nothing for me.  ‘I’ve heard it all before’.  And I suspect you have too.

I wish that instead of new books about old and already discussed enough topics like the parables or Paul, scholars and pastors would turn their attention to things that haven’t been treated so much that they’re like manna after day 340 of manna.

Manna sustains, but after a while, it’s just boring.  It may keep the pilgrims alive, but sooner or later the demand for quail will win out.

Give us quail.  We’ve grown weary of manna.

One thought on “The Parables: Jesus’s Friendly Subversive Speech

  1. Jeremiah Lawson 5 May 2021 at 9:57 am

    If memory serves Snodgrass’ Stories with Intent was a very helpful study that Michael Spenser recommended years ago at Internet Monk.

    That scholars tend to repeat stuff is something I’m noticing in a reading project I’ve had in the last few years. I’ve been reading a pile of books on exorcism, diabology, and powers & principalities in biblical studies and I finished Ryan E Stokes’ God’s Executioner and it was a good survey … of research that has been done earlier by Wright, Stuckenbruck and others. Esther Acolatse’s survey of Eph 6 interpretation on powers & principalities showed that there’s basically the Clinton Arnold camp and the Walter Wink camp and no real significant contributions have been made since.

    I haven’t gotten to reading Wink’s trilogy yet but I have this nagging feeling he won’t add anything much to the powers & principalities in Pauline literature that wasn’t said in a third the space (i.e. just one magnificent little book) by G. B. Caird decades earlier.

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