Our Response to Parables

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been listening to Rikk Watts’ lectures on the Gospel of Mark. Watts is well-versed in Mark’s Gospel, and he’s currently writing a commentary on Mark in the NICNT series.

When it comes to the parables, there is a wide range of views on what Jesus was trying to convey. What is a parable? Is it pure allegory? Is there only one meaning? Are there multiple meanings? Many think that parables are an “earthly story with a heavenly meaning,” but that places too much of a dichotomy in Jesus’ words as if he had a Gnostic ideal where we were to shed our earthly self to reach our heavenly life.

In the Beginning…

We must first ask the question, “Why did Jesus speak in parables anyway? What purpose did they serve?” The first use of “parable” in Mark is in 3.23, “And [Jesus] called them to him and said to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan?’” Jesus poses this question against the Jerusalem leaders who believed that the miracles he performed were really the works of Satan.

In Isaiah 6 (esp. vv8-13), Isaiah’s call initiates the judgment that the people have brought on themselves (Isa 1-5). Because they have rejected Yahweh, Isaiah’s preaching would cause the hearts of Israel to be hard. In Mark, the Jerusalem leaders have called judgment upon themselves by grouping the actions of the Messiah with that of Beelzebul, the prince of demons.

Sowing the Word

In Mark 4 Jesus begins with the Parable of the Sower, which contained themes that would likely have been familiar to his audience. 4 Ezra 9.26-37 (a pseudepigraphical work) speaks about Yahweh sowing the law after the first exodus out of Egypt. The Jewish fathers received the Law from Yahweh, but they didn’t follow it. As a result, they went into judgment and exile (2 Kings 24-25) which would require a second exodus (Isa 40-55).

Watts argues that Mark shapes his Gospel around Isaiah’s second exodus, and here the words of Jesus, Yahweh in human form, are having the same affect as they did in the book of Isaiah. Those who reject Jesus will end up in exile (Mk 13) and judgment (Mt 25).

Listen!

In Mark 4.3, at the beginning of the Parable of the Sower, Jesus says, “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow.”

Watts points out that Jesus doesn’t say “Listen!” often. The critical point is that you must listen, and if you don’t understand how this works, then you won’t understand how the others work (v13).

According to Watts, the point of the parables is: (1) to reveal the mystery of the Kingdom, and (2) to reveal the nature of JC’s hearers’ hearts. This is what the whole Gospel of Mark is doing. Mark is teaching his readers about the promised kingdom of God which is coming through the Son of Man (Dan 7.13-14, 15-27), and you are being shown whether or not you care as you read Mark’s Gospel. In reading and listening to his Gospel, Watts contends that we are being put on trial. How will we respond to Mark every time we read his Gospel?

The response to Jesus’ parables passes judgment on the hearers (e.g., David’s response to Nathan’s parable [2 Sam 12], Israel’s response to Isaiah’s vineyard parable [Isa 5]). Starting from the Garden of Eden, Israel has a long history of thinking they are better than they really are. They say, “I’ll trust God… as long as it makes sense.” Adam and Eve didn’t think God’s word made much sense when it came time to take their test (Gen 3.1-6). The same goes for Israel immediately after the Exodus (Ex 32.1).

However in Mark’s Gospel no one understands Jesus! Jesus doesn’t make sense. Even his disciples have trouble understanding him, yet they still follow him despite they’re lack of understanding. The only way to deal with your arrogance and self-reliance is to follow Jesus even when he doesn’t make sense.

Idolatry and Hard-Hearts

The nations ask, “Where is their God?” (Ps 115.2). And we reply, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Ps 115.3). “Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps” (Ps 135.6). Those who turn to and follow after lifeless idols become ones who cannot see, hear, nor speak.

Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.

They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.

They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.

They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.

Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them.

(Ps. 115.4-8; cf. 135.15-18)

Rather than following lifeless idols and becoming like them, we follow the one who does whatever he pleases. We can be like him. He gave us his word for us to know and to use wisdom so that we may live in a way that glorifies him. Humans are made in the image of God, but when we worship idols, we lose our humanity. We lose our ability to perceive and know how to live.

Watts calls Christianity the true humanism. It is only by being Christians, by trusting in Jesus as our Savior, that we can be who we were truly created to be.

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Parables take away our security blankets. Parables show us what we really think about Jesus and his message.

Previous Posts

  1. Was the Rich Young Man Really ‘Almost’ Righteous?
  2. Review Lecture on ‘Mark’ 

Review: Interpreting the Parables

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Have you ever read Augustine’s allegorical interpretation of The Good Samaritan? The Apostle Paul is the Innkeeper? How could Jesus have expected his audience to think of Paul when they hadn’t met him yet? And how would any good Bible reader come to the conclusion that “[t]he two pence are either the two precepts of love, or the promise of this life and of that which is to come”? How are Christians who want to stay true to the Bible supposed to interpret the parables? Is there one meaning? Are there many meanings? Are the parables even authentic?

Craig Blomberg gives us an updated version of his book Interpreting the Parables. Blomberg is a Distinguished Professor of the New Testament at Denver Seminary, and has written a number of commentaries and books on believing the Bible, the reliability of the Gospels, holiness, and possessions. He writes from an evangelical perspective that takes the Bible as historically reliable and true.

Summary

Blomberg argues for an allegorical approach to interpreting the parables. Yet this approach isn’t that of Augustine or other church fathers who took things to the extreme. Here, most parables are boiled down to one, two, or three points, mainly depending on the number of main characters (which at most consists of three main types).

Blomberg introduces his book with two differeing sides of scholarly consensus on parables: One the one side, scholars say allegory should be rejected even though there are small amounts of it in some of Jesus’ parables. On the other side, some scholars say the Gospel parables are more allegorical than many think, and they are usually making more than one point. After summarizing the coming chapters, Blomberg divides his book into two parts.

Part One

Part One covers “Methods and Controversies in Interpreting Parables.” Surprisingly, I found this part to be interesting, though that’s probably because, wanting to be a teacher, I want to know what’s going on in the biblical interpretation world.

Chapter Two gives us the two main approaches of parables as allegory and non-allegory, other contemporary thoughts, and rabbinic parables. Chapter Three shows how Form Criticism (the form of a teaching and its original setting) rose and how scholars used this to interpret the parables. Chapter Four shows how Redaction Criticism (how the Gospel authors edited their works) came to be and how it contributed positively and negatively to the study of the Gospels.

Chapter Five brings new literary and hermeneutical methods to our attention showing how different scholars from the 1960s up to today have interpreted the Gospels with these new methods. Some of these methods include Structuralism, Postmodernism, Marxism, Feminism, and more.

Part Two

Part Two covers the “Meaning and Significance of Individual Parables.” It is longer than Part One, thankfully. Here Blomberg puts his interpretive scheme into play, showing the reader how Jesus does use some measure of allegory in his teaching. Most parables consist of three types of characters: a master, a positive example, a negative example.

Chapter Six interprets simple three-point parables. These are parables with three characters (fitting the three-type role). Blomberg covers the Prodigal Son (Lk 15), the Lost Sheep and Coin (Lk 15), the Two Debtors (Lk 7), the Ten Virgins (Mt 25), and more. In all, ten parables are looked at.

Chapter Seven considers complex three-point parables. These parables have more than three character, but they can generally be boiled down into three types. Blomberg covers the Talents (Mt 25), the Sower (Mk 4), the Good Samaritan (Lk 10), the Wicked Tenants (Mk 12), and more. In all, eight parables are looked at.

Chapter Eight involves looking at two-point and one-point parables such as the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Lk 18), the Two Builders (Mt 7), the Midnight Friend (Lk 11), the Mustard Seed and the Leaven (Lk 13), and more. In all, over thirteen parables and a few metaphors are looked at.

Chapter Nine gives the reader a theology of the parables: the Kingdom and the Christ. Here Blomberg says that “all of Jesus’ parables revolve around one central theme: the kingdom of God” (411). He covers the theology of the kingdom with it’s reign, its realm, and personal and social transforming power. And we see Christology in the parables. We see how Christ thought of himself as intimately connected with the Father. Jesus is at the center of the kingdom.

Recommended?

The church has been getting a number of books on the parables recently. Pastors shouldn’t neglect Blomberg’s Preaching the Parables, and word on the street says that John MacArthur’s new book Parables should not be passed up. While the last two are aimed at pastors and the church, Blomberg’s volume covers a lot of ground. It is suited for students, teachers, professors, and pastors. It is academic, but Blomberg argues well for a sound, allegorical interpretation of Jesus’ parables. Blomberg avoids the extremes of turning Jesus’ parables into John Bunyan’s Pilgrim Progress (which was written to be an in-depth allegory) and that of turning Jesus’ parables into a one-point punch. There is so much more to the kingdom of God than can be made in one point.

Blomberg says, “The main aim of the parables is to describe the activity of God in Jesus, more particularly so that men many trust in it and become disciples, or else be offended at it” (412-13).

Lagniappe

  • Paperback: 463 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic; 02 edition (July 16, 2012)

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Buy it on Amazon or at IVP Academic

[Special thanks to IVP Press for allowing me to review this book. I was not required to give a positive review in exchange for this book].