Sorry we've been away!
Michael's been swamped with dissertating and I've been busy writing a new chapter of my book on the Last Supper. This chapter focuses on "The Eucharistic Parables of Jesus and the Kingdom of God." As anyone who's ever tried knows, it is easy to get sucked into the vortex that is scholarly research on the kingdom of God and never get out. Thankfully, I am coming out of it.
In the midst of writing, however, I've noticed two things worth sharing.
First, I have been working through Klyne Snodgrass' new book, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008). So far, so great! I must admit that when this book first came out, I didn't pay it much attention, but it has quickly become the best work on the Parables that I have on my shelf. Two particular strengths stand out.
(1) Snodgrass does not make his exegesis of the parables contingent on any particular source-critical solution to the Synoptic Problem. He interprets the parables as they stand in the Gospels. (Although this may ruffle the feathers of some reviewers, I suspect it will give his work an enduring value that many twentieth-century studies will not share. Go re-read C. H. Dodd's book on the parables and you'll see what I mean.)
(2) Snodgrass at least attempts to interpret what each of the parables might have meant in Jesus' own historical context. This is a refreshing change from commentaries that simply assume that the parables are allegories of the life of the early Church without even trying to see how they fit into an ancient Jewish context. The results in many cases are quite compelling.
Second, I have become startlingly aware of just how many Jesus scholars--myself included!--tend to give the parables rather short shrift in full-length books on Jesus. Think back over the last century. Where are the parables in the works of Albert Schweitzer, Ben Meyer, E. P. Sanders, or Dale Allison? Nowhere to be found. What about James Dunn's massive Jesus Remembered? Surely in 1000 pages he devoted ample space to them? Sorry; just a few pages. Even N. T. Wright, who gives great attention to the Prodigal Son and the Wicked Tenants, ignores a host of other parables (especially those troublesome 'Second Coming' parables, which don't exactly fit Wright's view that the Second Coming will take place, but that Jesus never spoke about it.) Finally, if what he told me a few years ago is still the case, Father John Meier's fourth and fifth volumes will contain little to no treatment of the parables, because only a few of them are multiply attested.
The irony in all this is that if there is anything that modern scholarship agrees on, it is that (1) Jesus preached about the kingdom of God; and (2) he did so using parables. Yet when we turn to major books on Jesus, oftentimes, the parables play little to no role in the reconstruction. Why is this?
Of course, there are probably a host of reasons that are too complex to be summed up in a short post. But I would suggest at least one.
On the one hand, it seems to me that the parables that describe the kingdom as a process of growth that takes place over time (e.g., the Mustard Seed, the Seed Growing Secretly, the Wheat and the Tares) pose a huge problem for Albert Schweitzer's enormously influential theory that Jesus expected the end of history to coincide with his own death. Perhaps this is why they played no real role in his reconstruction of Jesus' eschatology. On the other hand, it's no coincidence that C. H. Dodd, the champion of "realized eschatology," leaves the parables that envision a delay of some sort before the final unexpected advent of the Son of Man until the end of his book on the parables of Jesus (e.g., the Faithful and Unfaithful Servants, the Waiting Slaves, the Thief at Night, the Ten Virgins). They likewise pose real problems for his overall argument, and so he readily disposes of them as creations of the early Church.
In other words, many of the parables just don't fit the eschatological schemas that undergird most Jesus research taking place these days. So what to do? Simple: ignore them, as if they didn't exist. That, at least, is what I've done in my own thought for a number of years. Or, declare them all inauthentic, by stripping them of the elements that pose problems and then reinterpreting them.
However, is this really the best way to deal with the parables? Maybe the reason the parables of the kingdom don't play a role in many books about Jesus is not because they are all inauthentic, but because most modern conceptions of Jesus' view of the kingdom is fundamentally flawed. That, at least, is what I am beginning to wonder.