Chapter 4: The Parables of Jesus in/and the Gospels: The Dialogues Continue (Part 2: Klyne Snodgrass)
The second section of this chapter, The Parables and Jesus’ “Intention,” focuses primarily on Klyne Snodgrass’s Stories with Intent, now in its second edition. Snodgrass states that interpreters should strive to understand the “intent of Jesus to his contemporaries—his disciples and fellow Jews”—and then “appropriate” Jesus’ messages in the parables in our current contexts for “people who are ready to learn and follow his instruction” (2–3). Snodgrass argues that Jesus’ parables presuppose and seek to disclose the kingdom of God: to explain the kingdom, demonstrate God’s character, and elucidate God’s expectations for human beings to believe and act (3). In most cases, Snodgrass concludes: “a parable is an expanded analogy used to convince and persuade” (9, emphasis his).
Snodgrass describes eleven characteristics of Jesus’ parables (17–22):
- They are brief and straightforward, usually excluding unnecessary details.
- They are marked by simplicity (e.g., at most two characters or groups interact in the same scene) and symmetry (e.g., repetition).
- They mostly focus on humans, mirror the commonness of first-century Palestinian life, and their main purpose “is to goad people into response.”
- Although they may draw on historical events, they are fictional descriptions taken from everyday life that do not necessarily portray everyday life. They are pseudo-realistic in that they can contain hyperbole (e.g., a debt of 10,000 talents) and elements that shock.
- They are engaging; their intent is to elicit thought and require a decision, so “[f]inding the implied question a parable addresses is key to interpretation.”
- Since parables often seek to change one’s thinking and behavior, they regularly contain elements of reversal (e.g., a Samaritan as hero).
- Like a punch line of a joke, the crucial aspect of a parable usually comes at the end.
- Parables are addressed to specific contexts in Jesus’ ministry, serve a specific teaching purpose, and seek to bring about change in people’s beliefs and actions; they are not general stories with universal truths.
- Parables illuminate God, God’s kingdom, and the new reality God seeks to establish on earth (e.g., fathers, kings, and masters in parables generally are archetypes of God).
- Parables frequently refer to Hebrew Bible themes, ideas, and texts (e.g., the Good Samaritan illustrates the love commands at the heart of Judaism).
- Most parables appear in larger collections of parables, such as the Lost Coin, Lost Sheep, and Lost Sons in Luke 15.
Snodgrass then offers guidelines or “regular practices” for how to interpret individual parables (24–31). Interpreters should, as much as possible, set aside their presuppositions and analyze each parable thoroughly. Snodgrass’s goal is the communicative intent of Jesus, so he urges interpreters to seek to hear a parable as Jesus uttered it in the oral culture of his first-century Palestinian audience. In Snodgrass’s view, not only are the parables “the surest bedrock we have of Jesus’ teaching” (31), but the gospels are also generally reliable guides to the contexts of the parables in the ministry of Jesus. Therefore, interpreters should examine the redactional “shaping” of each parable and how it fits into each author’s plan and purpose before determining “specifically the function of the story in the teaching of Jesus” (26). The major issue is to ascertain how the analogy of the parable works, including where to start and where to end (e.g., not all elements of a parable mean or correspond to something). Finally, interpreters should strive to determine the theological intent and significance of the parable, including where the parable intersects with other teachings of Jesus: “If you cannot validate the teaching you think is in the parable from nonparabolic material elsewhere in the Gospels, you are almost certainly wrong” (30).
The book devotes over five hundred pages to exploring thirty-three parables grouped into nine categories, and Snodgrass follows a roughly similar format in his analyses (see his book or WATSA Parables? for details).
Snodgrass’s Stories with Intent is a significant contribution to parable scholarship, a comprehensive guide to the interpretation of these thirty-three parables, and a mandatory component of any exploration of the parables of Jesus. One limitation in his approach—despite his reservations about the ideological points of view of other modern interpreters (e.g., social scientific and feminist interpretations)—is that Snodgrass underestimates the fact that all decisions on approach and methodology, including his, are ideological decisions. He is a modern interpreter reading the parables in their gospel contexts and (optimistically) reconstructing both the historical Jesus and Jesus’ first-century Palestinian audience from those contexts. Thus it would be more helpful to consider not only important primary sources but also additional cultural, social, and other contexts of the first-century Mediterranean world. For example, Snodgrass’s interpretations of such parables as the Rich Fool would be enhanced by incorporating dynamics of economic oppression of the non-elites by the elites in the first century. This perspective of those with their “backs against the wall” is reflected in a significant proportion of the teachings of Jesus, not just the parables (see Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited). Snodgrass argues that these social and cultural insights assume “that the concerns of these stories are not theology but political and economic oppression” (585), and therefore he does not fully appreciate that these aspects are not mutually exclusive; they are integrally related in the teachings of the Jewish prophet Jesus of Nazareth, as they were in earlier Jewish prophets.
The next post will discuss more of Chapter 4 of WATSA Parables?, including the focus on the parables of the historical Jesus by the Jesus Seminar, John Meier, and others.