Monday, November 1, 2021

What are They saying about the Parables? (Chapter 4 , part 5): More contributions from Ruben Zimmermann

Zimmermann’s single-authored book, Puzzling the Parables of Jesus, introduces his “integrative method” to English-speaking audiences in order to bridge a perceived gap between parable scholarship in continental Europe (especially in Germany) and the United States and to map out a “postmodern hermeneutic” that integrates historical, literary, and reader-oriented approaches. As a result, Zimmermann offers several methodological challenges to both parable and historical Jesus scholarship.

The first five chapters of the book (Part I) introduce hermeneutical issues that face parable interpreters, including apparently contradictory aspects of Jesus’ parables (e.g., “Parables are incomprehensible in order to lead to comprehension”; 6). Zimmermann’s “hermeneutical approach” endeavors to explore the dynamic interaction of the historical author, text, and readers, and he declares that “meaning is constituted in and through their reciprocal engagement” (11). 

Chapter 2 gives an overview of parable research categorized in three arenas: historical approaches, literary approaches, and reader-oriented and theological approaches, and the following three chapters provide detailed analyses of each one. In Chapter 3 on historical methods (57–103), for example, Zimmermann concludes that the best approach is the “memory paradigm” that focuses on the “remembered Jesus” in the Gospels, since the “historical Jesus” is inaccessible (87). Zimmermann argues that genres have a tradition-creating function, a community-creating function, and a meaning-creating function, so these aspects open up a new mode of investigation of the Gospels as “different written artifacts of a memory process” (88). This new approach also emphasizes, through its inclusion of the “meaning-creating function” of parables, the necessity of a focus on “the contemporary applicability of parables” (96). The goal of “parable understanding,” Zimmermann concludes, is the “binding of the entire person to Jesus and his message”: “parables want to lead us to faith or more concretely, to a life of belief in Jesus” (98). 

Part II of the book begins with a brief chapter describing Zimmermann’s “integrative method” of parable analysis that offers a “methodological guideline” for parable interpretation (183). Since each source for the parables is a “memory text that has remembered and preserved a version of Jesus’ parables” and since the “macro-text in which the parable is embedded plays an important role in interpretation,” rather than analyzing parables in categories, Zimmermann examines them in the contexts of the sources in which they have been transmitted (189). 

Subsequent chapters demonstrate how this approach works in practice in specific texts and their contexts: the Lost Sheep in Q (211–36), Mustard Seed in Mark (237–59), Ten Virgins in Matthew (261–92), Good Samaritan in Luke (293–331), Dying and Rising Grain in John (333–60), and Empty Jar in Thomas (361–92). 

As I analyze in detail in What Are They Saying about the Parables?, Zimmermann’s “integrative and open model” is well illustrated by his analysis of the Good Samaritan (cf. his chapter in the Kompendium, 538–55). I also argue that, although Zimmermann’s analysis of the Good Samaritan includes significant insights, more integrative work is needed. For example, the contrast between the teachings of Jesus and other first-century Jews is not as great as Zimmermann sometimes implies (e.g., “Jesus opens up a completely new scope of questions concerning ethics”—although Zimmermann also notes that it “is part of the Jewish ethos”). The use of a Samaritan as a “neighbor” may be shocking, but it is a further reflection on the Jewish scripture that the lawyer quotes and Jesus affirms: Leviticus 19:34 gives the same command to love the “alien” as it does to love one’s “neighbor” that the lawyer cites and Jesus affirms (Lev 19:18). When Jesus includes the Samaritan as a “neighbor,” he takes one more distinctive step down the path already blazed by Jewish Scriptures. 

In addition, any attempt to make the parables of a first-century Galilean Jew relevant for contemporary Christians should try, as best it can, to avoid the “peril” of domesticating Jesus’ message—ignoring his radical message and social critique—and the “peril” of modernizing Jesus anachronistically. The challenge is to modernize Jesus and his message authentically to make them more relevant, not to domesticate Jesus—a first-century, poor, Galilean Jewish prophet of an oppressed people—or anachronize his radical message. For example, Zimmermann correctly rejects the interpretation of the Good Samaritan as only applying to “individual ethics” (326) but also suggests that the parable’s characterization of the Samaritan and the innkeeper may lead interpreters to “conclude that the ethos of the individual is protected by social and institutional insurance systems” (327). For example, Zimmermann argues that the Samaritan’s injunctions to the innkeeper about repaying him can be interpreted as approval of the idea of “working with fiscal deficits” (328). Such a reading minimizes the vastly different religious and political systems between the first century and ours. In practice, then, Zimmermann’s interpretation of the parable can emphasize its polyvalent nature more than the guiding nature of its socio-historical contexts.

The next post will give an overall evaluation of Zimmermann's contribution to parable studies.

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