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A Preacher's Perspective on the Book, Stories with Intent

"Preacher's Perspective" is an ongoing review of books of interest to preachers from the Christianity Today book-of-the-year awards. Stories with Intent addresses the topic of how to interpret the parables of Jesus.

Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus
By Klyne Snodgras
Published by Eerdmans

A few years ago my church did a preaching series on parables and as a member of the teaching team, I volunteered for the first week. I presented an informational sermon on the hermeneutics of parables (although we didn't call it that) designed to help people interpret parables for themselves. I had five points, and my goal was to create an original parable to illustrate each of the five points.

Wow, did I receive an education! I learned that this form of literature, which appears beguilingly simple, is actually complex. I learned that Jesus was a brilliant teacher. Have you ever tried to create your own parable? The essence of the genre is the comparing of the invisible realm with the visible, the Kingdom with the ordinary stuff of life, and it takes the imagination of a poet and the heart of a prophet to do that. For the series I ended up creating one or two parables, borrowing one or two, and for the rest simply abandoning the goal of illustrating every point with a parable. I concluded that lecturing about parables is easier than speaking in parables!

If I had owned Klyne Snodgras's Stories with Intent at the time, my job would have been easier, for the book is an exegetical tour de force. At 846 pages, it is, as the subtitle states, a "comprehensive guide to the parables of Jesus." With almost 300 pages of notes and appendices, this book takes its place alongside Jülicher, Dodd, and Bailey as a major contributor to the scholarship on parables.

To hear the parables as the original audience heard them we must listen for echoes from the Hebrew Bible.

Parables make up about 35 percent of the recorded words of Christ, and the author says, "To our knowledge no one else used parables as frequently or as forcefully as does Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels" (42). Parables are speech acts designed to change the listeners. But the rhetoric of parables is not the rhetoric of the law courts, with claim, counter claim, evidence, and rebuttal. Neither is it the rhetoric of pulpit oratory, with outline, transition, illustration, and peroration. It is sui generis, arising from some of the motives that generate prophecy and debate, and combining some of the formal elements of narrative, poetry, and allegory.

The rhetoric of parable is subtle and perhaps all the more effective because of that subtlety. Many of Jesus' parables are narrative, a genre that charms listeners into lowering their shields. Our minds are carried along in the flow of the plot from conflict through resolution. We wonder: will the father accept his prodigal home? Our feelings are aroused as we identify with characters: will the persistent widow receive justice? Our imaginations kindle as we are transported to settings strange or familiar: will the woman find the coin as she sweeps the floor of her small, dimly lit house? Our perception is limited and focused as the narrator adopts a particular point of view: does the rich fool realize, as we do, that he is self-centered, materialistic, and short-sighted? As fiction, parables seem to stroll through an amusement park, but in reality they are on a search-and-destroy mission.

Three Means of Indirection

All of Jesus' parables are analogies, and that feature also makes them subtle. They are indirect. Parables talk about things by talking about other things. They instruct about the Kingdom by talking about wheat, weeds, seeds, and pearls. We must have ears to hear if we hope to discern authorial intent. Parables urge discipleship by contrasting two debtors, two builders, and two brothers. They warn about eschatology by hauling out a dragnet. As Snodgras states, "They hide in order to reveal—or as Kiergegaard observed, they deceive a person into the truth" (171).

In another place, Snodgras says parables are "fictional gardens with real toads in them" (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels). Like David in the hands of Nathan, listeners realize in a flash of transcendence that they are indicted. Parables do an end run more often than they take the ball up the middle, but by skirting the defense they gain yardage. I found this feature of parables most challenging when I tried to create my own, maybe because I like to communicate directly. Jesus, of course, intended the direct application of theology, but he made that application through the fictional garden.

Besides being narrative and analogy, parables employ the subtle feature of allusion. Jesus' parables bristle with Old Testament images, quotations, and theology. To hear the parables as the original audience heard them we must listen for echoes from the Hebrew Bible. Snodgras helps us do so by showing how images like leaven, the fig tree, and the vineyard resound with Old Testament allusions that modern readers may miss.

These three qualities of subtlety and indirection—narrative, analogy, and allusion—combine to produce a form of literature that is highly collaborative. Readers must construe the meaning the author intends, as when I enter your house sopping wet, chilled, and out of breath, but say ironically, "Nice day." I mean the opposite of my words, and you need to figure that out, or else communication breaks down.

Getting the Point

Snodgras is not alone in touting the genius of parabolic indirection, but he is almost alone in asserting that Jesus' parables also avoid communication breakdown by clearly stating their points. In my opinion, he blows a crisp north wind of sanity into the discussion. You would think that most scholars never noticed that only nine of Jesus' parables end without a nimshal—an explicit explanation (255)—and most if not all of those nine do not need the nimshal because lead-in statements make the author's intention clear: "To show them that they should pray and not faint, he told them this parable …." Twenty-two New Testament parables begin with questions that pave the way to authorial intent (268).

This is not to say that parables are transparent. No, they take work. Their rhetoric is designed to prompt collaborative pondering and sometimes confusion, so that listeners will invest in the search for truth. But at the end of the day, they are stories with intent. Those of us who are direct communicators should take comfort in this. We can not only enchant our listeners in the fictional garden, we can also play tour guide and state clearly what the flowers and plants mean.

Snodgras wafts more fresh air with his insistence that interpreters avoid foisting meaning on parables that the author never intended: "Parables must be allowed to mirror the portion of reality they wish and not forced to picture a systematic theology" (315). Although this book is over 800 pages, the author's exegetical instinct is to employ Occam's razor. The simplest explanation is most likely the right explanation. A parable like the Sheep and the Goats does not address the issue of whether salvation is possible apart from Christ. Romans 1 and 2 talk about that. The parable of the Unjust Judge "offers no answer as to why God moves slowly in bringing final vindication and justice, but it urges prayerful and faithful living in the confidence that God will act " (461). Each parable bears its own load of meaning, leaving other passages to pick up their own loads.

Snodgras does not intend for you to read his book sequentially from cover to cover, but rather to use it as a reference work when you preach the parables. He may even help you create your own parables.

Jeffrey Arthur is professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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