Jesus’ parables form a major, distinctive portion of his teaching in the Gospel narratives and express his prophetic role and mission as Messiah. His parables give us our most direct contact with his voice and theological worldview, and the response of his contemporaries to these stories helps us understand the mixed evaluation he received. The parables define his relationship with Yahweh, his role in forming the new people of the Kingdom, the decision that every person has to make regarding his claims, and how he intends people to live as part of his Kingdom. In other words, Jesus’ theology emerges especially in his parables.
It is also the case that the interpretation of Jesus’ parables presents a singular hermeneutical challenge for the contemporary church. If Jesus intended his parables to challenge the first century Jewish audience in Galilee, then how are they relevant today? Can we depend upon the Gospel narratives both to present the stories accurately as Jesus spoke them and to portray the contexts in which he presented them? Given their setting within the Gospel narratives of Mark, Matthew and Luke, how should we discern the early church’s appropriation of these stories? Are they moral tales, spiritual illustrations, prophetic analogs, or theological allegories – or all or none of the above? How do Jesus’ parables relate to the parables we find in later, rabbinic writings? Is Jesus following an already established teaching tradition in Judaism, or is he innovative, creating a new teaching medium that was formative for later rabbinic Judaism? To what degree are the parables intended to be commentary on Israel’s spiritual condition? What claims is Jesus making by using parables given their occurrence in the Jewish scriptures?
In the course, we will consider the parables as they occur in the triple tradition, in two of the Gospels, and those that are unique to a single Gospel. We will also inquire as to why John’s Gospel lacks parables, at least in the form we find them in the other three Gospels.