One of the books I’m tackling in 2012 is N. T. Wright’s Jesus and The Victory of God. Part of this is because I requested it to review, but it is also so it would shed light on our current church series in the book of Mark. We’re right at half-way through and are on the road to ending at Easter.
As far as Wright’s book, so far I’ve really enjoyed it, and found his conclusions on the parables to be especially helpful. Here are Wright’s 8 points he uses to conclude his discussion (p. 181-182):
#1. The most immediate literary background to the parables is that of apocalyptic. The parables are not just “about” the trutn of Israel’s god into her history, to judge, redeem and restore here; they are also agent of that all-important event.
#2. Jesus used parables a good deal. We should expect to find (and we do in fact find) local variations, in which he used similar stories on several different occasions, represented by some different versions in our sources.
#3. The parables made sense only within the whole context of Jesus’ career. They echoed, reflected, interpreted and indeed defended the main thrusts of Jesus’ work, and themselves set up other echoes in turn.
#4. The parables functioned the way all (good) stories function, by inviting hearers into the world of the story. They were designed to break open worldviews and to create new ones, encouraging listeners to identify themselves in terms of the narrative. To see the point of the parable was to make a judgment on oneself.
#5. The parables were therefore, like the apocalyptic genre to which in some senses they belong, subversive stories, told to articulate and bring to birth a new way of being the people of god.
#6. The parables were therefore essentially secretive. Jesus was not a “universal teacher” of timeless truths, but the starter of a movement which was to grow like an unobserved seed turning into a plant before anyone had realized. There was something necessarily cryptic about the parables. Their import was so explosive that they could not necessarily be explained in public. One had to have ears to hear the message.
#7. The secretive function of the parables worked by analogy with other Jewish hermeneutical models, not least those of Qumran and the apocalyptic literature.
#8. Narrative analysis of the parables is as yet in its infancy. But in principle detailed analysis of the parables would be an excellent project, and might yield very fruitful results – once, and only once, their total context, and setting within the ministry of Jesus, is fully understood.
Some of this might be helpful to you, and some of it might be too technical to help in your understanding of the parables. I think the big thing I took away was that parables had a subversive purpose to them and often when the audience really understood what Jesus was saying it provoked quite the negative response.
I wonder if there is a good way to preach the parables today that might strike a similar chord in our churches.