Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus
by Klyne R. Snodgrass, Eerdmans, 2008. 846 pages.
I know of no better way to review a book than to describe the way in which I’ve been recently chastened and informed by it. At the end of 2006 I did a little meditation on the Parable of the Sower as it related to working with the homeless. Here’s what I wrote:
Ministry of good news to the poor is, in essence, a work of the Kingdom of God. Now in this work, just as in the parable of the soils in Mark 4:1-20, the good news of the kingdom does not always meet with good result. In this story the sower casts his seed for all the soil. In our work of spreading good news to the poor we will often meet with stolen, sun scorched and thistle choked results. The soil is not always ready but we must remember that the sower is always impartial. God’s Grace often seems misplaced in us human beings. I’ve been writing lately about men on Commercial Street in Springfield without ID, many with the disease of alcoholism, mental illness or drug addiction. Now many would say that these poor are used up soil who no longer have a place for the seed of the Kingdom. But the Scriptures indicate that the poor are a crucial part of God’s Kingdom and that ministry to them gives us a glimpse into God’s new order of things. (Luke 1:52-53; James 2:5)
What I find beautiful about this parable of the soil is with what complete abandon the sower spreads his seed. By some standards it is careless, disregarding economy or even ergonomics. Why waste seed in places where it won’t grow? Its impractical, even insensible. But this is the Kingdom! No expense is spared within the possibility that here too in the darkest, rockiest, and thorniest places the Kingdom might flourish. As long as we have breath in our bodies and blood in our veins we do not lie beyond the grace of God. We must believe this, because this gospel was freely preached to us! If we know ourselves rightly, we know that God’s work in us does not cease after we agree that it begin. There is still thorny ground in all of us. The parable of the Wheat and the Tares reminds us that the enemy has sown weeds even in the good crop and that only in the End will God’s Harvest be revealed.
I have to confess, I was really proud of my new little insights. But yesterday I got “schooled,” as we used to say in my neighborhood, by Klyne Snodgrass’s new book, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus. My approach in this little meditation was ignorant on a few levels: historically, hermanuetically, and (most painfully) theologically. Other than that there is no problem. :-)
I’ve met Klyne, he’s preached many times here at JPUSA, and will be sharing with us again over Easter. So please consider my comments here as coming from one who appreciates correction. I love this parable, and I love Klyne’s well rounded treatment of it. Here’s the passage from his book that directly speaks to what I was doing:
“Would anyone sow seed this way? Does the sower sow carelessly and with abandon, possibly mirroring an indiscriminate proclamation of the message, or is his sowing realistic practice in the ancient world?. . . The evidence shows that plowing occurred both immediately before and after sowing. Plowing before sowing was recommended but not always done. . . We do not know whether plowing preceded in this case or not, and the parable does not care. Parables do not give unnecessary details. Nor is the point that the sower sows haphazardly or with abandon, even on the road where seed will not grow, and no theological conclusions should be drawn along these lines. The point is that the sower and his seed had various results. The farmer does not intentionally sow seed on the road; rather some seed falls alongside the road.” (pgs. 166-167)
Snodgrass concludes the question with this crucial point:
In none of the accounts, though, is there any indication of a farmer disappointed with his losses. The picture is a realistic portrayal of ancient farming practice where incidental losses occurred, particularly in Palestine with its shallow earth and plentiful thorns, but also where a bountiful harvest resulted. (pg. 167)
So what is the correct focus and interpretation of this parable? Snodgrass lays it out:
The parable is a description of various responses to hearing God’s word and surely depicts the responses Jesus encountered in his own ministry. . . Real hearing is hearing that leads to obedience, and we should not forget that the Hebrew verb for hearing (sama) is often translated in English as “obey.” In response to further inquiry about the parable by those ready to obey, Jesus pointed to the hardness of heart motif and the parallels between his ministry and that of Isaiah. No other interpretation is even attractive. (pg. 170)
There’s a lot more in Stories with Intent regarding this one parable, but I wanted to just give a taste. He covers every parable of Jesus and includes other stories with parabolic qualities that he confesses are not necessarily outright parables. The format generally follows along these lines:
Intro, Parable type, Issues requiring attention, Helpful Primary Source Material (such as the other biblical material, early Jewish writing (like 2 Ezra), Greco-Roman writings, Early Christian Writings, and Later Jewish writings), Comparison of the Gospel Accounts, Notable Textual Features, Cultural Information, and then, finally the explanation of the Parable. This is all followed by a list of recommended reading. When the title says Comprehensive, it’s not kidding!
I’m sure that laypeople, pastors, and students—as well as New Testament scholars will all find this resource accessible. It makes rather obscure sources readily available for general readership. The parables of Jesus are much richer than I had ever realized. Stories with Intent reveals how much more I have to learn.