Single-Minded Jesus

In his colossal work on the parables, Stories With Intent, Klyne Snodgrass distinguishes between double indirect narratives, which operate on more than one level, and single indirect narratives, which are about exactly what they narrate and no more. Double indirects are really about God and/or the kingdom, while single indirects (usually called “example stories”) are moralistic and show people how to live.

According to Snodgrass, the vast bulk of Jesus’ parables fall into the former category (which he subdivides into other categories), and only five are single indirect stories:

The Good Samaritan
The Rich Fool
The Rich Man and Lazarus
The Dishonest Steward
The Pharisee and Toll Collector

But I maintain there are more single indirects than just these, a total of at least a dozen noteworthy parables which were not originally focused on God or the kingdom per se. And I would distinguish further between “example stories” and — as I like to think of them — “indictment stories”, as follows:

Single Indirect “Example Stories”:

The Good Samaritan
The Friend at Midnight
The Rich Fool
The Prodigal Son
The Dishonest Steward
The Unjust Judge
The Pharisee and Toll Collector

Single Indirect “Indictment Stories”:

The Wicked Tenants
The Unmerciful Servant
The Laborers in the Vineyard
The Talents
The Rich Man and Lazarus

I have already analyzed two from each group in my own parables series — The Prodigal Son, The Dishonest Steward, The Unmerciful Servant, and The Talents — and explained why in none of these stories is the father, master, king, or absentee landowner a cipher for God. They are about exactly what they narrate, prophetically critical, hinting about implications of the coming apocalypse, but not directly about the kingdom. This is in contrast to the parables which Snodgrass calls “similitudes” — The Sower, The Seed Growing Secretly, The Mustard Seed, The Leaven, The Treasure, and The Pearl — all of which, I agree, are double indirect illustrations of the kingdom itself (and analyzed The Mustard Seed accordingly).

Snodgrass dodges some hard questions in his magnum opus, and I agree with most of what Ernest van Eck says in his RBL review (save the bit about the Gospel of Thomas; I’m with Snodgrass that Thomas is largely derivative and later than the synoptics). The principle fault of parable scholarship rests in the common assumption that most stories are double indirects which allegorize God and the kingdom. But Jesus probably spoke face-value more frequently than we give him credit for.

One thought on “Single-Minded Jesus

  1. I fully agree with your more ‘literal’ reading of Jesus’ parables. I think the double-indirect kingdom interpretations have florished for so long because alternative ways of reading the parables were unknown. I think that since social context research has shown us how many of Jesus’ parables were apt single-indirect commentaries on the world of his time, the traditional theologized readings should now be allowed to die.The third set of parables you classify as “double indirect illustrations of the kingdom itself”… I would classify as double indirect illustrations of <>Jesus’ movement<>. A huge portion of the gospels focuses of Jesus gathering a supporting movement for his social-reforms, and these parables speak of the growth of that movement and people’s commitment to it. Sure, it’s the ‘kingdom movement’, but I wouldn’t call it the ‘kingdom itself’.

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