These are the books on Jesus’ parables you should read, if nothing else. Represented here is critical skepticism (Meier), peasant readings (Herzog), progressive wisdom (Levine), evangelical restraint (Snodgrass), and breezy table-talk (Scott).
1. A Marginal Jew: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, John Meier. 2016. If Meier is right, and unfortunately I think he is, then the parables aren’t the guaranteed “voice” of Jesus as everyone thinks. Many of them probably don’t originate with Jesus. Of the 32 stories, we can salvage perhaps four with confidence: The Mustard Seed (God’s rule was already at work in certain human activity, and however small that seemed, there was an organic connection between it and the revelation of God on the last day), the Great Supper (a warning that one’s place in the kingdom can be taken by those who never had any right to it), the Talents (along with sovereign grace and reward comes the possibility of being condemned in hell for refusing the demands contained in God’s gift), and the Wicked Tenants (Jesus knew what awaited him if he confronted the Jerusalem authorities, and he accepted a destiny of irreversible martyrdom). All other parables, even the long-standing cherished ones — The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, The Leaven, The Sower, The Seed Growing Secretly, The Laborers in the Vineyard, The Unmerciful Servant, The Shrewd Manager, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector, The Unjust Judge, The Friend at Midnight, The Rich Fool, The Rich Man and Lazarus — either shout a later creation, or can at best be judged indeterminate. If you’re going to read only one book on the parables, it has to be this one. Meier shows that the dominant view is a house of cards: there is no warrant for giving the parables pride of place, or for reversing the burden of proof by giving their authenticity the benefit of the doubt. See my full review.
2. Parables as Subversive Speech, William Herzog. 1994. Now, if I were confident that many of the parables originated with Jesus, this commentary is a helpful lens. According to Herzog, Jesus’ stories weren’t “earthly stories with heavenly meanings” but “earthy stories with heavy meanings”, meaning they only hinted about the coming kingdom of God by focusing on the gory details of the here and now. The key, he says, is to resist the gospel tendency to equate masters and landowners with God, since these figures are really villains. When a messianic king forgives an astronomical debt but then turns ruthless, he’s not a divine cipher of limitless forgiveness (his ruthless actions prove doesn’t believe in that); he’s an example of messianic pretenders who promise sabbaticals and jubilees but become oppressors themselves as soon as they win the crown. Or when a master commends the self-serving schemes of two servants, and then railroads a third servant who does the honorable thing (by burying money as commended by Jewish law, instead of participating in rapacious investment schemes), he’s a rather poor allegory for God. Herzog reads the parables in the way honorable peasants might have identified with the stories, and while he can be persuasive, he has an Achilles’ heel. His readings depend on literalist readings of social and economic conditions, where parables tend to be metaphorical. But on the assumption of a subversive Jesus whose parables have been reclaimed by the gospel writers on completely different terms, Herzog’s readings are at least plausible.
3. Short Stories by Jesus, Amy Jill-Levine. 2015. Some of the lessons drawn here are great for my personal Unitarian consumption, but they’re highly agenda-driven. The reversal of values theme which permeates the gospels receives no support in Levine’s readings. Whenever themes signal “the last coming first and the first last”, she calls that an editorial intrusion. Not only that, she leaves no room at all for any hint of an “Us-vs.-Them” polemic that could reinforce judgments and divisions, despite that Jesus was a judgmental prophet. Levine has an axe to grind against critics who see everything Jesus said as being aimed against an oppressive Jewish context, to the point where it becomes all consuming. In her mind, if Jesus critiqued purity laws, then Judaism was legalistic; if Jesus was open to Gentiles, then Judaism was racist; if Jesus stood up for widows and women, then Judaism was misogynistic; if Jesus went to bat for the sick and poor, then Judaism was heartless. Unfortunately, if there’s no kernel of truth to any of this, it means Jesus isn’t left with much to criticize. Levine sees anti-Jewish foils under every rock, and while some of her concerns are valid, others betray a politically-correct paranoia. From a theological point of view, I have to admit I like her interpretations of the parables, but they should be seen for what they are: bastardized products of history and modern liberalism. See my full review.
4. Stories with Intent, Klyne Snodgrass. 2008. This huge study is best summarized as “a mine of information, both of ancient languages and texts and of modern commentators and debate”. That’s the positive. “Yet something is seriously wrong with a method that, in the end, has the historical Jesus, the early Christian tradition, and any given evangelist practically collapse into the same person.” (Meier, A Marginal Jew above, p 55). Snodgrass is an evangelical, and so his naive optimism is a guarantee. I recommend his tome not as a reliable lens onto Jesus, but as the best reference tool that engages the voices of many scholars. Every parable is analyzed, and prefaced with sections which list all primary sources containing any hint of parallels and relevant information to the parable — passages in the bible, Greco-Roman writings, early Christian writings, and later Jewish writings. It’s worth noting that Snodgrass considers The Unmerciful Servant to be the most revealing and compelling story which illustrates the nature of Jesus’ parables more than any others. The message, according to him, is one of grace and responsibility, a rather traditional reading which dodges some hard questions. I still think Herzog’s interpretation of that parable survives Snodgrass’ attack. The parable seems to be more about an unmerciful king, and an implicit critique of messiahship suggesting that while messiahs can start out benign, they quickly and inevitably become captives of their own command.
5. Hear Then the Parable, Bernard Brandon Scott. 1989. Misguided in almost every aspect of its intention, this commentary is worth reading for that very reason. It’s a perfect example of how not to explain Jesus as a social subversive. If you’re going to make him a revolutionary, then do it right, for Christ’s sake, like Herzog does (see 3, above). Herzog’s revisionism can certainly be criticized, but at least it’s credible within the Jewish peasant framework Scott tries so desperately to assimilate. He interprets the parables against the backdrop of Jewish myths and peasant world-views, which promises to yield good results until he walks right away from them. For example, in the parable of the Talents, he opposes the conclusion that his own analysis demands, that the third servant is the hero of the story. While the third servant’s speech moves an audience to identify with his plight, says Scott, the audience is nonetheless being asked to see the hidden side to the Torah — the “burden of its preservation”. Acknowledging that a Jew would see this as a caricature, Scott still presses the fantasy: “the price for protecting and preserving the Torah is the loss of a future”. The future, in other words, is claimed not by preserving precious gifts, but by acting boldly as if the rules have been changed, to liberate oneself from the paralysis of the Torah’s demands. Breezy table-talk like this fills Scott’s commentary. It’s the wisdom of the Jesus Seminarians masquerading as counterculture, but first-century Jewish peasants could hardly have heard the parables in this way. Scott does provide helpful discussion of the way certain myths are modified (as in The Mustard Seed and The Leaven), but on whole this study is a misfire, though a very instructive one.