Saturday 5 December 2009

Robert L. Plummer on the Parables in the Gospels

Robert L. Plummer, ‘Parables in the Gospels: History of Interpretation and Hermeneutical Guidelines’, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 13.3 (2009), 4-11.

After looking briefly at defining parables (concluding that ‘the most fundamental component… is that there must be a comparison’, 4), Plummer looks at the history of interpretation of parables and then offers some guidelines for interpreting parables.

His very brief history of interpretation takes in the usual suspects from the gospel writers themselves right through to the present day (4-7).

More helpful are his hermeneutical guidelines (7-10). He begins by noting that Jesus ‘often employed parables to teach about the kingdom of God’, and that the kingdom theme ‘is often expressed through three main theological sub-motifs: “the graciousness of God, the demands of discipleship, and the dangers of disobedience”’ (7, citing Craig Blomberg).

As for ‘hermeneutical guidelines’:

• Determine the main point(s) of the parable – noting that some (e.g., Robert Stein) think we should look for one main point, while others (e.g., Craig Blomberg) think we should look for two or three main points, normally connected with the main characters or items in the parable. He notes Stein’s additional questions which help identify what the main point might be: (1) who are the main characters? (2) what occurs at the end? (3) what occurs in direct discourse? (4) who/what gets the most space?

• Recognise stock imagery in the parables – e.g., Father, Master, Judge, Shepherd, King, Son, Vineyard, Vine, Fig tree, Sheep, Servant, Enemy, Harvest, Wedding feast.

• Note striking or unexpected details – e.g., the massive difference between the amount of the two debts owed (Matthew 18:23-35); the brash persistence of the widow (Luke 18:1-8); the indignity of an older man running (Luke 15:20).

• Do not press all details for meaning – e.g., the new clothes, shoes, ring, banquet, etc. in Luke 15:22-23.

• Pay attention to the literary and historical context of the parable – e.g., Luke 18:1 (‘Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up’); Luke 15:1-3 (Jesus welcoming and eating with tax collectors and sinners as the context for the giving of the three ‘lost’ parables); Luke 10:25-29, 36-37 (Jesus’ exchange with someone about who one’s ‘neighbour’ is around the telling of the good samaritan).

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