The Parables: Jesus’s Friendly Subversive Speech, Douglas D. Webster. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2021.
Summary: A study of the parables of Jesus, why he used them, how they conveyed his message and what that message was, and what they mean for our preaching.
I’ll say it straight out, this is one of the best treatments of the parables of Jesus I have read. Douglas Webster explains why Jesus spoke in parables, his friendly subversive speech, and how this plays out in all of the parables. He both draws on scholarly work and roots his explanations in the text but uses stories, both those of the parables and contemporary illustrations to convey the meaning of the parables.
He begins this work by positing that Jesus turned to parables after encountering resistance and increasing opposition to his teaching and works. He writes:
“In the face of growing opposition, Jesus’s communicational strategy hit the wall. Straight-up authoritative teaching was becoming counterproductive. This is why I think Jesus switched to parables. Through the medium of story he was able to communicate to the crowds without giving his enemies a clear target. The general audience hung on his captivating stories—stories they could hear superficially, almost as entertainment. Or they could hear Jesus’s stories provocatively as world-upending stories. The disciples knew full well that Jesus was doing more than telling simple stories, and he invited their questions. I suspect the scribes and Pharisees also knew that Jesus’s parables were operating at a deeper level, but this indirect mode of communication offered little leverage for their campaign against Jesus” (p. 10).
Webster focuses on the texts of the parables found in Matthew and Luke and the context of the parables in these books. He begins with the seven parables in Matthew 13, starting with the parable of the sower, then the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the mustard seed and the yeast, and the concluding parables of the hidden treasure, the pearl, and net. They tell us the kingdom is rooted in the hope of harvest despite the resistance of many, that the kingdom works without coercion, that there will be growth from small beginnings, incomparable joy, even as there is a final judgment. These are stories people hear, but the disciples question and understand.
He then turns to the parables of Luke (in Luke 10-18), setting them in the context of questions about neighboring, prayer, the follies of worldly wealth, readiness and unreadiness for the kingdom, the fruitlessness of Israel’s religion, like the barren fig, the religious inhospitability to “sinners” and the urgent concern for the lost. In the parable of the lost son, I appreciate that Webster doesn’t only consider how we might be like one of the two sons, but might also embrace the role of the father. In the rich man and Lazarus, he considers Lazarus as a Christ figure and the chilling indifference of the rich man to the poor. In the Pharisee and tax collector, I love the way Webster contrasts merit and mercy.
Webster then returns to Matthew and the Passion week parables. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard I was struck by the generosity to the latecomers–am I so generous as a fifty-year Christian to newly minted believers and joyful that we all share the same gift? We consider the “no” and “yes” of two sons, wicked tenants, joyful banquets and who is in and who is out, and the four parables in Jesus “End of the World” sermon–the faithful and faithless servants, the ten virgins, the talents, and the sheep and goats. All these point me toward the return and rewards and judgments of the King, and what it means to keep faith to the end.
The concluding appendix discusses ten reasons to preach the parables. I’ll share just one:
“The most important thing to remember about preaching the parables is that Jesus is telling the story.“
They are not just general utterances about religion, but set in the context of Jesus life, death, resurrection and rule. They are his utterances and they point to the one speaking.
Douglas D. Webster has given us a work not only useful in understanding the parables, but one that holds the mirror up to us, asking, “What do you see? Are your eyes open?” We’re invited to open our eyes to the light of the gospel and encouraged to use these stories with the hope that God will give eyes to see and ears to hear to our friends who listen to this “friendly subversive speech.”
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.