Douglas D. Webster, The Parables: Jesus’s Friendly Subversive Speech

Webster, Douglas D. The Parables: Jesus’s Friendly Subversive Speech. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2021. 347 pp. Pb; $24.99.   Link to Kregel Academic

Douglas D. Webster (Ph.D., University of St. Michael’s College) is professor of pastoral theology and preaching at Beeson Divinity School and serves as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of San Diego. He has previously published pastoral commentaries on Revelation and Hebrews: Follow the Lamb: A Pastoral Approach to The Revelation (Cascade Books 2014) and Preaching Hebrews: The End of Religion and Faithfulness to the End (Cascade Books 2017) and a four-volume pastoral commentary on Psalms (May 2023, review forthcoming).


Webster begins and ends this commentary on Jesus’s parables by observing that parables are never just a story, “they are always the gospel told slant” (340). In his introduction, he refers to a poem by Emily Dickinson, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant…the truth must dazzle gradually, or every man be blind” (12). Parables do just this. They tell the truth about Jesus indirectly in a way that attracts outsiders to move closer to the truth. Jesus used parables to reveal his identity. He places himself at the center of many parables, usually in a role reserved for God in the Old Testament.

He begins his introduction by observing Matthews’s depiction of Jesus as a teacher. Beginning with the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus faces opposition from religious leaders who attack his teaching and practice. In Matthew 13, Jesus begins to teach in parables “because of his enemies’ intensity and the crowd’s naivete” (10). This is the point of the first parable Jesus tells in Matthew, the Parable of the Sower. The reason he teaches in parables is the hardness of people’s hearts. They are like Isaiah’s generation, hearing but not understanding. (See this post on why Jesus teaches in Parables.)

Webster discusses more than twenty-two parables found in Matthew and Luke. Most of Mark’s parables are also in Matthew, so Webster treats Matthew’s version. John does not contain any true parables. Webster suggests, “John saved the full force of his parabolic technique for the book of Revelation (19). The chapters are arranged mostly canonically, beginning with three chapters on Matthew’s parables of the Kingdom (Matthew 13). He devotes a chapter to the Sower and the Weeds (including the mustard seed and yeast) and one chapter to the Hidden Treasure, Pearl, and Net.

He then covers Luke’s parables from the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:21-37) through the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14). Chapters 4-17 of the book discuss most of the parables in Luke’s travel narrative, including the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (which may or may not be an actual parable). Webster then returns to Matthew in his final four chapters covering the parables of Jesus’s final week. Chapter 22 covers the four parables in the Olivet Discourse. He refers to the Olivet Discourse as the sermon on the end of the world, a designation I do not care for since these parables are about the delay of the Messiah’s return and the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel (but this might be my pre-millennialism showing). I noticed that he does not cover the thief in the night as a separate parable. I usually cover five parables as the conclusion to Matthew’s Olivet Discourse.

Webster expounds the English text, explaining various cultural elements and drawing reasonable applications to church life and practice today.. His exposition of the parables has little or no reference to the original languages. He explains the parables in a way that will resonate with laypeople and pastors to challenge them with Jesus’s words. All interaction with secondary literature is in the footnotes. He refers to modern commentators such as Klyne Snodgrass, Dale Bruner, R. T. France, Kenneth Bailey, Craig Keener, and many others. He occasionally interacts with church fathers like John Chrysostom or classic commentators like Luther, Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards. There is even an occasional reference to Soren Kierkegaard. My point is that although the commentary targets laypeople, Webster has done his work in the best recent commentaries and monographs on parables.

The book concludes with an appendix entitled “Preaching the Parables” (339-47). This appendix could be described as Webster’s methodology. He says our task is not to interpret the Bible as much as it is to be interpreted by the Bible (339). He then offers ten observations about the parables, which will help the reader tap into Jesus’s communication strategy. Webster believes this is an important and rewarding practice for two days preachers (340). Among his ten observations, he states that parables have a history of meaning rooted in the Old Testament (341). This is an important observation since Jesus is a Jewish teacher addressing Jewish listeners. Jesus’s Bible, his database of metaphors, is the Old Testament.

Conclusion: Webster achieves his goal of a basic exposition of Jesus’s parables to help readers understand the depth of these short stories. This is not an exegetical commentary or a collection of sermons. Webster’s book has elements of both and will therefore appear to pastors preparing to preach the parables. I do wonder about the sub-title: Jesus’s friendly subversive speech. Bu including “subversive” in the sub-title, I expected the commentary to tease out how Jesus challenged the religious attitudes of his day. Webster does some of that, but Jesus’s subversiveness is not a driving theme in his exposition.


Not important: The font is larger than most books, which may appeal to some readers.

Thanks to Kregel Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.




Emerson B. Powery, The Good Samaritan

Powery, Emerson B. The Good Samaritan. Touchstone Texts. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2022. 156 pp. Pb; $24.  Link to Baker Academic

This is the second volume of the Baker Academic Touchstone Texts series. The series addresses well-known passages from the Bible and provides exegetical, theological, and pastoral concerns. As series editor Stephen B. Chapman says in the series introduction, these texts are “deserving of fresh expositions that enable them to speak anew to the contemporary church and its leaders.” This first volume treated Psalm 23 (Richard Briggs, The Lord is My Shepherd, 2021). This new volume discusses one of Jesus’s most beloved parables, the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

Powery Good SamaritanEmerson B. Powery (PhD, Duke University) is a professor of biblical studies at Messiah University. He is the author of Jesus Reads Scripture: The Function of Jesus’ Use of Scripture in the Synoptic Gospels (Brill, 2002) and Immersion Bible Studies for Mark (Abingdon, 2011). He coauthored The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved (WJKP, 2016).

Powery begins with the question, “the contemporary reader must decide whether the goal is to get the meaning right or to enjoy the journey” (1). The two are obviously not mutually exclusive; this book seeks to read the parable right, but also create an enjoyable journey toward contemporary application for the modern American church. He observes, “Jesus’s imaginative use of the Samaritan confirms the creative power of difference to challenge the status quo of our lives together” (153).

Powery builds a community of conversation partners around this well-known parable to continue answering the question of Luke 10:29: “who is my neighbor?” In chapter one, the conversation partners include Frederick Douglass, Toni Morrison (A Mercy), the Amish community after the 2006 mass shooting at West Nickel Mines school, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and their response to Dylann Roof shooting nine people in their church, and Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1996). For some readers, this might seem like an unusual way to begin a book on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, but Powery is teasing out the shocking image of a “good Samaritan” in a first-century Jewish context.

The second chapter deals with the Good Samaritan in Christian Tradition, beginning with Augustine’s famous allegorizing interpretation of the parable. Citing John Dominic Crossan, Augustine is simply wrong since his interpretation is neither Jesus’s nor Luke’s original intentions (41, note 34). Books on parables usually use Augustine to show the failure (and foolishness) of allegorical interpretation. But Powery points out that is only one aspect of Augustine’s method: he also treats the literal meaning and a moral-example model. What the parable means, Powery suggests, “depends on where you stand.”

He demonstrates this by examining the parable from the prospect of civil rights leader Howard Thurman’s 1951 sermon on the parable (a sermon which influenced Martin Luther King). He then introduces readers to the Solentiname Bible Study, a community discussion of scripture in 1978 led by Ernesto Cardenal. Reflecting a liberation theology perspective, the members of the Bible Study read the parable from the perspective of the poor and oppressed. “The Gospel made us political revolutionaries” (63). Powery then turns to Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). Jacobs discussed the Good Samaritan in the context of the church and slavery. In her story, a white preacher tells the slaves to obey their masters; the gospel provides no comfort for the enslaved. For Jacobs, the wounded man in the parable represents enslaved black people and the white church does nothing to help the wounded Samaritan.

Powery does not turn to a reading of the parable until chapter 3, asking “what might the story (have) mean/t?” This chapter is an exposition of the parable, which most resembles a commentary, interacting with the details of the parable. He sets aside some misconceptions: “The Good Samaritan is not a statement about the general priesthood or the absence of compassion among the Jews” (97) and certainly it is not antisemitic. The usual American individualistic reading of the parable wants to encourage people to “be the Good Samaritan” and take care of the people in the ditch. But what about the people who are in the ditch? How does a victim of trauma understand this parable? This chapter employs modern studies on trauma as part of his interpretation of the parable. This is something unique (and helpful) since it focuses on the victim more than the Samaritan.

He entitled his final chapter provocatively: “Samaritan Lives Matter.” As his first two chapters showed, readers of the Good Samaritan parable tend to think of themselves as the victim, the man in the ditch in need of help. There are two ways to look at the Good Samaritan parable. It is a story about an individual response to an individual need. But second, the parable is about a community’s response to a community’s need. How does the church today respond to the needs of others in the community? Jesus often upsets the status quo; so Powery relates “the other” in the parable to the civil rights movement (citing MLK and John Lewis) and then asks how the parable can frame a Christian response to the murder of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor. For some Christians, Black Lives Matter is “an expression of Christian faith in action” (148).

Conclusion. Like most of Jesus’s parables, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is quite clear. Other than understanding the background of the Samaritans, most of the details do not need a great deal of exegesis to get the main point. The difficulty is in drawing a reasonable application from Jesus’s original parable that challenges the modern reader. Powery’s book certainly challenges the modern reader to think more deeply about the victim and the Samaritan by listening to various voices who suffer trauma in the contemporary world.


NB: Thanks to Baker Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.


Book Review: David B. Gowler, The Parables after Jesus

Gowler, David B. The Parables after Jesus: Their Imaginative Receptions across Two Millennia. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2017. 320 pp.; Pb.; $29.99. Link to Logos Bible Software  (This book is no longer listed on Baker Academic’s website)

David Gowler’s earlier book on the parables, What Are They Saying about the Parables? (Paulist Press, 2000) was a handy guide to the various approaches to the parables in scholarship. This new volume from Baker Academic extends that project by studying how scholars, pastors, preachers, philosophers and artists have understood Jesus’s parables. This book is a reception history, although it ranges broadly in both chronology and disciplines.

Gowler includes chapters covering examples from Antiquity (to ca. 550 CE); Middle Ages (ca. 550-1500 CE); Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries; Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries; Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. Since he includes so many examples in each chronological period, each sub-section is necessarily brief. This may frustrate some (there is obviously more to be said about prolific writers Augustine or Luther), but it is the nature of the book Gowler has written. On the other hand, by limiting his comments only a few thousand words, readers may use this book as a kind of devotional reader. The brevity allows a reader to profitably spend a few moments reading a section without sacrificing the overall themes of the book.

Some of the selections are the most important and well known authors, but some selections are more obscure. For example, in the section on Antiquity (to ca. 550 CE), Gowler includes several of the earliest and most important Christian writers (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, John Chrysostom, Augustine), but also the Gnostic Gospel of Philip, two obscure writers (Macrina the Younger and Ephrem the Syrian), but also examples in Early Christian Art, Oil Lamp and Roman Catacombs. He also includes the Dura-Europos House Church and Illuminations from the Rossano Gospels and several Byzantine Mosaics and a song from Romanos the Melodist.

This diversity is seen in Gowler’s selections for his chapter on the Middle Ages. Gregory the Great, Hildegard of Bingen, Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas are well-known to most students of church history, but the Sunni writer Sahih al-Bukhari (ca. 870) is far from a household name in contemporary evangelicalism. It may be a surprise for some readers to learn some of Jesus’s parable were discussed in Islamic literature, but as Gowler observes, this illustrates the trajectories gospel traditions could follow. The next writer Gowler includes in this chapter is positively obscure, Wazo the bishop of Liège (985-1048). He is primarily known from a biography written by Anselm. This chapter also includes several panels from the Golden Gospels of Echternach (Codex Aureus), an illuminated gospel produced between1030–1050. The book reproduces several pages illustrating parables in grey-scale. It is well worth the effort to find these images available on the internet. Gowler includes several pieces of art (Albrecht Dürer) and architecture (Chartres Cathedral) in this section, although he only provides a link for the images from Chartres.

Golden Gospels of Echternach

For the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, he includes the reformers Martin Luther John Calvin, but also playwright William Shakespeare, poet George Herbert and the remarkably evocative art of Rembrandt and Domenico Fetti (1859-1623).  One of the more obscure examples in this section is John Maldonatus (1534-1583), an example from the counter-Reformation who likens the “stony place” in the Parable of the Sower to the heretics Luther and Calvin.

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries are even more diverse, ranging from William Blake’s art to Søren Kierkegaard, the poetry of Emily Dickinson and the hymn writing of Fanny Crosby. The inclusion of abolitionist Frederick Douglass is a pleasant surprise. Douglass used the parable of the Great Feast in Luke 14:16-24 as part of his argument against slavery and the plight of the black slaves as similar to Lazarus in one speech, as a symbol for women’s emancipation in another. A rare biblical scholar in this period is Adolf Jülicher, a constantly referenced work on parables but rarely read.

For the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, Gowler includes such diverse voices as Thomas Hart Benton, Flannery O’Connor, and Martin Luther King Jr. along with more pop-culture examples such as writer Octavia Butler and the play Godspell. He has a section on Latin American Receptions, a Jewish writer (David Flusser) and Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

In his concluding comments, Gowler asks, “What Do Parables Want?” Since the parables themselves are literary works of art, they function like any other type of art. Jesus was often ambiguous when he told a parable, and this ambiguity generates the variety of interpretations evidenced in this volume. When Jesus spoke a parable, he demanded a response, as in Luke 10:36-38: “go thou and do likewise.”

Although Gowler includes many examples of the reception of Jesus’s parables over the last two millennia, there is far more to be said. For example, he has barely scratched the surface of in the modern period with respect to art and literature. A catalog of scholarly approaches to the parables could generate another (much longer) book. Gowler maintains a blog, A Chorus of Voices: The Reception History of the Parables, where he has additional examples. Earlier posts on this blog are the seed-bed for this book and occasionally there are links to art and architecture examples. The book also includes an appendix briefly describes each of the parables covered in the book, although Gowler gives biblical references throughout.

Conclusion. This book is a joy to read, a book I would recommend one reads the book slowly. In many cases the examples are obscure and it will reward the reader to look up a few names in an encyclopedia or dictionary in order to place the section in a proper historical context. Gowler demonstrates an amazing range of scholarship, equally at home in patristics as in the Reformation, in both medieval and contemporary art. By including such a wide range of voices readers will be challenged by the diversity of responses to the parables of Jesus.

NB: Thanks to Baker for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Matthew 25:1-13 – The Ten Virgins

This parable is an interesting example for parable study since it is often dismissed as a creation of the later church to explain the long-delay of the return of the Lord. The parable is an allegory created by Matthew to explain why Jesus did not return as quickly as anticipated. For example, Eta Linnemann said that this parable “is certainly a creation of the early Church. A Christian prophet or teacher unknown to us uttered it in the name and spirit of Jesus.” (Parables, 126).

Ten Virgins Parable

I suggest this parable should be read in the context of the other parables in Matthew 24-25, as well as the whole of Jesus’ teaching in the Temple his final week. The parable was intended to use common typology for Israel’s relationship with God found in the Hebrew Bible. For example, the relationship of God and Israel is pictured in the Old Testament as a marital relationship (Isa 54:4-6, 62:4-5, Ezek 16, Hosea).

If we follow Blomberg’s method for interpreting parables, then the bridegroom is the central character, the two sets of bridesmaids are the contrasting characters. This would imply strongly that the bridegroom is God / Jesus, since in most of these sorts of parables God is in that central position. The ten virgins or bridesmaids would then refer to the followers of Jesus who are waiting for his return. Five are prepared for a long interim, the other five are not.

But other elements are not intended to be typological at all. For example, the oil is sometimes equated to good works, or the merchants with the Church. (If you want to be ready for the return of Jesus, go and do good works in the Church?)  This is very “preachable,” but I am not at all convinced that was Jesus’ original point.

What makes the bridesmaids “wise” or “foolish”? It cannot be that they fell asleep since both the wise and foolish get drowsy and fall asleep. The delay was so long that normal life had to go on. The issue is that the foolish five are unprepared for the long wait. The type of lamp they used would need to be refueled when the groom arrived. By preparing themselves, the five wise bridesmaids are allowed to join the groom and enter into the wedding feast.

But what about the unprepared virgins? Why are they judged harshly? The shutting of the door is an indication of final judgement: there is no longer any way for them to get into the kingdom, they have missed out. The groom’s response to their please is that he does not know them.

The groom’s response is exactly what Jesus said in Matthew 7:23 and is a rabbinical formula used to dismiss a student. The implication is that they had the same opportunity to be ready, and that since they were not ready at the right time, they will have no part in the kingdom. They remain outside, in the dark. The fact is, they were always in the dark and only thought that they would enter into the Wedding Feast.

This is yet another example in Jesus’ teaching of a shocking reversal. Those who think that they ought to be in the kingdom do not get in, they remain on the outside.  I think that the context supports this reading – what else do you seen in Jesus’ final week that supports this conclusion?  Who should we identify as the “wise” and “foolish” in the immediate context of the parable?

Reading the Parables of Jesus – Klyne Snodgrass

In a previous post, I tracked the shift in Parables studies away from the allegorical methods of the medieval church to the “one point per parable” method of Adolf Jülicher.  In the next several posts I want to talk about a few other scholars who developed Jülicher’s ideas in the twentieth century (Dodd and Jeremias) and a short note on the rise of literary studies of parables beginning in the 1960’s, using Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan as examples.  In the last few installments of this series I want to cover several studies on the parables published since 1990 which treat the parables as coming from the teaching of historical Jesus, yet also allow for some insight on a literary level, such as Craig BlombergKenneth Bailey and now Klyne Snodgrass.

Klyne SnodgrassThe subtitle of Klyne Snodgrass’s Stories with Intent is “A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus.” This is certainly the case! At over 800 pages, this book is the largest book on parables produced in many years (pages 570-770 are endnotes and the bibliography runs to 45 pages!) Snodgrass has written several important articles on parables and his The Parable of the Wicked Tenants is a detailed study of this important parable. (Originally published in the WUNT/2 series, I noticed that Wipf & Stock have an inexpensive reprint of the book.)

Snodgrass provides about sixty pages introducing the usual topics expected in an introduction to the parables. As he states in the introduction, he is not offering a new method for interpreting the parables (31). What sets Snodgrass apart is his assumption that the parables are the authentic voice of Jesus and he rarely discusses matters of authenticity.

He is also skeptical of attempts to reconstruct earlier, simpler versions of the parables because this assumes that there was an original form which differs from the form as it appears in the gospels. In addition, reconstructions also assume that anything allegorical was added to that original form by the later church, created to deal with internal problems in the Gospel writer’s church situation. Frequently the context of the sermon is dismissed a priori as a creation of the evangelist, as are the concluding lines which interpret the parable. These assumptions, Snodgrass argues, do withstand criticism. There are no fixed laws of transmission as was once assumed, and the now standard rejection of allegory by modern interpreters simply does not take into context the of Second Temple Period literature (where allegorical elements were often included in parables).

Snodgrass therefore studies “each parable in its own right with regard to form and content” (35). His goal is to set aside tedious arguments about sources and original forms and read the parable as we have it on the page as accurately as possible. In order to do this, he provides a 22 page introduction to what a parable was in Second Temple Period Judaism and in the Greco-Roman world. Jesus’ parables stand more in the tradition of the rabbinic parables, but there are clear differences as well.

In the body of the book, Snodgrass arranges the parables are into topics (parables about prayer, about Israel, about the kingdom, etc. ) For each parable he provides a section entitled “Issues Requiring Attention.” This is a list of exegetical and theological issues that any interpreter must treat when reading this particular parable. For a pastor preparing a sermon, this section clarifies the main ideas which are important; for the student, here is an outline of issues for a paper! Following this section he lists all of the potential “source material.” This includes Second Temple Period literature, rabbinic parallels and Greco-Roman sources. This is a goldmine of material, often the important lines are reproduced, sometimes they are simply summarized.

Following this background material are “Textual Features Worthy of Attention” (key words to study, interesting syntax, etc) and “Cultural Features” (elements of background to study). Once again, this provides the interpreter with a number of tips on what is important in the parable (and perhaps by their commission, what is not so important).

Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with IntentThe main section for each parable is the “Explanation of the Parable.” This takes the form of a number of questions and answers working through the main points of the parable. In this section he interacts with the Greek New Testament (in transliteration) as well as with key modern interpreters of the text. While he does draw on the literature of the Second Temple Period, he ignores (for the most part) church interpretation. His focus is purely canonical, not historical. He provides a bibliography for each parable, including both better commentary sections and journal articles. Occasionally German and French resources are included, but the emphasis is purely on English scholarship.

In the final section, Snodgrass offers some hints on how to “Adapt the Parable” for use in a sermon or Bible study. Here one hears Snodgrass’s pastoral heart – this material on the parables is not to be purely academic without any application!

Stories with Intent has become my “first off the shelf” for parables, although some readers may be lost in all of the details. I cannot imagine trying to teach or preach the parables of Jesus without consulting this book.  The most helpful element in the book is Snodgrass’s questions, leading the reader in the right direction, without answering all the exegetical questions possible. Again, that might frustrate some readers who do not have the time or inclination to dig into these things themselves.

With respect to method, I find Snodgrass’s rejection of form-critical assumptions helpful. While Dodd and Jeremias remain bright lights, Snodgrass calls into question whether they really illuminate the text as we have it. In addition, while Snodgrass occasionally cites some of the literary studies (Funk, Crossan, Via), he does nothing that looks at all like the postmodern studies popular in the late 1960s.

Is his skepticism of the assumptions of earlier studies valid? Does his method actually “work” for reading the parables accurately?

Bibliography: Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent.  Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008.