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.