A full one-third of Jesus’ teachings are in the form of parables–the Good Samaritan… the Prodigal Son…the Persistent Widow. These teachings are some of the most beloved and also some of the most confusing in the whole Bible. In The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation, Brad Young offers a fresh engagement with these core teachings of Jesus.
Young argues that Jesus’ parables come out of the context of the Pharisaic movement in Second Temple Judaism. Parables were a common teaching tool for Rabbis. Many of these early parables are recorded in the Talmud and the Mishnah. Young believes that we can gain a deeper understanding of the teaching of Jesus by understanding the function of parables in the first century and comparing the Gospel parables to their rabbinic parallels. This work helps us understand what the parable’s first hearers would have assumed and expected of the parable. Understanding these expectations can help us see where Jesus is affirming them and where he uses surprise elements to challenge his hearers and reveal the character of God.
Young applies this approach to a number of Jesus’ parables in the New Testament. In each analysis, he emphasizes the Jewish context for the original hearing and attempts to draw insights from how it would have been heard in the first century.
I learned a lot in reading The Parables and found many of his insights invaluable for approaching the parables. To highlight even a few of them would be beyond the scope of this review, but one of the most compelling was that the parables are about God.
One of the biggest strengths Young draws from this Jewish context is the purpose of the parables itself. A parable reveals the character of God. God is always the central character who is being revealed (either in likeness or contrast to the characters in the parable). When Jesus challenges his hearers, he is first and foremost challenging them to see God differently. Only once they have seen God more deeply does Jesus challenge them to live differently. The reality behind the parable serves to reveal the character of God. This approach allows us to see certain kinds of metaphor and allegory as appropriate without falling into wild speculation.
Yet at times, Young’s attempt to recover the Jewish heritage of Jesus reveals an uncomfortable relationship with the church. The Church needs to recover its Jewish heritage and see deeper connection between the Old and New Testaments, particularly as we seek to understand Jesus and the writings of Paul. Young is right to undercut many of the arguments that pit Jesus against Judaism. However, at times he goes too far in the other direction by pitting Jesus against the Church. Every once in a while, one gets the impression that the church has rarely understood Jesus and that every interpretation that doesn’t take full account of the Second Temple Judaism is inherently flawed. He occasionally substitutes one antithesis (Jesus v. Judaism) for another (Jesus v. Church). While I agree with Young’s critique of anti-Jewish readings of Jesus and the New Testament, I think it is equally inappropriate to have anti-Church readings as well. The Church has not always understood Jesus correctly, but it is still Christ’s bride.
I highly recommend this book for those who want a deeper understanding of Jesus’ parables. Some of the linguistic studies will be more challenging for those unfamiliar with Greek and Hebrew, but an understanding of these languages is not required to grasp Young’s points.