The Power of Parable

John Dominic Crossan, HarperCollins, 2012, reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Crossan starts by talking nicely and safely about parables, sharing little stories telling us to be nice. He identifies riddle parables (allegories) (Mark 4:23-27), example parables (practical, moral, religious)(Luke 15), and challenge parables. Challenge parables reverse the expectation and judgements, the presuppositions and prejudices of conventional hierarchically driven society, where ‘best people’ act badly and ‘worst people; act well.

        Crossan examines how the gospel writers often changed the material presented by Jesus, so that challenge parables become example parables (eg the Good Samaritan, Luke 10). A challenge parable challenges the normalcy of audience expectations, hierarchical prejudices and ethnic presuppositions (p 59).

        We find it difficult to hear the challenge. Eg the phrase ‘good Samaritan’ has become a redundant cliché, a simple term for somebody who helps another. We do not hear it as first century Jewish ears would have—as a cultural paradox, a social contradiction (p 60). ‘It is a story that challenges its listeners to think long and hard about their social prejudices, their cultural presumptions and even their most sacred religious traditions (p 62).

        Of particular interest to me was his treatment of Ruth, Jonah and Job as old testament book length challenge parables. ‘Ruth challenges a part of the Bible, Jonah challenges the whole of the Bible, and Job challenges the G-d of the Bible’ (p 67).

        Of exegetical interest is Crossan’s treatment of the gospel of John. John’s gospel speaks so readily against the Jews because it comes not from a Jew converted to Christianity, but from a Samaritan converted to Christianity. And the challenge is to both ‘the Jews’ and to the Roman Empire (p 242). ‘The power of Jesus’ parables challenged his followers to co-create with G-d a world of justice and love, peace and non-violence’ (p 257).

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.