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Charles W. Hedrick, Many Things in Parable: Jesus and his Modern Critics. Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price

Parables scholar Charles Hedrick several times in this readable volume invokes what is for him an important maxim regarding the parables, that in the study of them, all too frequently, “theology trumps realism,” the result being that what reads like no more than, e.g., a brief anecdote about inept farmers is elevated to a vehicle of symbolic, theological truth. He surveys the history of parable interpretation (a mighty handy feature of the book) just to demonstrate that even some of his Jesus Seminar colleagues are guilty of this “sin.” And yet I cannot help thinking that, from first page to last, in Hedrick’s own case “literary theory has trumped realism.”

The book seems to me to hop back and forth from one foot to the other. The right foot comes down (even stomps down) on the side of parables, like all texts, being polyvalent, amenable to almost infinite meanings in the mind of the interloping reader depending upon what he brings to it, and yet at the same time self-contained “aesthetic objects” (as per the old New Critics and Dan Otto Via) whose meaning lies only and stubbornly within themselves. As if this hybrid “position” is not already a game of Twister, the left foot comes down (at least as meaning occurs in my readerly brain) on the notion that the parables of Jesus do have a “real” meaning, and that is to describe everyday life in first-century Palestine. No larger lessons, just stuff about what it was like to be a farmer (especially a clueless one) or a vintner (especially one who didn’t know his trade) or a father (especially one ripe for Doctor Phil) or a shepherd (especially a damn stupid one) or a housewife (a hopelessly silly one) or a rich farmer (an unbelievably incompetent one), etc.

The right-footed Hedrick, it seems to me, ought to be arguing, a la Roland Barthes and Stanley Fish, that the parables are fields of signifiers which yield meaning entirely and only as the reader plows them according to the pattern he imposes onto the text. A la Jacques Derrida (a sainted name to me, not some cuss word I am trying to defame Hedrick with), Hedrick ought to be saying that the parables can mean anything precisely because they mean nothing, have no primary “proper” meaning, in themselves. And sometimes Hedrick does seem to be saying that, as when he scoffs at Amos Wilder’s dictum that there remains and resides in the parables some “normative” meaning traceable back to Jesus. But then why does he seem everywhere else to deride any and all attempts to find theological, allegorical, metaphysical meanings in the parables, as if all such were alien, improper, and contrived? “The facts, ma’am, just the facts”?

I never thought I would be taking the side of a fundamentalist apologist like Craig Blomberg (whom I have publicly debated) against Charlie Hedrick (with whom I have shared snide cracks around the table at the Jesus Seminar), but it seems to me Blomberg is right in looking to the rabbinic parables as models for interpreting gospel parables and their symbolic code (the king is God, etc.). No matter that these particular Jewish parables cannot be traced definitively back to the time of Jesus, as Hedrick points out. Rather, it is simply a question of form criticism, that queen of the sciences. What kind of a thing does a parable seem to be, compared with the nearest available analogues? And one must throw in for comparison Buddhist parables, too. Surely the verdict will be that the interpreter’s predisposition ought to be in the direction of looking for some larger meaning, of seeing parables as vehicles for such.

Hedrick, Bernard Brandon Scott, and others take a perverse delight in spotlighting the features of the parables that imply their characters were buffoons and idiots, bad farmers, shepherds, etc. Hedrick cites some of these difficulties in order to rule out the possibility that the storyteller was depicting God as any of these losers, while Scott takes such features as ironies pointing to Jesus’ supposed desire to debunk the religious expectations of his audience. For what it may be worth, I take these details as, some of them, demonstrating the old dictum of Jülicher, Dodd, and Jeremias, that it is a mistake to dwell on every detail of a very brief story which perforce takes shortcuts to get to the punch line. Are we supposed to ask, “But what about the other ninety-nine sheep? Did he just leave them to the wolves?” That sounds like the obtuseness of Jesus’ interlocutors in John’s gospel.

Other cases of parable characters not knowing the elements of farming, building, etc., are probably better taken as evidence their authors were simply not familiar with what they were writing about. It would not be so much a case of a Palestinian Jew inviting laughter from knowing Palestinian Jewish audiences, as of Diaspora Jewish or Greeks authors making basic mistakes that neither they nor their gospels’ readers were in a position to detect till antiquarian researchers like Scott and Hedrick came along many centuries later. It’s the same goof scholars make when they read into a gospel story some background information of which the text appears to be innocent; then the scholars conclude that Jesus was “radically reversing” the norms of his day, and that this is really the hitherto-unguessed point of the story. For example, was Jesus really counting on his hearers being well aware that leaven was always a symbol of evil, and thus secularizing the idea of the kingdom of God by comparing it to leaven? Not likely. Was Jesus really courageously overthrowing purity laws when he let the bleeding woman touch him? Or is it just that the Greek evangelist didn’t know to factor in the purity laws when he wrote the story?  

And Hedrick is too quick to throw out the opinion of the evangelists that parables conveyed larger lessons, their own particular interpretations notwithstanding. The mere fact that they all regarded the stories as symbolic and requiring interpretation is at least important evidence as to how the parable genre was understood by writers closer to Jesus than the Mishnaic rabbis. It is Hedrick’s approach, by contrast, that seems to come to earth in a rocket ship from some Marcionite Alien God. The parables, as he sees them, are just as anachronistic as is Jesus himself for James Breech (The Silence of Jesus), who shares the essence of Hedrick’s reading of the parable of the Prodigal Son as that of the Dysfunctional Family. Breech tells us that we are reading gratuitous notions into the text when we posit that Jesus even believed in God or the supernatural!

I am beginning to believe that exegesis like that of Hedrick, Breech, Bernard Brandon Scott, Robert Funk, and Kalyan Dey, all of whom make Jesus into a first-century secularist and materialist throwing out all purity laws and telling jokes instead of preaching repentance (and let’s not forget Leif Vaage’s sketch of Jesus as a “party animal’”), are basically employing the old fundamentalist practice of proof-texting the gospels in favor of their own theological (or in this case, anti-theological) position. Is the anxiety to have Jesus agree with one’s own views a pathetic holdover of an incompletely repudiated fundamentalist past? Or is it a cynical circumstantial ad hominem attack on the orthodox, trying to yank their prayer rug out from underneath them? But look at me: here I am trying to draw a larger generalization out of the bare facts. Sorry.


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