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A pearl of great price

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11.04.2005

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Useful for preachers and others who read the Bible

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Barbara Reid's books on 'Parables for Preachers' follow the Revised Common Lectionary. Because of this, the book for Year A concentrates primarily on the texts of the gospel of Matthew. (This is the gospel for the majority of the year 2005, and every third year thereafter - 2008, 2011, etc.) Before getting into the heart of the texts, Reid presents introductory material on parables, preaching, and the gospel of Matthew. Reid states in her introduction, 'In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus rarely explains his parables. They are meant to be wrestled with by each generation of hearers who allow themselves to be disturbed and challenged by Jesus' subversive stories.'

Subversive stories? One of the things that comfortable Christianity has sometimes forgotten is the revolutionary and radical character of Jesus and his teaching in the first century. Perhaps this is because the teachers are so familiar. How does one find new meanings in familiar parables that show up again and again? This is a particularly important question for preachers, and Reid addresses it directly.

The term 'parable' can refer to a range of types of speech - it goes beyond the simple moral stories similar to Aesop's fables. As Reid says of the gospel of Matthew, `in one sense, the whole gospel can be regarded as a parable.'

Jesus, of course, was not the first to preach or teach in parables. In doing this, he was following an ancient and honoured tradition. This is a tradition that may be continued by modern teachers and preachers. Reid illustrates several ways in which parables serve to carry a message. They provide a way for Jesus to explain his experience of God and holiness without boxing it into academic or dogmatic statements. It helps connect the encounter with the holy with the common people and their daily lives. `In his parables, Jesus always began with the familiar. The images and situations he painted in his stories were from the fabric of daily life of his audience.'

Of course, Jesus' parables were broad and inclusive - nothing was outside the scope of God's realm. While parables began with the familiar, they never lingered there. They served to recast 'common' creation in a new way - the realm of God. Of course, this then begs for interpretation, which is never as straightforward and simple as some preachers would have it seem. 'What catches up with the hearer is that Jesus' parables are usually open-ended; Jesus rarely interpreted these stories for his disciples.... Because they are told in figurative language, the parables are capable of conveying distinct message to different people in diverse circumstances.'

Other aspects of parables that are key to their meaning include that they are not neutral, but always have a slant or bias, often toward the more marginal in society. They are a communal endeavour, and not really meant for individualists (something that Western society tends to forget). Parables are short, which makes for easier recollection - they are small like seeds, from which much may grow. Also, the final aspect of parables is similar to that of preaching - they are meant to be heard and lived, not simply forgotten.

Understanding how to interpret parables involves several things Reid highlights. They involve understanding the gospels themselves, in their own setting. The nature of the gospels is important - what kind of writing is this, and what is its purpose? Parables fall within gospel literature, so yet another level of understanding is required. Reid gives a quick overview of different modes of interpretation, including allegorical, historical criticism, social science study, linguistic and literary approaches, as well as the new forms of liberation interpretation. Reid is quick to underscore that `no one method provides the definitive key.' These methods are guides, but ultimately we are all charged with engaging the parables for ourselves and our communities.

As this text deals with the gospel of Matthew, Reid continues with a chapter looking at the gospel of Matthew, from issues of authorship, historical and social setting, documentary transmission and analysis, theological issues and overall purpose. The theological ideas of Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology vary from gospel to gospel, as do some of the texts of the same stories. Reid states that, `from the beginning, Matthew has been the gospel most used by the Church in its worship.' It holds pride of place in the ordering of the gospels (despite the fact that Mark may be the earliest gospel), and needs to be treated with care for new generations, particularly in a post-Christian world with ever-deepening dialogues between Jewish and Christian peoples.

The remainder of the book looks at particular parables, seventeen in all, as they appear sequentially in the liturgical year. There is a chapter devoted to each one. These include parables both in the Sunday lectionary as well as the daily cycle of readings. Each section gives attention to major images, theological themes, narrative devsices, and a helpful list of preaching possibilities. This book does not provide set sermons, nor does it emphasise one theological approach exclusive to others.

Overall, this book is a very handy guide to anyone who reads the gospels, who is interested in preaching, or is interested in understanding more about one of the primary teaching/preaching devices of Jesus. Reid writes with clarity, sensitivity and care on her subjects. While she does tend toward a liberal interpretation of scripture, even evangelical and fundamentalists can find inspiration here, given that parables have never been meant to have literal interpretations placed upon them, and the multi-valent character of parables practically begs for as broad a range as possible for study. To that end, Reid has provided a generous bibliography for further research.

A pearl of great price, indeed.

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Parables found in Matthew
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Salt and Light (Matt 5:13-16)
Two Builders (Matt 7:21-27)
Sower, Seeds, Soil, Harvest (Matt 13:1-23)
Weeds and Wheat, Mischievous Mustard, Hiding Yeast (Matt 13:24-43)
Buried Treasure, Precious Pearls, Indiscriminate Dragnet (Matt 13:44-52)
Forgiveness Forestalled (Matt 18:21-35)
Workers in the Vineyard (Matt 20:1-16a)
Saying and Doing (Matt 21:28-32)
The Treacherous Tenants (Matt 21:33-43)
Dressed for the Feast (Matt 22:1-14)
The Ready Maidens (Matt 25:1-13)
Investing Talents (Matt 25:14-30)
Separating Sheep from Goats (Matt 25:31-46)
Wisdom Justified (Matt 11:16-19)
Blind Guides (Matt 15:1-2, 10-14)
Straying Sheep (Matt 18:12-14)
Faithful Servant (Matt 24:42-51)

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Comments about this review »

jankperegrine 24.04.2005 09:27

Subversive! What a delicious word. I like her style. :-) jan

janemain 22.04.2005 18:57

Great review, very interesting, jane x

solamarie 17.04.2005 21:25

Very interesting subject, Sue

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Type Non-Fiction
Genre Religion
Title Parables for Preachers: The Gospel of Matthew: Year A
Author Barbara Reid
ISBN 0814625509
EAN 9780814625507

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