Reading the parables theologically to read them missionally: test cases from the Early Galilean parables in Luke's gospel.

Author:Sexton, Jason S.


The parables of Jesus provide fertile ground for wide-ranging reflection on missional readings of Scripture. Parables found in the Gospels are not only conducive to a missional hermeneutic, (2) but themselves are missionally oriented texts reflecting the entirety of Scripture's missional character. The present essay attempts to argue that the parables bear this character when their content is reconceptualised in a reciprocal relationship with the traditional theological loci. These theological categories themselves are best conceived missionally insofar as they cohere together in a manner that carries explanatory power. This power is something the parables possess innately as part of their very nature as Scripture.

This article aims to take up the presentation of the early Galilean parables as recorded in the Gospel of Luke. From its prologue, the book is said to bear "an apologetic and evangelistic purpose," which throughout its discourse proposes to present Jesus in such a way that any reader might accept him as Messiah, Lord and Saviour." (3) In other words, Luke had a missional agenda. It will be argued that the scope of Luke's early parables displays not only the same missional thrust present in Jesus' ministry, displayed in the theological content of Jesus' parables, but also in the subsequent ministry for which Luke employs Jesus' parables for a similar purpose in his own writing. This aims to highlight both the expositional readiness of the parables and their missional fittingness For Luke's own catechetical intention integral to the discipleship process. The task of this article could conceivably be executed with parables appearing in the other Gospels, and elsewhere throughout Luke. Insofar as the same parables harnessed here by Luke for missional purposes appear in the other Gospels, those Gospels too may be deemed to have missional character. Yet the parables explored later in the present article are selected because they are the earliest ones in Luke and repeatedly show what the parables are meant to do, displaying a range of theological themes sufficient to highlight precisely how it is that a theological reading is tantamount to a missional reading of Scripture. As such, it is important to first give some background to the missional nature of Luke's gospel before moving toward a proposal for a missional reading of Scripture that is explicitly theological. My argument will then proceed with tested readings of the early Lukan parables which, through the readings, aim to highlight the corresponding missional and theological character of these parables. This will lead to the conclusion that it is a theological reading of Scripture that most adequately yields a missional reading of Scripture, which the selected exegetical observations in the final section of this essay bear out, thus highlighting the missional nature of these parables as Scripture.

Luke's Gospel as Missional Text

Because of the explicitly missional character of Luke's gospel as a formal account written to someone already "taught" (Luke 1:4) key features of the gospel message, the first reader is now having them explained in a better, more "orderly account" (4) and "for [his] benefit" (Luke 1:3). (5) In light of this discipleship thrust, Luke's own emphases in the parables becomes of particular interest for how Luke sees them individually and corporately reiterating this missional thrust, with its attendant theological features. Each of these theological notes would ring flat in isolation, yet in the parables are woven together in harmoniously coherent ways that take account of and showcase the range of the displayed theological ensemble, which aims to send readers out in mission.

Jesus' intention for speaking in parables in the early Galilean context--"so that, 'though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand' (Luke 8:10)--corresponds directly to an understanding of mission most readily aided by knowledge of the progressive development of theology's essential contours as they have been conceived traditionally and manifested in Faithful confession and proclamation. (6) This suggests that readings capable of integrating the systematic loci as traditionally developed and framed in various contexts with emergent systematic-categorical language can substantially assist the exegesis of the parables with thickly endowed theological description that has the capacity to assist contemporary interpreters in understanding these texts as missional.

Luke's portrayal of Jesus' early Galilean ministry finds Jesus proclaiming and recounting in parabolic fashion the "good news of the kingdom" in "secrets of the kingdom." These secretive or veiled expositions are not unique to Jesus, but are similarly veiled in various ways with every other gospel exposition and confession representative of the economic activity of God in Christ, including close accounts of this action. (7) Even in the closest of accounts (i.e., documents written under divine inspiration), there are no exhaustive renderings of this gospel. Such would be impossible, displacing theology's real-world shape as theologia viatorum with a misplaced theologia beatorum, as if present day theological constructs themselves somehow form the basis of believing confession.

A coherent relationship must surely exist then between the development of the kerygmatic gospel in the world, and the very gospel proclamation of the kingdom, about which not everyone has ears to hear. This seems to be something not only true for the parables, but for all gospel proclamation. In the first century setting, this proclamation (8) struck as scandal for the Jews and foolishness for Gentiles. But "blessed" were those not "offended" by Jesus and the explanation of his proclamation of "good news," which was accompanied by mighty acts (Luke 7:23). All proclamation of God's good news may be understood as having been pneumatically governed expositions of the same gospel that had always been articulated, canonically expounded in Israel's history and confession of its hope in Yahweh and Yahweh's Messiah, later inscribed authoritatively in the New Testament's expositions of this story, and persistently expressed in later ecclesial situations. These may very well be claimed today to have been organically connected, pneumatically shaped and governed by rational structures that mark what it means to lisp after and by doing so to reflect by mimesis the same gospel Jesus makes reference to and expounds in his parables. The test of these expositions for having missional character has to do with whether they cohere with the features of parabolic kingdom proclamation as both testified to, understood, and experienced in ways that correlate with their theological comprehensibility as rendered when woven through the systematic theological categories. The scope of this test is the shape that confession most naturally takes while articulating its treasures, which is arguably the manner in which the gospel has always been proclaimed by the church, as expressed in the ancient and contemporary creeds and confessions, and in every other endeavor to expound its inexhaustible riches.

Suggested Meaning of a "Theological" Reading as a "Missional" Reading

The argument of this essay works with the tentative conclusion that core themes that appear lacer in creedal and confessional statements are those which also can be found earlier in the parables. These themes seem resident in various collected testimonia, various other gospel expositions found in the New Testament texts, as well as elsewhere throughout the Old Testament. (9) These themes also appear in present-day gospel articulations in their most sophisticated and rigorous accounts as well as in those of the illiterate or of society's marginalized members, reflecting something of an archetypal gospel that radiates the divine action in the salvation economy wherever the Spirit wills. This divine action, taken as singular, is not then "repeated in a multitude of different ways" (10) as much as it is faith-fully "resounded" through the creative yet subjective sketchings of redeemed humans in various settings, in different languages, and by different peoples in many ways. (11) In the case of the parables found in the Gospels, the subjective exposition in the very making of them is seen to be given by the one who is equally human and divine. But it was systematic nonetheless. These systematic reflections of the good news are observed further from reading Scripture in its entirety in order to make sense of faith in the God of Scripture whom believers confess, which led these believers into further readings and confessions of scriptural truth that enabled them to yield further resoundings of the gospel's systematic range. (12) This does not preclude any epistemic privilege beyond Scripture's text, but rather acknowledges the biblical witness as the very "interim terminus of systematic theological intelligence." (13)

Systematic theology is missional insofar as it renders a coherent exposition of the gospel message, expounded consistently with what is revealed to be true about the divine working in the salvation economy, the core of which is summarized in all faithful confessing, of which Scripture is an indelible part. Theological categories, then, expressed in various confessions and interlocked as they inform one another at each turn, are missional in character and emphasis as they testify to the one gospel which they reflect in sometimes mundane, sometimes simple, and sometimes complex renderings. At the most basic level, this relates not to dogmatics, but to confession, which is the fundamental shape the gospel takes in its real-time expositions, which lie at the heart of Christian mission today. (14) Under consideration in the present article, however, is the way Jesus' parables yield, while reciprocally being complemented and fortified by, the...

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