Parables: Stories with a fang!

© Revd Rex A E Hunt
The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought, Canberra

2nd edition, Brisbane, August 2005



The year 1985 was a good year for Christian biblical studies.  For it was in that year American New Testament scholar Robert Funk established the Westar Institute and called together a group of 30 progressive biblical scholars and invited them to begin a new journey of discovery - a ‘new quest’ for the historical Jesus.  Thus began the ‘Jesus Seminar’.

But it was going to be different journey to those commenced in the past.  This journey was to start with a ‘sayings’ data base to see if they could discover a Jesus ‘voice print’ amid the recorded subject matter of his speeches and public


While there had been some work done in the past on one form of Jesus’ public discourse - parables - this study was to include a comparison of Jesus’ language with the ordinary language of his day.  Funk, a well know parables scholar himself, was convinced it was in the parables, the aphorisms and the sayings of Jesus that one could catch sight of bits and pieces of the Jesus vision of that something Jesus called God’s kingdom or realm or empire.  

Yet from these fragments of insight “we can begin to piece together some sense of the whole.  Together those fragments provide us with glimpses of the historical figure... indeed, a glimpse of a glimpse” (Funk 2002:9).

Robert Funk and The Jesus Seminar

Robert Funk claimed the task was to discover the Jesus ‘voice print’ as distinctive discourse and as it stood out in contrast to both ordinary speech as well as from the speech of other sages and speakers of his day.  To discover the distinctive or original voice in the Galilean crowd, the forgotten Jesus.

Funk’s work has interested me for several years.  Indeed, ever since 1990 when I sat in Dayton, Ohio, with NT scholar Tom Boomershine and began to understand his narrative or storytelling approach to biblical studies, beginning with the oral tradition.  And where I first heard of Robert Funk’s work.  

Some years later, in 1998, I was to actually meet Funk in Sydney.

While we in the 21st century generally have a ‘silent print’ mentality to biblical studies - now being challenged by ‘electronic’ culture - this was not the case in 1st century Galilee.

Therefore, I take as my underlying premise that Jesus was a travelling secular sage who conversed with those around him, orally.  Our religious tradition portrays him as one who speaks rather than as one who writes.  There is a fundamental contrast between oral culture (Jesus’ time) and print culture (our time).

The primary form of communication in an oral-aural culture was the human voice.  The word is something that happens.  Where the sounded word is received by the listener there is always community - it “takes two to sound!” (Jensen 1993:19).  So the imprint of orality is shaped by: 

• short sentences, 

• provocative and memorable words, 

• oft-repeated phrases, 

• situational rather than abstract,

• stories often stitched together.

So where to begin?  The Jesus Seminar started with the premise: primary information regarding Jesus of Nazareth is derived from the synoptic gospels, along with the Gospel of Thomas.  The latter was considered very important as this document, found in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, contained 114 saying and parables ascribed to Jesus - 65 of them unique to Thomas. 

Hence their first Report on the ‘words’ of Jesus: The Five Gospels. The search for the authentic words of Jesus.  

The task was time consuming.  Christian conviction had overwhelmed Jesus.  More times than not he had been made to confess what Christians had come to believe.  But Jesus was not the first Christian even when he is made to talk like one (Funk & Hoover 1993).

Funk and his associates, now numbering around 300 internationally distinguished scholars, claim Jesus develops a consistent rhetorical strategy that matches the content of his message.  The Jesus strategy was: 

(i) language is concrete and specific, 

(ii) uses typifications, 

(iii) does not cite or interpret scripture, 

(iv) does not make personal confessions; 

(v) language is indirect and highly figurative or metaphorical, 

(vi) exaggerates; 

(vii) frustrates ordinary expectations, and 

(viii) makes free use of parody.

Remembering the ‘red letter’ bibles of past generations (and of today - cf. editions of the New Revised Standard Version), where the so-called ‘words of Jesus’ were printed in red ink while the rest of the Bible was printed in black ink, the Jesus Seminar set up a process whereby scholars would examine the texts and vote on whether it was, in their opinion, an authentic saying or not. 

After much discussion and refinement, a system of voting using four colours to grade the sayings was used: 

Red = Jesus most likely said something like this; 

Pink = Jesus may have said something like it; 

Grey = Jesus probably didn’t say it, but it contains some similar ideas;

Black = Jesus didn’t say it. It belongs to a later or different tradition.

While this may seem a novel way of sharing knowledge Funk insisted their work had to be open and honest, subject to debate and peer justification, as well as made available to anyone who was interested.  Gone was the time when scholars wrote for other scholars. Ordinary people needed to benefit from such progressive scholarship and honesty.  Because too many had been left in the dark due to “soft”, if not dishonest or careless sermons.

Of the 500 or so ‘sayings’ attributed to Jesus, only 90 gained either a Red or Pink response. That is, only 18% were classified as being ‘that’s Jesus’ or ‘That’s probably Jesus’.  A massive 82% were either voted as Grey or Black (Funk & Hoover 1993) .

Similarly, of The acts of Jesus, their second Report, only 16% or 29 out of a total of 176 were graded as either Red or Pink (Funk 1988).

Commenting on this result, one of the scholars, Lane McGaughy, says:

“the vote... does not mean they are the actual words of Jesus, but 

that they preserve the gist of Jesus’ message in a way that makes 

those sayings recognizable as deriving from him and not from the 

early church or the Evangelists” (McGaughy 2002:125).

As to be expected, says McGaughy, the Jesus Seminar findings on the distinctiveness of Jesus’ sayings has some serious implications for biblical studies and Sunday sermons!

1. The parables of Jesus are immediately recognisable: 

• short stories which begin with a realistic scene,

• transformed into metaphors by a surprising ‘twist’ in the middle,

• invite the hearers to act on the basis of this new, but not fully defined, vision of reality.

2. In order to fathom their metaphors, each parable must be viewed as a whole rather than allegorising their parts.

3. Jesus ‘style’ was descriptive rather than prescriptive, indirect rather than direct.

4. Jesus social mission or ‘revolt’ was less through social action and more through parables of new possibilities and potentials.  He “affected the lives of people, but he was not a social organiser or activist” (Scott 2002:38).

These four suggestions sum up the importance of the Jesus Seminar in my understanding of progressive biblical studies.

The oral tradition

Fundamentalists and other conservatives often claim that what is ascribed to Jesus in the books or ‘canon’ of the New Testament, is what Jesus said. However, both serious progressive biblical scholars long ago abandoned “this historically untenable and theologically naive view” (Scott 1988:1), as well as did scholars of oral tradition.

The cultures and communities in which the Jesus movement arose were essentially oral. Spoken. Therefore, tradition is not a fixed thing as it is in cultures shaped by writing or print. It is very fluid, passed on as talk, from generation to generation.  

Oral storytellers do not ordinarily remember exact wording.  Knowledge is shaped by memory.  But not memory mindlessly regurgitated, but memory rethought (Boomershine 1988).  As Bernard Scott says: “in oral communities purveyors of the tradition freely omitted, invented, modified, enlarged” (Scott 1988:3)  their stories, layering and stitching them together to conserve tradition in an episodic manner (Fig. No. 1. Layers of tradition).  And Scott goes on to say: 

“The question for scholars is how to distinguish these levels of talk, 

and especially, how to isolate Jesus’ talk about the kingdom from other levels of talk in the written records, which is all we now have” 

(Scott 1988:4).

Jesus was a Galilean peasant who wrote nothing. He spoke Aramaic and very possibly some Greek.  But we don’t know if he could speak Hebrew.  His words have been preserved only in the Greek.  He taught his followers orally.  

The world of Jesus’ parables is the fabric of daily life - Monday to Friday - in a Galilean village or family rather than an urban setting (BB Scott 1989).  The subjects of his parables were robbery on an isolated road, coins, a vineyard, day labourers, sheep and wayward children.  His parables do not speak about God, neither does he develop a doctrine of God, proclaim his messiahship, predict his passion and death, depict a last judgment, commission the disciples to establish a church, or picture supernatural beings or miracles (Funk 1994:105).  

These stories and proverbs do expounded a particular, though not original (Geering 2002:123), point of view: the kingdom or realm of God, in the tradition of the sages.  No sphere of life is “outside God’s realm: the political, social, economic, ecclesial, and theological are all intertwined” (Reid 2001:7)

Parables. Stories with a fang!

The history of interpretation of parables has been a long and winding gravel road. The respected British scholar, C H Dodd, was breaking new ground when in the early 1960s he wrote:

“In the traditional teaching of the Church for centuries (parables) were treated as allegories, in which each term stood as a cryptogram for an idea, so that the whole had to be de-coded term by term” (Dodd 1961:13).  

To treat a parable as an allegory would be, for example, to take the story of the ‘Good Samaritan’ and interpret it thus:

A man - Adam

Jerusalem - the heavenly city

Jericho - moon, and our mortality

robbers - the devil and his angels

To counter this Augustinian style of interpretation Dodd offered his own suggestion:

“At its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from

nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its

precise application to tease it into active thought” (Dodd 1961:16).

Other scholars have now moved on in this or similar directions.

From within the spectrum of stories, two opposites are often compared: myth and parable.  In everyday talk a myth suggests a story which is “false, pre-scientific, outdated or... incredible” (Tilley 1985:40).  Another way is to see it is as a story which sets up a way of thinking about the world.  Such as: all Australians are bronzed Anzacs who live in the outback!  Such as: all boat people/asylum seekers are queue jumpers!  Myth is also often called everyday wisdom.  

On the other hand a parable is a story set within the common sense everyday world of explaining things, but which upsets that way of thinking.  Parables reveal the unexpected, subvert the normal, and cast out certainty to make room for hope.  They are “always about persons in relation to their world... radically concrete” (TeSelle 1975:2).  Therefore, they are stories with a ‘twist in the tail’ or ‘with a fang!’.  They go beyond the ‘nice story’ or ‘domesticated’ categories that much past theological or sermon interpretation has offered.

To test this theory we will look at three parables: the parable of the Leaven, the parable of a Man on the road to Jericho and the parable of the Sower who went out.

(i) The parable of the Leaven  (Matthew 13:33)

The Jesus Seminar overwhelmingly voted this parable ‘red’ - Jesus most likely said something like this.

Often called a mini-parable, this 20 or so word story is about a woman who takes a large quantity of flour - enough to probably feed 100 people - and conceals within it a quantity of leaven.  

That’s our story.

For the past 50 years or so this story, probably because it is so short, has been interpreted only in a positive light.  That is, on the process of leavening.  Mix yeast or leaven (often used interchangeable by interpreters) into some flour and water and soon, as Dodd points out, “the whole mass swells and bubbles, as fermentation rapidly advances” (Dodd 1961:144).  And that, Dodd claims, “The ministry of Jesus was like that” (Dodd 1961:144).

To stake his claim further, Dodd links this mini-parable to another mini-parable - the companion growth parable of A Grain of Mustard Seed: small beginnings, great growth at the end.

But where in this story is the fang?  Not in that interpretation.  And our storyteller doesn’t offer any suggestions.  So let me ‘tread where angels fear to go’ and offer some thoughts which try to take seriously both the audience and the cultural context of this story.  I am relying on Bernard Scott for much of these suggestions.

In this parable there are very strong negative flows to it.

1. Leaven: in the ancient world leaven was a metaphor of moral corruption, rot, decay.  The physical characteristics support this:

“Leaven is made by taking a piece of bread and storing it in a damp,

dark place until mould forms.  The bread rots and decays, unlike

modern yeast...”  (Scott 1989:324).

Leaven is unholy, everyday. Unleaven is holy, the sacred.

2. A woman: in the ancient world the role of a woman was much debated.  It appears to have been associated with the unclean, the religiously impure.  Normally baking bread was a family affair involving the children, the father, and women.  Women did not take the initiative.  They were subject to their fathers and husbands (Scott 2001:27).

3. To conceal: not ‘to mix’ or ‘to cover’.

While there is nothing wrong with the realm of God being hidden, it is the use of the much more negative word ‘to conceal’ that is important here. 

“The woman’s hiding confirms, not overturns, the leaven’s negative connotation... In the metaphorical structure of leaven, the conclusion 

of the process is not baking but the rising of the dough, which 

represents corruption” (Scott 1989:326, 327).

Traditional and some modern interpretations have tended to accentuate the positive and ignore either the parable itself - as “trite or insipid” (Funk 1994:52) - or certainly the negative aspects of this parable.  Thus, I reckon, they have missed the fang.  Why?  Because in general we have domesticated these stories.  And as Scott suggests:

“For all those who are leaven in their society, this parable assures them that the empire of God is like them. In Jesus’ society this was a large majority of people. All those who were unable for one reason or another to observe the purity code would be leaven and that would be most folks” (Scott 2001:34).

That Jesus associates the realm of God with a "corrupting process suggests a scandalous relocation of the divine presence" (Bessler-Northcutt 2004:59).  The listener is frustrated.  The listener is frustrated.  Don’t rely on your own rules of what is good or holy, or expect the realm of God will be what you want it to be!  

Especially when the one who is proported to be telling the story, claims the realm of God was among the marginal: that those who are out, are in, and those who are in, are out!

So in the end we are left with this suggestion: 

the realm of God is like leaven underhandedly mixed into bread making by

a woman - ordinary, common, everyday bread! (parable).

You must be joking, Jesus!  Surely the realm of God is like holy, 

unleavened, uncorrupted bread preserved by men? (myth).

Beware!  The parable insists: the realm of God is hidden and will appear under its own guises, even the guise of corruption.  In modern guise this parable could be told: “God’s overwhelming love is like cancer that invades a woman’s breast until it has consumed all of her, even in her Sunday finery” (Scott 2001:34).

And that’s a shock!  That’s the fang!

(ii) The parable of a Man on the road to Jericho  (Luke 10:30-35)

The Jesus Seminar voted this parable ‘red’ - Jesus most likely said something like this.

Traditionally this story has been called “The good Samaritan” where ‘good’ means ‘go and do the same’.  Four people make up this story: two religious, a Judean traveller, a Samaritan traveller - probably a merchant trader.  

A man travels a lonely road and is robbed and beaten up, left to die.  The Jericho road is a dangerous, lonely road, and one shouldn’t take unnecessary chances.  The man in the ditch could be you or me!  The listeners nod in agreement.  So given this man’s situation: robbed, abandoned and probably dying, in the ditch, “the hearer is clued in as to the story’s type.  We await the arrival of the hero with whom we can identify” (Scott 2001:59).

A priest and a Levite, members of the religious profession, people who ought to have shown concern, arrive on the scene, pass by the injured - or was he a dead - person, without offering any help.  The religious in the audience want to argue their good reasons: one can not be too careful as a servant of God!  But peasants also know that religious professionals can be callous and indifferent to the needs of others!  The audience now begins to be divided. 

Then a Samaritan, the ‘enemy’, regarded by the Judeans as not much better than a dog, took the trouble to stop and offer what help he could.  And then went the extra mile by taking the injured traveller to a hotel and paying for his care himself.  This is unexpected. No more nodding in agreement here.  Suddenly those listeners - religious and peasants - all agree.  This can’t be so!  You’ve got to be joking!

That’s our story.


The Samaritan is absolutely essential to the story.  If the main thrust of the story was simply about good blokes verses a bad bloke, or as an illustration of love of neighbour, or even a diatribe against heartless religious leaders, the offer of aid by a Judean lay person would have been sufficient.  And then it could probably be an example story of something good rather than a parable which turns our world view upside down.

So why is this a story with a fang?  This story challenges the hearers’ understanding of God, of whom God approves and whether anyone else “would have acted differently from the priest or Levite” (Bessler-Northcutt 2004:57).  It shatters a narrow interpretation of the law and unmasks the hatreds and divisions which often become institutionalised by religious strife.

But How?  And this is where the fang strikes deep, because it is here that I reckon the storyteller called Luke has missed the radical force of this story.

Luke sets this story within the context of a question: who is my neighbour?  It is also the most commonly asked question by those who hear the story.  But there is another more fundamental question of this story: with whom is the listener to identify?

For the record, it was Robert Funk who asked this question.  His answer: “not with the Samaritan, but with the man who was lying in the ditch” (Beardslee 1991:53).  So the context which storyteller Luke should have set this story to be able to feel its fang, is not ‘who is my neighbour?’ but ‘whom will I allow to be my neighbour?’

Our honest answer to that question, just might really surprise us.  Megan McKenna’s comment is very suggestive:

“If we were in the ditch in that condition, who is the last person we 

would want to be indebted to for the rest of our lives, especially if acknowledging the debt would cause us to be outcast and associated 

with that group by everyone in our current world?  Is there anyone or any group that we feel that way about?  Would we rather die than face the fact that this person or these people are our

neighbours?”  (McKenna 1994:149).

(iii) A sower went out  (Matthew 13:1-9)

The Jesus Seminar voted this parable ‘pink’ - Jesus may have said something like this.

Matthew, our storyteller, and Mark before him, shapes the story into three sub themes:

The act of sowing.

What happens to the seed.

The resulting crop.

So let me now place this parable back then... And let us try to imagine those who are hearing this story. Who would more than likely be in the audience when this story was being told?

Around the time of Jesus, Galilee’s rural areas, especially in the lake area with its abundant supply of fresh water and crops of wheat, barley, olives, grapes and vegetables, were being taken over by the big city ‘Macquarie Street’ farmers.

Mounting debt, payable to both Roman officials and priestly aristocracy, meant the crisis of debt and dispossession grew deeper. Small farm owners were losing their land and farmer labourers were being forced onto the unemployment line.

Farm land was being eaten up by a big city development. And a new Roman taxation system was extracting nearly every last cent. Penalties for non-payment could be severe. The atmosphere was explosive.

Let’s imagine some more... If the audience was made up of peasant, landless farmers, and if the sower was pictured as one of their landlords, their bosses “they might react with disdain toward the sloppy and wasteful manner of sowing” (Reid/80).

What a waste!  What was wrong with this bloke?  When seed is precious, what sane farmer would allow some of it to fall among rocks or on a well worn, probably limestone, footpath?

If the audience was made up of peasant, landless farmers, and if the sower was pictured as one of them, a tenant farmer or day labourer “their reaction would be sympathetic. They would know all too well the amount of seed and effort that is expended that never bears fruit because of the difficult conditions” (Reid/81).

And they listened some more. It is here the story takes a major shift.  Away from the sower and his practices, to the seeds and their fate.

Some fell on a well-worn pathway.

Some fell on rock.

Some fell among thorns and weeds.

Some fell on productive soil.

That’s our story.  So where’s the ‘fang’? In the movement from failure to success!  

Some commentators claimed Matthew’s ‘point’ was: the harvest was a superabundance. Others, examining what they have been able to find out from other sources, claimed: four hundred fold was incredible, one hundred fold was very good (Scott/357).

So, with the ascending scale of 30, 60 and 100, I reckon we can say the yield was an average-to-good harvest. A modest success. Within the bounds of everyday expectations.

Many of those same commentators reckon we need to hear this as a story about the growing and coming kingdom of God in all its wonder and glory and splendour - even if at the end time.  That is, in spite of everything, the harvest will be plentiful. God has made a beginning. Failure is pushed aside.

But I want to offer another suggestion which I reckon is more in line with the story itself.

This is not an ordinary, common garden variety, story. It is a parable. And a parable does not teach us something. It just gestures toward. And it does it’s best work when it turns our world our expectations, our assumptions, our conclusions, upside down.

So how is our world, our conclusions turned upside down in this parable?  By acknowledging that in the kingdom or realm of God failure and miracle and normality are present. “In failure and everydayness lies the miracle of God’s activity”  (Scott/362).

That’s the surprise, the twist in the tail of this parable.  That’s the re-imagining suggested or hoped for, rather than the ‘point’ of this parable.

An unending conversation

The parable of the Leaven. 

The parable of a Man on the Road to Jericho. 

The parable of the Sower who went out.

Three parables.  Three stories which turn our common ‘garden-variety’ world upside down.  Three stories from a rebel who, according to Bernard Scott, “revolts in parable” (Scott 2003:138).  Three stories without conclusions, because parables “do not teach something, but gestures toward” (Beutner 1994:x).

Taken as simple teaching devises or example stories or allegories, the parables end up being domesticated and homogenised and the parable teller becomes an icon rather than an iconoclast (Funk 1996:44-45).  But taken in all their radicalness, in the spirit of Jesus’ skepticism, and with a daring dose of reconstructivism, three possible areas for continuing conversation emerge:

(i) Jesus as parable teller becomes parable himself (TeSelle 1975);

(ii) the parables create a counter-world, a hoped-for world, a re-imagined world - all in the face of the other world, the real world which “teases the hearer with its possible application” (Scott 1988:17), and

(iii) Jesus as secular Jewish sage rather than religious Jewish sage.

The parables of Jesus as we can hear them in the fragments we have, were open-ended stories meant to initiate active conversation, not supply answers.  They were indeed “discussion starters, whose purpose was to raise questions and pose dilemmas for their hearers” (Herzog 1995:259).  As such Lloyd Geering’s comment seems very suggestive:

“The Jesus most relevant to us is he who provided no ready-made

answers but by his tantalising stories prompted people to work

out their own most appropriate answers to the problems of life” (Geering 2002:145).

But equally important for us is the unstated proposition from this brief study of parables: can we have faith with Jesus  in the re-imagined world of the parables? It remains to be seen if the 21st century church can develop such a 21st century gospel.


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