Part II Introducing The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 6 June 2013 0 Comments
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I’ve read many of your books. The two books that have helped me most understand Jesus have been Liberating the Gospels and Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World. However, I don’t see a clear explanation of Jesus’ parables, for example, The Prodigal Son. To me these parables reveal a teaching method that’s not highlighted in your writings. Did Jesus tell these parables?





Dear Hector,

Thank you for your question. Parables are certainly part of the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. Paul never suggested that Jesus used parables in his teaching and the Fourth Gospel does not include any parables or references to parables. I suppose that someone writing solely of Mark, Matthew or Luke would have to deal with the subject of parables. My current study is on the gospel of Matthew and I will do exactly that before that study is complete. In a book dealing with the Bible as a whole, the probability is that the author will not get down to the level of discussing the parables in a single book.

You are correct in that they reveal a teaching method that was attributed to Jesus. They are memorable, concise and appealing. Yet the three most powerful parables, the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son and Lazarus and the Rich Man (sometimes called Dives) are found only in the writings of Luke, whom I would date in the late 9th or early 10th decade, or 58-63 years after the crucifixion. Once that date is embraced, one is forced to wonder why no earlier gospel mentioned these three parables or where these parables were hiding until Luke included them in his gospel. Were they originally given by Jesus? Or did a later teacher develop them as a way to make his understanding of Jesus more memorable. Those parables are certainly consistent with what we know of Jesus’ teaching. The parable of the Good Samaritan attacks the boundaries of prejudice; the parable of the Prodigal Son describes the infinite capacity of the “Father” to forgive, and the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man affirms the value of a life sensitively lived.

May I recommend the best book I have ever read on the parables? It is an old book but still should be available in public libraries. It was written in the 1950's I believe by a German Lutheran scholar whose name was Helmut Thielicke and is entitled simply, The Parables. I remember being excited by this book when I first read it and the parables of Jesus have never been the same to me since. I hope you will find it equally exciting.

~John Shelby Spong




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