Review of Kistemaker on Parables

by Vern S. Poythress

[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 43/2 (Spring 1981): 380-382. Used with permission.]

Simon J. Kistemaker: The Parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980. xxvi, 301. $10.95.


Kistemaker’s book fills an obvious gap in the literature. We have needed an up-to-date interpretation of the parables of Jesus from an evangelical point of view. And Kistemaker’s solid evangelical point of view comes out clearly. He is comfortable in acknowledging the editorial work of the Evangelists, but at the same time affirms the authenticity of the parables and such interpretations as are given in the Gospels. He avoids speculation about differences between the “original” parable on the lips of Jesus and the form in which it is recorded in the Gospels. He provides harmonized treatment of variants of the same parable appearing in more than one Gospel. At the same time he is not afraid to maintain occasionally that similar parables in different Gospels go back to two distinct incidents in the life of Jesus (e.g., the Lost Sheep of Matt 12:14, Luke 15:4–7; and the Talents and Pounds in Matt 25:14–30, Luke 19:11–27). His interpretations of the parables are consistently sane and edifying.

This book, therefore, is a competent book, a good book, a theologically


p. 381

“safe” book. It is not, however, an outstanding book. There are too many weaknesses, large and small, for that.

After an all-too-brief introduction (14 pages), the book plunges into forty successive chapters discussing the parables one by one. The order of the chapters themselves provides virtually no further source of unity. The book thus ends up with too piecemeal a treatment, despite a short integrating chapter at the end. There are scattered references to themes like the kingdom of God, “already” and “not-yet,” and distinctive emphases of the different Evangelists. Yet the book gives the reader little sense of a unifying thread. Do not Matt 13:10–17 and 13:34–35 promise more unity than this book exhibits? Moreover, there is little attempt to go very far in integrating the parables with the theology of Jesus’ teaching as a whole, or with the theology of the different Evangelists. Only at the end of the book do we hear much about Luke’s interest in the rich and the poor (pp. 279-80), and nothing about Matthew’s interest in the church and discipleship.

As a result, the book’s interpretations, though not completely one-sided, show a definite bias toward individualized timeless summaries of meaning. Parables like the Parable of the Fig Tree (Luke 13:6–9) become primarily lessons about the necessity of individual repentance at all times. They lose some of their historical focus on the rejection of Israel, the end of the old order, and the Jew/Gentile relationship. The book works hard to establish the historical setting, but this is primarily a social and cultural setting rather than a redemptive-historical setting articulating the transition between two cosmic orders. Hence the book also glides too smoothly over parables designed to shake the hearer up and confound his religious ideas. Crossan1 observes that Jesus provoked the religious establishment by choosing a Samaritan as hero in Luke 10:30–37. This is lost in Kistemaker. Similarly upsetting reversals in Luke 16:19–31 and 18:9–14 are fortunately not lost, but not much is made of them either. The book also misses the twist in the Parable of the Lost Sheep in Luke 15:4–7. In my view, the Pharisees are initially identified in the mind of the hearer with the 99 righteous (15:1–3 ). Then, in the light of their lack of joy over repentant sinners and their similarity to the elder son, they come by a kind of transformation of vision to be seen as just as much “lost” as the one sheep. But Kistemaker’s book misses this. Similarly, with respect to the Parable of the Lost Son, it falls into a conspicuously


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minimizing line of thought: “However, Jesus did not accuse them [the Pharisees] in any way. By means of the parable he showed God’s genuine love and care, not only toward the repentant sinner but also toward his obedientchild” (p. 225; italics mine).

Readers will also miss any significant interaction with alternative interpretations of the parables. Only a few times are alternatives within mainstream scholarship discussed explicitly; the dispensationalists are discussed not at all. This runs the danger of producing an illusory atmosphere of certainty about meaning.

Behind these weaknesses stands some weakness in hermeneutical theory. For instance, Kistemaker adopts the standard distinction between parable and allegory without reckoning with Madeleine Boucher’s critique.2Kistemaker’s conventional one-point/many-point distinction is unworkable because in any parable many micro-meanings or constituent meanings make up the meaning of the whole.3 Moreover, in allegories like Pilgrim’s Progress it is not necessarily true that each detail of the story is symbolic (pace Kistemaker p. xv; cf. the description of Beulah land near the end of Pilgrim’s Progress Part I). Hence it is not always a simple matter to know what to do with details.

The book tends, then, to make interpretation a somewhat simpler matter than I think it is. According to its view, “Jesus taught the parables to communicate the message of salvation in a clear and simple manner” (p. xviii). To be confident that the parables will all easily yield their meaning is, perhaps, already subtly to introduce a tendency to tame down their mystery and delayed explosive power.

Vern Sheridan Poythress
Westminster Theological Seminary,

1 John Dominic Crossan, “Parable, Allegory, and Paradox,” Semiology and Parables, ed. Daniel Patte (Pittsburgh: Pickwick, 1976), pp. 259-60.

2 Madeleine Boucher, The Mysterious Parable: A Literary Study (Washington, D.C.: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1977).

3 Ibid., p. 35.


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