Poet and peasant. A literary cultural approach to the parables in Luke

Written by Kenneth E. Bailey Reviewed By Russell P. Shedd

Infrequently have I picked up a book which displays an originality of approach that is convincing on the one hand and engaging on the other.

Kenneth Bailey’s Poet and peasant is that kind of book. The author has added to familiar scholarly reflection in the ivory tower, fresh insights from Luke’s parables, by seeking out their meaning in the cultural setting nearest to that in which Jesus himself lived. Dr Bailey, who is Chairman of the Biblical Department at the Near Eastern School of Theology in Beirut, Lebanon, is singularly well prepared to help his readers cross cultural and time barriers to a fresh understanding of four Lucan parables: the Unjust Steward, the Friend at Midnight, the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son, and two parabolic poems (16:9–13; 11:9–13).

How does the author proceed and how convincing is his ‘cultural’ exegesis? Following an examination of the impasses which recent scholars (e.g. Dodd, Jeremias, Jones, Linnemann, Via) have reached in interpreting some parables, Bailey states flatly that the problem is ‘cultural foreignness’. He, however, isn’t at a loss to reconstruct the cultural milieu, since isolated near eastern communities retain their ancient way of life and thinking too! Bailey has immersed himself in that ambit for many years. He has made generous use of informants, weighed the story-teller’s art and sought the avowed purpose of the parables. Bailey is able to conclude that the parable has three aspects: (1) symbols with corresponding reference in the life of the listeners; (2) a call for a single response; (3) a cluster of theological themes and presuppositions.

But the parables also have literary structure, in the main poetic, as C. F. Burney demonstrated more generally in 1925. It is by means of various forms of poetic parallelism in one, two and three stanzas, inverted, step, and ballad types, that Bailey has focused on the structure of the teaching-story and facilitated the delineation of its meaning, limits, and parallel phrases to discover the ‘climactic centre’.

Some brief insights in his conclusions are: (1) the Unjust Steward is a parable of grace in which the dishonest manager risks everything on the ‘grace’ of his master, an ‘insight into the nature of God, the predicament of man and the ground of salvation’ (p. 110); (2) the meaning of anaideia has been obscured in the parable of the Friend at Midnight from its original ‘shamelessness’ or ‘avoidance of shame’, to ‘persistence’. The parable refers to God’s honour which he is bound to uphold as well as his love, ‘giving whatever the petitioner wants’ in answering prayer, so that he will not be shamed in the global village!; (3) the prodigal insults his father in requesting his portion of the inheritance because, in effect, he is wishing his father were dead. The father, by granting the son’s request, jeopardizes his own future (pp. 165f.), a very exceptional occurrence in the East.

The ‘older son’ corresponds to the Pharisee. Between the prodigal and his brother we are urged to see two types of sinners, two kinds of repentance, the cost of God’s love, the communal joy in celebrating the sinner’s return home, and two kinds of sonship. One was restored from death and servanthood; the other self-confidently wished to remain a servant, thus rejecting real sonship.

So rewarding is this book in illuminating the teaching of Jesus in the parables discussed, that we await eagerly future books applying his ‘cultural’ exegesis to other synoptic parables.

If I were to express doubts regarding any portion of Poet and peasant, it would be primarily regarding the literary and structural analysis of the ‘Jerusalem Document’, that is, the Lucan ‘Travel Narrative’ (9:51–19:48). The ‘precise inverted outline’ appears not only to be too complex to have been held in Luke’s mind, but the impossibility of making all the material fit, is recognized by Bailey. The poetic structure bears further consideration.

Questionable, apparently, is the sharp division made between the parable of the Unjust Steward and the three stanzas on Mammon and God (Lk. 11:9–13), thereby obscuring, not clarifying, the urgency of Christ’s comparison of the wiser ‘sons of this world in their own generation’ with ‘the sons of light’ (Lk. 16:8). Are Bailey’s reasons for seeing textual transportation of 16:9–15 really convincing?

Russell P. Shedd

Chairman of the New Testament Department of the Faculdade Teológíca Batista de Sao Paulo, Brazil