I’ve been reading a lot of Kenneth Bailey the past year or so. I find him a particularly valuable exegete because (1.) he knows the culture of the
Middle East and is therefore attuned to cultural aspects that get overlooked by Western eyes, (2.) he is attentive to the literary structures of the parables and even the seemingly “disorganized” material of 1 Corinthians, and (3.) he understands Jesus as a metaphorical theologian. It is the last point that I want to explore a little further. As Bailey outlines in his introduction to Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15 and chapter 21 of Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, there are two ways to do theology: conceptually or metaphorically. We in the West tend to choose the former. We think in ideas—often abstract ideas—and then (if necessary) occasionally use a story or simile as an illustration. This is how the Apostle Paul seems to operate, and thus most Westerners find him a more sophisticated theologian than the story-telling Jesus. (I know, I know. Jesus is the Son of God who has all the intelligence of the Divine, but He seems to be too simplistic a thinker. He can’t even write a sentence that stretches out to half a chapter as Paul does!) But a metaphorical theologian finds the metaphor or parable as the primary thought and any conceptual interpretation around it as secondary. The hearer is to step inside the world of the metaphor and view the metaphor as the firmest reality; if need be, the concepts can be explained.
Bailey refers to Jesus’ parable as houses where one can look around and see a wide variety of truths. Eschewing the allegorical method and the quick “make one point of comparison and exit” method, he argues that the parables present a worldview that bears detailed examination—but not the kind that ignores the cultural roots from which they stem. Bailey also is quick to point out the intertextuality of our Lord’s parables. Our Lord’s Good Shepherd motif of Luke 15 and John 10 build on Old Testament passages such as Psalm 23, Jeremiah 23, and Ezekiel 34 (Finding the Lost, p. 68). The metaphor of the relationship between God and His people is the same throughout these passages, but there are subtle differences. The Jeremiah, Ezekiel, John, and (as Bailey argues) Luke passages speak of bad shepherds, while that is not the concern of Psalm 23. Ezekiel and our Lord (in John) distinguish between bad and good sheep, but none of the others do. All the passages speak of sheep being returned to the fold, but in Psalm 23 and Luke 15, it is a return to God, in Jeremiah it is a return to the land, and in Ezekiel it is both. Thus, a metaphorical theologian such as our Lord (and for that matter, most if not all of the Old Testament prophets) are not content to tell a story, but to craft and re-craft old stories, adding here and trimming there and altering elsewhere to cast a new emphasis on a familiar story. And thus Isaiah’s story of
as the bad vineyard becomes our Lord’s story of the Sanhedrin as the bad vineyard workers—a similar overall conceptual frame, but a different emphasis. Israel
If you read the Scriptures carefully, you will find that a phrase or word in the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament) often provokes an image or metaphor in the mind of one of the prophets, which in turn prompts our Lord to construe a parable in a particular way. Far from being haphazard or merely cute, these parables of our Lord have a theological depth that we wrongly underestimate.
I am too much of a Westerner to be a metaphorical theologian. But reading Bailey on this topic has not only allowed me to understand the parables of our Lord better, but also to explain why I have disliked most of the sermon illustrations I have heard over the years. I have always discerned that such stories were trying to be as profound as our Lord’s parables, but failed somehow or another. Most sermon illustrations have little to do with the text or even the point being made by the preacher, but are simply ear candy to keep the listeners engaged. Bailey’s division between conceptual and metaphorical theology explains why those sermon illustrations fall flat: they are mere illustrations of the “more important” abstract concepts that the preacher is trying to communicate. They are huts or ragged tents compared to the solid houses our Lord built.