Book Reviews

Right Kingdom, Wrong Stories

A Backward Reading of Matthew’s Parables

Sam Tsang Eugene, Oregon 2013-07-25

In this helpful little volume, Sam Tsang takes the reader on a journey into the familiar world of Matthew’s parables. Once he has us there, we discover that they are not always what they seem.

       The book begins with a preface where Tsang briefly explains his desire to help interested lay people and busy pastors understand the subtleties of Matthew’s parables (p. vii). I believe the book will also help people who have not found the parables of interest either due to familiarity or believing they are not as relevant as other parts of the Gospel. The remainder of the preface functions more as an introduction than a traditional preface. Tsang defines parables (he admits somewhat simplistically) as “fictional stories created to make a certain point, much like modern sermon illustrations or anecdotes in speeches” (p. vii). But Tsang is not satisfied with defining what a parable is. He also believes that to understand a parable, we must understand what it does (p. vii). To this end, he briefly surveys two approaches to parables, an allegorical approach, which assigns symbolic meaning to various components of the parable, and its opposite, the “one-point” approach, which focuses on a single meaning for the parable (pp. vii–viii). Tsang rejects both of these in favor of a metaphorical approach in which the parable is not itself a metaphor but rather functions like a metaphor (pp. viii–ix). This approach—more complex than the others—is open to more sophisticated associations than the one-point approach but is more grounded in its context than the allegorical. Thus, a parable may not only point toward something but it may also point away from something (p. ix). Next, Tsang discusses in more detail how he will approach the parables. He discusses turning the parable “upside down,” which brings contextual expectations and information into the picture and reveals other points of view about the parables (pp. x–xi). This is a literary approach to the text (p. xi).

       The preface is followed by an introduction to reading Matthew’s parables. This chapter provides essential information about the social and political realities out of which the Gospel was written.

       After the introduction, fifteen chapters each cover a parable in three parts. First, in a section called “Telling It Backward,” Tsang gives a backward reading (including a modified translation) in which he tells the story as one in the ancient world would have expected. This is different from and often the opposite of what is recorded in Matthew. In this way, the reader is set up for Jesus’s words to impact him or her as they were intended to impact the first readers. This is a creative approach. We often read the parables as simple stories, but when we understand the cultural expectations, Jesus’s words often become much more powerful and challenging. Second, the parable is explored in a section called “Telling It Normal: Key Elements in the Story.” The NET Bible translation is presented and the details of the parable are illuminated by the backward reading and its original context. Third, the section called “Putting the Text in History: Meanings for the World of Author-Readers” explores the implications of the parable for the original audience and today. Here Tsang answers the question “What does the parable have to do with making me a better Christian or making the church a better community?” (p. xiii). Tsang’s applications for the original audience(s) and today are nuanced to the specific culture and in some cases differ based on such concerns (see, e.g., p. 104). Following these three parts, Tsang includes a brief sample sermon outline with title and questions for reflection.

       The parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matt. 13:24–30[43]) illustrates Tsang’s approach. First, he presents a modified translation of Matthew 13:24–30 in which the slaves are instructed to remove the weeds as soon as the master is informed of their presence in spite of the danger of pulling out some good wheat (pp. 22–23). The original hearers and readers would have expected this approach, which ensured that the nutrients in the soil were used by the wheat. Second, Tsang discusses the meaning in its context and for today. Jesus’s unexpected answer is aimed at any who wish to focus on ridding the kingdom community of those who do not belong; such activity is to be delayed and is God’s responsibility (p. 26). Next, after warning the reader of potential misapplications, Tsang suggests a sophisticated contemporary response that does not ignore evil but focuses attention on righteousness and leaves final judgment in God’s hands (pp. 27–30)

       Tsang draws upon his own cultural heritage as an Asian-American to help illuminate the text. When he feels there are similarities between his culture and the ancient world of which the average Western reader may be unaware, he uses this information to help the reader understand the text from the ancient perspective (p. xi). Tsang knows the ancient world is not identical to his own and thus he uses this material carefully. See, for example, his handling of the wedding imagery in Matthew 22:1–14, where he explains some of the customs of an Asian-American wedding (including his own) that are similar to what took place in the ancient world (pp. 97-105). There are similarities, but he also points out differences (p. 99).

       This book encourages the reader to appreciate Matthew’s parables by considering them from various points of view, understanding their original context and intent, and considering how they apply today. Not everyone will agree with all Tsang’s interpretations; nevertheless, most will be encouraged to think in new ways. Although written by a scholar, this is not an academic work and will not meet the primary needs of scholars, seminarians, and others trained in exegesis. There are no interactions with commentaries or long exegetical discussions. For a more comprehensive and academic approach to parables, Tsang points the reader to Klyne Snodgrass’s Stories with Intent (Eerdmans, 2008) (p. vii n. 1). Tsang’s heart is homiletical and pastoral. The volume will challenge the interested lay person or busy pastor. For those with more training, it will be an enjoyable and encouraging read that could lead to further study of the parables at a more rigorous level.

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