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Parables of Time and Eternity by Keith Ward

21 January 2022

Henry Wansbrough reviews a discussion of the parables

THE veteran Professor Keith Ward begins this consideration of the Gospel parables of Jesus with the characteristically challenging question whether the story of Jesus himself is itself a parable: a fictional account of what an ideal human being would be, though founded on a real historical figure.

Basing himself on the work of John Dominic Crossan, with a glance at Marcus Borg, the author places Jesus as a “spirit person”, comparable to the leading figures of the Vedanta, Buddhism, and Chinese spiritual traditions. The early part of the book is full of challenges: for example, that the portrait and explanations of Jesus in John are not strictly historical, but are projections back into the life of Jesus, based on the data of the Synoptic Gospels, but transformed by the experience of a risen and glorified Jesus.

Ward can ask tough questions: are the parables deliberately obscure? How can a loving God permit evil? Did Matthew, with his “typical brutality”, get the idea of eternal punishment wrong? Or does the “eternal punishment” really mean “punishment for an age”, an age that will pass as swiftly as the Age of Enlightenment? Do the just need to be religious?

Some of these questions have been answered in more recent scholarship than he employs; for he deliberately bases his discussions on Dodd, Jeremias, Crossan, and Bernard Scott — all, except Crossan, from the last century. For instance, the quotation of Isaiah 6.9 at Mark 4.12 (as at John 12.39-40 and Acts 28.25-27) to explain the obscurity of the parables is currently held to be a reflection on the failure of Israel to respond to the message of Jesus rather than the expression of Jesus’s intention of obscuring the message by teaching in parables.

The greater part of the book, Part Two, gives the text and commentary on each of the Gospel parables under six headings (judgment, reconciliation, etc). The commentaries are gentle, solid, open-minded, reassuring, sometimes provoking, sometimes surprising (when did Peter deny Jesus after the crucifixion, p. 117?). Questions raised sharply in Part One are sometimes passed over in Part Two with the comment that expressions are “secondary features of the parable and have no spiritual significance”.

Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.


Parables of Time and Eternity
Keith Ward
Cascade Books £15
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

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