SPECIAL TOPIC: INTERPRETING PARABLES
The Synoptic Gospels were written many years after Jesus' life. The Gospel writers (by the aid of the Spirit) were culturally accustomed to oral tradition. The rabbis taught by oral presentation. Jesus mimicked this oral approach to teaching. To our knowledge He never wrote down any of His teachings or sermons. To aid in the memory, teaching presentations were repeated, summarized, and illustrated. The Gospel writers retained these memory aids. Parables, which are hard to define, are one of these techniques.
"Parables are best defined as stories with two levels of meaning; the story level provides a mirror by which reality is perceived and understood," Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, (p. 594).
"A parable is a saying or story that seeks to drive home a point that the speaker wishes to emphasize by illustrating it from a familiar situation of common life," The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Encyclopedia (p. 590).
It is hard to define exactly what was understood by the term "parable" in Jesus' day
1. Some say it reflects the Hebrew term mashal which was any kind of riddle (Mark 3:23), clever saying (Proverbs, Luke 4:23), short saying (Mark 7:15), or mysterious saying ("dark saying").
2. Others hold to a more limited definition of a short story.
Depending on how one defines the term, over one-third of Jesus' recorded teachings are in parabolic form. This was a major NT literary genre. Parables are certainly authentic sayings of Jesus. If one accepts the second definition, there are still several different types of short stories:
1. simple stories (Luke 13:6-9)
2. complex stories (Luke 15:11-32)
3. contrasting stories (Luke 16:1-8; 18:1-8)
4. typological/allegorical (Matt. 13:24-30, 47-50; Luke 8:4-8, 11-15; 10:25-37; 14:16-24; 20:9-19; John. 10; 15:1-8)
In dealing with this variety of parabolic material one must interpret these sayings on several levels. The first level would be general hermeneutic principles applicable to all biblical genres. Some guidelines:
1. identify the purpose of the entire book or at least the larger literary unit
2. identify the original audience. It is significant that often the same parable is given to different groups, example:
a. lost sheep in Luke 15 directed to sinners
b. lost sheep in Matt. 18 directed toward disciples
3. be sure to note the immediate context of the parable. Often Jesus or the gospel writer tells the main point (usually at the end of the parable or immediately after it).
4. express the central intent(s) of the parable in one declarative sentence. Parables often have two or three main characters. Usually there is an implied truth, purpose, or point (plot) to each character (Luke 15:11-22 has 3 characters but not the parable of the good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37).
5. check the parallel passages in the other Gospels, then other NT books and OT books
The second level of interpretive principles are those that relate specifically to parabolic material
1. Read (hear if possible) the parable again and again. These were given for oral impact, not written analysis.
2. Most parables have only one central truth which is related to the historical and literary contexts of both Jesus and/or the evangelist.
3. Be careful of interpreting the details. Often they are just part of the setting of the story.
4. Remember that parables are not reality. They are life-like analogies, but often exaggerations, to drive home a point (truth).
5. Identify the main points of the story that a first century Jewish audience would have understood (Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes). Then look for the twist or surprise. Usually it comes toward the end of the story (cf. A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible, pp. 221-224).
6. All parables were given to elicit a response. That response is usually related to the concept of "the Kingdom of God." Jesus was the inaugurator of the new Messianic Kingdom (Matt. 21:31; Luke 17:21). Those who heard Him must respond to Him now!
The Kingdom was also future (Matthew 25). A person's future was dependent on how he responded to Jesus at the time. Kingdom parables described the new kingdom that had arrived in Jesus. They described its ethical and radical demands for discipleship. Nothing can be as it was. All is radically new and focused on Jesus!
7. Parables often do not express the point or central truth. The interpreter must seek the contextual keys that reveal the culturally-obvious central truths to the original recipients but that are now obscure to us.
A third level that is often controversial is that of the hiddenness of parabolic truth. Jesus often spoke of the hiddenness of parables (cf. Matt. 13:9-15; Mark 4:9-13; Luke 8:8-10; John. 10:6; 16:25). This was related to the prophecy in Isa. 6:9-10. The heart of the hearer determines the level of understanding (cf. Matt. 11:15; 13:9,15,16,43; Mark 4:9,23,33-34; 7:16; 8:18; Luke 8:8; 9:44; 14:35).
However, it must also be stated that often the crowd (Matt. 15:10; Mark 7:14) and the Pharisees (Matt. 21:45; Mark 12:12; Luke 20:19) understood exactly what Jesus was saying but refused to respond appropriately to it by faith and repentance. In one sense this is the truth of the Parable of the Soils (Matthew 13; Mark 4; Luke 8). The parables were a means to conceal or reveal truth (Matt. 13:16-17; 16:12; 17:13; Luke 8:10; 10:23-24).
Grant Osborne, in Hermeneutical Spiral, p. 239, makes the point that "parables are an 'encounter mechanism' and function differently depending on the audience...Each group (leaders, crowds, disciples) is encountered differently by the parables." Often even the disciples did not understand either His parables or His teachings (cf. Matt. 15:16; Mark 6:52; 8:17-18,21; 9:32; Luke 9:45; 18:34; John. 12:16).
A fourth level is also controversial. It deals with the central truth of parables. Most modern interpreters have reacted (justifiably so) to the allegorical interpretation of the parables. Allegory turned the details into elaborate systems of truth. This method of interpretation did not focus on the historical setting, literary setting, or authorial intent, but presented the thought of the interpreter, not the text.
However, it must be admitted that the parables that Jesus interpreted are very close to allegorical or at least typological. Jesus used the details to convey truth (the Sower, Matthew 13; Mark 4; Luke 8 and the wicked tenants, Matthew 21; Mark 12, Luke 20).
Some of the other parables also have several main truths. A good example is the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). It is not only the love of the Father and waywardness of the younger son but the attitude of the older son that is integral to the full meaning of the parable.
A helpful quote from Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation by Peter Cotterell and Max Turner:
"It was Adulf Julicher more than any other who directed New Testament scholarship towards a decisive attempt to understand the role of parable in the teaching of Jesus. The radical allegorizing of the parables was abandoned and the search begun for a key that would enable us to penetrate their true meaning. But as Jeremias made clear, 'His efforts to free the parables from the fantastic and arbitrary interpretations of every detail caused him to fall into a fatal error.' The error was to insist not merely that a parable should be understood as conveying a single idea, but that the idea should be as general as possible" (p. 308).
Another helpful quote from The Hermeneutical Spiral by Grant Osborne:
"Yet I have noted many indications that the parables are indeed allegories, albeit controlled by the author's intention. Blomberg (1990) in fact argues that there are as many points as there are characters in the parables and that they are indeed allegories. While this is somewhat overstated, it is nearer the truth than the 'one point' approach" (p. 240).
Should parables be used to teach doctrinal truths or illuminate doctrinal truths? Most interpreters have been influenced by the abuse of the allegorical method of interpreting parables which allowed them to be used to establish doctrines that had no connection to Jesus' original intent nor that of the gospel writer. Meaning must be linked to authorial intent. Jesus and the gospel writers were under inspiration, but interpreters are not.
However badly the parables have been abused they still function as teaching vehicles of truth, doctrinal truth. Hear Bernard Ramm on this point.
"Parables do teach doctrine and the claim that they may not be used at all in doctrinal writing is improper. . .we must check our results with plain, evident teaching of our Lord, and with the rest of the New Testament. Parables with proper cautions may be used to illustrate doctrine, illuminate Christian experience and to teach practical lessons." Protestant Biblical Interpretation (p. 285).
In conclusion let me give three quotes that reflect warnings in our interpretation of parables:
1. Taken from How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Doug Stuart,
"The parables have suffered a fate of misinterpretation in the church second only to the Revelation" (p. 135).
2. Taken from Understanding and Applying the Bible by J. Robertson McQuilkin,
"Parables have been the source of untold blessing in enlightening God's people concerning spiritual truth. At the same time, parables have been the source of untold confusion in both doctrine and practice in the church" (p. 164).
3. Taken from The Hermeneutical Spiral by Grant Osborne,
"Parables have been among the most written about yet hermeneutically abused portions of Scripture. . .the most dynamic yet the most difficult to comprehend of the biblical genres. The potential of the parable for communication is enormous, since it creates a comparison or story based upon everyday experiences. However, that story itself is capable of many meanings, and the modern reader has as much difficulty interpreting it as did the ancient hearers" (p. 235).
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