Approaches to Reading the Parables

fancy-treeIn each of the four canonical Gospels, extended attention is given to the events that led up to and culminated in Christ’s death and subsequent resurrection. It’s for this reason that the gospel accounts have sometimes been described as “passion narratives with extended introductions.” Without taking away from the obvious importance placed by the gospel writers on the cross and resurrection, though, I think it’s also worth pointing out how much space is given (at least in the synoptic Gospels) to Jesus’ parables.

Jesus was known for being a storyteller. In fact, Richard Lischer notes in Reading the Parables that in the synoptic gospels, “the parables constitute approximately 35 percent of everything Jesus is reported to have said” (2014, p.5). Mark even tells his readers that when it came to the surrounding crowds, “He [Jesus] did not say anything to them without using a parable” (4:34a, NRSV). Of course, the function of the parables in Jesus’ proclamation and enactment of the Kingdom is not without controversy. In some places—especially in Mark—it is uncertain whether the parables were told in order to conceal or reveal. Regardless, it’s clear that the telling of parables formed an important rhythm in Jesus’ ministry.

What is a Parable?

C.H. Dodd produced what Lischer calls “the best-known modern definition of a parable” (p.18). For Dodd, a parable is a “metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life,” charged with a vivid or strange quality that is intended to provoke the hearer/reader into active thought (p.18). George Ladd, another 20th century scholar, defines a parable in The Gospel of the Kingdom as “a story drawn from the familiar experiences of everyday life” (1959, p.59). In his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern EyesKenneth Bailey also affirms that the parables should be understood as extended metaphors (2008, p.280). More interestingly, though, he goes on to also describe a parable as “a house in which the listener/reader is invited to take up residence.” Bailey’s second description is significant for the purposes of this essay because it clearly makes an important point: As stories, the parables have important imaginative and participatory dimensions that should not be forgotten.

Regardless of how exactly a parable is defined, an important question arises when these stories are approached by readers of Scripture: does each parable restrict itself to teaching one main “big idea,” or did Jesus sometimes seek to communicate multiple meanings in a single narrative? Growing up, I assumed that each parable was intended to teach one main truth. This “one point per parable” approach, to borrow Kenneth Bailey’s terminology, was influential for many of those studying the parables throughout the 20th century (p.282). Therefore, it may come as a surprise to find out that this is a fairly recent approach to the parables in the grand scheme of the Church’s history of interpretation.

Reading the Parables as Allegories

In Jesus the Storyteller, Stephen Wright points out that Christian interpreters throughout much of Church history (especially during the early and medieval periods) have tended to see the parables as allegories potentially teaching many theological truths (2015, p.9). Since many now take a dim view of allegorical interpretation, it’s worth trying to understand why so many theologians throughout history—including the likes of Augustine and Jerome—have found it to be a fruitful reading strategy. Lischer thinks that two basic theological premises support allegorical interpretation. First, “the true author of scripture is God, whose eternal purposes transcend the historical moments in which the word was uttered and the text produced” (p.50). The second premise is the resurrection of Jesus. In the aftermath of Christ’s resurrection, there were “inevitable hermeneutical aftershocks,” which led early readers to reexamine the words and actions of Jesus (p.50). Furthermore, Lischer contends that many of the parables do indeed have allegorical dimensions to them:

The various parables of preparedness found in Matthew 24 and 25—the Thief in the Night, the Faithful and Wicked Slaves, the Bridesmaids, the Talents—are not allegorical in every detail—for example, the “talent” might mean many things—but they are best read as allegories of Christ’s return. (p.53)

Another parable with undeniably strong allegorical elements would of course be the parable of the Wicked Tenants. However, a word of caution is in order:

It is one thing to acknowledge and learn from allegory; it is quite another to allegorize nonallegorical parables in order to produce meanings that are not there. For most of its history the church has disregarded the distinction between allegory and allegorize. (p.55)

In order to get a better picture of this allegorical approach, it’s useful to consider the parable of the Friend at Midnight in Luke 11:5-8. In this story, Jesus tells of a perfectly ordinary person shuffling over to the house of a friend in the middle of the night in order to ask for three loaves of bread. The friend is (maybe understandably) irritated. He tells the one in need of bread to go away because “the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything” (Luke 11:7, NRSV). Despite these protests, Jesus concludes the story by revealing that the man eventually does in fact receive bread from the friend as a result of his persistence.

What is the meaning of this parable? “Despite its unambiguous teaching on persistence in prayer, the parable of the Friend at Midnight has been allegorized to yield a plethora of Christian truths” (Lischer, p.56). Augustine, for example, characterized the person seeking bread in the middle of the night as a person “exhausted by worldliness,” with the time of night signifying the “crisis of the soul.” The friend is identified as Scripture itself, which eventually provides what the person most deeply needs, “sustenance in his knowledge of the Trinity” (p.56).

Now, there is a sense in which Augustine’s reading of this parable, as recounted by Lischer, rings theologically true. However, to think of it as the historically original meaning of the story is surely erroneous. It may have theological truth in it, but this interpretation is almost certainly not how Jesus’ original audience would have understood it. So, there are ways in which the subsequent reaction against the allegorization of the parables is understandable.

The Anti-Allegorical Movement

The movement against allegory was spearheaded in the 19th century by the German scholar Adolf Jülicher, who in large part started the “one point per parable” movement in scholarship (Wright, pp.17-18). At its best, Bailey notes, this movement was trying to protect “interpretation from adding meanings to the text that could not have occurred to Jesus or his audience” (p.282). In itself, this is a praise-worthy move, especially in the face of what was undoubtably excessive allegorization in some of the Church’s interpretation of the parables. This more restricted approach to the parables is also not without support in Scripture. After all, Lischer writes, “Every one of Jesus’ miracles or pronouncements participates in an arrow-like movement toward the crucifixion and resurrection of the Son of God” (p.59). The parables do have some single-minded aspects to them: nearly all of them, for example, focus in one way or another on the kingdom of God.

However, to say that the parables as a whole are occupied with disclosing the mystery of the kingdom doesn’t necessarily mean that there is strictly “one point per parable.” Despite the points in its favor, it seems to me that this approach, as embodied by people like Jülicher and Ladd, is an overreaction to allegorical readings that fails to adequately take into account the rhetorical/narrative dynamics of Jesus’ stories. It’s a case of the hermeneutical pendulum swinging too far in response to a legitimate concern. While some parables may only have one point, others seem to be more multidimensional. Bailey highlights the weakness of the “one point per parable” approach by discussing the parable of the Prodigal Son:

If the great parable of the prodigal son has “only one point,” which shall we choose? Should the interpreter choose “the nature of the fatherhood of God,” “an understanding of sin,” “self-righteousness that rejects others,” “the nature of true repentance,” “joy in community” or “finding the lost”? (p.282)

The “theological cluster” of points brought up by Bailey are best understood when considered in light of each other. If this acceptance of multiple meanings makes some people uncomfortable, it may be helpful for them to also note that Bailey thinks this cluster of meanings “must be controlled and limited by what Jesus’ original audience could have understood” (p.282).

Similarly, Lischer takes up the parable of the Treasure in the Field (Matthew 13:44) and asks, “Now, what is the point?” (p.61). Yes, the parable is about the kingdom, but beyond that, what is its meaning? He brings up a number of possibilities, including, “The kingdom is of surpassing value,” “The Kingdom requires sacrifice,” and “The Kingdom is a reality hidden from our experience, but we can find it” (pp.61-62). All of these meanings have support in this short, little parable. Like the Prodigal Son, it is an example of a story that resists “one point per parable” interpretation.

Conclusion

I think part of why I find the “one point per parable” approach to be (in some ways) inadequate comes from a desire to see the parables deemed valuable as stories. At one point in Bailey’s introduction to the parables, he comments:

It is easy to think of a parable… as a good way to “launch” an idea. Once the idea is “on its way” the parable can be discarded. But this is not so. If the parable is a house in which the listener/reader is invited to take up residence, then that person is urged by the parable to look on the world through the windows of that residence. (pp.280-281)

It’s useful to paraphrase the meaning(s) of the parables, but, as Bailey says, that doesn’t mean we can therefore leave the stories themselves behind. When a child wants a bedtime story, one doesn’t respond by saying, “Daddy is too busy to tell you the story of Little Red Riding Hood tonight. Let him tell you the point instead” (Lischer, p.9). It may be that there is a reason the gospels preserved the parables of Jesus, rather than a list of truths taught by them.

The most important part of reading the parables of Jesus is to hear their challenge and respond to them. If I spend all my time debating the interpretative intricacies of The Good Samaritan, without letting the story form my character and by the Holy Spirit change the way I approach others, then I’m sadly missing the point.

 

Bibliography

Bailey, Kenneth. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008.

Ladd, George Eldon. The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959.

Lischer, Richard. Reading the Parables (Interpretation: resources for the use of scripture in the church). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.

Wright, Stephen. Jesus the Storyteller. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.

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