Somewhere along the way I picked up the notion that Jesus’ parables have only one main point. I do not remember any specific instances when I was taught this, but it is thrown around enough in Evangelical circles (at least at the popular level) that I probably absorbed it by osmosis. I also always felt a bit uneasy about the idea, largely because it felt too artificial when I looked at the parables themselves. Recently our small group bible study from church decided to study the parables and I took this as an impetus to resolve the issue to my own satisfaction.
What I’ve written here draws heavily from Craig L. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables, (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 1990). This excellent book cuts right to the issue with clarity and high level scholarship. I have a few quibbles here and there with what Blomberg has to say, but these are relatively minor, and overall his arguments are extremely persuasive. The rest of this blog post will largely be a summary of Blomberg’s book. Please also note that this post contains direct quotations from Blomberg’s book that are, for readability, not indicated as such (no quotation marks—my apologies for the academic “sloppiness”, but hey, it’s a blog post, right?).
Parable and Allegory
Despite an all too prevalent notion that any allegory in our bible is bad, the vast majority of Jesus’ parables contain allegory. In fact, a clear distinction between parable and allegory is hard to make. A parable is a type of allegorical story; a parable is unique from other types of allegory in that parables are linked with some application, explicit or implied.
What is allegory? Allegory is nothing more and nothing less than an extended metaphor in narratory (storytelling) form. A basic metaphor is fleshed out in a story to make a point (a standard example is Paul Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress). The use of allegory in and of itself is not a bad thing; the use of an allegorical hermeneutic is a bad thing. To see the difference, consider these definitions:
1. Allegory: the use of symbolic meaning in a text.
2. Allegorizing: ascribing to a text some hidden, often anachronistic meanings which its author never intended.
3. Allegorization: the allegorizing expansion and embellishment of a text which originally was already an allegory in simpler form (roughly, doing #2 to #1).
Bottom line: even if many interpreters in church history did #2 to the parables, we should learn from their mistakes and not allegorize the parables (or any Scripture!), but that does not mean we should refuse to acknowledge that the parables do have some degree of allegory operative in them.
Purpose and Function of Parable
Allegories have several purposes:
·to illustrate a viewpoint in an artistic and educational way
·to keeps its message from being immediately clear to all its hearers or readers without further reflection
·to win over its audience to accept a particular set of beliefs or act in a certain way
With these considerations it becomes clear that parables (as allegories) were a suiting vehicle for much of Jesus’ public teaching. He was teaching about the kingdom of God, but it was different from what most Jews expected the kingdom to be. He wanted those who really understood what he was saying to “get” the parable, but those who merely perceived the parable would only see it as strange and mysterious. Perceiving but not understanding is when someone understands the surface grammar and even cognitively understands the intended application but rejects the truth and the implications of what is being said. Only those who listened and heeded (obeyed) what the parable was asking of them truly understood it (Mk 4:10-12).
How does a parable work? A parable is best viewed as containing several “proportional analogies” which can be expressed by means of a series of equations of the form:
A is to B as a is to b with respect to x
Two examples of this will suffice.
Ex. 1: (A) God is to (B) his elect as (a) the judge is to (b) the woman, with respect to (x) the fact of vindication despite its initial appearance of delay. (Lk 18:1-7).
Ex. 2: (A) Those who reject the call to God’s Kingdom are to (B) God as (a) the invited guests who refuse to come are to (b) the banquet giver, with respect to (x) the exceeding lameness of their excuses for rejecting the invitation. (Lk 14:15-24).
How are parables structured? There is a triadic or triangular structure to most parables, and following this, most parables have three main points. The parables often have three main characters: a unifying figure and two additional figures or groups with which he interacts. Usually the three characters or groups can be broken down into three types: the positive, the negative, and God (or, if you like, the good, the bad, and the holy). For example, many parables have master, faithful servant(s), and unfaithful servant(s). Some shorter narratives and similes have only two key characters, and a few only have one, but the principles of handling parables as allegory will still apply.
Some examples: The sower, the fruitful seed, and the unfruitful seed (on path, in rocky soil, among thorns) (Mk 4:3-9). The father, the prodigal son, and the older brother (Lk 15:11-32).
How to Interpret the Parables
I find many “how-to”s of interpretation overly simplistic, but I can at least give a few principles to get the interpretive process started. Here are some key points to help us interpret Jesus’ parables.
·Every parable of Jesus contains certain elements which point to a second level of meaning and others which do not. Ex: In the parable of the prodigal son, the Father certainly points to God, but the ring and the robe that the father gives the prodigal son upon his return serve to speak about the wonderful reception the father gives to the son and do not stand for anything such as baptism or immortality (as was postulated at points in church history) (Lk 15:11-32).
·The key to interpreting most allegories—and thus also the parables—lies in recognizing what a small handful of characters, actions or symbols stand for and fitting the rest of the story in with them.
·The main characters of a parable will probably be the most common candidates for interpreting the allegory, and the main points of the parable will most likely be associated with these characters.
·Elements other than the main characters will have metaphorical referents only to the extent that they fit in with the meaning established by the referents of the main characters, and all allegorical interpretation must result in that which would have been intelligible to a first-century Palestinian audience. Ex: some have speculated that the innkeeper in the parable of the Good Samaritan stand for the apostle Paul (Lk 10:25-37). This does follow from the main symbols in the story, and certainly Jesus’ original audience could not have known about Paul’s ministry several decades before it even happened.
·The meanings ascribed to elements in a parable must be ones which the stories’ original audience could have been expected to grasp in their historical setting.
·While the parables do present largely lifelike portrayals of first-century Palestinian Judaism, key details in them are surprisingly unrealistic and serve to point out an allegorical level of meaning. Ex: the excuses given for not coming to the banquet in parable of wedding feast (Lk 14:16-24).
·The triadic structure of most of Jesus’ narrative parables suggest that most parables may make three points, though some will probably make only one or two.