Reading the Parables of Jesus – Robert Funk

In a previous post, I tracked the shift in Parables studies away from the allegorical methods of the medieval church to the “one point per parable” method of Adolf Jülicher.  In the next several posts I want to talk about a few other scholars who developed Jülicher’s ideas in the twentieth century (Dodd and Jeremias) and a short note on the rise of literary studies of parables beginning in the 1960’s.  Robert Funk’s work on parables as metaphors is a classic, although it seems to swing the pendulum back towards allegorical interpretations, although through the lens of modern language methods.

Another example of a literary approach to the parables is Robert Funk. He adapted Dodd’s work along literary lines, using the parable of the Great Supper as a test case for his theory of parables as metaphor. The imagery of a parable is drawn from common life yet intends to engage the hearer by its vividness or strangeness.

But Funk differed with Dodd by taking parables as extended metaphors. Similes simply illustrate a point that is known. Metaphors create meaning by juxtaposing two somewhat incompatible objects in order to impact the imagination. Metaphors are the “superimposition of the everyday with the ultimate,” and the parable “cracks the shroud of everydayness lying over mundane reality” (161-2).

Metaphorical language is inherently creative because it is incomplete until a listener hears the text and discovers the meaning in some way. The act of listening to a parable, therefore, creates meaning out of the text. Since meaning is grounded in the act of listening, each listener may discover a unique meaning as they encounter the text, as Fuchs says, “the parable interprets the reader” (151). Picking up on Dodd’s thought that the parables are left open ended to tease the hearer to make their own application, Funk argues that the whole point of the parable is to provide the opportunity for the hearer to make an application of the parable.

Metaphors may live on beyond the text, changing and “constantly refracting in the changing light of historical situation” (141-2). Here Funk is reflecting literary theory on metaphors which describe how metaphors function within a language and applying this thinking to the parables as extended metaphors. A given metaphor may function differently in a new historical or cultural context, making new meanings in each new circumstance. Parables are not intended to transmit some proposition, but rather to open “onto an unfinished world because that world is in course of conception” (“Good Samaritan as Metaphor,” Semeia 2 (1974): 75).

Funk agrees with Dodd’s principle that the application of parables was left some way imprecise and vague in order to allow the hearer to make their own application, but things Dodd did not take this far enough. For Funk, it is impossible ever, once and for all, to say what a given parable means. Parables simply do not transmit ideas and cannot be placed into a historical context as Dodd and Jeremias did. To put them back into any “real life situation,” either that of Jesus or the Church, is pointless and does not allow the parables to function as parables. In fact, the tradition which has placed the parables in the gospels is described as a “deformation” of what Jesus original spoke.

Funk said, “Strictly speaking, the parable does not say something else . . . the parable does not teach something, but it gestures toward” (196).  The church “deforms” the parables by applying them to new situations – but for Funk and many post-modern readers of parables, this is not a bad thing at all.

I will readily admit that most people read the parables this way, applying them in new and creative ways, using them to speak to new situations in church and culture. This is certainly the way metaphors work – but is this a fair method for reading the parables with clarity?  I am not sure that it is helpful to say that parables do not express a point until they are read by an individual.  Does that  combination of “writer and reader” meeting in a text create meaning?   Does the author’s intention count for anything?

Bibliography: Robert Funk, Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God: The Problem of Language in the New Testament and Contemporary Theology. New York: Harper, 1966.

8 thoughts on “Reading the Parables of Jesus – Robert Funk

  1. Parable as a Metaphor, can press the Parable well beyond the proper epistemological exegesis. Again, we should not forget the Jewish element in Jesus use. This certainly happened with Origen, and in the Middle Ages, etc.

    • I think Origen would be an example of allegorical / typological interpretation, driven by theology (usually Chrstiological). What Funk and Crossan do is remove meaning from the text at all, the reader can hear the metaphor any way they like. There are some classic examples of reader-response interpretations that go way beyond any conceivable “intended meaning.”

  2. Does that combination of “writer and reader” meeting in a text create meaning? Does the author’s intention count for anything?

    The combination of writer, reader, and Holy Spirit meeting in a text to create meaning strikes me as quite orthodox; and the author’s intention, if by author you mean Jesus Christ, would align with the intention of the Spirit. Or vice versa.

    I realize I’m taking this out of the realm of strictly historical criticism, but I think a theological reading may (indeed, must at some point) do that.

    (And thanks for another great series!)

  3. First and foremost, I would like to comment about the pictures of the scholars being included in the post. It may be wrong of me, but by Funk’s photo I immediately had high expectations that would probably confuse me pertaining to his view on reading the parables of Jesus. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this blog. I found myself nodding and making those noises of agreement, but at the same time I became skeptical on his perspective and technique of interpreting these stories Jesus told. Funk takes a metaphorical approach when attempting to understand Jesus’ parables. “For our purposes, a parable proper may be defined as “a story from daily life illustrating a moral or spiritual lesson” (Strauss 447). For my purposes of this post, this definition of a parable is useful. Like always, according to this statement by Strauss, we need to pretend we are Jewish living in the first century. If a parable tells a story from daily life, and these parables were told in the first century, we need to consider historical, political, and cultural context of the first century. “Funk agrees with Dodd’s principle that the application of parables was left some way imprecise and vague in order to allow the hearer to make their own application” (P. Long). I think that parables are loaded with meaning, and are meant to be helpful in our understanding of God and more precisely his kingdom. Even with all of the sources we have today, it may have been more likely for a Jew who heard Jesus spoke these parables to pinpoint the meaning because he lived in this time. Since Jesus spoke these stories from life back then, we should interpret them in that context. Although Funk says we can never say what a given parable means, Mark 4:11-12 infers that the purpose of the parables is to reveal and to conceal (Strauss 449).

  4. Robert Funk looked at the parables in the gospels as metaphorical writings. Metaphors are creative and largely interpreted based on the listener’s thoughts and views. ‘The act of listening to a parable, therefore, creates meaning out of the text’ (Long, 2018). Funk believes that this leaves the interpretation of the parable up to the reader and their ability to apply it to their life. When we look at it in a new historical context then we may understand the parable. Funk overall argued that parables did not have one set or meaning, but rather it gestures towards an application.
    I tend to disagree with this type of perspective. I believe that people are often swayed by their own opinions and mindset of what they want to hear. If we read a parable and are struggling with the idea of right and wrong, we can easily read a parable and interpret it in a way to justify our actions. Jesus did not give us parables to confirm what we think is right and the way we want a situation to work out. Jesus gave us an example of the way we should be living and practicing our lives to relate to the people in that culture. When we study any passage, we have to look at the context and then look at the context again. It can be easy to find the meaning we want. Funks argue that we get the ability to choose the interpretation. When we read the parables in the right context the interpretation and application should come from the original readers’ perspective and response.

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