It is sometimes said that in the parables of Jesus we hear the true ipsissima vox Jesu: the real voice of Jesus. Joachim Jeremias, for example, begins his classic The Parables of Jesus by stating we “may be confident” we stand on firm historical ground when we read the parables. The parables reflect the sort of thing expected when a first century Jewish rabbi taught. The images are drawn from the life of the common people of Galilee and Judea and many have the “apocalyptic edge” we know is present in other literature of the Second Temple Period.
Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the parables were assumed authentic but the original intent of Jesus’ teaching was set aside in favor of elaborate allegories which applied to the time of the interpreter. Details of the story became fodder for preaching the gospel or some moral lesson, often incorporating elements of later church theology. For example, Augustine took the “meaning” of the oil in the parable of the Good Samaritan as the Holy Spirit, and the inn-keeper as Paul. Nothing in the parable even hints at this meaning, the “message” is from the mind of the interpreter.
This allegorical method was overturned by Adolf Jülicher. He effectively challenged popular allegorical interpretations by applying form criticism the parables. He argued that the parables were not allegories. He rejected the detailed and imaginative interpretations (Paul as the inn-keeper, etc.) Instead, parables had a single message, a “moral of the story” which could be expressed simple timeless truth. Rejecting allegory was a great contribution to the study of parables, but Jülicher also cast doubt on the possibility of knowing the original setting of the parables of Jesus. Elements of a given parable could have been added to the parable to make it more “up to date” and to make it more applicable to the present church. For Jülicher , it was not possible to know if Jesus was the original speaker of a given parable.
Here is a thought experiment you can try: Retell the story of the Prodigal Son to a group of junior high students. How much of the story do you change in order to make it “current”? How does the son spend his inheritance? (Big car, big TV, women, gambling, etc.) If you retell the story to a group of elderly ladies at their home Bible Study, my guess is that the prodigal spends his money differently (shawls and Matlock videos?) It is natural for there to be some shifting of details when a story is retold, but the sense of the story remains the same.
The emphasis of much of twentieth century scholarship has been on placing the parables into the context of the community which produced the synoptic gospels, often despairing of the possibility of recovering the words of Jesus. Perhaps it is better to ground the Parables in the life of Jesus as an itinerant teacher in Jewish Galilee. As I see it, this will allow us to “hear the voice of Jesus” most clearly.
How should we interpret the parables? How far should we “push” the application of a given parable away from the original context in the life of Jesus?