Funk and the Parables

Robert Funk is an example of a literary approach to the parables. 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).

Funk and the ParablesMetaphorical 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 a 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.

9 thoughts on “Funk and the Parables

  1. I’m not sure that saying “parables do not express a point until they are read by an individual” is helpful, either. I might be a little too simplistic here, but isn’t this true about any passage? A passage needs to be read before it can be understood and interpreted, obviously. I do agree that parables leave room for different interpretations, though I think most of them are pretty obvious in their messages. My observation is that Jesus told so many parables because for the most part, they didn’t explain actual events. They were meant to send a broader message that would be understandable by regular people. The messages of the parables were also meant to live on through the years, even to where we are now, and still send the same basic message. The “modern” interpretation may change. For example, the parable of the Good Samaritan is meant to send a message of kindness and loving your enemies. Here in America, there is no Jew-Samaritan conflict, so we might use Democrats and Republicans as a substitute, while sending the same message (it’s a stretch, I know). Basically, I think the parables are meant to send a message that doesn’t change by using examples that may change.

  2. Not to sound like a broken record, but we must remember the fact that the Word of God is active still, even the parables, thus can speak to people even today. That being said, however, it is important to be sure that we are not taking the parable out of context. The parables were written to the people at the time of Jesus’ ministry, they weren’t written to us. The reason, I find that so many people read parables in such a way as to apply them in “new and creative ways” is because they leave room to do so. They are not blatantly obvious in their interpretations, so they leave room for different understanding of the text. That being said, “writer and reader” combination doesn’t create the meaning of the passage. The writer or speaker creates the meaning of the passage, the reader’s job is then to understand what the writer or speaker meant. The reader, however, can have a different interpretation, but that doesn’t change the meaning of the passage. This may seem frustrating to those wanting to know the meaning of the parables, like myself, but this is why reading the parables in context and with a culture and era-mindedness comes into play. Perhaps, we should read parables in such a way as to understand what Jesus meant, not what we think or would like the parable to mean. The tough part here is that Jesus spoke in parables, both “to reveal and to conceal” (Strauss, 449). Our study of parables could never be exhausted because we can never fully understand God. This should not, however, lead us to not study the parables at all, but rather should encourage us to study them all the more in order to better understand what Jesus was saying. Jesus’ intentions in regards to what He spoke should be what we, as readers, are striving to find.

  3. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11). Unlike us, God does not speak empty words. As we know from 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:20-21, all scripture is inspired by God and was given to us through men who were inspired by the Holy Spirit. This is certainly true of anything Jesus said since He did not come to speak by His own authority, but by that of Him who sent Him (John 12:49). So anything Jesus said, including parables, had a specific purpose and way of being interpreted. Like Kim said, the word of God is still living and active, so I will not limit Him by saying each parable only has one meaning. God can indeed pull many truths out of one story. But these interpretations should be found in reverence through the revealing work of the Holy Spirit. And, as Strauss encourages us, they should always be interpreted in the context of Jesus’ ministry (Strauss, 449).

  4. I agree that most people read the parables in a way of applying the teachings to a more modern tense, which in theory is a beneficial practice. I think the problem is when we neglect to find the main focus of the parable and take parts of it that might mean something entirely different out of context. I don’t think that we should read the parables like a metaphor. But because I believe that each parable is inspired by the Holy Spirit that it does apply to us in many ways today. In our text, Strauss explains that we should “recognize their cultural and literary background in the OT and Judaism, and to seek the primary point of the parable” (Strauss, 452). I think this should be done before we apply a parable in a modern context so that the main focus and point of each parable can be identified. I think that the author’s intention holds a lot of weight in the way we need to interpret. This can be seen when Jesus explains his intention of his parables. For example, Matthew 13:18, “Now listen to the explanation of the parable about the farmer scattering seeds. The seed that fell on the footpath represents those who hear the message…” (NLT). The intended purpose of each parable is what we should apply.

  5. In my opinion, I would say that parables can be read two different ways. One way would be to look at them in the context of ancient Judaism or of the ancient time period and see the impact or the implications that it had on the people of that time. That can speak all for itself. But ,in my opinion, Jesus used parables in order to apply to people. In order to speak to them in their life situations. I believe that is how it can be used today. Jesus used parables to speak to the people in that day. The stories were common and applicable in that time. Jesus used examples of the pagan gods to prove his points. The reason for this was to help the people understand his points and to drive them home. I believe this is how the parables were used.

    Once we understand the parables and the ramifications that they had in the ancient times, we should use what we have learned and apply it to modern times.

  6. These blogs are very intellectual and perplexing. When I look at the parables, they are ageless. People can look at the culture in Jesus’ day and link the parables to the culture. Jesus applies his teachings to something the people in that day can fully understand and can reverberate with. If Jesus was roaming around in our day and his teaching was taking place in our culture, I feel he would do the same thing. He would probably take the things we understand and do in our everyday life and teach off of those illustrations. This is why I believe we can read the parables and apply them in our lives, speaking to new situations arising in our culture and church. I believe it’s extremely fair for reading the parables with clarity. Jesus could have just bluntly told his listeners what he was trying to get across, but you can’t form and relay real-world presentation in our current lives without assimilation of the topic. I am confusing myself. It’s like putting up a new door (the new door being the point). The door can’t go up unless you have the frame/door casing (the frame or casing being the metaphor/story). The door or the point doesn’t fit or make any sense unless you have the framework/casing or the relatable story to make it fit. Jesus has the point, but knows that his point cannot be timeless if he doesn’t make it fit into changing world of the listener. It makes sense to me at least. I like the parables gesture forward comment. I really believe Jesus spoke in parables so that the reader can see the framework to apply them in their own life. The writer and reader thing doesn’t make much sense to me. I guess the author’s intention was to dissect what we do in our churches and culture. We take the parables and use the same meaning, but extended them further to fit our culture.

  7. Strauss explains on page 449, Jesus used the parables as a way to reveal the mystery of the Kingdom of God, but He also used them as a way to hide the kingdom from those who were heart hearted. We can see this in Mark 4:11-12 as well. Jesus’ primary reason that he spoke in parables was to explain the Kingdom in a way that they could comprehend and understand. I believe that the parables were spoken directly to the people of His day. The messages they received from his parables were much more earth shattering than how they would appear to a 21st century white caucasian. At the same time, I do believe that the parables can be applied to any reader today.
    If we would get down to the true meaning of what the author was trying to communicate as the story applied to the culture, we could find a much deeper meaning ourselves. The prodigal son for example, a 1st century jew would take a son running away from his father and taking his inheritance different than a 21st century american would. We have a sense of entitlement, “if it’s going to be ours anyway why not just get it now”. The father welcomes him back home in the end and it makes us feel good that God would still love us. The story would be so much more meaningful though if we knew the severity of a son running away at that time Jesus spoke it. Sadly I do not know the contextual meaning.
    Jesus had intention in telling the story to those people, and the gospel authors had purpose in writing the stories down in the way that they did. As readers, if we can study the purpose of the author text to its culture, I believe that it would give us a deeper revelation into parables.

  8. I would have a hard time saying that the reader, in any sense, *creates* meaning of a passage. Certainly, as has already been said, a reader can interpret what is written in an unlimited number of ways, but just because something can be interpreted a certain way does not mean that it a correct interpretation, and definitely doesn’t mean that this is what the author intended. I think it is interesting to note that when Jesus teaches the Parable of the Sower, He concludes by briefly explaining the meaning of the parable. While He doesn’t explore in depth the many details of the parable, Jesus gives a thematic overview that gives us a glimpse into *His* intent. Why would He bother to tell us what the parable meant if we were all to discern our own meaning based on our culture and life situation? Also, Strauss explains that “Jesus spoke in parables both to reveal and to conceal” (Strauss, 449). If this was Jesus’ intent in using parables, He must have had a specific point in mind which He desired to reveal to some and conceal from others.

    It is common, as you said, for Christians to read a parable (or any other passage of Scripture) back into their own context and project it onto a specific situation. While it may seem that this is a valid use for the parables, we must do this with great caution. If I buy an expensive computer, I may appreciate the simple calculator app that comes pre-installed. I may even use it from time to time for the sake of convenience. But if I forget the original use of my computer altogether and only use it when I need to do long division, I have misunderstood the purpose for which the tool was created in the first place. While we might take a parable and use it as a metaphor for a topic unrelated to its original meaning, we run the risk of misusing the tools which we have been given.

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