After looking at a few example methods in the last few posts, I want to suggest four points that need to be part of a method for reading parables properly.
First, Parables are “extended metaphors” in which an abstract concept is made more clear through the telling of a story. A proper understanding of metaphor should not lead either to wild allegorizing nor a complete rejection of allegory as a way to convey truth. Elements of the parable may have a so-called “allegorical” meaning, but only insofar as the original audience could have understood. For example, that a king or master in a parable is intended to “stand for” God is a common enough stock feature in the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic parallels to accept this as the original intent of the parable. In fact, the imagery is so pervasive, it is hard to believe that anyone hearing the parables for the first time could have missed “king = God” as a metaphorical element. In order to develop this point, one would need to survey the rabbinic literature in order to develop a feel for these stock images. This would require a study to identify which elements of a given parable are likely to be “current metaphors” which would have had rhetorical impact on the original listeners.
Second, Parables were given in a specific context in the ministry of Jesus which can be recovered with some certainty. When a historical context is know it should be used to illuminate the parable. For example, the parable of the Two Debtors is found is a specific context in Luke 7:36-28 which is essential to the meaning of the brief parable. The “specific context” of a parable, however, may be generically stated and still be helpful for interpreting the parable. It is likely that the parables of the kingdom in Mark 4 / Matthew 13 were placed together via a tradition picked up by the authors of the gospels. But within the context of the overall ministry of Jesus, these parables were all spoken in Galilee, after some level of conflict with the Pharisees, and prior to the confession of Peter. Likewise, several parables of judgment are associated with Jesus’ teaching in the temple in his final week. This general Sitz im Leben Jesu seems give the parable enough context for proper interpretation. Parables therefore address a situation within the life and ministry of Jesus.
Third, Jesus taught in parables in order to communicate something to his original audience. While the single-point method of Jülicher avoids wild allegorizing, interpreters who attempt to create a single-point tend to boil the parable down to the most generic and bland message possible. Most of these “lessons” could be described as variations on the golden rule. For example, the Good Samaritan does teach us to love our neighbors, but this is something a Jewish audience would have already believed and practiced. However, if we really try to interpret the parable in the context of Jesus ministry the parable takes on a somewhat more radical dimension which has application to his present ministry at that moment in time. Interpreting the parable within the ministry of Jesus will aid our understanding of the point Jesus was making in the first place.
Fourth, since the stories were meant to communicate something to the original audience, we ought to look for the primary application of the parable to the ministry of Jesus. The best example of this is again the parable of The Two Debtors is found is a specific context in Luke 7:36-28. Within Jesus current ministry people are receiving forgiveness and responding in radical ways. The Parable of the Lost Sheep/Coin/Son refer to the same theme of forgiveness in the ministry of Jesus at that very moment. The parable of the Sower is a case where the meaning of the parable is better rooted in the events of Jesus’ ministry. The gist of the story is that a farmer went out to sow seed and some of this seed fell on unprepared soil while other seed fell on prepared soil. In the literary context of Mark and Matthew, the parable is a commentary on the first movement of Jesus’ ministry. He has come preaching the Kingdom of God. Some have accepted this message and followed Jesus while others have rejected the preaching for a variety of reasons. Each of the parables of the kingdom can be read as applying to what was happening in the Jesus-movement at the end of Jesus’ Galilean ministry.
Several “parables of judgment” occur in Jesus’ last teaching in the temple and are rather pointed condemnations of the existing power structure in Jerusalem and can again be interpreted as referring to Jesus’ ministry up to that moment in history. There is no need to think that the Parable of the Vineyard has been created by Christians after the resurrection, Jesus is describing what has already happened throughout his ministry. The parable of the Wedding Banquet can also be read as describing Jesus’ rejection by those who thought they were invited to the messianic feast and their replacement by those who had no chance of being invited.