A Method for Interpreting the Parables

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.

Matt 18_23Second, 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.

10 thoughts on “A Method for Interpreting the Parables

  1. I really like your methods for interpreting parables, these methods were very clear and concise and definitely helped me understand exactly what a parable is. Your points about the parables being extended metaphors to make a concept more clear and Jesus using parables to communicate something to his audience I think those were great points. Strauss says “Jesus’ most important teaching device was the parable, using vivid and memorable scenes from everyday life to teach profound spiritual truths.” (Strauss, 538) I believe that is very true. I’ve heard a few parables to help me better understand a situation or the context of what’s happening. One parable that I remember and is always stuck with me from the very first time I heard is one that my pastor uses often when he talks about being faithful and knowing that God is always on time and will deliver. He talks about a woman who comes to church every Sunday and thanks God for blessing her with a car but every week she leaves church and catches the bus home, week after week it’s the same thing she thanks God for a car and gets on the bus so after a while people begin to ask her why is she thanking God for a car when she doesn’t have one. She responded she just thanks God in advance now because there was a time when she didn’t have food and she asked God ti blessed her with food and He did it she didn’t have clothes or a home and God blessed her with clothes and a home so she know when God is ready for her to have a car she will and she’s going to continue to thank him and advance for things He’s done. That just goes to show the faithfulness and belief she has in God because he’s already blessed her with so much and she knows He’ll do it again.

  2. According to Strauss, “a parable may be defined as a story from daily life illustrating a moral or spiritual lesson” (p. 539, 2007). Growing up, I was taught about the parables told throughout the Bible and how they are significant to our life even now. However, the more I read about them in this class I realized that there is so much more to the parables then meets the eye. Although they are stories that allow us to learn moral and spiritual lessons nowadays like Strauss said, we have to take the context and audience in consideration. To us, these stories are generic and can be applied to multiple scenarios in our life, but if we look at what the culture was like during the time these were written we would realize that they were written for a specific reason. There were things going on during Jesus ministry that required addressing such as conflict with the Pharisees and the people needed to be taught through simple parables. In order to fully understand the individual parable, we need to dive into the study of the original audience and what was going on during that time. But just because they were written to a specific audience that does not mean they are not applicable today; we just need to be careful not to take them out of context.

  3. When we read parables we cannot just read it and decide what it means based on our feelings. Parables are stories from Jesus to give instruction and show individuals a new perspective. Parables are meant for the original listeners and the meanings of the time period. We need to be aware of these current meanings and not just assume what words mean today, meant during this time. It is also important to know the surrounding context. Jesus was not random in the words he said and when He said them. Everything Jesus said and did was with intention, so when He shared a parable, it usually pertained and addressed a situation occurring in His life and ministry. Parables could all be based on love and success if we wanted them to, but when we look deeper and to why Jesus said them to the intended audience we find a deeper meaning. All of these parables are from Jesus and intended for His ministries and are applied to this. We cannot insert our own opinions to these parables because we want our preferences to be supported. Jesus spoke these parables to help others see the right way, to give them a better choice of how they choose to live their lives. When we read these parables we need to look at them for their true meaning. This comes as we study who the passage was for, Jesus’ reason for writing them, and the context of this time and the deeper meaning for individuals to act on. This is crucial as we study and grow in our understanding of Jesus’ life and ministry. It can be used to help our lives when used in the right context and meaning.

  4. I enjoyed reading this blog post. what i gathered from it is that people should read the parables and look at the principles that come from them and look at Jesus exact moment in time. it is said parables had application to what was going on in Jesus ministry during that time. the parable about the good Samaritan is about a man traveling alone and gets robbed. a priest and a person of high religious faith sees this man who was robbed and beaten and discards him because the factors to not help outweighed helping this person. a good Samaritan takes this person and do the right thing any person of any status should morally do and that’s help and serve this person best way possible. this same element was going on in Jesus ministry at a larger scale, and essentially why he got executed. many high status people did not help or really care for each individual person only people who could benefit them or complimented them in some way. the people who walked by in the parable seen no value in the man laying down beaten in the street, so they felt it was not their problem so they did nothing.

  5. Knowing that parables meant something specific to the biblical audience should be a huge indicator for us bible readers today. When we are confused at what a parable might mean, we should not guess and insert our own ideas or opinions. The original audience likely had a clear understanding of what Jesus parables meant and knew exactly what he was referring to. We should seek to understand the types of historical and literary context behind the original intent of the parables. Inserting ourselves into the original audiences shoes, retrieving the application and then applying it to our lives.

  6. From what I read I really enjoy your blog post. I was able to translate each of the parables and have it be cleared to me that it is used in everyday life. I can honestly say from when I learned about parables before from when I see them now I can say that Jesus mindset and our mindset as humans have a lot in common an correlate and I also learned that a lot of his parables had meanings and they are true. The main point is Jesus wanted to get his point out to a real audience.

  7. Thomas Hill

    After reading this blog post I was able to understand the concept of what a parable was and looked like especially in the Bible. Parables where actually purposely used in many situations to compare or share ideas. Another reason or fact about parables that stuck with me is that “several parables of judgment occured in Jesus’s last teaching” (Phill Long). This had to be pretty important, Jesus said that the rejection of the people who where suppose to go or thought they were going to go to the feast ended up getting replaced by “Those who had no chance” (Phil Long). This was a question to me because why did these people have no chance? And if they had no chance how did they end up getting invited to the messianic feast?

  8. It can be so easy to take the Bible out of context and apply it to our own lives in a way that we see fit. Sometimes these allegories we make are not all bad, we can probably come up with some allegories that make sense, however when we read scripture we should be trying to understand it in the way it was original meant to be understood. The danger with taking the Bible out of context and turning a parable into a personal life lesson is that we can miss some key elements and then misinterpret the Bible, completely missing God’s intended message. In all of Jesus’s parables there is a specific point, the way he gets to that point is through using cultural influences to explain that point to better illustrate the concept to his disciples. We need to know these cultural influences to fully understand the weight and meaning of the parable, and at that point you can start applying that point to your personal life.

  9. This is a very helpful blog of interpreting the parables. Especially as “the church tend(s) to read the parables seeking to find theology that was well beyond the meaning of the parable” (P.Long, p.95). Which part of that is understanding the context and the culture during the Jesus’ time. It’s also quite interesting of the possibility of more meanings for a single parable that I wonder what would be the ‘right’ meaning for that parable? How would we better interpret that? Or does also Jesus meant more than one meaning for us to learn?
    It’s also interesting from the parable of the messianic feast that those who were invited in are not, and those that weren’t invited were invited. I think that points toward those who think are saved and reject having to spend time with God, and those who might not have a chance of being invited get that chance to be invited to something big either that may be unbelievers/sinners or those who might have thought they sit too low of a place to be invited to something so grand.
    But overall, very interesting and helpful post.

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