Understanding the Parables 

parable wheat
One of the central features of Jesus' teaching is his use of Parables.  The gospels record the first disciples going to ask Jesus to explain these parables on a number of occasions.  Therefore it is quite natural that we should also have questions about how we should understand the parables.

A survey of methods of interpreting the parables through the centuries shows it ranges from a complete allegorical interpretation where every small detail of the story is assigned a second, spiritual meaning; to the idea that there is only one main point of the parable and allegorical interpretation is minimised or denied.  

St Augustine completely allegorised the parable of the Good Samaritan.  In his interpretation he suggested the wounded man stands for Adam; Jerusalem stands for the heavenly city from which he had fallen;  the thieves for the devil;  the priest and the Levite for the Old Testament Laws which could save no one; the Samaritan who binds wounds for Christ who forgives sins; the inn for the church; and the innkeeper for the Apostle Paul!  Irenaeus interpreted the parable of the labourers by suggesting the parable depicts those who have been saved at different periods of world history.  

The trouble with this over allegorising is that the spiritual meanings are arbitrary - different people can connect different meanings to the same details.  It is then difficult to determine whether the spiritual meaning is valid or just a person reading their own meanings back into the story.  How could the original hearers of the parable of the Good Samaritan possibly connected the innkeeper with the Apostle Paul!

The other end of the range asserts that the parables reflect true to life conditions of first-century Palestine.  For example, many of the parables reflect farming practices of the day, and so they should be understood as clear stories that make one main point.  

The difficulty with this approach is that it is different to the way Jesus interpreted his own parables and it can minimise and filter out important points.

Matthew 13 is an important resource for helping us to understand parables.  It contains 7 parables (parables of the :sower, weeds, mustard seed, yeast, treasure, pearl, and net).  It also records Jesus' explanation of three parables - the sower, the weeds, and the net.  In these explanations, Jesus gives spiritual meanings to the main features of the stories.  For example the different soils represent different ways people respond to the message of the kingdom.  However, Jesus doesn't make arbitrary connections for every minor detail.  Secondly, Jesus doesn't just restrict the meaning to one main point.  For example the parable of the weeds seems to be making points both about the current reality where the righteous and the wicked co-exist, and a future judgement with different fates for the righteous and the wicked.

So how can we affirm a degree of allegorical interpretation without going overboard?  How can we avoid filtering out the multiple points Jesus is making in the attempt to find the single main point?

Craig Blomberg, in his book 'Interpreting the Parables' suggests the following:

1. The main characters of a parable will probably be the most common candidates for allegorical interpretation, and
2. The main points of the parable will most likely be associated with these characters.
3. The triadic structure of most of Jesus' narrative parables suggests that most parables may make three points, though some will probably make only one or two.

Here are some examples of the ways he applies these points:

The Parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32):

The allegorical meanings:
The Father represents God
The prodigal son represents the 'tax collectors and sinners' with whom Jesus was criticised for associating
The older brother represents the 'pharisees and scribes'

The main points are that:
God offers all people, however undeserving, lavish forgiveness of sins if they are willing to accept it
Sinners, however wicked have the opportunity to return to God in contrition
Those who claim to be God's people should be glad and not mad that he extends his grace even to the most undeserving


The twin parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin (Luke 15:4-10)

The allegorical meanings:
The shepherd and the Woman represent God
The lost sheep and coins represent tax collectors and sinners
The remaining sheep (99) and coins (9) represent the scribes and Pharisees

The main points are that:
God takes the initiative to go to great lengths to seek and save lost sinners
The salvation of lost people is a cause for celebration
God's people can never be satisfied that their numbers are sufficiently great so as to stop trying to save more

The parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard (Mt 20:1-16)

The allegorical meanings:
The vineyard owner represents God
The early workers (6am, 9am, noon, 3pm) represent God's true people who respond to God at different stages of life
The late workers represent the 'tax collectors and sinners' who were only recently turning to God

The main points are that:
None of God's people will be treated unfairly
Many seemingly less deserving people will be treated generously by God
All true disciples are equal in God's eyes.

photo credit: wheat via photopin (license)




David Wanstall, 10/02/2016