When you finish this section, you should be able to:
- Understand the many kinds of parables in Scripture
- Know how parables can be interpreted
- See how parables have been interpreted in the history of the church
- Know the three main exegetical issues for interpreting parables
- Understand how to discern what a parable means now
Interpreting Scripture is important. Knowing what genres of literature are therein is also important to help us interpret properly. In this section, we will look at parables by first looking at the many kinds that are in Scripture. Then, as an illustration, we will observe the interpretation of three parables from the Gospel of Luke. Next, we will see how the parable of the Good Samaritan was interpreted by several Church Fathers. Finally, we will suggest the three exegetical points and one hermeneutical point of which every reader and interpreter should be aware.
| Overview |
The Parables: One Point Or Many?
There are two kinds of literature which suffer the most misinterpretation. The book of Revelation takes first place and suffers the most, while the parables, which Jesus told, follow closely on its heels.
The amount of material in the Gospels which is under the parable genre is impressive. Over one-third of the teachings of Jesus found in the Synoptic Gospels is parabolic.
What is a parable? The English dictionaries usually define parable as: “a short allegorical story, designed to convey some truth or moral lesson,” or, “a brief story using events or facts of everyday life to illustrate a moral or spiritual truth.”
This standard dictionary meaning leads one to believe that a parable is a story of everyday happenings, which is meant to convey some moral or spiritual principle.
The problem with this approach is that a modern English dictionary only gives us a picture of how the word can be defined for the twentieth-century English reader.
The Greek word parabole can be an illustration, a comparison, or an analogy, which is usually told in a story form, using common events of everyday life to reveal a moral or spiritual truth. The same problem arises here! Jesus was not a Greek-speaking Jew. His mother tongue was Aramaic. A Greek definition still does not define for us what a parable may have signified for Jesus.
The Hebrew-Aramaic term that Jesus most likely used was mashal. One can ascertain this because when the LXX was translated from Hebrew into Greek in the third and second centuries before Jesus, the word mashal was translated by parabole. To understand, then, what Jesus was using, one must look at how mashal is used in the First Testament.
The First Testament Parables
In the First Testament mashal could refer to the following:
- A proverb. 1 Samuel 10.12; 24.23; Ezekiel 12.22-23; 16.44; 18.23
- A satire or taunt. Numbers 21.27-30; Deuteronomy 28.37; 1 Kings 9.7; 2 Chronicles 7.20; Psalms 44.14; 69.11; Isaiah 14.3-4; Habakkuk 2.6
- A riddle. Psalms 49.2; 78.2; Proverbs 1.6; Ezekiel 17.2ff.
- An allegory. Ezekiel 17.2-10; 20.49-21.5; 24.2-5
It is clear from the passages that in the First Testament there was a wider variety of concepts than a simple story, which demonstrated a moral or spiritual truth. Frequently, a parable is not a story at all!
The Second Testament Parables
There is a broad spectrum within the Second Testament writings also:
- A proverb. Luke 4.23
- A metaphor. Mark 7.14 17; Luke 5.36-38
- A similitude. (An expanded simile) Matt. 13.33; Mark 4.26-29,
- A story parable. (An extended story which refers to a singular event.) Matt. 21.29; Luke 14.16-24; 16.1
- An example parable. Not unlike the Story Parable, the Example Parable usually ends with a command, either positive or negative. Matt. 23-25; Luke 10.29-37; 12.16.21; 14.7-14; 16.19-31; 18.9-14
- An allegory. There is great debate over whether any of the parables of Jesus are allegorical in nature. A safe rule to follow is that when Jesus treats one of his parables as allegorical and gives an interpretation of it as such—it is safe to follow his interpretation. One should not decide, however, that because Jesus did this on occasion, that it should be done to every parable by a present reader. When Jesus did, do; when Jesus did not, do not! Matt. 13.24-29, 36-43; 22.1-14; Mark 4.3-9, 13-20; 12.1-11.
One can see from this overview that a parable is more than a simple story with a moral attached. Let’s define parable, then, as a figure of speech in which there is a brief or extended comparison.
With this definition in mind, it is very difficult to determine how many parables there might be in the Gospels.
Let’s look at some of the parables from Luke’s Gospel as examples.
The Parables Of Jesus Concerning Prayer
The Friend at Midnight: Luke 11.5-8
There are three distinct teachings on prayer in Luke 11.1-13. First, Jesus teaches his disciples a model prayer (11.1-4). Second, he shares a parable often called the friend at midnight (11.5-8). Third, he told yet another parable concerning prayer, which is often placed as a part of the first parable but seems best to be seen as different because it carries a different meaning.
The Friend at Midnight parable’s interpretation turns on the translation of the Greek word anaideia (an-ah’-ee-die-ah’).[ref]Kenneth E. Bailey. Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes. 1976. William B. Eerdmans. Grand Rapids, MI. 119-133.[/ref] When this word is properly understood, the parable makes sense and has a different meaning from that usually seen in popular interpretations.
The parable opens with a question that expects an emphatic negative answer. The question can be paraphrased as: “Can you imagine having a guest and going to a neighbor to borrow bread, and the neighbor offers several, ridiculous excuses about a locked door and sleeping children?” The listener from the Middle East would respond, “No, I cannot imagine such a thing!”
Contemporary, exegetical literature is full of references to the need of the ancient traveler to travel by night because of the heat. This is true in certain desert areas, but it was not customary in Palestine. The arrival of a friend at midnight was unusual.
When a friend did arrive unexpectedly, he was not simply a guest of the individual at whose house he came to visit. He was a guest of the whole community. In going to his neighbor, the host was asking the sleeper to fulfill his duty to the guest of the village. With this background in mind, Luke 11.7 should become clearer. In Luke 11.5-7, we have the question, which expects the negative answer as referenced above. Jesus was saying, “Can you imagine having a friend and going to him with the request to help you entertain a guest, and then he offers silly excuses about sleeping and a barred door?” “No!” would be the reply.
As we have stated, the significance of the passage turns on the meaning of the word anaideia (an-ah’-ee-die-ah’) in Luke 11.8. The word usually means shamelessness (a negative quality), but it is translated in most Bibles today (cf. NRSV) by the English word persistence. The negative meaning of the Greek word certainly raises a problem in the interpretation. Is it shameless for the believer to take his request to God in prayer? Surely not! To make sense of the parable, the interpreters apparently felt it necessary to turn this negative word into a positive word, and by the twelfth century, the shift to persistence had occurred.
What then is the solution? Another translation of the word is possible. It could be translated avoidance of shame according to the late Second Testament scholar Dr. Kenneth E. Bailey[ref]Bailey. Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes. 1976. 119-133.[/ref]. Most people read the parable and think that the sleeper finally gave in to the persistence of the host who was making the request. This is an unfortunate reading of the text. The qualities of verse 8 are the qualities of the sleeper, not the host. If the sleeper refused the request of anything so humble as a loaf of bread, the host would continue his rounds, cursing the stinginess of the sleeper who would not get up even to fulfill his community duty. The story would be all over the village by morning. The sleeper would be met with cries of shame everywhere he went. Keep in mind, if he had not given the bread, he would have brought shame on the entire community, as well as himself. Therefore, because of his desire for the avoidance of shame, he would have gotten up and granted whatever the borrower wants.
What does this parable teach us, if it does not teach us persistence in prayer? I believe it can teach us two things. First, it teaches us something about the character of God. He will answer prayer because of his integrity. Everything was against the host getting his request answered. It was at night. His neighbor was in bed. His children were asleep. This made the request awkward, but not impossible. Therefore, because of the neighbor’s integrity—his avoidance of shame—he graciously replied. Our cultural presuppositions in the first part of the twenty-first-century tend to make us uneasy about seeing the preservation of honor as a virtue that is appropriate to God. Given the importance of this concept in the Eastern value system, it would be surprising if Jesus did not consider such quality as a prime virtue of the Father.
Second, this parable teaches us that we can be assured of an answer to our prayers. If you are confident that you will have your needs met when you go to a neighbor in the night, how much more should you be able to trust God for supplying an answer to your need! Because the supplying of an unexpected guest’s need was a matter of community honor, it had to be met by community resources. God has committed himself to us like family and has obligated himself to meet our needs. The parable, then, teaches that God is a God of honor and that a man or woman who is praying can have complete assurance that their prayers will be heard.
The Gift of the Father: Luke 11.9-13
These verses are usually understood in light of the parable of the Friend at Midnight. It is the reason that “persistence” gained the favor of the translators. The two parables should be understood as two completely different teachings of Jesus concerning prayer. Several shifts occur, which make this plain. In the first parable, the neighbor deals with a neighbor; here a father deals with his son. In the first parable, there is no one asking for something good and receiving something bad. There is no reference to persistence. So far as we know, the host asks only once. Here, continued asking is implied by the present tenses of the verbs. In the parable, the friend calls the neighbor. Here, knocking is introduced. These reasons support the conclusion that this is a separate block of material.
There are three parts to this parable:
- The first part is an example of Hebrew parallelism. The present tenses of ask, seek, and knock, imply continued action and could be translated keep on asking, seeking, and knocking. The word everyone can be understood as an appeal to even the outcast, who also can receive if he asks. The background of this language is life in the Middle East, in general. Asking is a part of life on all levels of society. Jesus was using language from the daily interchange of social and economic life. Even beggars, as social outcasts, had a profession that was recognized as legitimately ordained by God but was nevertheless despised by humans. Again, our Western twenty-first-century disposition argues against asking for anything. In the place of asking, we have learned to work. Unfortunately, we have come to feel that we have to work for God, or somehow earn his pleasure in order for our request to be granted. That idea is really absurd!
- The second part of this parable teaches us about the quality of the answers which we receive from God. This parable implies that a human father will not give his son something harmful when a request has been made, but rather something good.
- The third part shares that the Father always gives good gifts—in this case, the Holy Spirit—to all who ask him.
Thus, we are taught that anyone can continually ask of the Father and that the quality of the gift we receive from him will always be exceedingly more than we are asking for.
The Persistent Widow: Luke 18.1-8
The meaning of this parable is succinctly given in verse 1: Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.
The parable has two characters. The judge’s character was corrupt, as indicated by the statement that he did not fear God, nor regard man. The point was that he did not take the judgment of God seriously. The second character is a widow, a needy and helpless person.
This little lady came repeatedly to the judge with a request that he would take up her case. The widow did not want the punishment of the offender, but payment of whatever was due to her. For a long time, her pleas were in vain. The judge was legally required to give precedence to her as a widow. He was either unwilling to do so or did not dare, because of the power of her opponent. Finally, he gave in, because he feared that she would keep pestering him.
The parable itself has no application, but we are provided one by Jesus in the finishing verses (18.6-8). The parable is concerned with two points:
- Will God vindicate his people?
The answer is, Yes. He will do so because it is his character to do so, not like the judge who was forced to act contrary to his character.
- Will God’s people have to wait long?
The answer is that God is not like the judge who had to be pestered before he gave in to the widow. God will answer soon. Quickly should be translated soon, which means that something occurs in a very short period of time. To those waiting it may seem long, but from God’s perspective it is not so.
There is an abrupt shift that occurs in verse 8b. A question is asked, but no answer is given. The question: When Jesus returns, will there continue to be the faithfulness, which is expressed by unfailing prayer?
Parables in Church History
Because Jesus treated the parable of the soils as an allegory, it became vogue with the Church Fathers to allegorize most all of the parables. The following are examples in outline form of how notable characters in Church History have interpreted the parable of the Good Samaritan:
Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150- 215):
- Good Samaritan = Neighbor = Christ
- Thieves = Rulers of darkness
- Wounds = Fears, lust, wrath, pains, deceit, pleasures
- Wine = Blood of David’s vine
- Oil = Compassion of the Father
- Binding = Love, faith, hope
Origen (ca. 184-254):
- The man going down to Jericho = Adam
- Jerusalem from which he was going = Paradise
- Jericho = The world
- Robbers = Hostile influence and enemies of man such as the thieves and murderers mentioned in John 10.8
- Wounds = Disobedience or sins
- Priest = Law
- Levite = Prophets
- Good Samaritan = Christ
- Beast = Body of Christ
- Inn = Church
- Two denarii = Knowledge of the Father and the Son
- Innkeeper = Angels in charge of the church
- Return of the Good Samaritan = Second coming of Christ
- The man going down to Jericho = Adam
- Jerusalem from which he was going = City of Heavenly Peace
- Jericho = The moon which signifies our mortality (there is a play here on the Hebrew terms for moon and Jericho)
- Robbers = Devil and his angels
- Stripping him = Taking away his immortality
- Beating him = Persuading him to sin
- Leaving him half dead = Due to sin, he was dead spiritually, but half alive, due to his knowledge of God
- Priest = Priesthood of the OT Law
- Levite = Ministry of the OT Prophets
- Good Samaritan = Christ
- Binding of the wounds = Restraint of sin
- Oil = Comfort of good hope
- Wine = Exhortation to spirited work
- Beast = Body of Christ
- Inn = Church
- Two denarii = Two commandments of love
- Innkeeper = Apostle Paul
- Return of the Good Samaritan = Resurrection of Christ
One can see that almost anything goes when it comes to allegorizing the parables. Certainly, this is not what Jesus intended when he told the story of the Good Samaritan.
Interpreting The Parables
There are four points that should be observed in order to help the readers of the Second Testament to interpret the parables. The first three have to do with exegesis, while the last one is hermeneutical.
| What’s the Point?
When reading a parable, let the context suggest the point of reference, which will lead to interpretation. (Illustration: Luke 7.40-42).
| Who is the Audience?
When the audience can be identified, which is the case for most of the parables in the Gospels, there are three things to do:
- Read and listen to the parable over and over.
- Identify the point of reference intended by Jesus that would have been picked up by his first hearers.
- Try to determine how the original hearers would have identified with the story.
| How did the Author use the Parable for his Audience?
The background of the Gospel and the way in which the writer used the material will help you come to an understanding of what is being said.
| What Does It Mean Now?
The parables had immediacy for the hearers and Jesus used them to catch their attention and drive home a message. We should do two things:
First, translate the point of the parable into our own context. Here is an illustration:
A family of unkept individuals was stranded by the roadside on a Sunday morning. They were helpless because their car had broken down, and the parents had no money to help their situation. The father was dirty and his clothes had not been washed in days. The mother’s hair was tangled and her dress was well-worn. She held a baby, which was smelly and crying.
Down the road came a pastor on his way to preach the sermon he had prepared for his Sunday morning service. His mind was intent on the Scripture he was delivering and the illustrations, which would make it come alive for his people. He rolled the jokes over and over in his mind. He was set. The father of the stranded family waved frantically, but the pastor could not stop for him because he would be late to deliver his message.
A driver of another car came zooming down the street. He was the head of a congregational ministry. He was in a hurry because he had to work with the people, which God had directed to seek him out because he could lead them through Inner Healing. His giftedness was certainly appreciated by those who had his time. God helped him to see their problems and give them appropriate counsel. This person looked straight ahead pretending not to see the family on the side of the road.
Alas, the next car was driven by an outspoken opponent of the church to which the other two were racing to arrive . Although he was on his way to do a TV show, he pulled over to the side of the road to offer help to these people. He inquired about their need and found out all the details. He took them to the local Marriott and checked them in. He bought some clothes for the family and gave them some money so they could eat. He helped the man find a job and told the management of the Marriott that if they would contact him, he would pay any additional charges from his commission on his second book, which had just been released.
Second, remember that the parables are, in some way, vehicles proclaiming the kingdom of God. This was the central core message of Jesus. While these parables have some reference points, the main one to be aware of is that they suggest something about the kingdom.
Community Discussion Questions
➡ |CDQ Info|
- How does the idea of avoidance of shame fit into your Western mindset of who God is?
- How does the concept of continual asking fit into your theology? Do you feel like you are pestering God?
- How does the story of this little lady’s persistence help you understand your need to continually ask God for his help?
- How have you allegorized the parables in the past or heard them allegorized? What can you do to stop this misuse of the genre of literature?