What is a parable? A parable is a figure of speech in which there is a brief or extended comparison. Approximately one-third of all of Jesus’ teaching is in the form of parables, so it is important that we know how to handle these.
There are a couple of big pitfalls in interpreting parables, which account for the myriad of very different interpretations you will hear for the same parable. We want to be aware of these pitfalls before we outline the proper principles for interpreting this genre of literature.
The first pitfall is to confuse the genre of parable with that of biblical narrative. In a biblical narrative it is appropriate to ask such questions as, “why was the woman at the well coming to draw water in the middle of the afternoon rather than in the morning?” Or “why did David decide not to use Saul’s armor in his battle with Goliath?” Or “what is the significance of Jesus’ initial reluctance to turn the water into wine at the wedding at Cana?” These kinds of questions, while they may not be answered by the text, are appropriate questions because they deal with details of actual historical events.
On the other hand, parables are not actual historical events. A parable is a pretend story created by an author. The story exists only for the purpose of making the author’s point. Therefore, we shouldn’t ask questions such as, “why did the father of the prodigal son divide his property at the prodigal’s request?” There is no historical answer to that question because the neither the father nor the prodigal son literally existed. The only answer to that question can be, “because Jesus wanted him to so that He could make the point He desired to make.” Parables cannot be interpreted in the same way as biblical narrative.
The second big pitfall is to treat the parable as an allegory. This was the predominant method of interpreting parables until the late 19th century. In an allegory, every detail of the story has a corresponding meaning in the real world. In other words, everything means something. There are no detail for details' sake. One example of this kind of interpretation is Augustine’s interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
Augustine took every detail of the parable and found a corresponding point of comparison in the real world. For example, the man going down to Jericho represented Adam. Jerusalem represented the City of Heavenly Peace. Jericho represented the moon, which symbolizes our morality. Robbers were the devil and his demons. Their stripping of him represented taking away his immortality. Beating him represented persuading him to sin. Leaving him half-dead represented his spiritual death. The priest represented the Law. The Levite represented the Prophets. The Good Samaritan represented Christ. Augustine went on to assign significance to the oil, the wine, the beast, the inn, the two denarii, the innkeeper, and the return of the Good Samaritan.
The problem with this type of allegorization of a parable is that it tends to dismiss the context of the passage. In this particular parable, is Jesus intending to give a word picture of all of salvation history? No. He is answering a question posed to him by the lawyer in Luke 10:29. Having acknowledged that the Law requires a man to love God and to love his neighbor as himself, the lawyer, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem…” Jesus was answering a question and the whole point of the entire parable is to answer that question. He was not providing an allegory.
When treating a parable as an allegory, it is virtually impossible for two people to arrive at the same interpretation, which should give us great pause. This is evidenced by the fact that none of the allegorical interpretations of this parable by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine, Luther, and Bishop Trench arrived at the same place.
Parables generally teach one main point and that main point is much easier to discern if we have a very good understanding of the context. We shouldn’t seek allegorical significance in all the details of the parable. The only times we should attach significance to multiple details in a parable is when Jesus does. For example, when Jesus interprets the parable of the sower (Matt 13:1-9), He explicitly attaches significance to the details of the story (Matt 13:18-23). In such cases, of course, such an interpretation is warranted.
Here are a few main rules for arriving at the main point of a parable:
1. Who are the main characters? Sometimes there will be one. Sometimes there will be three. When there are three or more, it is good to try to narrow it down to the two most important characters. What these characters do and say will be very important for the point being made.
2. What comes at the end? The meaning of a parable is typically stressed by what happens at the end of the story. Is the main point of the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) that the father was forgiving? Not likely. The end of the story, the part of the tale to which the whole things leads, concentrates on the older son’s negative reaction to his father’s celebration at the prodigal son's return. This makes perfect sense in light of the fact that Jesus tells this parable, among others, in response to the Pharisees’ and scribes’ protest in 15:1, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
3. What occurs in direct discourse? If there are conversations held by the main characters of the parable, what happens in those conversations? Pay close attention to what is being said. The importance of this rule is illustrated in the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matt 20:1-16. There is no conversation between the landowner and the eleventh hour workers, yet there is a long conversation between the landowner and the first hour workers. The point of the parable can be found in that conversation. In the same way, in the parable of the prodigal son, there is no conversation between the father and the prodigal. Indeed, the prodigal son recites his rehearsed speech, but the father does not respond. However, there is a lengthy conversation between the father and the older son. Again, this conversation holds the key to a proper interpretation.
4. Who or what is talked about the most? Minor characters receive little attention, while major characters receive much attention. Don’t get caught up with the minor things. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, very little is said about the eleventh hour workers, while much is said about the first hour workers. This should tell us that the point of the parable is more likely related to the first hour workers’ response to the landowner.
5. What happened in the narrative prior to the telling of the parable? Once again, context is king. Often, when a parable is told it is directly related to the narrative that preceded it. It may be an answer to a question as in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), it may be a response to a challenge by Jesus’ opponents as in all the parables in Luke 15, and it may be an illustration of Jesus’ teaching as in the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16).
Parables are a beautiful form of teaching. If you use these questions, you’ll find them to be far less enigmatic than they used to be. Keep up the hard work.
Next time: interpreting epistles.