Stories. You have to love them. And most of us do; most of us enjoy hearing a good story, not to mention telling one! Whether it be sitting as a child or adult with grandparents, hearings stories of old, or sitting with a teacher or parent (as a young child) having a book read to us, or indeed being the one reading (secretly loving the book as much as the child!), we all love stories. Further, many of us probably know the experience in the middle of an intellectually challenging talk, the relief of an illustration—a story brightening everything, bringing light, a moment of mental rest! Indeed, the significance of stories cannot be doubted. Consider their prevalence in the entertainment industry. Some of us enjoy nothing more than reality: running a trail, white water rafting, jumping from a plane. But compare this to how many people metaphorically jump from planes every day, read novels, or metaphorically fall in love every Friday night in front of the TV. Storytelling is part of who we are. Even in the music industry many of the most famous songs tell stories—think of most country music. So, whether it be a novel, a film, listening to your favorite music, or just catching up with workmates around the water cooler on a Monday morning, stories fill our lives.
Unsurprisingly, then, massive sections of the Bible are stories too. Glance at the table of contents of the Old Testament: stories revealing how God interacts with the world, stories of people interacting with one another—even the Psalms, the songs of the bible, often tell mini-stories.
And aren’t these brilliant stories? Think of Ruth 1, hooking us and forcing us to read on. Naomi leaves the land of Judea for Moab because of a famine; something any Israelite would have known was a sign of God’s judgment. So too was exile. So, when Naomi’s husband voluntarily takes his family to Moab, we feel a little concerned, and with good reason. Sure enough, things go from bad to worse. He dies. And then Naomi’s two sons marry Moabite women—something forbidden in Jewish law. Then they die too! It is at this moment that the narrative shifts brilliantly, bringing out the drama, so when Naomi hears that God has visited his people in Israel and decides to go back, we are on the edge of our seats! Will she get to partake in God’s blessing again? We may indeed reflect on the same question for ourselves: when ensnared in sin, can we get out? Naomi goes back with Ruth and Orpah, and the amazing dialogue that follows captures the drama perfectly (slowing the story down to a snail’s pace), as the question becomes whether Ruth and Orpah will go back also. Ruth, of course, goes on with her mother-in-law, but when they get back, Naomi (full of bitterness) exclaims she left full with a husband and sons, but has returned empty.
Crickets! What about Ruth? Doesn’t she count? This sets matters up brilliantly, because it is not man or woman (as categories of worth) that makes the difference, but whether a person is godly, willing to reflect God’s loving kindness to others! Spoiler alert—as the story unfolds it is godly Ruth and godly Boaz who make all the difference. But for now, the first chapter climaxes in suspense: “And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.” What would become of these women? Would they get God’s blessing? Here is storytelling at its best.
Do we imagine that Jesus was any less proficient a storyteller? Hardly. He could captivate vast audiences, mesmerizing them with tales of a lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son, then a manager ripping his boss off and getting praised! Should I maybe be like that manager? Well, if so, how? Then (in the same section) Jesus climaxes with two men dying, one going to Abraham’s bosom and the other to the fires of Hades. Here I am recounting Luke 15-16, a section filled with some of the most amazing parables of Jesus, but also some of the most difficult to interpret.
Here then is the challenge. As wonderful as they are, how do you and I go about interpreting Jesus’s parables? How do we read them? Is Jesus expecting us to read every detail as important—as sometimes he seems to suggest—or perhaps with only one or maybe two main points in mind? These are questions that have plagued Christians for centuries—don’t feel bad. But they are questions upon which we can shed some light.
Allegory emerged in the early centuries of the church—often blamed on Greek influences—which spiritualized not only the Old Testament stories of the bible but also the parables of Jesus. In interpretation it was known as “allegorizing.”
Although the example I give here is newer, from the 20th century author Arthur Pink, on Elisha and the floating axe head (2 Kings 6), it illustrates allegorizing well:
The incident which has been before us may, we consider, be justly regarded as broadly illustrating what is portrayed by the law and the gospel. It serves to give us a typical picture of the sinner’s ruin and redemption. As the result of being dissatisfied with the position God originally assigned us—subjection to His authority—we (in Adam) appropriated what was not ours [i.e. the axe], and in consequence suffered a fearful fall. The inanimate iron falling into the Jordan—the place of “judgment”—is an apt figure… The way and means which God took for our recovery was for Christ to come right down to where we were, and to be “cut off” (Daniel 9:26), yes, “cut off out of the land of the living” (Isaiah 53:8), enduring judgment on our behalf, thereby recovering us to God (1 Peter 3:18)…. [But this] incident may also be taken to inform the believer of how lost blessings may be restored to him… This passage reveals how your situation may be retrieved. (1) Acquaint your Master with your grief (2 Kings 6:5); unbosom yourself freely and frankly unto Him. (2) Let His “where fell it?” (2 Kings 6:6) search you… (3) Avail yourself and make use of the means for recovery: cast in the “stick” or “tree” (2 Kings 6:6): that is, plead the merits of Christ’s cross (1 Peter 2:24). (4) Stretch forth the hand of faith (2 Kings 6:7); that is, count upon your Master’s infinite goodness and grace, expect His effectual intervention, and the lost blessing shall be restored to you…. This incident may also be viewed as making known to us how we may grow in grace.
This (forgive me for saying) is quite crazy. Pink interprets the same story three different ways, wherein the borrowed axe fallen in the river, recovered by Elijah throwing a branch in, represents either us, or lost blessings, or how to grow in grace! The problem with this, as exciting as it may sound, is that there are no checks and balances. While all three interpretations are clever, what would stop Pink overlaying heresy? In classic allegorizing, therefore, the “interpreter” is simply superimposing external ideas onto the text. And even good ideas are potentially dangerous if they are not what the Bible says!
Turning to Jesus’s parables, we find similar examples of allegorizing, such as this from the Church Father Origen, regarding the parable of the Good Samaritan:
The man who fell among thieves is Adam. As Jerusalem represents heaven, so Jericho, to which the traveller journeyed is the world. The robbers are man’s enemies, the devil and his minions. The priest stands for the Law, the Levite for the prophets. The good Samaritan is Christ himself. The beast on which the wounded man was set, is Christ’s body which bears the fallen Adam. The inn is the Church; the two pence, the Father and the Son; and the Samaritan’s promise to come again, Christ’s Second Advent.
Hopefully we can see the problem—even if we are not sure how to deal with it. Clearly the goal here is well motivated: teach the bible in a way that makes all of it applicable to every Christian. But the problem is that this is not really the bible teaching us. Rather, it is simply our own ideas—good or bad—etched onto the text. It is as if one is bringing his or her own ideas to the bible in order to receive them back again, clothed in biblical authority. Not good!
The counteroffensive against allegorizing launched in 1888. Adolf Jülicher broke Jesus’ parables into three kinds of speeches based on ancient rhetorical categories: similitude, parable, and exemplary story. Most importantly, Jülicher then suggested that Jesus’ parables should be seen as having only one simple and straightforward meaning, one point in every case—such that when Jesus in the gospels seemed himself to give more details, Jülicher claimed that this must have been a later addition by the gospel writers, not the words of the historical Jesus. Even less-critical scholars like Jeremias accepted Jülicher’s basic insight, and for about a century it became almost axiomatic in parables study: find the one main point of the parable and conform every detail to this point. Ignore any others that don’t conform to it as accidental.
The problem I find myself feeling with this approach is that it seems too rigid, too “grammatical.” To be frank, it can often feel too much like a grammar class, not the literary stories that the parables self-evidently are. The life of the parables themselves seems to get lost.
For instance, this kind of discussion is helpfully laid out in Richard Longenecker’s still excellent collection of essays The Challenge of Jesus’ Parables (2000). Readers are referred to this book for fuller discussion. As stated above, Jülicher broke the parables of Jesus into three types: 1) similitude, 2) parable, and 3) exemplary story. Rudolf Bultmann adopted the same groupings, except that the first, “similitude,” he broke further into 1a) figurative sayings; 1b) metaphors; and 1c) similitudes proper. Others have gone back to the Greek version of the Old Testament to see where the word “parable” occurred, noting it was applied to 1) maxims or proverbs; 2) bywords or taunts; 3) riddles; 4) story parables; and 5) allegories. These categories are then used (in comparison and contrast) to categorize Jesus’s parables: 1) maxims or proverbs (the same); 2) similes and metaphors (different); 3) riddles (the same); 4) similitude (cf. Jülicher); 5) story parables (the same); and 6) example parables (cf. Jülicher). And then there are those breaking parables into different topical sub-groups: 1) parables on the kingdom; 2) parables on warning and preparedness; 3) parables on God’s love and forgiveness; 4) parables on poverty and riches; 5) parables on prayer; 6) parables on strange neighbors and risky care; and 7) parables on hearing Jesus in discipleship.
Hopefully you are as soured on this approach as I after only reading this paragraph! The problem (to my mind) is that as helpful as this kind of categorizing can be, it still feels like that grammar class—breaking everything down into neat groupings—rather than letting the richness of each parable’s context speak for itself!
This may be a little simplistic as an analogy, although I tend to think not: how would you interpret a sermon illustration? After all, the parables were often Jesus’ sermon illustrations! The answer to this question should always be: “It depends.” It depends on the context of what is being said. Can’t a sermon illustration do a massive number of wildly different things in different context? I suggest so. Now the temptation might be to say, “Yes but I am sure we could categorize different kinds of sermon illustrations into different groupings!” Fair comment. But what does this achieve? Surely the best thing is to understand what each illustration does in its own immediate context.
Consider one of the most famous and important parables in Jesus’s ministry: the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1–23, Mark 4:1–20, Luke 8:4–15). Why is this parable so important? For at least two reasons. First it is closer to being what we may call “allegory” than perhaps any other parable. Unlike most parables, the gospels record Jesus’ own interpretation of this one, and each element has a symbolic meaning in this particular parable: the sower, the seed, the different soil, the birds, the weeds, etc. It therefore demands we consider more than one point as significant—we may grant Jülicher’s point that not every detail in a parable matters, but we may not truncate everything. Second, this parable is rare because it tells us, from Jesus himself, why he spoke in parables:
Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.’” (Matthew 13:10-11)
Why did Jesus often speak in very cryptic stories? In part, it was to test to see if people would come closer to him to know more, not so they could categorize the parable and move on.
But what then does it mean to understand this and other parables in context? This is where we must go next.
We make a grave mistake when we read parables in isolation. Instead, what I advocate in parable interpretation is context, context, living context! We are back to Ruth and the wonderful dynamics of storytelling itself, albeit with a few extra ingredients we need to keep in mind, as we will now note.
As a major point of warning to start, consider how often we are inclined to read parables on their own, in isolation, reading just one chunk of text for our morning or evening devotions, our sermon, or our Sunday School. We ought not do so. Think of the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son in the Gospel of Luke. There is indeed a development of ideas, with different aspects coming out of each. But all three are also obviously scenes of one central message. I imagine all of us quickly see that we should read these (at least in part) together.
But have you ever stopped to consider why the parable of the Shrewd Manager is also inside the same “chunk”? And what about the Rich Man and Lazarus? All five of these parables are spoken in the same context, that of the religious leaders complaining about Jesus mixing with “outsiders.” Jesus starts with the joy of God over finding lost things. Then he moves subtly to convict the “older brother” (i.e. the religious leaders) of their pride over those they might not welcome. But he does not stop there! Then he moves to an even deeper rebuke, wherein Jesus points out that even the pagans’ system of social care ends up sounding like the true Jewish system of God’s loving kindness (‘hesed’). So everyone (even the pagans) knows this is right! And yet unlike pagans, some of the Jewish religious leaders questioning Jesus don’t get it; they live without kindness. So Jesus brings a powerful overall challenge to anyone who loves money (Luke 16:14). Here, he says, is a message for us to consider: how are you using your money to win friends for eternity? And, of course, the Rich Man and Lazarus becomes the final climactic shock—will people who love money most, even end up in God’s eternal dwelling?
All this is not to say that noticing groupings is a waste of time, especially when context itself demands it. Consider, for example “the kingdom of heaven” parables of Matthew 13, all in a row:
44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
Message for us: the things of Jesus are so worthwhile that it is worth giving up anything to gain them.
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46 who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.
Message for us: same again, the things of Jesus are so worthwhile that it is worth giving up anything to gain them.
47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind… 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Message for us: so worthwhile is the kingdom, for all eternity, not just in the present, giving up anything to gain it for eternity!
The juxtaposition of all these parables in a row captures the necessary nuances each must have to be interpreted well.
This is also not to say that sometimes we cannot note similar parables with similar themes, even across different sections of a gospel. Consider, for example, parables on faith in prayer:
5 And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, 6 for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; 7 and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? 8 I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. 9 And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you. (Luke 11)
1 And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3 And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him… 7 And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? (Luke 18)
Ponder these together and your prayer life will never be the same again!
But in the end, context is what really matters, even so much so, that the immediate context of the same parable in different gospels may nuance things differently. This is another of what I called earlier the “extra ingredients.” Let’s return to the Parable of the Sower, even as recorded by two different gospel authors with slightly different emphases:
3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, 6 but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 He who has ears, let him hear.”
2 And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3 “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” 9 And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Consider each of these gospels’ contexts. Mark’s gospel was written to urge suffering Christians to maintain their faith. Matthew’s gospel was written to majority Jewish Christians who (in part) felt weird: why have so few fellow Israelites come to Jesus? The same parable, but different gospels with differing emphases—this yields both similarities and differences in the ways this parable is presented.
In both cases the emphasis is upon the soil not the seed. In fact in Greek the word “seed” or “seeds” never occurs, so we know the attention is on the soils. Also (unsurprisingly) there are exactly the same bad outcomes—rocky ground, birds, and weeds.
But notice differences too. In Mark, there is only one seed each falling in the bad places, compared to the many seedsfalling on the good soil. And when it comes to the abundant crop that grows in Mark, everything is ramped up: thirty, sixty, a hundredfold. Mark emphasizes: listen to Jesus, stick with him, it is not too hard (!), and you will be good soil. And don’t be anxious—some individual seeds (singular) fall in bad places, but we hope for better for you. The majority fell on good soil. You need not be discouraged by persecution! The emphasis on abundance and more abundance reminds the audience: don’t fret, keep listening to Jesus, having ears to hear when things are dark, for there is still abundance to be yielded. As then, so now: during tough times keep holding onto Jesus and his word! There is no reason to fear your faith will be choked if you just listen to Jesus!
But this is not exactly the emphasis in Matthew. Matthew emphasizes more the sovereignty of God. Why do I feel strange? Because lots of seed is falling, and yet not all of it is like me! To these more Jewish Christians, Matthew preaches: you are part of the faithful remnant, the few, that God is saving, but that is because God made you good soil. And also as then, so now! The message for us: be comforted that you are his, even when you feel weird!
Reading the same story in two different gospels captures the age-old tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. And yet in both cases the same message rings out as true: listening to Jesus, always, this makes the difference!
In conclusion, we need not get too stressed about scholarship or the history of allegorical interpretation of the parables. While helpful in some ways, the point is mainly this. The parables of Jesus are stories, stories in context, and if we read them carefully, noting context and story development, we will be hugely blessed!
For further reading:
Craig Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (2nd ed., 2012). Excellent summary of past approaches. Also attempts to ride the line by arguing one-character parables as having one point; two, two; and three, three. I remain personally unconvinced that allegory is a genre. But this is a very readable and a super helpful one-stop resource.
Bruce Waltke & Cathi Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary (2001). A brilliant practical guide to reading and applying biblical narratives in context.