Saturday, February 26, 2022

How to Limit the many Diverse Interpretations of Parables

Through the years the parables of Jesus have been explained as being about many different and contradictory things. Interpreters and interpretations disagree. This diversity of explanations begs the question: is there no way to limit the number of diverse readings? My answer is, perhaps. In my view the final authority for evaluating a parable is the parable itself.

            How can a parable be the final authority for evaluating itself? Perhaps that sounds like nonsense to some readers, but it is nonetheless true. Parables, like poems, provide in themselves certain constraints on readers and interpreters. Here are a few guidelines for how parables should be read—general ones to be sure, but they are there nevertheless built into each parable. There are at least four.

First, the realism of the parable undermines any reading that disregards its realism and exposes as “idealism,” readings of a parable that posit meanings in the parable from another level of reality. Idealistic readings basically ignore the parable’s realism. The narrative1 that is the parable puts all its cards on the table face up, and conceals nothing from the reader: in the narrative a weed is a weed, a fig tree is a fig tree, a steward is a steward, a type of soil is a type of soil, and so on. The elements make sense in terms of the plot of the narrative. Attempts to make these features into something else suitable to another level of reality are mocked by the transparency of the feature in its natural environment in the parable.

Second, the language used in the parable establishes the limits of its discourse with the reader. Thus, readers are engaged with the parable only so long as they observe the limits of its language world. When the reader uses language in discussing the parable that is not authorized by the parable, the reader has broken off engagement with the parable and is in a sense talking to himself. At that point the reader is describing a personal reaction to the parable, which may be based on ideas the reader has extrapolated from the parable but are not there as such in the language of the narrative itself. Such ideas come out of the reader’s mind and personal experience.

Third, the parable is only interested in the social world of village life in ancient Israel in the time of Jesus. When the reader’s interest strays out of the first-century village where the action of the story takes place, the reader has broken off engagement with the parable and is again talking to himself or herself.

Fourth, the openness of the story invites the engagement of all readers. Since none of the stories of Jesus were originally closed off with authoritative interpretations, their invitation to each reader is, “what do you think about this situation?” Because the stories were constructed without conclusions,2 the message to every reader is the following: No final authoritative readings to parables are possible. Trying to close off the parable with a single authoritative solution must be considered a literary heresy because it violates the story’s basic construction. Thus, there will always be a range of plausible readings to every parable. And within these four guidelines parables will continue to solicit the engagements of readers to make discoveries about themselves and their world within the narrative.3

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1I use parable, narrative, story interchangeably. Parables are narrative and tell a story. The story is not a husk that one can peel away for the “real” thing at issue. The “real” thing is the parable.

2See Hedrick, Parables as Poetic Fictions. The Creative Voice of Jesus (Wipf & Stock, reprint 2005), 16-17, 254-58.

3Selected and revised from Charles W. Hedrick, Many Things in Parables. Jesus and His Modern Critics (Westminster John Knox, 2004), 53-54.

Friday, February 11, 2022

The Parables of Jesus are Realistic Stories about Human Life

Most of the “parables” of Jesus portray common peasant folk engaged in average, down to earth activities. Even those parables featuring characters not of the peasant class portray them in actions true to their status in society.1 On the whole parables attributed to Jesus are not about kings and the trappings of royalty, but describe common folk caught in the act of being themselves. They are people in the local village, next door neighbors to Jesus’s first-century auditors. For example, the parables describe a peasant farmer sowing a field and the kinds of hazards any small farmer faces at every sowing season (Mark 4:3-8 and parallels); a woman sweeping her house searching for a lost coin (Luke 15:8-9); the behavior of a particular man (not everyman) who unexpectedly finds a lost treasure (two versions Matt 13:44 and Thomas 109); a shepherd searching for a lost sheep (three different versions: Matt 18:12; Luke 15:4-6; Thomas 107); a man hiring and paying day laborers (Matt 20:1-15); the haphazard planning and murder of a powerful man (Thomas 96); the murder of the son of an absentee landlord (Mark 12:1-11; Matt 21:33-43; Luke 20:9-18; Thomas 65); the questionable actions of a man fired from his job (Luke 16:1-7); two bumbling farmers worrying with a fig tree in a vineyard (Luke 13:6-9). To appreciate the commonness of the stories attributed to Jesus see the categories under which Brandon Scott discusses the parables (in the table of contents): family, village, city and beyond; masters and servants; home and farm.2 See also my own classification of the parables in terms of social, cultural, and economic facets of Palestinian society.3 In the stories that Jesus told, realism trumps theology. In the interpretations of the evangelists and the contemporary church, theology trumps realism, and has the final word.

            In the main the parables are thoroughly secular and realistic slices of life in Palestinian antiquity. When read for themselves, they give the impression that they are completely transparent. They are “about” what they present to the reader. Their qualities of secularism, realism, and transparency work against the idea that they are opaque, encoded, arcane, and allegorical. They make good sense when read as fictional stories, but poor sense if the object is to find theological or allegorical messages in them.4

            On their surface the parables of Jesus are secular. They do not moralize, and neither does the narrative voice of the parables either condemn or commend the behavior of the characters in the stories. When read for themselves, the stories reflect neither apocalyptic despair nor imminent cosmic destruction. They are patently a-religious—neither affirming nor criticizing the behavior of characters in the stories. The narrator of the parables expresses no opinions, is completely self-effacing, and is silent on matters of faith, morals, and religion. For example, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector (Luke 18:9-13) present two clearly contradictory courses of life in Palestinian Judaism, but the narrator neither takes sides nor criticizes either man. Such moral ambiguity, a distinguishing feature of Jesus’s stories, associates the parables in some respects with what the literary critic Northrup Fry calls the ironic mode, a style characterized by “complete objectivity and suppression of all explicit moral judgments.”5 It may seem odd to think of Jesus telling stories lacking moral sensibility, but when read without the interpretive comparative frames and concluding moral judgments supplied by the evangelists that is exactly what one finds.6 How do you find the stories of Jesus?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1There are exceptions where narratives shade over into unrealism, however. Especially where allegorical features have been introduced into the narrative during its transmission; for an example, see the parable of the Mustard Seed (Mark 4:31-32; Matt 13:31-32; Luke 13:19; Thomas 20).

2Brandon Scott, Hear Then the Parable. A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus (Fortress, 1989), viii-ix.

3Charles Hedrick, Parables as Poetic Fictions. The Creative Voice of Jesus (Wipf and Stock, reprint, 2005), 259-61.

4This part of the essay is excerpted and revised from Hedrick, Many Things in Parables. Jesus and his Modern Critics (Westminster John Knox, 2004), 39.

5Northrup Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957), 40.

6An excerpt revised from Hedrick, Many things in Parables, ix.