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
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.
Always a pleasure to read your thoughts on the parables, Charlie. All the best from my bunker to yours! Bob Fowler
1. Am I understanding correctly that, in your view, each individual story (parable) has its own individual meaning without overlap in meaning with the others? It seems to me that real people do not speak or act in such an unconnected manner.
2. What do we do with non-specific teachings which seem to carry a lot of intensity, emotion and motivating power but have non-specific content. For example:"I have cast fire upon the world, and look, I'm guarding it until it blazes." (Thomas 10; cf. Lk 12:49)
How would one go about determining the referent for this aphorism: such as one particular story of Jesus, a particular group of teachings, all of the teachings, some action or group of actions? Doesn't the whole matter require a generic inspiring reality such as the empire or reign of God?
I hope things are going well for you and Debbie.
Good Morning Gene,
I don't think that parables/stories/narratives "have meaning." Rather they evoke meaning in the minds of readers. Parables mean what they say; no more or less. Readers if gracious bestow meaning on parables.
If I look at the “Good Samaritan” story without its particular framework (“one’s neighbor”), I just see an anti-temple or anti-Judean tale. Those people to the north are caring; those to the south uncaring. If I was a Samaritan or maybe a Galilean, I might have viewed it as common knowledge. If I was a Judean, I might be upset.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
I like it that you stuck with the story and put yourself in the shoes of the first auditors of the tale. I do have a question: has the narrator undermined the identifications of the Priest and Levite by including the expression that it was "by chance" a Priest (10:31) and Levite (10;32,"so likewise)were going down that road. If so, the characters could have been anyone. Does the story still work if they become a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker? How would you read the story if the social markers had not been included?
To play on a pun, “That would be another story.” In other words, I’d need to know the historical and cultural perspective of these characters you have introduced to analogize. I personally make bread and do butchering duties with large pieces of meat, including field dressed deer, a whole hog, and smaller critters (including possum), but I’ve never been priest nor Levite.
I think this word “coincidence” tends to color the reading of the story because it is extraneous to the action of the story, cueing the reader that the author probably means anything but “coincidence,” especially if told orally and with a roll of the eyes (or whatever bodily expression storytellers of that age used). I just found and read a translation of the earliest attestation of the story (Clement of Alexandria’s “Who is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved”, ch. 28) and thought his exegesis interesting.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Hi Charlie and Dennis,
I see The Samaritan as an example of threat de-escalation teaching. It's an example of attempting to reduce retaliation urges between two populations, Jews and Samaritans, (even though the injured party isn't specifically described as a Jew) by means of compassionate behavior (Josephus reported violent confrontations.). Both peoples had their own central places of worship, Samaria and Jerusalem respectively, so the writer may have been a Samaritan sympathizer since the hero is Samaritan and the bad guys are a priest and Levite of the Jerusalem Temple. We have a Galilean, Jesus, holding out a compassionate Samaritan as the representative of true religion, an obvious knock on the Judean Temple as a weak institution. Jesus' lining up with JBap and later attacking Temple operations indicates that he advocated a more direct relationship with the Father, who required his people to love one's enemy.
I have read Josephus and his point of view about the Samaritans. I don’t see the Christian Testament having the same view. There are 20 uses of “Samaritans” and “Samaria” in the Christian Testament, in Luke, Acts, John and once in Matthew. Only three I can find might hint of the tribal differences between Samaritans and Judeans (Mt. 10. Lk. 9.52-53, and John 4.9 in an aside). The Samaritan leper has faith in Luke and the Samaritan is caring in his parable. Before he goes power crazy, Simon is converted and baptized in Acts. Philip, Peter and John had great success at different times in Samaria and the church was built up in Acts. The Samaritans in John believed Jesus and asked him to stay. One gets a rather positive picture of Samaritans in the citations. When I look further, I don’t see the gospels’ Jesus as particularly interested in Samaritans. The interest seems to come rather late. I see the Good Samaritan as a “late arrival” to Luke because of lack of attestation in Marcion (per BeDuhn) and because the earliest ANF attestation seems to be late second, early third century. Whether meant to or not It foreshadowed canonical Luke’s positive mission to the Samaritans found in Acts. In this way, I can see it more related to the Luke/Acts notion of the spread of early “Christianity,” the “myth of Christian beginnings.”
But, I was attempting to look at the story strictly as story.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
I agree; to take it as a coincidence that the subsequent three travelers "happened" to be priest, Levite, and Samaritan and reading them as something else would be a different story. I also think that "by coincidence" could reinforce the identity of the three travelers, as you argue. Your view would mean I gather that the story is an anti temple story. But in either case (my suggestion and your counter) "by coincidence" becomes central to the interpretation of the story. Would you agree?
Thanks for pointing out the textual history of the Samaritan saying, Dennis. Very few folks, I think, are aware of the Samaritan looking like a Johnny come lately on to the textual scene. Also, thanks for mentioning DeBuhn whose book The First New Testament should be required reading for anyone who's trying to understand the New Testament. It's probably the first book that I would recommend.
My interest in the Samaritan arises because it was voted an authentic saying of Jesus by the Jesus Seminar. I try to compare it with other genuine sayings to determine possible common denominators that would help understand the person Jesus, and as such how the rest of the NT treats the Samaritans is less important to my immediate purpose. Regarding story as story, we have a Samaritan, the guy living in a neighboring state, showing compassion to an injured traveler, and you have Temple personnel putting purity (The guy was possibly dead.) ahead of compassion. This stuff is consistent with other "genuine" Jesus material.
I think “coincidentally” (sigkurian) was probably important to the teller of the story because it is the first noun in this section/sentence of the story (as I divide it) and because of its rarity in the New Testament (only here is it found). God didn’t send them, and in the story they had no purpose in being there, other than to be foils of the storyteller. I would assume that if God sent them on a journey their task would have been to care for the victim. But, to the author, this was an example of the character of Judean religious “exemplars” away from the temple, barren of those trappings, for the “world” to see. That’s the way it seems to me.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
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