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.