I ask the question because they have been exhaustively studied by parable ponderers since the first century and explanations even today are still getting more diverse and contradictory. Scholars today cannot even agree on what a parable is, and how it is supposed to function, much less what a given parable means. Historical Jesus Scholar, John Dominic Crossan, in a dictionary article suggests that this is the very result intended by the historical Jesus himself. He says that parables in the Jesus tradition are problematic.
This is probably because the parables were often told concerning the Kingdom of God and that explained a symbol by a metaphor…The presumption is that Jesus intended this effect, namely, that the parables would be both provocative and unforgettable so that the recipient would be forced inevitably to interpret.1
He concludes the essay this way:
All these differing interpretations…should not be considered the interpreter’s failure but rather the parable’s success. It is a parable’s destiny to be interpreted and those interpretations will necessarily be diverse. When the diversity ceases, the parable is dead, and the parabler is silent.2
An enigma is defined in Webster’s New World College Dictionary as “a perplexing, usually ambiguous statement, a riddle.”3 So far as I am aware no one has argued that parables are deliberate enigmas, but Crossan’s statement seems to lead us in that direction.
In the marketplace of the critical study of religion today there are at least six contemporary strategies for reading New Testament “parables.”4 One of these strategies treats parables as allegories. An allegory is a coded story that describes something totally different from what it says on its surface. On its surface the story of the Sower (Mark 4:3-8) describes the successes and failures of farming in first-century Palestine (Mark 4:13-20), but as its Markan interpretation (Mark 4:13-20) shows, it is really about success and failure of early Christian preaching. Most ecclesiastical interpretation of parables today are still treating them as allegories, particularly in church circles.
In the late 19th century against the excesses of allegory, Adolf Jϋlicher, a German scholar, argued that parables were comparisons comprised of two parts, a picture part (the parabolic story) and a “matter” or substance part. The “matter” part was the unspoken “issue” of the comparison; the “matter” was the real subject of the picture part. Something learned in the picture part evoked the substance part in terms of a single point expressed in a universal moral of the widest and broadest generality. For example, Jϋlicher’s moral for the parable of the Two Farmer’s and a Fig Tree (Luke 13:6-9) was “all who do not repent will perish.”
In 1935 C. H. Dodd, a British scholar, argued that parables are metaphors. A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes one known thing in language appropriate to another known thing. Dodd argued that parables, introduced by the frame “the Kingdom of God is like…” were intended to cast light on God’s reign. In other words, God’s reign is described in language appropriate to Palestinian village life. As things go in the story, so go things under the reign of God. The specifics of the comparison, however, are never quantified, but left for auditors/readers to fill in. For Dodd, the Parable of the Sower illustrates the arrival of God’s reign in Jesus’ ministry by means of a harvest image.
In 1967, Dan Via, an American scholar, argued that narrative parables are neither allegory nor metaphor (a strategy that treats them as figures). Parables are narrative, freely invented fictions that work like any narrative does. They are a form of literary art that can be appreciated for themselves. They are literary objects that do not reference but instead call attention to themselves. What Jesus intended with the parables is lost to us in the twentieth century. All we have are the parables and they should be studied for what they are. These brief stories dramatize how Jesus understood human existence. In the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matt 20:1-15). The complaining workers understood life in terms of merit and were unwilling to accept the risk of relying on God’s grace.
In 1994, W. R. Herzog, Jr., an American scholar, argued that the parables were stories typifying the oppressed situation of Palestinian peasants at the hands of a wealthy elite. In his stories Jesus mirrored the oppressed conditions under which the peasants lived; they were intended to teach the peasants about their oppressed situation. This explains why Jesus was crucified. He was a threat to the state precisely because he sought to inform the peasants about their oppression. The Laborers in the Vineyard (Matt 20:1-15) reflects Herzog’s understanding of the clash between wealthy elite and disfranchised peasants. The amount paid the workers was not a living wage because day laborers do not work every day. The banishment of the worker who confronts the owner is intended to intimidate the other workers.
In 1994, C. W. Hedrick, an American scholar, argued that the parables are open-ended narrative fictions that Jesus invented by observing the world around him. They realistically portray aspects of Palestinian village life and aspects of the world around him. Complications raised in the narratives are left unresolved leaving resolutions for auditors/readers to solve. Because their polysemy (meaning they are capable of multiple meanings) and what different readers bring to them, they are capable of a wide range of plausible readings, as the history of parables interpretation demonstrates. Narrative fictions work by pulling the auditor/reader into their fictional worlds where discoveries about self and one’s own world may be made. Discoveries are evoked for auditors/readers in the nexus between the narrative and what they bring to it. In the story a Pharisee and Toll Collector (Luke18:10-13) the auditor/reader is presented with two flawed characters praying in the temple. The complication facing the auditor/reader is this: which flawed character will be acceptable to God?
Jesus did not explain his stories to his auditors. Hence, no one has access to that information. We do, however, know how some were explained (or not) in manuscripts through the third/fourth century: Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Gospel of Thomas, the Apocryphon of James, Pistis Sophia, and The Apocalypse of Peter. Interpretations in the modern period add more diverse explanations. Explanations do not generally agree, but each interpreter claims to know how Jesus understood them. My own theory is that we do not interpret parables, but they interpret us (their readers), by evoking from us personal responses. How do you see it?
Missouri State University
1“Parable,” vol. 5.146-52 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992), 150.
34th edition, 2002.
4For the description of these six strategies, I have abbreviated and edited my dictionary entry on “Parable” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Abingdon, 2000), 374-76.