The parables: Do you get the point?

These are my notes on Chapter 8 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This is a book on common-sense guidelines on interpreting and applying the Bible.

Everything said in chapter 7 hold true for the parables.

The parables in history

The reason for their misinterpretation comes from a misunderstanding of Mark 4:10-12 (parallels in Matthew 13:10-13, Luke 8:9-10). The conclusion made was that the real meanings of the parables could only be uncovered by people inside the church, and that by means of allegory.

It is extremely doubtful that the parables were intended for an inner circle. The lawyer to whom Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) understood it, as did the chief priests and Pharisees the parable of the tenants (Matthew 21:45).

Our failure to understand the parables isn’t because we lack the interpretative key. Our first assumption should be that Jesus fully intended to be understood.

The nature of parables

The variety of kinds

  1. True parable – for example, the Good Samaritan. It is a story with a beginning, ending and plot.
  2. Similitude – for example, the leaven in the meal (Matthew 13:33, Luke 13:20-21). What is said of the leaven, or the mustard seed is always true of them. Similitude parables are more like illustrations taken from everyday life in order to make a point.
  3. Metaphors and similes – for example, “You are the salt of the earth.” These are similar to the similitudes, but their point is quite different.
  4. Epigram – for example, “Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?”

As there are various kinds of parables, there are no interpretative rules that will cover them all.

How the parables function

The story parables serve as a means of calling forth a response from the hearers. Interpreting a parable is sometimes like interpreting a joke—when everything is explained, it doesn’t “catch” the hearer. It no longer has the same impact. Our main task is to recapture the punch of the parables in our time and setting.

The exegesis of the parables

Finding the points of reference

The two things that capture the hearer of a joke (or parable) are their knowledge of the points of reference and the unexpected turn in the story.

In the parable Jesus tells at the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:40-42), the 3 points of reference are the moneylender and the two debtors. The identifications are simple: God is the moneylender while Simon and the woman are the debtors. The parable called for a response from Simon, which he could have hardly missed. A response of a different nature was called for from the woman.

Identifying the audience

Many parables have come down to us with the audience given. In such cases, the steps to follow are:

  1. Listen to the parable again and again;
  2. Identify the points of reference intended by Jesus that the original audience would have picked up;
  3. Try to determine how the original hearers would have identified with the story and what they would have heard.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son the point is that God freely forgives the lost and accepts them with great joy.

The ‘contextless’ parables

Again, try to determine the points of reference and the original audience. Reading repeatedly may help bring out the points of reference, thus giving a clue as to the audience.

The parables of the kingdom

These are those that say, “The kingdom of God is like…” The whole parable, not just one of the points of reference, tells us something about the nature of the kingdom. These parables are both teaching vehicles as well as a means of calling for a response.

In the parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-8) the point is that the man acted and did something about his situation. The point of application is that the urgency of the hour demands action in the form of repentance.

The hermeneutical question

When they were originally spoken, the parables seldom needed interpretation. They had an immediacy we lack. What can we do?

  1. Translate the same point into our own context. Retell the story with new points of reference such that contemporary listeners might feel the same emotions experienced by the original hearers. Be sure to do your exegesis carefully before attempting this!
  2. All of Jesus’ parables are in some way proclaiming the kingdom. Hence it is necessary to immerse oneself in the meaning of the kingdom in the ministry of Jesus.
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