The Parables in the Gospel of St. Luke
Fr. John A. Roop
Lesson 1: Introduction To Parables
The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.
Let us pray.
O God, without whose beauty and goodness our souls are unfed, without whose truth our reason withers: Consecrate our lives to your will, giving us such purity of heart, such depth of faith, and such steadfastness of purpose, that in time we may come to think your own thoughts after you; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
CAN YOU IMAGINE a culture apart from its stories? How could it transmit its history, its values, its aspirations, its fundamental beliefs about itself and the world without stories? How could it draw outsiders into the culture and integrate them? How could it replicate itself in the lives of the next generation? Stories seem fundamental to culture, to what it means to be human.
Why do we like stories so much? They educate us while entertaining us. They move us, allowing us to express our emotions. They appeal to all our senses and imagination, as we immerse ourselves in the story. They create a common bond as we listen to stories together or tell them to one another. They create continuity across generations. They challenge us. It is no wonder then that Jesus used stories to communicate the essence of the Kingdom of God; it is no wonder that he was a master story teller. It is no wonder he was known for his parables.
Over the next few weeks we will give attention to several parables recorded in the Gospel according to St. Luke, a Gospel chock-full of parables, more so than any other Gospel. Some scholars count twenty-eight parables in Luke’s Gospel, though that precise number depends to some degree on what counts as a parable. And that is a good place to start — what does count as a parable? In other words, what is a parable?
The Nature of Parables
QUESTION: What is a parable?
Most of us who went to Sunday School as children have a ready answer: A parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. And that is true, but in the same sense as saying Buckingham Palace is a house is true. It is the official London residence of the Queen of England, so, in that sense, it is a house. But, it is far more, isn’t it? It is the administrative seat of English monarchy, the symbol of the monarchy as the White House is the symbol of the Presidency and the Capitol the symbol of democracy. It is that place toward which the English people look in times of celebration, difficulty, and uncertainty. It is a house, but it is more than just a house.
In the same way, a parable may well be an earthly story with a heavenly meaning, but it is more than just an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.
Jesus, who almost certainly spoke Aramaic as his mother tongue, would have called parables mathelin. Mathelin connotes a figure of speech on the order of a puzzle or a riddle. And what do we do with puzzles and riddles? We puzzle over them; we try to riddle them out. We know there is a meaning there to be discerned; some get it quickly and others of us take a bit longer. But we keep working on it and it keeps working on us until we finally “get it” in a moment of insight. That is the essence of a mathelin: a puzzle or a riddle.
The Aramaic mathelin was translated into Greek as παραβολή, parabolē — parable. Parabolē connotes bringing one thing alongside another. A parable is a teaching aid brought close by a truth to explain and illustrate that truth by way of comparison. Aesop’s Fables are parables in this sense. If I want to illustrate the danger of arrogance and over-confidence and the importance of dogged determination and steady work, I might lay alongside those truths the story of the Tortoise and the Hare. And here we are moving more toward the modern concept of parable: a story that explains or illustrates a great truth. Then it is just a hop, a skip, and a jump to our Sunday School definition: an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.
But, more in keeping with the original meaning of mathelin, the Gospels contain several different forms of the literary type we call parables.
Story: The Rich Fool (Lk 12:13-21)
Notice that this story is given to us in context. We know why Jesus told this parable, to whom, and under what circumstance. Jesus even gives the “moral” of the parable before he tells it.
Proverb: Can the blind lead the blind? (Lk 6:39 ff)
Metaphor: Comparison of a Person To a Fruit Tree (Lk 6:43-45)
Simile: The Mustard Seed and the Leaven (Lk 13:18-21)
Quasi-Allegory: Parable of the Sower (Lk 8:4-15)
This is not a true allegory because not every element of the story is given a particular interpretation/meaning and because the true meaning of the story is greater than and lies beyond the sum of the individual elements. The meaning is not found in the allegorical identifications themselves.
Riddle: Whose Son Is the Christ? (Mt 22:41-46)
So, there are many different types of parables. Can we bring all these forms together under a general definition/description? If you asked me for a general definition of parable I might offer something like this:
A parable is a varied literary device used to illustrate or elucidate a great truth and to provoke a response to that truth.
That latter idea of provocation is particularly important. In the parables, Jesus wasn’t just explaining; he was challenging and provoking his listeners. That is a key element to proper interpretation of many of his parables. Having heard a parable, you are called upon to respond to the reality that the Kingdom of God is at hand in the person of Jesus, and that response typically involves repentance, some kind of deep change.
Before we leave this consideration of the nature of parables, we should hear from Kenneth Bailey from his classic work Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Bailey was himself a professor of Middle Eastern New Testament Studies and spent four decades living in the Middle East — Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem, and Cyprus — where he taught New Testament. He immersed himself in the Middle Eastern cultures and leaned to read Scripture through that lens. He offers an excellent cultural approach to the parables. As to the nature of parables, Bailey considers them to be extended metaphors; here he is concerned primarily with the narrative parables. He writes:
A metaphor communicates in way that rational arguments cannot. Pictures easily trump but do not replace abstract reasoning. A powerful television image communicates meaning that a thousand words cannot express. When used in theology to create meaning, the parable challenges the listener in ways that abstract statements of truth cannot approach. Yet the two are often linked, and both critical to the task of theology.
Theologians often use “illustrations” to infuse energy and clarification into their abstract reflections…A metaphor, however, is not an illustration of an idea; it is a mode of theological discourse. [Author’s note: I might express it this way. A parable is not an illustration of an abstract theological idea; it is its own type of theology. Just as baptism is not a symbol or illustration of new birth but is new birth itself, so parables aren’t primarily illustrations of abstract theological thought; they are themselves theology.]. The metaphor does more than explain meaning, it creates meaning. A parable is an extended metaphor and as such it is not a delivery system for an idea but a house in which the reader/listener is invited to take up residence.
The listener/reader of the parable is encouraged to examine the human predicament through the worldview created by the parable. The casing is all that remains after a shell is fired. It’s only purpose is to drive the shell in the direction of the target. It is easy to think of a parable in the same way and understand it as a good way to “launch” an idea. Once the idea is “on its way” the parable can be discarded. But this is not so. If the parable is a house in which the listener/reader is invited to take up residence, then that person is urged by the parable to look on the world through the windows of that residence (K. E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (2008, Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press), pp. 280-281).
This idea of taking up residence within a parable, of seeing the world through its windows, highlights the importance of cultural reading and of refusing to reduce the parable to a simple moral principle. Parables create thought worlds, and thought worlds are rich and complex.
One last idea about the nature of parables: they are not always verbal literary devices. Jesus frequently used “enacted parables.” What he did told a story in order to illustrate, elucidate, and provoke a response. The raising of Lazarus (How did the Jewish leaders respond?), the Triumphal Entry (How did the crowds responds? The Pharisees?), the cleansing of the Temple (How did the chief priests and scribes respond?), the washing of feet (How did Peter respond?), the Last Supper (How did Judas respond?): these are all parables; they tells stories with deep meanings and challenges, but they tell the stories through actions. We won’t look at these enacted parables specifically in this course, but what we say about verbal parables can also be used to open up these enacted parables.
The next question we might consider is this: Why did Jesus speak in parables?
The Purpose of ParablesJesus was asked that very question by his disciples just after he had spoken the parable of the sower.
Matthew 13:10–17 (ESV): 10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
“ ‘ “You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’
16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
This sounds as if Jesus is using the parables to be purposely abstruse, to hide meaning from everyone but the inner circle. On closer reading, though, a different picture emerges that goes something like this.
Jesus’ ministry is a puzzle, a riddle — remember the Aramaic mathelin; his ministry is, in itself, an enacted parable. Some people see what he’s doing — the signs and wonders — and hear what he’s saying — “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” — and they “get it,” at least in part. Others remain puzzled, not least because of their spiritual blindness, deafness, and hardness of heart. Jesus’ spoken parables are a way to break through those spiritual illnesses, to sneak behind their defenses. Some will puzzle out these riddles — like Nicodemus did — and become disciples. Some will not. But the idea with the parables is to communicate obliquely, not directly. People are hardened against a direct approach, but it might be possible to infiltrate behind their defenses with stories, and riddles, and puzzles. The purpose is to communicate, not to confuse. Those who needed to “get” the parables got them, sometimes too clearly for their comfort.
It worked just this way with C. S. Lewis. In his case the parables came in the form of Norse myths, which he dearly loved long before he had any “taste” for Christianity. The Norse myths had sneaked behind his rational defenses and moved him in a supra-rational way. Then when his friends Tolkien and Dyson pointed out that everything Lewis loved most in the Norse myths had come true in the Gospel, Lewis was gobsmacked; he realized that the Gospel was true myth and he fell in love with it. Jesus got people thinking about his stories and riddles so that at least some of them would see his stories come alive in his words and deeds. This is, in part, why he spoke in parables.
Amy Jill-Levine, Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School, writes this about the mystery and difficulty of parables:
What makes the parables mysterious, or difficult, is that they challenge us to look into the hidden aspects of our own values, our own Ives. They bring to the surface unasked questions, and they reveal the answers we have always known, but refuse to acknowledge. Our reaction to them should be one of resistance rather than acceptance. For our own comfort, we may want to foreclose the meaning rather than allow the parable to open into multiple interpretations. We are probably more comfortable proclaiming a creed than prompting a conversation or pursuing a call.
Religion has been defined as designed to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. We do well to think of the parables of Jesus as doing the afflicting. Therefore, if we hear a parable and think, “I really like that” or, worse, fail to take any challenge, we are not listening well enough (Jill-Levine, A. Short Stories by Jesus (2015). Harper One.).
Another very basic and historical reason for parables is simply that Jesus’ culture was an oral, story-telling culture familiar with the literary genre of parables. Parables are memorable; they stick with you and work on you. We may well remember Jesus’ parables long after we have forgotten one of his discourses. They also allow you to say things indirectly that you might not be able to safely say directly, e.g., “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”
The Challenge of Reading/Interpreting Parables
Many of the skills needed to read and understand the parables are those common to reading all Biblical literature. But, it is good to review them.
• Read historically: exegesis before hermeneutics. In other words, try — as best you can — to determine how the various groups who first heard the parable would have understood it in their cultural context (exegesis). Only then do we have a chance of rightly applying the parable to our (sometimes) very different situation (hermeneutics). That means some historical background study may well be necessary. Jesus was speaking to various cultural groups: Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, Priests, Romans, common people. It is helpful to know the worldview of each of these groups to understand how they would have received a particular parable. Also, Jesus was part of — the fulfillment of — the drama of salvation that is the ancient story from Eden to Calvary, and especially part of the story of Israel. He was speaking out of and into that story. To understand his parables it is necessary to understand the broad sweep of the Biblical narrative/history. Jesus’ parables were often directed to the fulfillment of Israel’s story and to his role as Israel’s Messiah. Do not overlook that and jump too quickly to personal application.
• Consider the events that precipitated the parable. Why did Jesus tell this parable when, how, and to whom he told it? This can often unlock the meaning of the parable. Consider the parable of Dives (the Rich Man) and Lazarus in Luke 16:14, 15a, 19-31. What is the purpose and meaning of this parable?
• Look for the primary meaning of the parable. Yes, there is often an abundance of meaning in the text, but Jesus often told the parables in response to a particular question or issue. And that means there is a primary meaning that must take precedence over everything else we might want to say about the parable. The parable of Dives and Lazarus is a case in point. This is a parable that occurs in two acts, a mini-play, as it were: Act I outside the rich man’s house and Act II in Sheol. I have heard and read discussions of this parable that focus on the geography of the afterlife: Sheol divided into two regions, Hades and Abraham’s Bosom with fire on one side and water on the other with a great abyss between the two. This is the background context for the parable: fair enough. But is it the point of the parable? Was Jesus trying to spell out for the people the exact geography of the afterlife? No; they were already familiar with that. Jesus was using that common worldview to make other points: (1) that our actions in this life have eternal consequences and that mercy matters, (2) that God is just and that he cares for the poor, and (3) that many who reject the calls for justice and mercy in the Law and the Prophets would not be brought to repentance even if someone returned from the dead to warn them. These are the notions Jesus wanted to communicate — not the geography of the afterlife. Look for the primary meaning of the parable and do not be distracted by background context. Think of primary also in terms of sequence — coming first: first the “obvious/plain” meaning and later expanded/nuanced meanings.
• Consider the responses of the various groups who heard the parable. Sometimes these are spelled out, sometimes implied by what we know of the groups. Consider the parable of the Wicked Tenants (Lk 20:9-18) and the response in Lk 20:19-20. Knowing how the scribes and chief priests responded, knowing that they understood that the parable was spoken against them, is the key to properly interpreting the parable.
These are some of the literary “tools” we will use as we explore the parables of Jesus.
I suggested that we should look for the primary meaning of the parable, what the context demands and what the original audience would have heard. It is a matter of focus, of trying not to be so distracted by the peripheral details of the story that you miss the plot. But, having done that, having determined the primary meaning, we should sit with the parable for awhile to give it a chance to work on us, to open out into other meanings and other challenges. Stay with the parable until challenged by it. Remember that parables were not told to just to illustrate or instruct. They we told to provoke response. And that means they are inherently challenging. If you have read a parable and have not been challenged by it, you probably haven’t read it deeply enough. Amy Jill-Levine expresses this well, I think:
Too often we settle for easy interpretations: we should be nice like the Good Samaritan; we will be forgiven, as was the prodigal son; we should pray and not lose heart like the importuning widow. When we seek universal morals from a genre that is designed to surprise, challenge, shake up, or indict and look for a single meaning in a form that opens to multiple interpretations, we are necessarily limiting the parable and, so, ourselves.
If we stop with the easy lessons, good through they may be, we lose the way Jesus’s first followers would have heard the parables, and we lose the genius of Jesus’s teaching. Those followers, like Jesus himself, were Jews, and Jews knew that parables were more than children’s stories or restatements of common knowledge. They knew that parables and the tellers of parables were there to prompt them to see the world in a different way, to challenge, and at times to indict.
We might be better off thinking less about what they “mean” and more about what they can “do”: remind, provoke, refine, confront, disturb…(ibid).
Over the next few weeks, I hope you will find yourselves reminded, provoked, confronted, and disturbed — not my my words, but by Jesus’ words in the parables he told.
The schedule for the class follows.
Session 2: The Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37)
Session 3: The “Lost” Parables (Lk 15)
Session 4: The Dishonest Manager (Lk 16:1-9) and The Rich Fool (Lk 12:13-21)
Session 5: Anti-Allegories: The Friend at Midnight (Lk 11:5-13) and the Persistent Widow (Lk 18:1-8)