Bibliotheca Sacra 155 (Jan.-Mar. 1998) 29-38.

          Copyright © 1998 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.

 

 

           GUIDELINES FOR INTERPRETING

                          JESUS' PARABLES*

 

                                               Mark L. Bailey

 

            A turning point in the study of Jesus' parables came with

the work of Adolf Julicher,l who sought to expose the inadequacies

of the allegorical method of interpretation and asserted that each

parable taught a single moral truth. In answer to Julicher, C. H.

Dodd and Joachim Jeremias sought to discern more specific

lessons from Jesus' parables by focusing on their major referent,

the kingdom of God.2 Dodd and Jeremias attempted to interpret

the parables in their historical contexts in the life of Jesus and in

the gospel records.

            More recent trends have tended to see the parables as literary

art at the expense of historical interpretation.3 Consequently

some writers have returned to the approach that sees multiple

meanings based on the subjective philosophical self-understand-

ing of the interpreters rather than the historical objectivity of Je-

sus and His message. The past fifteen years or so have been dom-

 

Mark L. Bailey is Vice President for Academic Affairs, Academic Dean, and

Professor of Bible Exposition, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas.

 

*This is article one in an eight-part series, "The Kingdom in the Parables of

Matthew 13."

 

1 Adolf Julicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu, 2 vols. (Darmstadt: Wis-

senschaftliche, 1963).

2 C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (New York: Scribner & Sons, 1961);

and Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, trans. S. H. Hooke, 2d ed. (New

York: Scribner & Sons, 1954).

3 For example Dan Otto Via, The Parables: Their Literary and Existential Di-

mension (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967); John Dominic Crossan, In Parables: The

Challenge of the Historical Jesus (New York: Harper & Row, 1973); idem, "The

Servant Parables," Semeia 1 (1974): 17-62; and idem, "Parable and Example in the

Teaching of Jesus," Semeia 1 (1974): 63-104.

 

                                                            29



30        BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January—March 1998

 

inated by a "sophisticated" literary criticism and structuralism

which seems to be more concerned with the style of argumentation

than the historical interpretation. From the pendulumlike ex-

tremes of Julicher and the multiple meanings allowed by the ex-

tremes of the philosophical linguistic movement, a more cautious

balance is being sought by recent conservative writers. Though

authors such as Robert Stein, David Wenham, Craig Blomberg,

and John Sider4 have sought to interpret Jesus' parables more

conservatively, it remains to be seen how many will join their ef-

fort.

            Parables are distinguished from other literary figures in that

they are narrative in form but figurative in meaning. Parables

use both similes and metaphors to make their analogies, and the

rhetorical purposes of parables are to inform, convince, or per-

suade their audiences. Pedagogically Jesus utilized parables to

motivate hearers to make proper decisions. To Jesus' original

audiences the parables both revealed and concealed new truths

regarding God's kingdom program. Those who rightly re-

sponded were called disciples and to them it was granted to un-

derstand the mysteries of the kingdom. The same truth was con-

cealed from those who, because of hardened hearts, were unrecep-

tive to the message of Jesus.

            A parable may be briefly defined as a figurative narrative

that is true to life and is designed to convey through analogy some

specific spiritual truth(s) usually relative to God's kingdom pro-

gram.

            A proper interpretation of Jesus' parables should give atten-

tion to the following five steps.

 

            UNDERSTAND THE SETTING OF THE PARABLE

 

            Conservative hermeneutics proceeds on the premise that lan-

guage is meaningful and that the words in God's biblical com-

munication carry "historical, cultural, spiritual, and moral

meaning and values."5 As an interpreter approaches the Scrip-

tures, he is conscious of the words and endeavors to discover the

meaning carried by them. Sometimes Jesus supplied the interpre-

tation (e.g., Matt. 22:14; 25:13), and on other occasions the Gospel

 

4 Robert H. Stein, An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus (Philadelphia:

Westminster, 1981); David Wenham, The Parables of Jesus (London: Hodder &

Stoughton, 1989); Craig L. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (Downers Grove, IL:

InterVarsity, 1990); and John W. Sider, Interpreting the Parables (Grand Rapids:

Zondervan, 1995).

5 A. T. Cadoux, The Parables of Jesus: Their Art and Use (London: Clarke, 1930),

45.

 



           Guidelines for Interpreting Jesus' Parables            31

 

writer made an editorial comment. Often the key to interpreta-

tion can be found in the prologue to the parable (e.g., Luke 18:1, 9;

19:11). Other times the epilogue gives a clue to the proper interpre-

tation (Matt. 25:13; Luke 16:9). And in some parables the prologue

and epilogue form an interpretive parenthesis around the story

(e.g., Matt. 18:23-24, 35; Luke 12:16-21).

 

HISTORICAL SETTING

            In recent years many writers have misunderstood the parables

because they have not given adequate attention to their historical

setting. Doerksen notes forcefully that "the modern critical

method is to remove the parable from the setting."6 Whether alle-

gorized or taken with a totally aesthetic bias, the historical set-

tings of the parables have been overlooked in favor of seeking to

find existential implications for the present. In contrast to the lib-

eral tendency to generalize the lessons of the parables, Dodd

maintained, "The task of the interpreter of the parables is to find

out, if he can, the setting of a parable in the situation contemplated

by the Gospels, and hence the application which would support it-

self to one who stood in that situation."7 Stein correctly commends

the contribution of Dodd, who stressed the parables for Jesus’ ini-

tial hearers and for the initial readers of the three Gospels.

            It was Dodd, who, more than anyone else, pointed out that to

            understand the parables correctly one needed to interpret them

            first of all in their original Sitz im Leben, i.e., in their original

            setting in the life of Jesus and in the context of his ministry. In

            other words, before one should seek to understand the signifi-

            cance of the parables for one's own situation today, one should

            seek the original meaning of the parables and their application for

            Jesus' audience in the first century. If we were to reword this in

            still another way, we could say that Dodd demonstrated that the

            question, What is the meaning of this parable for me/us today?

            must be preceded by the question, What did the parable mean

            when it was uttered by Jesus during his ministry?8

 

            Hunter spoke of a double historical setting: "The parables, in

the earliest context, had two settings—their original setting in the

life of Jesus, and their secondary one in the life of the early

church."9 The context concerns both the events recorded and the

recording of those events, that is, both the historical and the liter-

 

6 Vernon D. Doerksen, "The Interpretation of the Parables," Grace Journal 11

(Spring 1970): 11.

7 Ibid., 13-14.

8 Stein, An Introduction to the Parables, 59.

9 Archibald Hunter, Interpreting the Parables (Philadelphia: Westminster,

1960), 76.



32        BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January—March 1998

 

ary settings. The timing of the parables in the historical devel-

opment of Jesus' ministry is not accidental. He spoke a number of

His parables in response to the national leaders' rejection of

Him, and so those parables were weapons of controversy in

exposing the self-righteousness of the opposition and in extolling

the kingdom of God.10 Other times the parables were instruments

of instruction for encouraging the disciples to be faithful. The

parables can be interpreted properly only by understanding the

audience and the occasion that promoted them. Most of Jesus'

parables are clustered around scenes of controversy, found

especially in the final year of His training the disciples, as found

in the Lucan travelogue (Luke 9:51-19:27).

            It is not by accident that some [parables] appear in one Gospel

            and are omitted from others, for on closer examination it will gen-

            erally be seen that their record is in keeping with the character

            of the Gospel in which they appear. . . . The Evangelists were in-

            structed by the Holy Spirit not only what to record, but when to

            record it, and all attempts to "harmonize" produce discord if we

            forget this.11

 

The human authors were led by the Holy Spirit to arrange the

material of each of their Gospels for theological as well as chrono-

logical purposes.

 

CULTURAL SETTING

            Understanding the cultural background also is essential for in-

terpreting the parables properly. As Ramm stated, "In the inter-

pretation of every parable it is necessary to recover as much as

possible the local color employed in it."12 Each parable Jesus

spoke was taken either from analogies to nature or from people's

reasonings and judgments. These were taken out of the thought

and mind-set of ordinary persons living in Israel. Studies in the

local color of the parables have turned up a rich store of informa-

tion. Russell contended, "Most of the stories involve customs,

conditions, and ideas peculiar to the Jews of Palestine in Jesus'

time and therefore require explanation before an American

reader fully understands them."13

 

10 Peter R. Jones, The Teaching of the Parables (Nashville: Broadman, 1982), 37;

cf. Cadoux, The Parables of Jesus, 11-13. Apparently Cadoux coined the idea of the

parables as "weapons of controversy. "

11 Ada R. Habershon, The Study of the Parables (London: Nisbet, 1904), 34-35.

12 Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3d ed. (Grand Rapids:

Baker, 1970), 282.

13 Elbert Russell, The Parables of Jesus (New York: Young Women's Christian

Association, 1912), 10.

 



             Guidelines for Interpreting Jesus' Parables            33

 

            Addressing the problem of "cultural foreignness"14 Bailey

proposed what he called "Oriental Exegesis."

            The culture that informs the text of the Gospel parables can be

            delineated in a relatively precise manner by bringing together

            three tools. The culture of contemporary conservative peasants

            must be examined to see what the parables mean in their setting.

            Oriental versions need to be studied to see how Oriental church-

            men through the centuries have translated the text. Ancient lit-

            erature pertinent to the parables must be read with the insights

            gained from these other two sources, not in isolation from them.

            This text must be examined against the background of information

            gleaned from these three sources. These three tools need to be

            used along with and not in isolation from the other skills of mod-

            ern scholarship.

                  Thus "Oriental Exegesis" is a method of studying a culturally

            conditioned text. The method is to use the standard critical tools

            of Western scholarship in combination with cultural insights

            gained from ancient literature, contemporary peasants, and Ori-

            ental versions.15

Although Bailey offers fresh perspectives for the parables from a

literary-cultural approach, he seems at times to reconstruct the

social background at the expense of the text and context. Never-

theless his emphasis on cultural interpretation is a welcome cor-

rective in countering the existential tendencies of some modern

interpreters. Kelley rightly criticizes the tendency to ignore the

culture. "The danger we see in this sort of orientation is that it

yields a picture of Jesus not as a wandering Jewish rabbi who in-

structs disciples, replies to opponents, and stimulates crowds, but

rather of an existentialist theologian, wearing a Bultmannian or

Heideggerian face, who by parabolic speech dramatizes ontologi-

cal possibilities for hearers.”16

            Augmenting the historical foundation with an awareness of

first-century culture allows the parables to retain their true-to-life

nature and unlocks the parabolic references to the religious and

social cultures of the original settings of the parables. "By

cultural’ is meant the total ways, methods, manners, tools, cus-

toms, buildings, institutions, and so forth, by means of which,

and through which, a clan, a tribe, or a nation carry on their exis-

tence."17 The proper understanding of a parable's historical and

cultural contexts is the beginning point for proper interpretation.

 

14 Kenneth E. Bailey, Poet and Peasant: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the

Parables (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 29.

15 Ibid., 29–30 (italics his).

16 Robert Kelley, "The Significance of the Parable of the Prodigal Son for Three

Major Issues in Current Synoptic Study" (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1971), 132.

17 Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 152.



34        BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January—March 1998

 

UNCOVER THE NEED THAT PROMPTED THE PARABLE

 

Jesus often told parables to answer a question, meet a challenge,

or invite the hearers to change their thinking. To discover the

need that prompted the parable is a significant step toward un-

locking its meaning within its original context. Often that need

in the original historical and/or literary audience is shared by

current readers. Thus the supporting braces for the bridge of ap-

plication can begin to be formed at this point in the interpretive

process. The need may be seen in the material that introduces the

parable (e.g., Luke 18:1) or it may not be revealed until after the

parable is told (e.g., 16:8). Zuck suggests nine kinds of occasions

or purposes that led to Jesus' parables, with examples of each:

parables in answer to questions, parables in answer to requests,

parables in answer to complaints, parables given with a stated

purpose, parables of the kingdom given because of Israel's rejec-

tion of Jesus as Messiah, parables following an exhortation or

principle, parables that illustrate a situation, and parables with

the purpose implied but not stated.18

 

ANALYZE THE STRUCTURE AND DETAILS OF THE PARABLE

Traina suggests a most helpful means of analyzing the structure

of narrative discourse. In his discussion of the observation step of

Bible study, he notes the importance of understanding the struc-

ture of the passage being studied. He discusses five ways the lit-

erary structure is arranged to carry along the thought process of

the reader:19 biographical progression, which tracks the lives of

people; historical progression, which follows the sequence of

events; chronological progression, which unfolds the narrative

with time indicators; geographical progression, which journals

the changes of place; and ideological progression, which focuses

on the development of ideas.

            To understand the communication of a narrative properly,

narrative art must also be appreciated. The contribution of set-

ting, characters, and plot all relate to this step of the hermeneuti-

cal process, and valuable insights are gained by not sidestepping

the values of narrative composition and the means ("progres-

sions") an author used to move readers through the narrative to a

desired impact.

            Details in the parables serve as background for the central

truth in the foreground. Defining the parable as "truth carried in

 

18 Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1991), 211—15.

19 Robert Traina, Methodical Bible Study (1952; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zonder-

van, 1980), 51-52.

 



         Guidelines for Interpreting Jesus' Parables            35

 

a vehicle," Ramm speaks of the presence of "accessories." These

details "are necessary for the drapery of the parable, but are not

part of the meaning."20 Various details often play important

roles, but on the other hand they may be given simply to add back-

drop to the story.

            Interpreters have often wrongly suggested that the presence of

details in the parables calls for allegorical interpretation. Bouch-

er, though not a conservative exegete, makes a helpful distinction.

            I would suggest that it is more accurate and helpful to speak of

            the meaning of the whole parable and the meaning of its parts

            than to speak of "one point" and "many parts." . . . Once the

            whole meaning is apprehended, the small constituent meanings

            fall into place; or conversely, once the small, constituent mean-

            ings are understood, the meaning of the whole emerges.21

The background details of a parable help focus attention on the

main point(s) in the foreground of the parable. A parable may be

compared to a wheel, with the central point being the hub, and the

details being the spokes. The central truth(s) in a parable may be

supported by a cast of subordinate or coordinate truths.22

 

STATE THE CENTRAL TRUTH OF THE PARABLE

AND ITS RELATIONSHIP TO THE KINGDOM

Understanding the central analogy of the parable is a safeguard

against excessive allegorizing. As stated earlier, this was the

major contribution of Julicher. But a weakness of his work was

that he viewed the central point of each parable as a general moral

truth unrelated to the historical context. Dodd called this empha-

sis on the central truth "the most important principle of interpre-

tation."23 Linnemann also discussed the importance of the cen-

tral truth in a parable.

            Like the similitude, the parable is so arranged that the point of

            comparison comes out clearly. The narrative of a parable has a

            strong direct flow, which is determined by the point of compari-

            son. Without halts and detours the narrative runs on to the

            point of comparison. All the individual features of the narrative

            join in this dramatic movement, and have a function in the devel-

            opment of the narrative. Only when the flow of the narrative has

            reached its goal is the listener released from suspense. The point

            of comparison forms the end of the parable.24

 

20 Ibid., 283.

21 Madeleine I. Boucher, The Parables (Wilmington, DE: Glazier, 1981), 58.

22 See Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation, 215-17.

23 Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, 7.

24 Eta Linnemann, Parables of Jesus: Introduction and Exposition, trans. John

Sturdy, 3d ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 11.

 



36        BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January—March 1998

 

THE CENTRAL TRUTH

The goal of each parable is to point up an analogy between the

story and the intended lesson or appeal. Trench writes, "It will

much help us in the matter of determining what is essential and

what is not, if, before we attempt to explain the parts we obtain a

firm grasp of the central truth which the parable would set forth,

and distinguish it in the mind as sharply and accurately as we

can from all cognate truths which border upon it; for only seen

from that middle point will the different parts appear in their true

light."25

            The central truth can be identified by understanding what

question, occasion, problem, or need is portrayed in the historical

setting. This question or problem will usually relate to Jesus' dis-

ciples or to His opponents, and therefore is related to the revealing

and concealing purposes of the parables.

            Stein suggests asking seven questions to help identify the

main point of the parables.

            1. What terms are repeated in the parable? Which are not?

            2. Upon what does the parable dwell, i.e., to what or to whom

                 does the parable devote the most space?

            3. What is the main contrast found in the parable?

            4. What comes at the end of the parable? [This has been called

                 "the rule of end stress."]

            5. What is spoken in direct discourse in the parable? [Frequently

                 what is most important in the parable appears in direct dis-

                 course.]

            6. What characters appear in the parable? Which are the least

                 important? Which are the two most important characters?

                 [Usually a parable focuses on two characters to establish its

                  main point.]

            7. How would you have told the parable? If Jesus told it differ-

                 ently, does this reveal anything?26

Also the context of a parable sometimes reveals the main point, as

in Luke 18:1, 9.

            Blomberg has recently argued for as many major points as

there are central characters in the narrative. He calls this a con-

trolled use of allegory.27 However, the interpretations he suggests

are stated in the form of theological correlation and not exegetical

interpretation in the historical or literary context. His statements

are, however, invaluable for the bridge between interpretation

and contemporary application.

 

25 Richard C. Trench, Notes on the Parables of Our Lord (Grand Rapids: Baker,

1948), 35.

26 Stein, An Introduction to the Parables, 56.

27 Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables, 166.


            Guidelines for Interpreting Jesus' Parables            37

 

RELATIONSHIP TO THE KINGDOM

Most expositors agree with Hunter that the concept of the kingdom

is the primary referent of Jesus' parables.28 This is confirmed by

the frequent usage of the introductory formula, "The kingdom of

heaven is like...." The reason for the centrality of the kingdom

in the parables is the priority it held in Jesus' entire ministry. It

was the message of John (Matt. 3:2), Jesus (4:17), and the disciples

(10:5-7). As Hope observed, "all of [the parables] deal with one

great subject, and one great subject only, namely, the kingdom of

God."29 Or as Ramm states,

            Many of the parables directly state that they are about the king-

            dom, and others not specifically stated cannot be divorced from

            the kingdom. Adequate interpretation of the parables must now

            be based upon an understanding of the kingdom of God and the

            relationship of Jesus Christ and His gospel to that kingdom.30

 

            The definition of the kingdom has been one of the most wide-

ly debated issues in Synoptic scholarship. However, the study of

the kingdom in relationship to the parables has often been ne-

glected. Studying the parables in this light helps interpret the

kingdom within the progressive revelation of the life and teach-

ing of Jesus Christ as He presented Himself and the message of

the kingdom to Israel. Regardless of one's interpretation of the

kingdom, it is difficult to dispute that the kingdom is the primary

referent of the majority of the parables. Too often the interpreter's

bias about the kingdom has been forced into parabolic exegesis

rather than allowing the parables to inform theology of the king-

dom. More work is needed to allow the parables to unfold the bib-

lical doctrine of the kingdom as the message of Jesus contributed

to it.

 

RESPOND TO THE INTENDED APPEAL OF THE PARABLE

Critical scholarship has tended to overlook the historical setting

of the parables in the life of Jesus. Also the presuppositions of crit-

ical scholars who see parables as only metaphors cloud their in-

terpretation. However, these scholars' discussions of the nature of

parable as "language-event" can be appreciated to a point, for this

emphasis calls for a decision by the literary audience in the days

 

28 Hunter, Interpreting the Parables, 39.

29 Norman Hope, "The Interpretation of Christ's Parables," Interpretation 6 (July

1952): 303. Some parables, like those in Luke 15, are more remotely related than

those that explicitly mention the term or describe the concept.

39 Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 153.

 



38        BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January–March 1998

 

of early hearers as well as present-day hearers. While valuable

in emphasizing the need for making a decision, these discus-

sions have often missed the proper application which relates the

parables to the person of Christ and His kingdom. Their view of

polyvalent meanings—that the parables are open-ended—has

tended to remove the objectivity of interpretation with historical

validation. Therefore the door has been opened for all kinds of

opinions. Stein rightly states the need to ground application in

historical, interpretation.

            Only by attempting to understand the parables in their original

            Sitz im Leben shall we be able to free ourselves from the chains of

            modern-day fads or trends, whether they be liberalism's general

            moral truth or existentialism's language event. The greatest rev-

            erence we can give to the parables of Jesus is not to treat them as

            literary accounts that are ends in themselves, but rather to treat

            them as the parables of Jesus, i.e., as parables Jesus taught and

            which are filled with his meaning and insight! What he means to-

            day by his parables cannot be treated apart from the question of

            what he meant by them in the first Sitz im Leben.31

 

            Proper application is based on the timeless principles con-

tained in the message of the parables. Principles "summarize the

essence of a Bible passage in terms that are applicable to a broad

spectrum of readers and situations."32 "To principalize is to dis-

cover in any narrative the basic spiritual, moral, or theological

principles."33 This principle of truth may then be applied to many

situations in the reader's life.

 

                                                SUMMARY

 

A proper hermeneutical methodology for the parables must take

into account the nature and purpose of the parables as both a par-

ticular genre of literature and the reasons Christ employed them.

From the historical, literary, and cultural contexts, the structure

and details of the parabolic narratives may be studied to exegete

the central truth of the parables, which usually have as their refer-

ent some specific aspect of God's kingdom program. The in-

tended appeal for ancient as well as present-day readers provides

the framework for proper application. Additional articles in this

series will discuss these aspects of the kingdom in Jesus' seven

parables in Matthew 13.

 

31 Stein, An Introduction to the Parables, 69 (italics his).

32 Roy B. Zuck, "Application: Biblical Hermeneutics and Exposition," in Wal-

voord: A Tribute, ed. Donald K. Campbell (Chicago: Moody, 1982), 26.

33 Ibid., 27.


This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Dallas Theological Seminary

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            Dallas, TX   75204          

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Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu