Tuesday, March 9, 1999


The parables of Jesus though spoken almost two thousand years ago in an ancient culture very different from ours are still very relevant today because Christ dealt with universal human problems. Christ's parables are disarmingly simple, and yet it is extremely difficult to create new parables with the force and power of his stories.

When we clearly understand references made to customs of his day, the relevance of the parables of Christ becomes even more apparent. However, because of the nature of the parables with their different characters and their actions, it is possible to universalize the meaning of these parables without reference to the context. Characters can be represented by arbitrarily chosen persons, and objects and actions with arbitrary meanings, thus allegorizing the parable.

The parable that has received this treatment most frequently is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Augustine all allegorized this parable. The following taken from Klein shows how Augustine interpreted this parable:

The Jewish Traveler was Adam.

Jerusalem was the City of Heavenly Peace.

Jericho was the moon, which signified mortality.

(The play here is on the Hebrew terms for moon and Jericho.)

The Robbers were the Devil and his angels.

Stripping the Traveler meant taking away his immortality.

Beating him was persuading him to sin.

Leaving him half dead meant that because of his sin, he was spiritually dead, but

half-alive, due to his knowledge of God.

The Priest symbolized the priesthood of the Old Testament.

The Levite symbolized Mosaic Law and the ministry of the Old Testament.

The Good Samaritan symbolized Christ as well as the prophets of the Old Testament.

Binding of the wounds represented the restraint of sin.

Oil was the comfort of good hope.

Wine was the exhortation to spirited work.

The Beast was the body of Christ.

The inn was the Church.

The two denarii were the two commandments of love.

The Innkeeper was the Apostle Paul.

The return of the Good Samaritan symbolized the Return of Christ.1

The Venerable Bede (673-735), Theophylactus (1050-1108), Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), Bonaventure (1217-1274), Thomas Aquinas (1226-1274), Martin Luther (1483-1546), and even Trench in his Notes on the Parables of Our Lord, published in 1841, continued the tradition of interpreting this parable as an allegory.2

As one can see there is certain plausibility to this type of interpretation and a kind of fascination in observing the creativity of the writers. Many modern hearers might be attracted to this type of interpretation, yet there are many serious faults with this approach.

First, it does not fit the context and situation in which Jesus spoke. Who is my neighbor?" was the question Jesus answered when he told this story. Clearly, the parable deals with human relationships-how one person ought to relate to another. Augustine not only changes the literary form, he wrenches the parable out of its context and subverts its intent. Second, this approach is anachronistic. When Christ told this story, Paul was unconverted. Third, and probably the worst feature of this approach, is that anyone can interpret the story any way they choose if they give lip service to similarities in the story's basic elements. The question must be asked, "Why turn a parable into an allegory? Why not assume that words in parables simply reference what they say they do."

Because of these interpretive abuses, a strong reaction developed against the allegorical approach. In 18883 Juelicher emphasized the difference between parable and allegory and that contrary to the latter, the parable as an extended simile has only one major point of comparison. Juelicher's work was hailed because the abuses of the allegorical method were so blatant and obvious. It was his pioneering work that laid the basic foundations for the modern study of parables.

C.H. Dodd4 advanced parable study further when he emphasized that Jesus' parables needed to be studied and understood in the historical context of his times. Through critical studies he attempted to place the parables of Jesus in the specific situations that Jesus confronted in his ministry. Joachim Jeremias building on Dodd's study expanded his study beyond the limited number of parables that Dodd dealt with and treated them more systematically.

Juelicher's basic proposition has been challenged on several grounds. Modern scholars reject his proposal that the parables present a general universal truth. Dodd and Jeremias, especially, have shown that the parables of Jesus are very specific in their application. Juelicher's method of establishing the Greek meaning of "parable" and applying that understanding to Jesus' parables has also been questioned, since the context of Hebrew parables was much broader than the Greek.

Using the Greek "parable" as a guide to understanding Jesus' parables appears to be fundamentally wrongheaded. It seems obvious that rabbinic parables should guide understanding. McArthur and Johnston have shown major similarities between the form of Jesus' parables and the rabbinic parables.5 While most scholars generally agree with Juelicher's proposition that parables have only one main point, McArthur and Johnston do not agree.

But the ancient Rabbis, never having heard of Juelicher or Dodd, made no effort to conform to their decrees. Not only do the majority of rabbinic parables have attached applications, but those applications frequently interpret the stories point by point; or again, they often attach meaning to some but not all the features of the story. In short, the narrative mashal draws no boundary whatever along the lines of Juelicher's bifurcation of "parable" and "allegory."6

McArthur and Johnston do not, however, advocate the return to uncontrolled allegorizing. Interpretation must be in harmony with the context of the parable.

More recently other approaches to the study of the parables have been undertaken. Redaction-criticism, aesthetic criticism, and structural analysis, though helpful, have not significantly advanced our understanding of the meaning of the parables. For more complete treatments of the history of parable interpretation, see the following:

Craig L. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), pp. 13-167.

Robert H. Stein, An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981), pp. 42-71.

David Wenham, The Parables of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989), pp. 225-238.

For a select bibliography on the parables of Jesus, see pp. 246-248 in Wenham's book.

The sermons that follow emphasize the applicability of Jesus' parables to our times and our lives. They are based on sound exegesis, and it is the intention of the author that they should be in harmony with modern conservative parable interpretation.

I have arranged the parables topically because this is the common arrangement and because it makes the book more useful to the reader. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references are from the New Revised Standard Version.

The author has obtained valuable insights from many that have written on the parables of Jesus. If all have not been credited properly, I beg your forgiveness.


1 See Robert H. Stein, An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981), pp. 44-46.

2 Ibid., pp. 47-52.

3 Adolf Juelicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu, 2 vols. (Freiburg: Mohr, 1899).

4 C.H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (London: SCM, 1972).

5 Joachim Jeremias, Die Gleichniss Jesu (Zurich: Zwingli, 1947).

6 Harvey K. McArthur and Robert M. Johnston, They Also Taught in Parables: Rabbinic Parables from the First Centuries of the Christian Era (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990).

7 Ibid., p. 141.

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