The interpreter should be wary of over-elaboration or over-simplification when it comes to the parables (Tasker 1962, p. 933). But this does not mean we reject the allegorical interpretation that was always intended by Christ. For if allegory was missing, the Parables found in the New Testament would not have differed to those of the Old Testament, they would have been merely simple illustrations (e.g. 1 Sam. 24:13; Ezekiel 18:2-3). Rightly, John Chrysostom of Constantinople who was from the Antiochian School, was resistant to “flights of fancy,” preferring to discern the scope and purpose for each parable, rather than to “find a special significance in each circumstance or incident” (Unger 1980, p. 824). This does not mean however, that Chrysostom shied away from interpreting the Parables himself. See, for example, Homily XLV. Matt. XIII. 10, 11, where Chrysostom explains why the Pharisees did the very opposite to what Christ called the crowds to do: “not only disbelieving, not only not hearkening, but even waging war, and disposed to be very bitter against all” that Christ said, all because “They heard heavily.” St Gregory of Nyssa considered “allegorical interpretation necessary at points where symbolism or the words covered a deeper meaning”, and he also accepted the literal interpretation (Stavrianos 2012, p. 43) Even St Basil of Caesarea wrote in the Hexaemeron VIII.2 (PG 29:188), as quoted by Stavrianos (2012, p. 44), wrote: “to take [just] the literal sense and stop there is to have the heart covered by the veil of Jewish literalism.”
The Rise of the New Hermeneutic
The Impact of Form Criticism, Redaction Criticism & Literary-Critical Studies
In 1888 Adolf Jülicher's two volume seminal work, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu was a major influence against the centuries-old tradition of allegorical interpretation of the Parables of Christ. Jülicher was more preoccupied with the form of parables, seeking “clear-cut definitions” of differences between parables, allegories, similes, and metaphors. He simply took the parables literally and stressed they only had one point of comparison, not many (Caird 1980, p. 161). C.H. Dodd (1935) who was then followed by J. Jeremias (1947) and A.M. Hunter (1958) “rejected Julicher's moralistic interpretations in favour of the now generally accepted thesis that the parables had a particular reference to the ministry of Jesus and the crisis it inaugurated…” (Caird 1980, p. 162).
In an attempt to develop and in some cases correct Jülicher’s claims, form criticism and redaction criticism scholarship in Germany, and literary-critical studies in the United States, have proliferated in the field of “new hermeneutics” (Blomberg 1991, pp. 50-55; Goldingay 1995, p. 79). As a result, there are now definitions abounding for different types of parables (e.g. simple simile, simple metaphors, simile story, metaphor story, example story). Stein (1994) beautifully, dedicates several chapters to the form of Jesus’s writings, and the parables, describing him as an “outstanding” and “exciting” teacher; a “personality” who was “authoritative”. He continues to describe that Christ used certain devices of language to attract attention from his audience, including exaggeration, hyperbole, ‘paronomasia’ (i.e. pun), simile, metaphor, riddles, paradox, fortiori statements, synonymous parallelism, and more (Stein 1994, pp. 7-24).
The whole topic has become somewhat of a minefield if the critic is drawn in to the details of labelling. Perhaps about the only light to have come forth from all of this modern scholarship, is the uniqueness of the Parables of Christ in the Gospels. No matter how hard scholars have tried to encapsulate the formula used by Christ when speaking in Parables, they have found themselves in a tangle. They could have only been written by the Son of God (Lithgow 1907, p. 538). Scripture is the living Word, the text is dynamic and ever-changing, it is universal yet personal (Hogan 2016, pp. 119-120), and couched in history, all at the same time.
Modern Scholarship versus Early Christian Teaching on the Parables
It would be all too easy to dismiss the work of the modern scholars which has gone against the grain of tradition, as being written by those ‘who had eyes but could not see’. Jeremias lays blame for the state of parabolic interpretation with the “early Christian teachers” (Tasker 1962, p. 932). But even Stein (1994, p. 37) himself had to admit: “[i]t would appear that some parables possess undeniable allegorical elements” (e.g. the Parable of the Wedding Feast in Matt. 22:1-14). Dodd in particular takes exception with the fact that Christian preachers today deliver sermons that are far removed from the original meaning/ function of the parable, as set in the time of Christ (i.e. Sitz em Leiben). Stavrianos (2012, p. 29), in his study of The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) in Patristic thought, emphasises: “…even though the central truth of the parable remains the same, Christians in every era can adapt it to their reality, thus giving it new meaning and perspective.”
There is no doubt, that outside the confines of the established church, there are so-called preachers who teach falsehoods, for example, the so-named “prosperity gospel” whose message bears no relationship to what was intended by Christ. These are contemporary secular interpretations. St Basil of Caesarea warned against those who would take Holy Scripture, and instead of using common sense for their explanations, use “fancy wishes… to suit their allegories, like the interpreters of dreams who explain visions in sleep to make them serve their own end” (St Basil quoted in Stavrianos 2012, p. 44). Of course, the Fathers seemingly would agree with Jülicher, that the "parables were intended to illustrate one truth only" (Tasker 1962, p. 932) but the Fathers would deviate in their belief, emphasising that each Parable consisted of multiple layers of the “one truth”. Consider a kernel and its shell; it is one object that contains several layers, despite that scholars such as Via and Crossan prefer the onion motif of layering (Parris 2002, pp. 34-37). As devoted Christians, the more layers uncovered, the closer the relationship hypostatically proceeds to Christ the Saviour.
Christ’s Parables are Accessible, Personal, Prophetic and Universal
Christ Incarnate did not come speaking in complex technical “God language” that no one would be able to understand but using baby language, “goo-goo, ga-ga” principles. He came to deliver His message by empathically placing Himself in the shoes of humans, with all their weakness and frailty: “Jesus comes and stands where the hearer already stands" (Craddock 2002, pp. 88-89). Born in a manger, Christ continued his mission with the humble parabolic “story” formula which carried the most profound of messages. His parables (i.e. teachings) were inextricably linked to His Person (Blomberg 1991, p. 74). Such was His love for humankind that he set his parables in everyday life, to captivate the imagination equally of the rich and poor man, the educated and uneducated, the respected and the outcast, the healthy and the sick. Whether tax collector, fallen or adulteress, Samaritan, Publican or farmer- all people are His Creation, and He went to great lengths, even descending from on high to reach all people, and to save all people, using accessible language. “He mixes the realistic with the extraordinary and improbable” (Via 1974, 105). He gives the hearer the freedom to manoeuvre (Peta Sherlock private comms cited in Goldingay 1995), to find the space required to make correction. It is a daily choice one makes whether or not to follow Him.
Christ’s parables were not only prophetic in depicting how He Himself would suffer (Matt. 5:1-12; Barbu 2009, p. 262-263) but somehow simultaneously represented universal contexts in which hearers could fully relate: “[d]ifferent facets also come home to individual hearers at different times in their lives; there is no once for all hearing of a story” (Goldingay 1995, p. 78). As Potapov (2000) has written, Christ spoke in parables for three reasons: (1) to help listeners recall vivid images from ordinary life, and to ponder on the deeper message behind the allegory; (2) parables carried a double meaning and were deliberately indirect so that Christ could carry out the divine plan in full without being prematurely accused by the Pharisees; and (3) the parable format preserved the purity of Christ’s teachings. In Table 3, an original table, is presented stating 15 main reasons why Christ spoke in parables.
Table X. 15 Reasons Why Christ Spoke in Parables
Comprehensibility: Christ spoke in parables, effectively stories with meaning, so that everyone could understand his teachings.
Uniqueness: Christ's parables are unique in their manner. He only spoke to the masses without using this approach.
Non-Coercive: Parables are illustrations set in-context that help people to remember to love others. It is easier to forget a list of commands versus a story that has a setting in everyday life. Christ did not come giving laws to be followed. He could have said: "I command you to do x or y." But he was not coercive and did not wish to force anything on anyone. Instead, he spoke lovingly and softly, and even gave the listener the opportunity to reflect on the interpretation of his story.
Tangible: Everyone remembers stories because they are tangible and people can relate to them.
Artistic and Imaginative: Christ's parables are unique, and beautiful, and moving to one's soul (Rindge 2014, p. 403). They are better than the finest poetry or music. They often began or closed with rhetorical questions that Jesus Himself went on to answer, that “transforms the audience” by imagination (Rindge 2014, p. 408).
Participatory: There is a moral at the end- that take home message for each listener. They were therefore in some way participatory. The listener would be drawn in to hear His word. E.g. Matthew 21:30-32: "Which of the two did the will of his father?”
Layered Meaning, One Truth: Christ's parables have got more than one meaning as the traditional parables found in the Old Testament had only one single meaning (mashal). This shows the connection to allegory, and multiple meanings.
Accessible: Christ spoke simply to give the masses a choice to believe in Him through faith. The unbelievers would not understand even his simple parables, not because they were complex but because they maintained their unbelief through hardness of heart. Still because Christ was not speaking in sophisticated language to deliver his teachings, he gave each person a choice whether or not to follow him.
Universal: Christ's parables were universal, would withstand the test of time and continue to be relevant (Hebrews 13:8), and applicable to all even if they had not been in a given described context. E.g. we may not all sow seeds today but we have all seen in one way or another on television or the internet someone else sowing seeds. We get that seeds need to be thrown into furrows in soil in order to take root etc.
Empathic: A fine methodology ensues in the parables themselves. We the hearer of the Word, can place ourselves almost with certainty in the shoes of one or more of the characters depicted in the parable itself. We all know whom we'd like to be in the story, yet find ourselves challenged at various times having sinned against God and our fellow brothers and sisters in a manner that places us somewhere where we do not wish to be. At times the penitent might feel convicted especially in the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13, that they have sown seed by the wayside (v. 4), on stony places (v. 5), among thorns (v. 7) (Marshall 1978, p. 320). The hope, of course, for the Christian is to always sow seed on "good ground" (v. 8) and that is one’s life-long challenge.
Human: Christ places himself on the same 'level playing field' as his fellow man by speaking to them using every day contexts.
Perfection: Christ comes preaching a unique message in a unique way. There is something different about Him. His message is perfect. It is fair, and it is true. The parables were perfect, like the Logos. The parables are profound, like nothing that has ever been preached before. The moral of the stories are so convincing in terms of ethics, living by these principles would mean a life worth living.
Antinomic & Paradoxical: There is something antinomic, almost paradoxical about Christ’s message. Often members who would otherwise be shunned by a community, are held up as an example to us, because they have repented of their ways. In the Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32) the hero is the son who repented, not the second son who seemingly never sinned because he did not take his father's inheritance squandering it away in the world like the prodigal. This approach turns things upside down but does so legitimately. There is hope for even the greatest sinner. Are we willing to believe and grow in faith?
Personal: Christ pierces the conscience and personal thoughts and heart of every person through the parables, and offers him a way toward personal and inner transfiguration (Barbu 2009, p. 262). He takes us to that point so effortlessly it seems, until we recognise through a process of self-awareness that we need to continue to develop our character. So he might have preached to the masses, but inwardly, every individual would reflect on the person he/she was. The allegory is a strong device type. But despite the seeming simplicity of the stories they are so difficult to uphold morally.
Concealment: Christ spoke in parables to ensure the divine plan would be completed without interruption (G.A. Kennedy cited by Black 2000, p. 389). If the Pharisees would have detected his claim to being the Son of God, Christ would have been unable to continue preaching to the crowds freely.
Caption: The research conducted in preparation for Table 3 has been taken from a vast list of sources which appear in the wider Bibliography of this paper. Note: while the table is original in full, it has been greatly inspired by the ten Lectures of Fr Nikolai Sakharov for CF102 at the Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies.
While modern parabolic scholarship (e.g. form criticism and literary-critical studies) has been at odds with the tradition as recorded by the early church fathers, there are two main points of agreement. First, that in fact some of the Parables are truly meant as “allegories” in the technical literary sense, and second, each parable has a single truth, though the Fathers would contend there are multiple layers of the same truth to be extracted at face value, in moral value and spiritual, among other perspectives. The warnings of St John Chrysostom and St Basil the Great should be heeded when the Parables of Jesus are over-elaborated but at the same time Christ’s example is altogether present in the Scriptures. In this paper, the Parable of the Sower was used to illustrate “allegory in action”, and here is found Christ’s own example of explaining what He Himself meant by the story. While the Parables are easily recognisable in the Synoptic Gospels, there are numerous examples of parables present in the Gospel of John. The technique however in John’s writing, seems juxtaposed against the writings of Matthew, Mark and Luke the evangelists. In the Synoptics, Christ speaks to the crowds in Parables and then each has the choice of whether or not to apply these principles to themselves personally. While in John, we see “encounters” between Christ and typological figures (e.g. the Good Samaritan) that then can be used to represent universal principles. The Parables are the basis for Christian Ethics despite that they are never made explicit, hearers who wish to come to a closer knowledge of God and enter a deeper personal relationship with Him, are led to a place of everlasting love.
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