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."
A turning point in the study of Jesus' parables came with the work of Adolf Jülicher, 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 Jülicher, 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. 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. Consequently some writers have returned to the approach that sees multiple meanings based on the subjective philosophical self-understanding of the interpreters rather than the historical objectivity of Jesus and His message. The past fifteen
years or so have been dominated 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 extremes of Jülicher and the multiple meanings allowed by the extremes 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 Sider have sought to interpret Jesus' parables more conservatively, it remains to be seen how many will join their effort.
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 persuade 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 responded were called disciples and to them it was granted to understand the mysteries of the kingdom. The same truth was concealed from those who, because of hardened hearts, were unreceptive 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 program.
A proper interpretation of Jesus' parables should give attention to the following five steps.
Understand the Setting of the Parable
Conservative hermeneutics proceeds on the premise that language is meaningful and that the words in God's biblical communication carry "historical, cultural, spiritual, and moral meaning and values." As an interpreter approaches the Scriptures, he is conscious of the words and endeavors to discover the meaning carried by them. Sometimes Jesus supplied the interpretation (e.g., Matt. 22:14; 25:13), and on other
occasions the Gospel writer made an editorial comment. Often the key to interpretation 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 interpretation (Matt. 25:13; Luke 16:9). And in some parables the prologue and epilogue form an interpretive parenthesis around the story (e.g., Matt. 18:2324, 35; Luke 12:1621).
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." Whether allegorized or taken with a totally aesthetic bias, the historical settings of the parables have been overlooked in favor of seeking to find existential implications for the present. In contrast to the liberal 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 itself to one who stood in that situation."(7) Stein correctly commends the contribution of Dodd, who stressed the parables for Jesus' initial 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 significance 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?
Hunter spoke of a double historical setting: "The parables, in the earliest context, had two settingstheir original setting in the life of Jesus, and their secondary one in the life of the early church." The context concerns both the events recorded and the recording of those events, that is, both the historical and the literary settings. The timing
of the parables in the historical development 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. 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 9:5119:27).
It is not by accident that some [parables] appear in one Gospel and are omitted from others, for on closer examination it will generally be seen that their record is in keeping with the character of the Gospel in which they appear. . . . The Evangelists were instructed 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.
The human authors were led by the Holy Spirit to arrange the material of each of their Gospels for theological as well as chronological purposes.
Understanding the cultural background also is essential for interpreting the parables properly. As Ramm stated, "In the interpretation of every parable it is necessary to recover as much as possible the local color employed in it." 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 information. 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."
Addressing the problem of "cultural foreignness" 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 churchmen through the centuries have translated the text. Ancient literature 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 modern 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 Oriental versions.
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. Nevertheless his emphasis on cultural interpretation is a welcome corrective 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 instructs disciples, replies to opponents, and stimulates crowds, but rather of an existentialist theologian, wearing a Bultmannian or Heideggerian face, who by parabolic speech dramatizes ontological possibilities for hearers."
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, customs, buildings, institutions, and so forth, by means of which, and through which, a clan, a tribe, or a nation carry on their existence." The proper understanding of a parable's historical and cultural contexts is the beginning point for proper interpretation.
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 unlocking 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 application 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 rejection of Jesus as Messiah, parables following an exhortation or principle, parables that illustrate a situation, and parables with the purpose implied but not stated.
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 structure of the passage being studied. He discusses five ways the literary structure is arranged to carry along the thought process of the reader: 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 setting, characters, and plot all relate to this step of the hermeneutical process, and valuable insights are gained by not sidestepping the values of narrative composition and the means ("progressions") 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 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." Various details often play important roles, but on the other hand they may be given simply to add backdrop to the story.
Interpreters have often wrongly suggested that the presence of details in the parables calls for allegorical interpretation. Boucher, 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 meanings are understood, the meaning of the whole emerges.
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.
State the Central Truth of the Parable