Questions for Jesus' Parables

12/08/2015 03:30 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2016

Jesus' parables -- vivid short stories and comparisons like the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the Laborers in the Vineyard -- make up the most distinctive element of his teaching. Lots of Jesus' contemporaries used parables, but nearly all interpreters agree that Jesus' stories stand out for what one commentator called their capacity "to tease [the mind] into active thought." Almost all of them open themselves to multiple interpretations, leaving interpreters to scratch their heads and argue with one another for centuries.

Perhaps our first challenge involves asking the most productive questions. A new book by Sam Tsang sets itself apart by asking each parable: "What if things went otherwise?" Most parables present readers with a "hook," a moment when the story jumps off the tracks of predictable and ordinary behavior. In the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), two religious people pass by an innocent victim, but a heretical outsider provides lavish aid. In the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), a father throws a massive party for a son who has squandered his property, leaving the responsible son to stew in his resentment. In the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), a landowner agrees to provide a fair wage to all his workers regardless of how many hours they put in - then he forces those who have worked all day to stand and watch while the newcomers receive their pay first.

Because many readers are so familiar with the parables, we tend to overlook this element of surprise. Tsang focuses his study upon the parables in Luke, and he opens each interpretation with a "normal" telling of the parable in question. What if, as expected, the Samaritan just passed by the poor guy lying beside the road while the priest and the Levite took care of him? What if the story of the Prodigal Son ended with the younger son returning in shame and receiving his father's love - but without pausing to show us his older brother's righteous resentment? By telling the stories "otherwise," Tsang spotlights the hook for each one, leading our eyes to the key interpretive issue. It's a most helpful interpretive strategy, one I recommend to interpreters in all settings.

One may ask other questions, all of them leading to insight. One such question involves finding a suitable audience for the parables. Tsang isn't always consistent on this point, but he goes for Theophilus, the person to whom Luke's Gospel is addressed. Because Theophilus means one "loved by God," interpreters disagree as to whether Theophilus is a real person or perhaps a symbolic name attached to all of Luke's readers. Tsang regards "most excellent Theophilus" (Luke 1:3) as a fairly powerful Roman patron and convert to the Jesus movement. As a result, Tsang tends to emphasize the social dynamics of Jesus' parables, their potential to undermine readers' sense of security or superiority and confront them with the sacrificial and risky nature of Jesus' way. For example, most interpreters see the parable of the mustard seed (Luke 13:18-21) as depicting the kingdom of God's outrageous growth. But Tsang reads the mustard seed as a warning to "boss-men" like Theophilus never to assess people on the basis of their perceived status. Even the "smallest" carry the same dignity as the greatest.

The question of audience is huge. Tsang's approach emphasizes how parables function within Luke's Gospel to address a Gentile audience. But Jesus was Jewish, speaking almost exclusively to other Jews long before Luke wrote. Amy-Jill Levine's recent bestseller locks in precisely there, asking how Jesus' parables would have come across to their first hearers. Christian interpreters have long twisted Jesus' parables into anti-Jewish allegories. According to this misguided logic, The Good Samaritan indicts supposedly self-righteous religious leaders who value their ritual purity above compassion, the Prodigal demonstrates the value of free grace over against the other brother who tries to "earn" his salvation, and the Laborers in the Vineyard reinforces the message of grace above the merit of long hours. Levine reveals how foreign such interpretations are to Jesus and his context. Instead, Jewish hearers would have understood the significance of seeking out lost children, an enemy who turns out to show love, and a landowner who takes care of his workers.

A third question follows the question of audience: Do we follow the parables as the Gospels relate them, or do we seek Jesus' teaching behind the written Gospel versions? Scholarly interpreters have long noted that the Gospel authors all had their own distinctive ways of presenting these stories - as they do with the entire Jesus tradition. Luke, for example, tends to turn the parables into example stories: "Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37). Luke even provides explanations for some of the parables or places them in settings that determine their meaning. Many interpreters, including Levine, have suspected that we can distinguish Jesus' original teaching from its representation in the Gospels. Unfortunately, the surgical excision of Jesus material from later interpretation proves even more challenging than playing Operation! Both approaches are legitimate, and our decision often affects our final interpretation.

Finally, how heavily do we weigh the metaphors Jesus chooses? German scholar Ruben Zimmermann notes that Jesus' references to kings, landlords, workers, agricultural practices, and the like create puzzles for interpreters. Zimmermann proposes that we recognize how such symbols functioned in Jesus' own environment: for example, kings often stood in for God. Although this recognition provides insight, Zimmermann cautions, it does not close off a basic quality of metaphors and symbols: such language is open-ended, always creating space for a diversity of interpretations.

So it goes for Jesus' parables. Some questions may prove better than others, but no approach guarantees that readers can identify a comprehensive meaning that closes the process of interpretation. Two thousand years of interpretation and debate have shown that no one can purchase the exclusive rights to these stories, any more than we can attain a full comprehension for Jesus.