What follows is a series of recommendations about interpreting the parables and preaching on them.
These consist of four statements with brief comment on each.
1. Generally it can be said that each parable has a major thrust or message.
Near the end of the nineteenth century Adolf Julicher made the "point" that each parable has only one "point." He is sometimes criticized for going too far in that, but he staked out his position over against the interpretive traditions (especially allegorization) that seemed to suffocate the "original" meaning of the parables in their ancient contexts.
Perhaps it is best to say that, instead of having a single point, each parable has a major thrust or message. The parables do not argue several things at once, but one should not think there is only one strictly discernable point, honed and sharpened, that exhausts any one of them. Neither should a person think that getting to that place guarantees a "correct" interpretation.
2. The parables contain hyperbole, surprises, and non-typical persons, actions, and plots. They do not reflect life as one normally experiences it.
The hyperbolic is often missed by modern readers and hearers. But the parables are filled with exaggerations, and it is precisely what is unusual in them that is often the key to interpreting them. For a shepherd to own a hundred sheep (Matthew 18:12-14, Luke 15:4-7) is quite amazing! A normal herd would be fewer than two dozen; the loss on one in a hundred is not a major one, but the shepherd goes searching for it.
For a slave to owe the king of the realm ten thousand talents (Matthew 18:23-35) is laughable beyond measure. That amounts to two hundred thousand years of wages for a laborer! It is even more astounding and laughable to hear that the king forgives his slave this debt simply for the asking.
Elsewhere, those who work only one hour get paid the same as those who worked for twelve hours (Matthew 20:1-16). And for a father to go out, running to meet his prodigal son when he sees him approaching on the horizon (Luke 15:20), is astonishing in a world where a dignified man does not run at all.1 Still many more illustrations could be listed.
In spite of their typical imagery, the stories themselves are not typical of human life as we experience it. And right there, we often find the key to interpreting them. Those parables illustrated here are all about the untypical character of God, a God whose love exceeds anything that one can find as a perfect analogy on earth.
3. The parables of Jesus do not, and cannot, carry the full weight of the theological and moral teachings of the Christian tradition.
Some interpreters get nervous when they find elements within the parables that do not seem to fit into the received tradition. Some examples come to mind:
- Does the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-8) endorse illegal, or at least immoral, behavior?
- Did the man who stumbled upon the treasure buried in the field (Matthew 13:44) do the right thing, or should he have notified the owner of the field?
- Does the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46) teach works' righteousness?
- Was the shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness (Luke 15:4) guilty of cruelty to animals?
The interpreter of the parables needs at times to lighten up and not "rescue" any parable from being what might seem to be bad theology or from possibly illustrating bad behavior. No single parable can represent a fully formed theological system. Each illumines only a facet of truth.
One can get at this in a playful manner. It has been said that every good sermon borders on heresy; if not, the preacher has probably said little of consequence. And a heresy is usually nothing more than a theological position that exaggerates and ossifies a particular doctrinal or moral truth to the exclusion of others.
The parables may well contain hyperbole, but they do not exclude other truths. Moreover, the preacher who preaches over a cycle of years, following a lectionary, is most likely to provide "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27, RSV).
4. The preacher should be careful not to over-interpret the parables by analyzing details within them that are simply part of their furnishings as stories, or by filling in possible gaps by adding unnecessary details, or by rescuing them, making them more theologically or ethically correct.
For example, in the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the attention should be focused on the action of the shepherd, not on what happened to the ninety-nine that were abandoned.
Or, in the Parable of the Seed Growing Secretly (Mark 4:26-29), it is not necessary to speculate on who the "someone" is who scatters the seed. A preacher can derail the impact of the parable by speculating whether that "someone" is God, an evangelist, or someone other. It does not matter. The story functions just fine without trying to figure it out.
On the other hand, it is important to fill in information necessary for interpretation.
For example, in the Parable of the Ten Maidens (Matthew 25:1-13), it is helpful, even necessary, to explain the basics of wedding customs that are presupposed. One can be playful as an interpreter. However the focus should be on the progression of the story as it moves to its conclusion, not on the question of why the bridegroom was late or how the maidens can purchase oil in the middle of the night.
The task, and sometimes the problem, for the interpreter is discerning the difference between what needs to be explained and what needs to be interpreted. Surely with interpreting the parables, there is truth in the saying that one can end up with "paralysis by analysis."
One over-all maxim seems a fitting conclusion to this brief essay. It all comes down to this: When preaching on the parables, the preacher should not ruin a good story!
1Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 4.3: "A proud man walks with slow steps."
For more information on Preaching the parables, we suggest Arland Hultgren's book The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000),
or the audio resource In the Company of Preachers,
whose latest edition deals with "Preaching the Parables."