Parabolic Interpretation

I was privileged to preach twice in the last two weeks and it so happened that my biblical texts for both sermons were Jesus’ parables. In the first sermon, there were two parables: the parable of the friend at midnight and the one about the evil judge. In the second sermon, the primary text was the so-called parable of “the Good Samaritan.”

One of the interesting things I learned in seminary was how to interpret the Bible better. Rather than relying on what my favorite radio (or podcast) preacher tells me, or what I read in a book (devotional or commentary), or whatever interpretive prejudices I might bring to the text; the point is to let the text speak for itself. The whole science of interpretation (“Hermeneutics” is the technical term) is to prevent, as much as possible, those potential errors of interpretation and get at what the original authors really meant.

Parables can be really tricky to interpret. In any good work on hermeneutics, there’s usually a short laundry list of the “rules” (more like strong guidelines) to interpret parables. Other forms of literature found in the Bible (narrative, poetry, etc.) have their rules but Parables seem to always get special treatment.

But here’s the Number One, Primary, Unalterable Rule of Parabolic Interpretation: If Jesus or the gospel writer actually gives the interpretation of the parable, then that’s the interpretation.

So, what if you go through a parable and come up with a significantly different interpretation of the parable than Jesus gave? Well, let’s just say that you need to go back and do your homework again.

Now - can you believe it? - there are actually people who would disagree with that principle of interpretation. They believe that they can fragment the text, sever the parable from the interpretation given by the parable’s author, and do with the parable whatever they want to. Oddly enough, these people who want to fragment the text are postmodernists in love with “deconstruction.” So the postmodern deconstructionists are actually giving themselves permission to make stuff up as they go along, seems to me.

The approach I gave to parabolic interpretation additionally affirms the canonical approach to Biblical theology: look fully to the text before you use external resources to aid your interpretive task.

So let’s look at a couple of the examples. The friend at midnight parable is found in Luke 11:5-8. The parable is squarely connected to Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the previous four verses. After Jesus tells the parable, he spends then next five verses explaining the parable. There you are – there’s the interpretation.

In the parable of the widow and unjust judge, found in Luke 18:2-5, the writer (Luke) gives the point and interpretation of the parable in the introduction in 18:1. The point of the parable is that we should pray and not give up. There it is, that’s the parable’s interpretation. After the parable, Jesus gives some interesting teaching about God’s love for his people and justice, the nature of faith, and affirms that he’s coming back.

Even the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35) yields the same result. What’s the point of the parable? Within the context of obeying the great commandments (10:25-29), Jesus’ point is crystal clear: “Go and do likewise” (10:37). There it is – right in front of us.

So the point here is that while parables can sometimes be tricky to interpret; there are several parables where that hard work is already done for you.

Sometimes you don’t have to look for the answer; you just have to see it.