Jesus told many parables. Some of them, like the parable of the Widow and the Judge (Luke 18:2-8) or the Friend at Midnight (Luke 11:5-8), seem to have only a single point. These are known as story parables. Others, however, which we call the allegorical parables of Jesus, definitely make several points of comparison.
Take, for instance, the Parable of the Sower and the Soils (Mark 4:3-8 and parallels in Matt. 13:3-9 and Luke 8:5-8). In the explanation that Jesus provides to his disciples (Mark 4:14-20 and parallels), several of the various elements of the story have a separate meaning: the seed represents the word; the four kinds of soil stand for people whose reception of the word varies according to their heart-conditions; and Jesus even assigns symbolic meaning to the birds, the rocks, the sun, and the thorns.
In the verse before his explanation, Mark 4:13, Jesus asks, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” There are at least two ways of understanding these questions. Perhaps in keeping with the meaning of the parable, Jesus is suggesting that the disciples have hard hearts like the soil along the path. In order to understand other parables, they must deal with their heart condition.
Or it may be that in asking these two questions, Jesus is telling his disciples that many or all of his parables have allegorical features like this one does. If this understanding is true, then the Parable of the Sower and the Soils becomes a model or pattern for interpreting and understanding other parables.
These two options are not necessarily mutually exclusive; both could be true.
To grant that some or many of Jesus parables have allegorical features is not a call for return to the imaginative and highly subjective allegorical interpretations that characterized the exegesis of the middle ages, persisting even into the 20th century. I am simply recognizing that Jesus sometimes used allegories, deriving meanings for the symbols from the people, beliefs, and actions in the first century. That is the control that was missing in medieval exegesis. What could it have meant to the original audience?
The very next parable, the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds (Matt. 13:24-30, with the explanation in vv. 36-43), also has multiple symbolism: the one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds of the children of the evil one; the enemy is the devil; the harvest represents the close of the age; and the reapers stand for the angels.
At the end of the Parable of the Net (Matt. 13:47-50), which is similar to the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, Jesus tacks on his explanation: the fishermen symbolize the angels, the good and bad fish stand for the righteous and evil people, and the on-shore sorting of the fish represents the judgment at the close of the age.
Allegorical parables, but without the map
These three parables are the only ones in which Jesus provides us with a ready lexicon of the meanings, but several other parables also seem to be allegorical.
For example, when Jesus finishes telling the Parable of the Tenants (Matt. 21:33-41), He makes this application: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits” (v. 43). Matthew adds: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them.”
This must mean that Jesus means for the tenants in the parable to represent these leaders of the Jewish people. The vineyard, then, would be the Jewish nation; the owner of the vineyard would be God; the servants sent before the son would be the prophets (see Matt. 23:34); the son would represent Jesus himself; the tenants’ murder of the son would represent Christ’s own crucifixion; and the response of the vineyard owner would stand for God’s rejection, punishment, and replacement of these leaders.
Audience analysis helps in interpreting these parables
If we can identify the main people in the audience Jesus is addressing, we can readily see their likenesses in the parables he offers them. When he is talking to his disciples, they might be the main characters in his parable. For example, after the rich young ruler turns away from Jesus, Peter says, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (Matt. 19:27). In the next two verses, he and the other disciples receive reassuring words from Jesus, but with the added warning of v. 30: “but many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Jesus then tells the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matt. 20:1-15), adding this application: “so the last will be first, and the first last” (v. 16). This repetition of warning to the disciples (in reverse sequence) confirms for us that the parable was meant for them. We are not out of line to understand the laborers who worked longest and hardest as representing the disciples. This would open the way for the other laborers to represent other followers of Jesus and for the master of the house to stand for Jesus.
Try your hand at interpreting six parables in Luke
Take a look at the string of six parables (actually, the first two and the last one are similitudes) that Jesus tells as recorded in Luke 15:3 – 17:10. The occasion for this extended discourse is the call to discipleship of Luke 14:25-35 and the response in the first two verses of chapter 15: “now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘this man receives sinners and eats with them.’”
An audience analysis, therefore, identifies as possible parabolic participants the repenting sinners, the disciples, and the Pharisees and scribes, along with Jesus himself. See if you can find any of them in the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15 3-7), the Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10), and the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32).
The parables of chapter 16 follow with no break in the context. Can you still see members of the audience in the Parable of the Dishonest Manager (Luke 16:1-8, with multiple applications in Luke 16:9-18) and in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)? What about the final one of the series, the Similitude of the Unworthy Servant (Luke 17:7-10)?
I suggest that we might even be able to guess the number of those grumbling among the crowd. The rich man says to Father Abraham, “then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house — for I have five brothers — so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment” (Luke 16:27-28).
Explore the parables on your own
Look through other parables and similitudes, asking yourself whether Jesus is employing allegory. Considering the allegories in the Old Testament (e.g., Judges 9:8-15; 2 Sam. 12:1-4; Ezek. 16:3-43; 17:3-10; 23:2-35), we cannot rule out the possibility that Jesus used this method of teaching. We should reject the claim of liberal scholars that all allegorical features of the parables are the production of the early church, putting their interpretations into the mouth of Jesus. This is a groundless indictment of the trustworthiness of Scripture.
The final step in the interpretation process is to make an application for modern readers. As we analyze the parables in their contexts and discern the faces of Jesus’ original audience, might we also find among them our own faces as well? Are we one of the kinds of soil, or do we grumble at the Master for being so full of compassion? Do we shirk our responsibility to yield the produce to the vineyard Owner or insult Him by our attitudes? Are we the wheat or the weeds? What kind of fish are we? Do we sense that the net is approaching the beach?
Want to go deeper?
- Read the section on the parables in Wikipedia’s article about the German liberal scholar Adolf Jülicher.
Jülicher saw allegory as a Greek method of teaching that was too sophisticated for the unschooled Galilean Teacher, ignoring its use in the Hebrew Scriptures and in rabbinic sources. He held that all allegorization must be the work of the early church, layering their understanding over the one-point stories of Jesus. His rejection of allegorical features being authentically from Jesus broke the domination the allegorical method had enjoyed and set up a new tyranny of interpretation. He had a tremendous influence on parable interpreters in the generations that followed, even to this day.
In the second half of the 20th century, however, some scholarly voices were beginning to question the validity of his strictures against allegory, for example:
- Matthew Black. “The Parables as Allegory.” Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library 42 (1959-60): 273-287. (Click the link for online reading of this article.)
Black cites a few earlier scholars who questioned or outright rejected Jülicher’s “canon” that parables can only have one point and demonstrates how admitting some allegory aids in the proper exegesis of the parables.
- Raymond E. Brown. “Parable and Allegory Reconsidered.” Novum Testamentum 5, 1 (Jan. 1962): 36-45. (No online reading is possible unless you download the article and open it separately.)
“We would join ourselves to recent writers… who, while recognizing that the explanation of the parable has been adapted to the situation of the early Church, believe that there can be found underlying the gospel explanation an allegorical explanation by Jesus himself.” (40)
There is plenty of evidence that to Jewish writers of Jesus’ day allegory was already an established genre. For example:
- In the Hebrew Bible we find allegories similar to those of Jesus, including Jotham’s story of King Thornbush (Judges 9:7-20), Nathan’s story of the poor man’s sheep (2 Sam. 12:1-4), and Ezekiel’s story of the wicked sisters (Ezek. 23). What are the separate meanings of some of the details of these stories?
- The rabbis whose teachings are recorded in the Mishnah, some of whom lived during the time of Jesus (the Amoraim), employ allegorical interpretation of the Bible, as this article, “Allegorical Interpretation” by Louis Ginzberg (from the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia) demonstrates.
- Philo of Alexandria (also called Philo Judaeus), a contemporary of the Apostle Paul, is a prime example of the use of allegory in explaining the Hebrew Bible.
Philo does not limit his allegorical interpretation to figurative sayings; he uses it even when interpreting historical narratives of the Old Testament. Modern Bible students cannot help but suppose that nearly all of his allegorical interpretations, especially those of the historical narratives, are highly subjective and seemingly arbitrary. As an example, read his book, The Migration of Abraham. (To go deeper into a study of the teachings of Philo, you can purchase a digital copy of The Writings of Philo Judaeus from DeeperStudy.com – 3003 pages in PDF format for $9.95.)
- For more on how the medieval allegorical method developed, see: “The Allegorical Interpretaton of the Scriptures”.
This article discusses the use of the allegorical method by “the Alexandrian school,” notably Clement of Alexandria and his pupil Origen, as well as the reaction against it by some fourth and fifth-century church fathers “the Antiochene school.”
For more discussion on the issue of single-point vs. allegorical interpretation of the parables, see:
- Richard C. Trench. “On the Interpretation of the Parables,” pp. 32-45 in his Notes on the Parables of Our Lord (New York: Appleton, 1851; numerous reprints ever since).
See Trench’s discussion of how to interpret the parables, including many statements by the early church fathers and the reformers. His conclusion is to avoid both extremes: uncontrolled adorning of the parables through subjective allegorization and stripping all meaning from the details until barely any message survives. In my opinion, he tends to go too far toward finding meaning in the most trivial details, such as the oil of the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins.
- Steve Singleton. The Parable of the Unjust Steward in the Light of its Contexts: Untangling Jesus’ Most Puzzling Parable. E-book in PDF format, $3.95.
Not only do I offer a plausible and perhaps refreshingly original interpretation of the most difficult parable of Jesus, but I demonstrate how it fits into the flow of the context of the discourse that extends from Luke 14:25 through Luke 17:10.