Understanding Parables

In the Gospels we often see Jesus teaching by way of parables. A parable is a short story, told by a teacher, to illuminate an important idea. This idea is intended to be obvious to the listeners. The story is an aid to the student. It helps him understand, remember, and act.

Note carefully that a parable illustrates one point. Remember Aesop’s fables? Same idea. There’s a one-sentence moral to the story. (The sentence might include a semi-colon)

An allegory is different from a parable – an allegory contains multiple elements, each having its own (non-obvious) meaning. In spite of what some scholars have claimed, Christ also used allegories*. But, each time an allegory appears in the Gospels, Jesus later explains it. One such example is in Mark 4. Jesus explains the allegory here.

Roman Catholic scholars, during the Middle Ages, began treating all of the parables in the Gospels as if they were allegories. Modern biblical scholarship has reverted to the earlier view that Jesus’ parables were simply parables.

What possessed “biblical scholars” to think that parables could be treated as allegories? Hah! I can’t read minds, especially of people who’ve been dead for over 500 years. But I do know that most people, most of the time, do things from self-interest. When a large number of people, over many years, all do something similar you can be pretty sure that’s the reason.

By treating parables as allegories, allegories that Jesus “forgot” to explain, scholars could make the Bible say whatever they wanted. Any idea they wished to convey they could, somehow, squeeze into one of the parables. That is handling the word of God deceitfully, no matter the motive.

It’s a good thing that the Christian church has rejected this dishonest methodology. We’d never do this anymore, would we?

Unfortunately, it seems that non-medieval biblical scholarship hasn’t made it into many pulpits. The “Christian preachers” of today are still treating the parables as allegories. The method is quite valuable to them: they can imagine a “doctrine” and then “prove” it by quoting Jesus’ words. It’s not surprising, then, that sincere Christian laymen don’t understand the purpose of parables. Constant repetition has convinced us that the allegorical method is the right one. I thought so, myself, for many years.

Because of this there was a certain parable that bothered me. A lot. Let’s read it.

Luke 18:2-6
Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man:
And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary.
And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man;
Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.
And the Lord [Jesus] said, Hear what the unjust judge saith.

When I tried to handle this parable as an allegory I became very confused. It seemed to say that God was very much like an unjust judge. He didn’t give a damn about anybody. God tried his best to ignore prayers. The only reason He finally does anything is because He gets tired of listening to us.

Can you see why I had problems with this little story? The allegorical interpretation contradicts many, many verses elsewhere in the Bible.

This story perfectly illustrates the proper way to handle a parable – Jesus’ words are nonsensical as an allegory. But I missed it. God even instructed Luke to write the “moral of the story” at both the beginning and the end. But I missed it. Maybe it’s just me – does anybody else occasionally feel stupid in God’s presence?

Here is the verse before the parable:

Luke 18:1
And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint;

And here’s the following verse:

Luke 18:7, 8a
And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?
I tell you that he will avenge them speedily.

What’s the point of this parable? It’s simple. If you wouldn’t quit petitioning an unjust judge, why would you consider giving up on God?

Or, as the Bible puts it, “men ought always to pray, and not to faint.”

So, give your fainting couch to charity and keep praying.

*Why isn’t the word allegory (Greek allegoria) used in the Gospels? There’s a large body of evidence that these books were originally written in Aramaic and later translated to Greek. While I’m no expert on languages, I did check Aramaic and Syriac dictionaries. I found a word for parable but no separate word for allegory. Hmm…

2 thoughts on “Understanding Parables

  1. Moose Norseman

    Good thoughts. I think it important not to critique a parable for how well it fits a reality that it is not attempting to describe. For example, the parable of the unjust judge should not be used to say that God is unjust, but it also should not be used to say that all judges are unjust.

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