The main theological debate concerning parables is whether or not to interpret them allegorically. To give an example of allegorization, here is Augustine's interpretation of the parable of the good Samaritan: "The wounded man stands for Adam; Jerusalem, the heavenly city from which he has fallen; the theives, the devil who deprives Adam of his immortality; the priest and the Levite, the Old Testament Law which could save no one; the Samaritan who binds the man's wounds, Christ who forgives sin' the inn, the church; and the innkeeper, the apostle Paul." (quote from Blomberg's Interpreting the Parables)

Take another example: The parable of the wineskins. Do the wine and the wineskin each represent something specific (e.g. the old and new covenants), or is the relationship between them the point of the parable corresponding with reality?

NB! This is NOT a question about the interpretation of the specific parables mentioned. The question is, "To what extent should we interpret parables as allegories?" - how do we know when we've gone too far, or not far enough?

  • I'd let this stand if it's rewritten as a question about the hermeneutical process and not as a "how far is too far?" question.
    – swasheck
    Nov 13 '13 at 17:38

A parable, I have been taught since childhood, is a "heavenly story with an earthly meaning," which is good as far as it goes. The word parable, however, carries with it the idea of placing alongside. What is placed alongside what? you may ask. The answer is:

Our lives are placed alongside the story, and the point of the story is meant to stir something deep within our spirits, which causes us to align (or re-align) our lives with the point or moral of the story.

Think of the process of analogy, which can function as an extended simile or metaphor. Take the following sentence, for example:

With the president's arrival there was a sudden flurry of activity.

The implied simile is

The president's arrival was like, or resembled, a flurry of snow.

The picture this simile triggers in the minds of the readers (or hearers) is perhaps of a million things going on at the same time, with no small amount of confusion, scurrying about, nervous chatter, mild panic, and so on. The "analogs" between snow flurries and human activity in the face of the imminent arrival of a dignitary are many, but they are largely taken for granted by both writer and reader alike. One strives, however, for aptness and meaningful mental comparisons which enlighten and inform, not perplex and confuse. (For example, to say "With the president's arrival there was a mudslide of activity" would not be apt, not even remotely--I think!)

Now think of a parable as a simile, but a simile which is pared down so that the focus is not on many points of comparison, or analogs, but only one. This single point, then, becomes the basis for comparison between the story the storyteller tells and the life of the listener who listens (or reads).

Aesop's fables illustrate the modus operandi of parables pretty well. Take the story of the turtle and the hare, and the race between the two. The moral of the story, or the application of the story to our lives is

Slow and steady wins the race.

Did Aesop mean for his readers to take the story apart and start asking questions such as

What does the hard shell of the turtle represent?

What do the long ears of the rabbit signify?

To what, specifically, should we link both slowness and quickness?

Is it always wise to be slow and prodding in our behavior, or is there a time to be slow and deliberate and a time to be quick and intuitive or spontaneous?

How long was the race?

Is the race a symbol of two perspectives on life: stop and smell the roses, on the one hand, and keep pushing forward to the finish line of retirement and then stop and smell the roses?

Of course not. Neither, I suggest, did Jesus. Jesus had a point to make, a moral toward which his parables pointed, and then he expected his audience to lay their lives, so to speak, next to the moral of the story and determine for themselves (with God's help, of course) how and where, specifically, that moral applies to their lives.

To take a parable of Jesus and invent an allegory by assigning meaning and significance to each and every detail of the parable is risible, from my perspective, and poor hermeneutics to boot!

That there are, or may be, points of comparison between the details in the parables and other verses or themes in the Bible, does not vitiate the importance of both interpreting the parable in the context in which Jesus told it and extracting the moral from the parable and applying it to one's life.

For example, Jesus told the parable of the wise man and the foolish man who both built houses, the former on rock and the latter on sand. Was Jesus attempting to teach his audience that He was the rock, the chief cornerstone, a term with which Paul and Peter would later identify him (e.g., Ephesians 2:20 or 1 Peter 2:4-8)? No. Is there a common theme or thread running through the two appearances of the concept of a rock? Yes, but that common thread is composed of two things attached to each other in a posteriori fashion. Sometimes the attachments are good and sometimes not.

Occasionally a given concept, such as that of a rock, can appear earlier in Scripture, and a later writer picks up on it and applies it in a way the original writer did not. For example, God provided water for the Israelites in the wilderness when God told Moses to speak to the rock, which he did, and out gushed water. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians picked up on this concept of the rock and applied it explicitly to Christ:

"and all [the Israelites] drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ" (1 Cor 10:4).

One could prepare a decent sermon by focusing on the different ways in which a rock functions as a symbol for a truth about God:

Christ is the spiritual rock who follows all His children, providing them with living water that truly pleases and satisfies throughout life

Christ is the rock-solid foundation, the cornerstone of the spiritual building that is His church universal

Christ is a rock of offense to those who choose to reject Him

Christ's words are like a rock-solid foundation that cannot be moved or shaken in the storms of life if we build our lives on them

God is a rock, a mighty fortress, a strong tower to those who take refuge in Him, as we learn from the book of Psalms.

Just as Moses was protected from seeing the effulgent and blindingly resplendent glory of God as God passed by him while Moses was shielded by the hand of God while Moses stood in the cleft of the rock, so too are Christians protected from being consumed by God by virtue of their being in Christ.

Christ could very well be the stone of which Daniel speaks, "a stone cut out without hands . . . [which] struck the statue on it s feet of iron and clay and crushed them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were crushed all at the same time and became like chaff . . .. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth . . .. [and] the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever" (Daniel 2:34,35,44,45).

In conclusion, the moral of each of Jesus' parables stands alone as a point of comparison between Jesus' audiences and their lives. To force the template of a full-blown allegory onto a parable is a risky business indeed. You might even say it's a slippery slope (notice the simile/analogy) that ends in confusion rather than enlightenment and God-inspired conviction.

  • Thanks, that was a great read..! Concise, very warming and clear..! Nov 10 '13 at 7:20
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    You're welcome, I 'm sure. Thank you for the encouragement. Don Nov 10 '13 at 20:57
  • Everything symbolizes Christ and His Bride and then everything symbolizes God "for of Him and to Him and through Him are all things"..Everything that is, apart from sin, is a reflection of His glory.."When this mortal takes on immortality", "we will know even as we have been known" say the Apostles. The rock was Christ, whether the author intended that, or not, God intended it, just as Paul explains and that is the point, the New testament is a revelation, a revealing, of something not clear! Those that were elect, both in the old and now in the New, understood and understand who the rock is! Nov 11 '13 at 22:08
  • @rhetorician-Thank you again, Don, for a wonderful response! It has always been my contention not to 'read' more into a parable/allegory than what was originally intended. The example is when Jesus says,"...but if the salt has lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?", could cast one in the pit of dispair, unless one realizes the analogy is made for a particular point, not to describe all catagories of the human condition. Just as the Lord can 'change' the leopard's spots, so also He can add 'saltiness' to an unsalty individual.
    – Tau
    Nov 11 '13 at 22:18
  • Absolutely! The question then is "what was intended"? Yes oh course this may cast one down, unless one has grappled with God and from such a scripture, been led to the questions regarding the state and nature of the elect! There are many layers, as you well know and far deeper and broader than we could imagine! How many children have been led from a conviction of their sin, to seek their eternal status before God and have been led to the Doctrines of grace, by this very parable. They cry with Paul "Who will set me free from this body of death"? The meanings uses and purposes of God are many! Nov 12 '13 at 5:23

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