Jesus proclaimed the good news of God by frequently using figurative forms of speech, which the Synoptic Gospels call "parable" (Gk. parabole). Matthew, following Mark, suggests that Jesus taught only in parables, so that "[w]ithout a parable he told them nothing" (Matt 13:34; cf. Mark 4:33-34). (1) Further, although the word parabole never appears in the Gospel of John, nor do any of the stories that we most associate with the term, much of Jesus' speech in John takes a similar form, such as "I am the vine, you are the branches" (John 15:5) or "I am the good shepherd" (John 10:11).
The parables were not easy for people to understand; Jesus' disciples had to ask, on more than one occasion, for an explanation of what he meant (e.g., Mark 4:10-13 and pars.; Mark 7:17). (2) This comes as no surprise, perhaps, to anyone who has ever tried to make sense of the parable of the unjust steward, for example, in which a manager who engages in dishonest behavior seems to be commended as an example for Jesus' followers (Luke 16:1-12). As I teach the parables at synodical and congregational events during this season of the ELCA Book of Faith initiative, I find that people have no difficulty naming their favorite parable (often a tie between the good Samaritan and the prodigal son), but when asked what these parables mean, they hesitate before suggesting general moral principles: "We should be kind to other people" and "God loves me." While these are not bad sentiments, and they are certainly true, they hardly reflect the powerful and provocative impact the parables have had on Jesus' followers through the generations.
The upcoming lectionary cycle (Year C) offers preachers a number of opportunities to engage the parables in the proclamation of the gospel. Depending on what forms qualify as parables (I will say more about this below) there arc between ten and fourteen Sundays in Year C that include parable texts from the Gospel of Luke. Nine of these parables, nearly all of them unique to Luke, occur in the Season after Pentecost (Ordinary Time), when our Gospel readings follow Jesus and the disciples on the journey toward Jerusalem.
In this essay I discuss several issues related to the study of the parables: parable types, methodological questions, Luke's Gospel as a context for interpretation, etc. Following this general overview, I offer a brief analysis of two parables from the Gospel of Luke: the yeast (Luke 13:20-21) and the widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8). My intention is to model some of the exegetical and interpretive strategies that preachers might use as they prepare to preach the parables. Although the bulk of the discussion concerns the Gospel of Luke, much of what I suggest here can be applied to the other Gospels as well. The essay closes with a few concluding remarks on the value of the parables for proclamation.
What is a parable?
Two of the most well-known parables--the prodigal son and the good Samaritan--appear only in the Gospel of Luke. Surprisingly, perhaps, neither story is explicitly identified in the text as a parable, although several other of Jesus' sayings do receive that designation within their Lukan setting, namely, the great dinner (Luke 14:15-24), the widow and the judge (Luke 18:1-8), the pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). The first parable in Luke's narrative is a maxim that many people would not consider to be a parable at all, even though Jesus explicitly calls it that: "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb (lit. parable), 'Doctor, cure yourself!'" (Luke 4:23). This diversity of forms, ranging from extended narratives to short maxims, leads to disagreement in the scholarly literature about what constitutes a parable.
The Gospel writers use the Greek word parabole (etymologically related to paraballo, "to put beside," or "to compare") to identify four distinct types of sayings material, all of which occur in Luke. Parables of the first type tend to be relatively short; they would fit easily on a postcard or within the space allotted for a Facebook status update. These are proverbs or maxims, such as the one cited above ("Doctor, cure yourself") or "No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise, the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old" (Luke 5:36). They have the character of wisdom sayings, general truths that could apply across time and circumstance, such that they could be placed into almost any narrative context.
The second type of parable is a statement of likeness (or similitude), typically used in phrases that begin, "the kingdom of God is like ..." (e.g., the mustard seed, Luke 13:19) (3). These are comparisons in which a familiar aspect of common life (e.g., "a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden") is compared to a less familiar aspect of God's reign. The third type is allegory, such as we encounter in the sower (Luke 8:4 and pars), where Jesus gives an explicit interpretation of each element in the parable (Luke 8:11 ff). The last and most familiar type of parable has the form of a narrative or short story. Nearly all of the parables that are unique to Luke fall into this last category.
Apart from identifying the specific forms in which parables occur, we might also ask about their purpose. According to C. H. Dodd, one of the pioneers in modern parable research, the purpose of the parables is to get us to think. "A parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought." (4) Dodd's classic definition remains in use today by many of the recent publications in parable research.
What do we interpret, and how?
One methodological question (among several!) facing every treatment: of the parables is this: should the parables be interpreted as they appear in their specific Gospel contexts, or, rather, should they be separated from the theological overlays of the Gospel(s) in an attempt to get back to what Jesus actually said? (5) This is not a question unique to parable studies, of course, as it stands also at the center of research into the historical Jesus. Two (among many) treatments of the parables, each of which offers provocative interpretations that may fuel faithful preaching, represent different answers to this question.
John R. Donahue suggests that the best way to understand the parables is to view them as "a Gospel in miniature," such that" [t]o study the parables of the Gospels is to study the gospel in...