Midweek Reflection by Pastor Shawn Bawulski:
The gospel reading for this Sunday is the parable of the lost son from Luke 15. I’m excited about preaching on this text on Sunday, and as I’ve been preparing I’ve been reflecting on how to go about interpreting parables. Interpreting Scripture is both a science and an art, and one important factor is the matter of genre. Scripture contains many different genres: narrative, Hebrew poetry, wisdom sayings, didactic letters, and symbolic apocalyptic, just to name a few. And one of these genres is parable. Jesus uses them frequently; they use symbolic meaning to get at some sort of application for the hearer, either stated explicitly or implied. Parables illustrate in an artistic and educational way, usually requiring further reflection before the meaning becomes clear.
It’s always good for us to think about how we can become better readers of the Bible, so when it comes to reading and interpreting Jesus’ parables, here are some key points. (I am drawing from Craig L. Blomberg’s helpful book, “Interpreting the Parables” (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 1990).)
• Every parable of Jesus contains certain elements which point to a second level of meaning and others which do not. Ex: In the parable of the prodigal son, the Father certainly points to God, but the ring and the robe that the father gives the prodigal son upon his return serve to speak about the wonderful reception the father gives to the son and do not stand for anything such as baptism or immortality (as was postulated at certain points in church history) (Lk 15:11-32).
• The key to interpreting the parables lies in recognizing what a small handful of characters, actions or symbols stand for and fitting the rest of the story in with them.
• The main characters of a parable will probably be the most common candidates for interpreting the parable, and the main points of the parable will most likely be associated with these characters.
• Elements other than the main characters will have metaphorical referents only to the extent that they fit in with the meaning established by the referents of the main characters, and all interpretation must result in that which would have been intelligible to a first-century Palestinian audience. Ex: some have speculated that the innkeeper in the parable of the Good Samaritan stand for the apostle Paul (Lk 10:25-37). This does follow from the main symbols in the story, and certainly Jesus’ original audience could not have known about Paul’s ministry several decades before it even happened.
• The meanings ascribed to elements in a parable must be ones which the stories’ original audience could have been expected to grasp in their historical setting.
• While the parables do present largely lifelike portrayals of first-century Palestinian Judaism, key details in them are surprisingly unrealistic and serve to point out an allegorical level of meaning. Ex: the excuses given for not coming to the banquet in parable of wedding feast (Lk 14:16-24).
• The triadic structure of most of Jesus’ narrative parables suggest that most parables may make three points, though some will probably make only one or two.