Hermeneutics - Lesson 24

Hermeneutics and Parables

From this lesson, you will gain understanding of how to interpret parables. Parables are a unique literary genre with their own rules of interpretation.  Unlike historical narratives, parables are made-up stories with all necessary information provided within them. Key principles for interpretation include identifying the main point, considering historical context, analyzing stock imagery, and paying attention to statements of meaning. Understanding the main characters and the focus at the end can help uncover the parable's main message. While there may be multiple points in a parable, it's crucial not to impose external meanings onto the text. Ultimately, this lesson equips you to interpret parables effectively and uncover their intended lessons.

Todd Miles
Lesson 24
Watching Now
Hermeneutics and Parables

A. Description of a Parable

B. Principles for Interpreting a Parable

1. Generally teach one point

2. Historical context

3. The Gospel writers interpreted many of the parables

4. Seek to understand the relevance

C. The Main Point of a Parable

D. Caution

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Hermeneutics is the science and art of the interpretation of the Bible. It's a science because it is an orderly process based on rules you can apply. It is an art because of the nuances in communication and translation.



Dr. Todd Miles


Hermeneutics and Parables

Lesson Transcript


In the last session, we looked at figures of speech and I mentioned that if we can interpret a figure of speech that lays the groundwork for interpreting a larger figure of speech, that is a figure of thought, which is a parable. And so let's look at how to interpret parables. Right now. A parable is a particular literary genre that has its own rules of interpretation. Of course we'd expect that because that's the very definition of literary genre. It's a kind of literature with its own rules of interpretation. The Greek word for parable is basically a parable. It's it's a compound word, para and ballo to choose cast or to throw alongside of something. And so you're putting a story out there, casting it alongside the reality. It's an extended simile because parables typically are formal comparisons. Think of Jesus saying the kingdom of Heaven is like. And there's your formal comparison. There are two parts to every parable, and this is where we get into how to interpret them. The first is the fictional part, the story. That's that's the that is that which is being cast alongside of something else. The second part, the something else is the reality, the comparison to which the story is likened. Now, because the first part is fictional, we should not confuse it with biblical narrative. There's going to be some similarity. There's going to be setting and characters and plot. But in historical narrative, a lot of our interpretive questions are why questions. And in historical narrative, I think those are valid. We could ask, why did Joseph tell his brothers about the dreams? You know what? I wish you wouldn't have done that. You know, we kind of cringe when we read Joseph do that. In a parable, that's that's not as legitimate. Remember our principle of selectivity where I said that authors select things in order to get you from where you are to where they want you to be. Well, that is multiplied in a parable because a parable is a made up story and everything, literally everything that you need to know in order to understand it is given in the parable itself. So in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we might be curious, well, why did the Good Samaritan leave the man at an end rather than staying with him to care for the victim? And the answer is, I don't know. And it doesn't matter. And it's not a real story. And so there was no thought process about that process about that anyway. There are no historical answers to those questions because it's made up. My first book was an argument for the exclusivity of Christ. And one of the criticisms of it that I read in a review was that where I argued that you need conscious faith in Jesus in order to be saved and in the person, the person said, My God loves people from from all streams of life. He loves the Samaritan. And he made an explicit reference to the parable, the Good Samaritan. How, the Good Samaritan was was a person who was reconciled to God. And I just remember thinking, there is no Good Samaritan. There's a made up story. It's not proof of anything. There might be some good Samaritans out there, but the biblical Good Samaritan doesn't actually exist. It's totally made up. So Axiom 23 Every parable contains two parts a fictional part and a real part. Don't confuse them. What are some principles for interpretation? Well, parables are written to teach a point, and most of the time there's just going to be one point. Now, that's not a hard, fast rule, but certainly you're looking for one point. When investigating the parables, try to understand why is this parable being taught and what what what is that main point? You know, we might want to be careful with seeking allegorical significance to to every single character and person. I say that with some hesitancy because in the parable, the wheat and the tares, it reads just like an allegory. And basically everybody in the parable stands for somebody else. Historical context is very important in understanding the parable. You might think we're told you just told us that the parables are made up, and so there are no historical answers to some of these questions. That's true, but that doesn't mean the historical context is not important. Remember that Jesus chose the subjects and the content of his parables based on the situations of the day. I remember I said he didn't give the parable of the microchip. He didn't give the parable of the dropped cell phone call. He gave parables that could be understood by the people to whom he was preaching. And so all of his stories were relative to the situations of that first century Jewish audience. And therefore, we want to pay attention to the stock imagery. You know, if a story were told today of a donkey talking to an elephant, most people in America would understand the imagery as being very political between, you know, the Democrats and the Republicans. Well, in the same way, when Jesus tells a parable about a Samaritan, it's not that he had it in for every Samaritan, but the stock imagery of Samaritans was these are people who are, generally speaking, not good guys. And so that's what's so shocking about the parable of the Good Samaritan, is he intentionally picks someone who no one would have expected to do the right thing. And yet he's the only one who does the right thing. Thankfully, when it comes to interpretation, the gospel writers were often interested in interpreting the parables for their readers, and so look for statements of meaning. So I remember when I was preaching through the Gospel of Matthew at one point I get to Matthew 13, and it begins with the Parable of the Sower. And I told the congregation, Now my interpretation of this parable is exactly right. And if you disagree with me, you're by definition wrong. I normally don't say that, but I could say that because Jesus literally interprets the parable for us. We know what that parable means. He does the same thing with the parable of the wheat and the tares just a few verses later in Matthew chapter 13. So look, look for statements of meaning. And another way to find meaning of the parables is what's the literary strategy of the gospel writers? Look at where the parables are placed in the gospels. Sometimes there's a context that's established by the gospel writer, and then Jesus will tell a parable in answer to a specific question that confronted him. That's a pretty good clue about what the meaning of the parable is. For example, in Luke chapter 15 versus one and two, we read this, Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to him, and the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, This man receives sinners and eats with them. So he told them this parable. The meaning of the parable is going to address the grumbling and the false theology of the Pharisees and scribes who were frustrated that Jesus was a friend to sinners. That's how the literary context can often give us the meaning of the parable. Once we figured out the meaning of the parable. Only then should we seek to understand how the parable is relevant to our lives. Remember, it's a made up story that's being used to drive home one point or two points, or however many points that the parable is intended  to mean. We ought not to draw, you know, great theology from from minor details that aren't as relevant to add to that main point. So as you're seeking to understand how the parable is relevant to your life, do so with holy fear, because we don't want to seek to read into the text things that aren't there. How do we arrive at the main point of a parable or the main points? Well, who are the main characters? Pay attention to that. We our eyes are drawn to the main characters of any story, so pay attention to them. Sometimes it's not self-evident, but most of the time it is also what comes at the end upon who or what does the end focus? Robert Stein does something very interesting with with the Parable of the Labors in the Vineyard in Matthew chapter 20. Matthew Chapter 20. What he asked this question. What what if the parable ended this way? So let me read for you how the parable in, you know, that that a worker goes out at what we're told in parable in Matthew 20 The Kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. And throughout the day he keeps hiring them throughout the day until at the very end he find someone at the last hour of the day and he wants to hire them as well. And how the parable ends is this. In verse eight, when evening came, the owner of the vineyard told his foreman, Call the workers and give them their pay, starting with the last and ending with the first. So those who had been working the least amount of time got their pay first and to everyone's surprise, they got a day's wage. And then there's all sorts of grumbling that ensues from those who had worked longer, thinking they deserved more. And the landowner says, Didn't we agree to work for a denarius, a day's wage? I gave you what you wanted or I gave you what what you agreed to work for. That's how the parable ends with those who had worked the longest grumbling over the generosity of the of the landowner. Stein asked this question What if the parable ended this way? When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the first ones hired going on to the last. The workers who were hired first came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired less, they expected to receive less. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they marveled and said of the landowner, truly, this is a generous man. Now, if the parable ended that way, it would have an entirely different focus and meaning, wouldn't it? The focus would illustrate that God is generous and kind. Instead, the focus is on the grumbling of the workers who agreed to work for a denarius but were there all day. It focuses on the inability of the Pharisees and the teachers of law to accept and rejoice in God's gracious offer of salvation to the lost. Even in the sight of the Pharisees, the really lost, the really lost. Similarly, in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the focus shifts not to the prodigal, who's who is actually a rather small, has a small part in the whole thing. He drives the entire deal, but his part is rather small. The focus at the end shifts to the discussion between the father and the older brother. Now the parable of the prodigal has I think there are a few main points to that one. But it is interesting how it ends. Ask yourself this What do you find in direct discourse? Who speaks in the parable? Pay attention to dialog. Our attention is usually drawn to speakers. You should. You probably know if you've ever tried to write anything. That writing dialog is not very easy. It's easy to write words, but it gets kind of awkward when you're having to say, he said. He said, she exclaimed. He retorted. Whatever. It's not that easy to do. But our attention is drawn to it. And so pay attention to it. Note that there is no discussion in the parable we just talked about, no discussion between the land owner and the later workers. They just received their denarius enough, they go. But there is extensive discussion between the first workers and the landowner. Similarly, there's very little discussion between the prodigal and his father. But there's a lot of discussion between the oldest son and the father. So pay attention to the direct discourse. Another way of saying that is the fourth principle I give you to whom are what is the most space devoted? In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. The first workers get the most space in the parable. The prodigal. Well, it's not quite as obvious. Here's a caution to recognize there may be more than one point. And I just concede that I don't want to say hard, fast. There's only one point to a parable. There may be multiple points. Throughout history, the interpretations of Jesus's parables has been diverse and an allegory rose very quickly to the top. And in a very real way. The parables are allegories. They're made up stories to drive home a specific point. As a result, though, many argued that narrative parables had only one point in response to what people thought was the allegorical interpretation and post during the Reformation and post reformation, allegory was thought to be like evil and vile. And so one reaction against that against that was to say, okay, and therefore parables only have one point. This is problematic because in the two parables that are interpreted for us, where Jesus gives the meaning of the parable, there is all sorts of points for these parable the sower. There's an interpretation with many different aspects to it, and it's not allegories. If the text invites invitation, the problem would be when we bring something external to the text. I want to give you a quick guide especially, and I'm going to use the parables in Matthew to think about what what do we actually have in the parables? And Jesus was very specific in his use of parables. He begins in the book of Matthew teaching in parables in Matthew 13, which is about halfway through the book. And when he starts teaching in parables, it's surprising because the disciples say, What are you doing? What's with the parables now? Matthew 12 We have an interesting interaction with Jesus and the and the Pharisees and the leaders of of Israel. Where there's a Sabbath controversy, as usual, and you have the the story of the unpardonable sin or the affair where Jesus teaches on the unpardonable sin, because Jesus has just healed someone by the Spirit and and the Pharisees and the teach the leaders of Israel. They step in immediately. They do like damage control, spin control on on Jesus healing this man. And they say he he heals by Satan, not by the Spirit of God. And Jesus kind of loses it or is as much of losing it as Jesus would ever get. And he he says, every kingdom divided against itself is headed for destruction. No city or house divided against itself will stand. You know, he quotes Abraham Lincoln, which is always a good thing to do. You know, if Satan drives out Satan, he's divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And then he says that if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. And  basically here Jesus, Jesus is saying, look, that the presence and power of the Holy Spirit is like the number one indicator of messianic identity. If I do something by the power of the Spirit, then you should know the Messiah is here, which is exactly what the people of Israel had been asking. When they see Jesus healed this man, they say, Can this man be the son of David? Is this the one we've been waiting for? And then the the Pharisees step in and say, No, not Spirit of God, Satan. And Jesus says, basically, there's no hope for you. There's there's more teaching in the rest of Chapter 12. But in Chapter 13, we're told on that day, Jesus went out of the house and was sitting by the sea, and he began to teach them verse three in parables, and he gives the parable the sower. And there's no answer to it. He just leaves the parable. They're sitting out there. The disciples then come and they ask Jesus, Why are you speaking to them in parables? So that's our indicator. Something's different, I suspect, because chapter 12 happened. Chapter 12 And now Jesus talking to parables and he answers them. He gives us the explanation why, and this is really helpful for interpreting the parables. Because the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven have been given for you to know. But it has not been given to them. Okay, so there's why are the parables giving so that some can hear the secrets of the kingdom and receive them, understand them. Others will hear the secrets and they won't receive them. So it's almost as if we were thinking of speech act theory, we'd have to say two different intentions, two different illocutionary intents. I'm speaking in parables. It's so this group will understand, but it's so this group won't. They'll hear me teaching, but they won't learn the secrets of the kingdom. Very interesting. For whoever has more will be given to him. And he will have more than enough. But whoever does not have even what he has will be taken away for him. That is why I speak to them in parables, because looking they do not see or hearing, they do not listen or understand Isaiah's prophecies fulfilled in them, which said, You will listen and listen, but never understand. You will look and look, but never perceive. For this people's heart has grown calloused, Their ears are hard of hearing. They have shut their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear their ears, understand with their hearts, turn back and I would heal them. And then he says, But blessed are your eyes. Because they do see and your ears because they do hear for truly, I tell you, many prophets and righteous people long to see the things you see, but didn't see them or hear the things you hear but didn't hear them. Huh? Now, Jesus really raised the bar. He says, I'm speaking in parables so that you'll understand and they won't, because basically there's two kinds of people in the world. There are those who are part of the kingdom and those who are not. There are those who understand the secrets of the kingdom, but those who don't. And those groups are the same. If you're in the kingdom, you understand the secrets of the kingdom. If you if you're not in the kingdom, you don't understand them. But there's a problem here. And the disciples have got to be sweating bullets because they heard the parable and they have no idea what it means, no idea what it means. So then verse 18, Jesus says, So listen to the parable of the Sower. And then he gives the explanation for it. And what Matthew doesn't tell us is like, so listen to Parable the Sower, and I wish there was a parenthetical parenthetical comment that said, and a great sigh of relief came about by the disciples because they knew that they were that they were in at this point. They they got the secrets. Why is this so important to understanding the parables? Jesus Christ showed up on the scene and he was preaching and teaching about the kingdom of God. And it's interesting that whenever he taught and, you know, even John the Baptist and Jesus repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, no one ever said, what is this kingdom you're talking about? There was a kingdom expectation that if you were a right thinking Jew, I would have to think came out of the Old Testament because there's plenty, plenty of prophecy of not a kingdom of God explicitly, but of a messianic age, of rule, of the Son of David, a time where God intervenes to save Israel, time when the Spirit is poured out. A time of vindication for Israel, reconstitution of Israel. That's the Kingdom of God that they had in their minds. And there's plenty of Old Testament prophecy that tells us about this. But Jesus says, I've come to give you the secrets of the kingdom. Now, he's also said he didn't come to abolish any of the law. And so when he comes to give the secrets of the kingdom, he's not going to refute or contradict anything in the Old Testament, but he will refute and contradict, alter perhaps, the false expectations about the timing and nature of the kingdom that was present in the minds of the people of Israel. And so what we have to ask when we hear a king, a parable of the kingdom, is what is the secret that's being revealed? What is Jesus trying to change in their thinking about the Kingdom of God? And so he gives the Parable of the Sower, which was an excellent first parable, because it illustrates the whole point that the Kingdom of God is like a sower who goes out and just sows seed, broadcasts sowing and the seed goes everywhere. And some of it grows. Some of it doesn't. Some of it that grows doesn't last. But that which does last is very, very fruitful. And as Jesus tells it, he tells us what this parable means in verses 18 through 23. But I think the secret of the king that's being revealed here is there's probably multiple secrets. One is that contrary to expectation, and that should always be our thought as we're reading that, trying to interpret the parables contrary to expectation. Jesus is teaching that the kingdom is going to grow through proclamation of the Gospel. Now, who would have thought that? You probably would have expected the kingdom to come and to grow through violence or the sword or something of that nature. But Jesus says, no, it's going to grow. It's going to go through proclamation of the word of God. And then he says basically, that not everyone who hears about the kingdom is going to be really excited about it. Now, that would have been contrary to expectation as well, because the prophecies of the Kingdom of God are pretty awesome and any right thinking person would be very, very excited about the coming of the Kingdom of God. But Jesus says that contrary to expectation, there's going to be people who hear the word and they just flat reject it. There's going to be people who hear about the kingdom and they're excited for a little while. And then the other things are going to be more important to them than the kingdom. But but for those who have ears to hear, for those who are part of the kingdom, they're going to hear this word of the kingdom and it's going to grow and they're going to be super fruitful. I'm not sure you would have expected that. And that's what Jesus came to, to teach in the parable, the wheat and the tares. One expectation of the kingdom that is all through the Bible is that the kingdom comes with judgment. You can't have the Kingdom of God without judgment on sin. Vindication for the righteous judgment on the enemies of God. And yet, in the parable, the wheat and the weeds, I think Jesus is teaching contrary to expectation, the kingdom can begin before that final judgment. Now that final judgment will come. The parable, the wheat and the tears makes that very clear. But it's not going to come immediately. The kingdom can start before final judgment. And the reason that final judgment doesn't come at the beginning of the kingdom is mercy. It appears, as we read through this. So my counsel to you, as you read especially the parables of the kingdom, ask yourself, what is the contrary to expectation that we should be looking for? What are the secrets of the kingdom that Jesus is revealing? And, you know, and so many, especially in the gospel of Matthew, so many of the parables are about that the kingdom of God, that the power of this story is intense and persuasive. So Jesus, it was a very effective teaching tool. Once we understand what the parable is about, and then we want to teach it to others. I think if we rightly interpret it, then we can change the characters and bring them into our contemporary setting to make the same point. So we could perhaps ask ourselves, How would Jesus tell this story today if Jesus were here? How would he tell that story? But it's going to be hard because Jesus stories are already pretty simple. And then where they're not simple, the characters are so complex that it's hard to come up with contemporary application for it. There's I can't think of a of a modern day equivalent to the Samaritans, for example. There's lots of bad guys out there, but there's no one who fits the bill, at least in the what would have fit the bill in the minds of the Israelites for who the Samaritans were. There's people who are religiously indifferent, and then there's other people who are betrayers and traders. Are there people who are betrayers and traders who are simultaneously religious blasphemers, which was how the the Israelites understood the Samaritans be? I'm not so sure. Maybe, I don't know, Muslim terrorists or whatever is a nice person in in the parable of the Good Samaritan. And it's like the seminary Prof who passes by and doesn't help the person. I don't know. It could be something like that, but. So many professors are actually really, really nice guys, so I'm not even sure Jesus would do it that way. At any rate, my caution is this strive to understand the parable correctly in its context before you go about changing characters.