Lecture 24: Hermeneutics for Parables (Part 4) | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 24: Hermeneutics for Parables (Part 4)

Course: Biblical Hermeneutics

Lecture: Hermeneutics for Parables (Part 4)


Let us look at another parable and that’s the parable in Matthew 20, verses 1 through 16 and get some sub-rules for the arriving at the main point in the parable.

I will read the parable in Matthew 20:1 to 16 and I will give you some of the allegorical interpretation of the parable and I will give you some of the main rules for interpreting it and then we will apply it.

“For the kingdom of Heaven is like a householder who went out 1 "For the Kingdom of Heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.  3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place; 4 and to them he said, 'You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.' So they went. 5 Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, 'Why do you stand here idle all day?' 7 They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You go into the vineyard too.' 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, 'Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.' 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius.11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder, 12 saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' 13 But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you.15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?' So the last will be first and the first last.”  

A difficult parable in many ways. As often as I have read that both out loud and quietly, I always think the first hour workers got ripped off. These are hard working people - they got ripped off.  And these lazy guys in the 11th hour - they who didn’t deserve it, they got treated equally. It is not right.

Now there are lots of different attempts to arrive at a point, but let me show you first the allegorical interpretation of this.  Irenaeus about 180 to 200 AD, Origen around 200 AD. 

First hour worker – Irenaeus – those at the beginning of creation were saved. 
Origen - those from Creation to Noah. 

The third hour workers – those under the Old Covenant – according to Irenaeus.
Those from Noah to Abraham, according to Origin.

The sixth hour workers, those saved at the time of Jesus – according to Irenaeus.
Those saved from Abraham to Moses - Origen

The ninth hour workers, those saved were contemporaries of Irenaeus.
Those saved from Moses to Joshua according to Origen.

The eleventh hour workers, those who were saved in the last days – Irenaeus.
Those saved from the time of Joshua to Jesus – Origen.

The householder represents God according to Origen and the denarius represents salvation.
Alright that’s the allegorical interpretation of the parable.

Now there have been lots of various interpretation of the parable which go something like this. The main point of the parable is that God is sovereign.  He can do what He wants. Good Calvinist approach to this passage. Emphasize verse 14 – uh… verse 15. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?

Others say, the parable teaches the doctrine of Justification by Faith.  The eleventh hour workers did not earn. They got saved by grace through faith. 

Alright some problems with those.

First of all, he can’t do whatever he wants in the parable.  If he wants to give the eleventh hour workers, a denarius, he is free to do it, but he has to give the first hour workers a denarius.  So when you talk about the sovereignty of God as being demonstrated here, the owner is not sovereign with regard to the first hour workers – only with regard to the eleventh hour workers.

If you say, you are saved by grace, well, that’s true, the eleventh hour workers are paid by grace, the first hour workers are paid for what they have done. The sixth hour workers kind of half get paid for it.  So maybe we are teaching that some people are saved by grace alone, and some by works alone and some by half and half and some by three-fourths and one and you know a combination of things like that, which would of course be absurd.

Now, some rules at arriving at the main point.  These are sub-rules for point one.  Alright, rules for arriving at the main point. 

When there are several characters in a parable, there are always two that are most important.

Who are the main two characters?  Usually you can zero in on who are the three most important. Now when you look at that – if you notice when they are paid, what workers are not mentioned in the payoff? The third, sixth and ninth, right? Well. If the third, sixth and ninth hours are not even mentioned in the payoff, they are not important.  But notice that Origen and Irenaeus equated each one of those as equally important. One, three, six, nine and eleven. But three, six, nine are irrelevant.  One in the eleven that are important; the others are not. And there is the owner. So you have three.

Another rule: What occurs at the end - sometimes called the Rule of the End Stress.

How many of you know somebody who can’t tell a joke? Why can’t they tell a joke?

Student: [hard to hear]

Dr. Stein: They give the punch-line away.  Good story telling builds up at the end, and in a joke you have to really build it up to the very end line.

In telling a parable, good parable tellers, tell a story and what comes at the end, the Rule of End Stress is most important.  I am going to read the parable again. Everything will sound exactly the same and then I will say “switch,” and now I am going to switch something and notice the difference in the parable.

“… the Kingdom of Heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.  3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place; 4 and to them he said, 'You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.' So they went. 5 Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, 'Why do you stand here idle all day?' 7 They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You go into the vineyard too.' 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward,

Dr. Stein: Switch.

'Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the first, up to the last.' 9 And when those hired about the first hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when the eleventh hour workers came, they thought they would receive less; but each of them also received a denarius.11 And on receiving it they marveled at the householder, 12 saying, 'Truly this is a gracious man.’”  

Very different parable.  If you wanted to teach something like Justification by Faith, or the grace of God, that’s the way you tell the parable.  That’s not the way, he told it.  What are we left with at the end? Grumbling.  That is where he wants to get us. Now, another aspect is what occurs in direct discourse? Usually when you switch from indirect discourse to direct discourse – indirect discourse, no quotation marks, direct discourse, within quotation marks. When you switch from indirect to direct discourse, you focus on what is being said.

Now, in direct discourse, there is no conversation between the owner, and the third, sixth, ninth hour workers or the eleventh hour workers at the end. At the end, there is an extensive discussion, between the owner and first hour workers. That’s another clue. Then finally, who gets the most pressed? Upon whom is the most space in the account devoted?

In verse 9, we read 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius.

That’s all we hear about the eleventh hour workers. But verse 10, verse 11, verse 12, verse 13, verse 14, verse 15 are all a conversation between the owner and the first hour workers. So now you know who the main character is – the main characters – the owner and the first hour workers.

[hard to hear] at the end. [hard to hear] in direct discourse. It gets the most press. So in this parable, the focus comes upon the discussion with the first hour workers and the key comes at the end: “Do you begrudge my generosity?”  That’s the key.

Now in the setting of Jesus, who was begrudging the generosity of the Lord? Pharisees and Scribes right?

“Why do you eat with publicans and sinners? Why does this man eat with publicans and sinners?”

And so what you have here is a parable in which Jesus directs to the Pharisees and Scribes,  “The Kingdom of God has come.  The outcast, the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind - they are entering the Kingdom of God. In the last hour, they are coming. Why aren’t you rejoicing? Why can’t you enter the joy of the occasion? Why do you begrudge the grace and generosity of God? Alright.

The fact is, the first are becoming last and the last are becoming first.  Those you expected at the inside [hard to hear] they are not entering. And those you never expected but who had nothing to lose – they are entering in. 

I don’t like the parable in the sense that its teaching seems to be so contrary to the my mother and father’s ethic [hard to hear] about hard work, about getting what you deserve and if you are leading devotions at the annual meeting of the AFLCIO, you are not going to read this parable. Alright?

There is something about it that I just don’t like. And yet, that is just the point. What scares me is that my attitude in the parable is the attitude of the Pharisees and Scribes.   If I was a first hour worker and was really a loving kind person, wouldn’t I say something like “Hey isn’t it wonderful – even those who couldn’t work the whole day like this, they also received a denarius? Isn’t that great?” I say that and my teeth are grinding because I don’t like it. Because I would be the first out [hard to hear] worker type, but maybe we don’t understand the grace of God.

On the other hand, I am thankful for the grace of God that at the eleventh hour, my Father-in-law could be saved when he is dying in the hospital. I wish he had been saved a lot earlier, because he wasn’t a happy man.  But I am glad at the eleventh hour, he has a chance. 

So I don’t – when I think about it – I really don’t begrudge God’s generosity. I am glad there is opportunity that way. Anyhow – another parable.  Does that make sense? I think by reversing the story-telling, it becomes really clear who the main character is.  He really wants us to focus on the older first hour worker type.  Ok.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son – to save time, I won’t read it because I think most of us know it reasonably well and let me just tell some general things about the parable first.

First thing I want you to know about the parable is that the picture part is beautifully told.  Some people only talk about parables, talk about the picture part – the story itself and the reality part.  The point that is trying to be made. Picture, point – don’t mix them up.

This picture is being told, given in order to teach a point. Now the picture – how do you describe a Jew, a young man on skid row in the first century?  He’s broke.  He essentially hires himself in some sort of bondservant servant capacity. To whom? A Gentile. Well, that doesn’t end there. What does he do for a living?

He slops the hogs. Not generally a good Jewish occupation. Then it goes worse. He wants to sit down and eat with them.  He’s so hungry.  Jesus is a great story-teller in telling us that.

Jesus’ view of the two commandments, “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, strength, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  Remember, this is his parable. He created it.  Father I have sinned against … Thou shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, strength, and mind … Heaven … You shall love your neighbor as yourself … and against you. God-man.

Another parable: “There was a certain judge who neither feared God nor respected man.”

“Love the Lord your God, with all your heart, strength, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Shows how Jesus’ mind is just filled with this kind of an understanding.  Jesus’ reverence for the name of God.  He avoids it by referring to Heaven, capital ‘H’, substitution.  The Father’s acceptance of his son. He goes running after his son. He sees him from a distance.  And the older brother, his attitude, verse 30. When this son of your came – Well - does that mean that he was a half brother?

No. He just wants nothing to do with him.  His hatred for his younger brother is such that he won’t even call him his brother.  “This son of yours.”

And if you want to say, what does this reflect?  If this is reflecting the Pharisees’ attitude towards publicans and sinners it does so very well right? They won’t call publicans and sinners, their brothers and sisters – something like that. Ok.

Now, with regard to the acceptance of the older son, Joseph Beale tells about the story as a missionary, when on a board, the mission board sent a young man and his wife to a rural village in the Middle East and they candidated for the pastor in that church in the church [hard to hear] To their utter surprise of Beale and their other denominational leaders, voted no - not to accept them.

And they went out – and found out what was going on.  They said, “Do you preach a poor sermon or something?” “No.” They said “He was a good preacher.” “Did he say anything heretical?” “No. He’s very orthodox.” “What about his wife? Didn’t you like her?” “No. She seemed to be a really wonderful pastor’s wife.”

And everything they said seemed to be positive. And he said “Well then, why did you vote no?” And then he said something sheepishly, “He walks too fast” - which in that culture lacked dignity. If that culture somehow reflects the culture of Jesus’ day somewhat, his father doesn’t care about dignity; he runs to his son. You would expect him to “Hey let’s wait and receive him,” but he runs, puts his arms around him and hugs him and receive him back.

Now, the reality part – the main point of the parable. Who are the two main characters? Easy to get down to three. It’s not … I will have to show you somewhere I have a … I will show you next, the allegory but the main two characters that comes to … the father who is the one character in two parts of the parable, then you have the two brothers.

So it’s the father and the which of the two brothers? Ok. Well. What comes at the end? The older brother right? What’s found in direct discourse? No conversation between the younger son and the father.  The son has a schpeel of “I’ve sinned against Heaven, against you … not worthy to be called your son.” [hard to hear] turns to servants as … put a robe on him, put a ring on him, kill the fatted calf. We are going to feast and so forth.  But there is this extensive conversation between the older brother and the father.

Now the other rule about who gets the most press. That doesn’t work out as neatly in this one, because more part of the picture is described in the younger brother in that way.  But again, I think, the point is, the father and the older brother, and the emphasis lays again on … well … Luke gives us something of a context and its interesting that some of the radical critics think that this is exactly the kind of situation the parables were told in. 

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Him and the Pharisees and Scribes murmured saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them. So he told them - those who were murmuring, the Pharisees and Scribes – this parable and in light of that, who fits the Pharisees and Scribes very well?  The older brother.  So it looks like this parable then is also a parable addressed like the other parable in Matthew 20, to older brother types, “It’s time to rejoice. The feast is going on. Why can’t you come and enjoy the feast and join in with them?”

And those who are dealing with the historical issues think that probably this parable about the father … once you name the parable, you tell who you think the main point is … Is it the parable about the griping older brother? Is it the parable of the prodigal son? Is this the parable of the gracious father? Once you put a label on it, you pretty much determine what kind of interpretation you give to it.

In the parable of the gracious father, the parable seems to be addressed to Pharisees and in that regard, it looks like it is addressed at a time in Jesus’ ministry, in which He had not yet given up hope in reaching some of the Pharisees and Scribes.  Later on, “Woe to you Scribes, Pharisees, and hypocrites”, but at this point, it seems to be a reaching out to them in some ways.

Now, let me show you the allegorical interpretation of the parable, according to Tertullian, the older son, the Jew, jealous of salvation being offered to the Gentiles, the younger son the Christian, the father is God, the inheritance squandered, the natural human ability to know God, the citizen in the far country, the devils, the swine are the demons, the robe represents original righteousness lost by Adam, the ring represents Christian baptism, and the fatted calf represents the Saviour present at the Lord’s supper.

Now, allegory, we are going to talk about that, next week, we will have a couple of parables still and one will deal with allegory. It’s evident that this is not possible, because if Jesus is trying to communicate to His hearers, I doubt that any of His hearers would have thought that this ring represents baptism in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.  Even less would they have thought that the fatted calf represents Jesus’ presence in the Lord’s supper, which has not yet been instituted, but one day will.

So if the audience of Jesus would not have seen these details as being allegorical, this parable shouldn’t be interpreted allegorically. We will look at that more fully later on. I have one more thing to say and then we will call it a day, but any questions up to this point? 

There is a story about this young man who had run away from home and father was a farmer in North Dakota – he hated North Dakota, he wanted to run away, so he ran away and hid himself in a big city in California. One day he went to church, because he was raised that way, and the pastor was preaching the parable of the prodigal son.  And after church, he came to the pastor, near the end of the line and he said, “Pastor, I really have to talk to you about you said this morning.”  And the pastor said, “Why don’t you wait until I have say good-bye to these last few people and we will meet in the office?” And after that happened, the young man came to his office with him and said, “Pastor, I don’t know if you realize that that parable is about me. I am the prodigal son.” He said “Well. What do you mean?” He said “Well.  I ran away from home in North Dakota and I stole a pretty good amount of money from my father and now it’s all gone, I’m broke and I don’t know what to do.” And so the pastor said to him, “Well. I think what you ought to do is, like the parable says, go back to your father and confess to him and I think you will find that he will kill a fatted calf for you.”

So the young man nodded and the pastor never saw him for a while and then a number of months later, he saw this young man in the congregation, he couldn’t wait for the church service to be over and when church service was over, the young man came up to him and the pastor smiled and he said, “Did your father kill a few of the fatted calf?” And the young man said, “Not really. But he darn near killed the prodigal son.”

Not all fathers are as gracious, unfortunately as the father of the parable.