Here’s a series of quotes I didn’t include in yesterday’s column at Speculative Faith, the finale to a five-part series called Imagination: for God’s glory and others’ good. It wasn’t included not only because of space, but because I had accidentally left the book at home.
This delves deeper into the reason why — based on Biblical proof, not opinion or pragmatism — Christians should not assume Jesus only spoke in direct-allegory parables.
That’s an assumption I’ve believed in the past. Debunking it has particular application for Christians who want to enjoy stories for God’s glory, or even write such stories themselves. Why? Because it helps us see past and reject the often-subconscious notion that any kind of story other than allegory is spiritually subpar.
[… F]or all their charm and simplicity, the parables have suffered a fate of misinterpretation in the church second only to Revelation.
The Parables in History
The reason for the long history of the misinterpretation of the parables can be traced back to something Jesus himself said, as recorded in Mark 4:10-12 (and parallels, Matt 13:10-13; Luke 8:9-10). When asked about the purpose of parables, he seems to have suggested that they contained mysteries for those on the inside, while they hardened those on the outside. Because he then proceeded to “interpret” the parable of the sower in a semi-allegorical way, this was seen to give license to the hardening theory and endless allegorical interpretations. The parables were considered to be simple stories for those on the outside to whom the “real meanings,” the “mysteries,” were hidden; these belonged only to the church and could be uncovered by means of allegory.
[…I ]t is extremely doubtful whether most of the parables were intended for an inner circle at all. In at least three instances Luke specifically says that Jesus told parables to people (15:3; 18:9; 19:11) with the clear implication that the parables were to be understood. Moreover, the “expert in the law” to whom Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) clearly understood it (vv. 36-37), as did the chief priests and Pharisees the parable of the tenants in Matthew 21:45. Their problem was not with understanding but with letting the parables alter their behavior!
If we have trouble at times understanding the parables, it is not because they are allegories for which we need some special interpretive keys. Rather it is related to some things we suggested in the previous chapter on the Gospels. One of the keys to understanding the parables lies in discovering the original audience to whom they were spoken; as we noted, many times they came down to the evangelists [that is, those men who wrote the Gospels] without a context.
If the parables, then, are not allegorical mysteries for the church, what did Jesus mean in Mark 4:10-12 by the mystery of the kingdom and its relationship to parables? Most likely the clue to this saying lies in a play on words in Jesus’ native Aramaic. The word methal, which was translated parabolē in Greek, was used for a whole range of figures of speech in the riddle/puzzle/parable category, not just for the story variety called “parables” in English. Probably verse 11 meant that the meaning of Jesus’ ministry (the secret of the kingdom) could not be perceived by those on the outside; it was like a methal, a riddle, to them. Hence his speaking in mathelin (parables) was part of the methal (riddle) of his whole ministry to them. They saw, but they failed to see; they heard—and even understood—the parables, but they failed to hear in a way that led to obedience.
[… N]ot all the sayings we label as parables are of the same kind. There is a basic difference, for example, between the Good Samaritan (true parable) on the one hand and the Yeast and the Dough (similitude) on the other, and both of these differ from the saying “You are the salt of the earth” (metaphor), or, “Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?” (epigram). Yet all of these can be found from time to time in discussions of the parables.
The Good Samaritan is an example of a true parable. It is a story, pure and simple, with a beginning and an ending; it has something of a “plot.” Other such story parables include the Lost Sheep, the Prodigal Son, the Great Banquet, the Workers in the Vineyard, the Rich Man and Lazarus, and the Ten Virgins.
The Yeast in the Dough, on the other hand, is more of a similitude. What is said of the yeast, or the sower, or the mustard seed was always true of yeast, sowing, or mustard seeds. Such “parables” are more like illustrations taken from everyday life that Jesus used to make a point.
Such sayings as “you are the salt of the earth” differ from both of these. These are sometimes called parabolic sayings, but in reality they are metaphors and similes. At times they seem to function in a way similar to the similitude, but their point—their reason for being spoken—is considerably different.
It should be noted further that in some cases, especially that of the Wicked Tenants (Mark 12:1-11; Matt 21:33-44; Luke 20:9-18), a parable may approach something very close to allegory, where many of the details in a story are intended to represent something else (such as in Augustine’s misinterpretation of the Good Samaritan). But the parables are not allegories—even if at times they have what appear to us to be allegorical features. The reason we can be sure of this has to do with their differing functions.
— from How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, pp. 149-152, Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart (Zondervan, 2003).
Thus, because Jesus Himself never told only one type of story — allegory and nothing else — Christians need not feel they must hold other stories, even secular ones, to a higher standard.
We don’t need to insist that The Chronicles of Narnia are pure allegory, and if they are not (because their author said they were not) we simply don’t have as much “use” for the stories. And we don’t need to suspect that a fiction work such as The Lord of the Rings, which contains even fewer allegorical elements, is less useful or God-glorifying. Christ Himself doesn’t hold that standard. He can be glorified in many art forms and story genres, allegory and otherwise!