Contrary to popular belief, parables do not make difficult truths simple. Parables actually problematize things, so that there is confusion. This is why even Jesus’ inner coterie lacked understanding so often. In Mark 4:12, which is a quotation from Isaiah 6:9, 10, Jesus gives his reason for speaking in parables:
He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!”
These words are perplexing and even unbelievable. Does God really not want people to repent and turn to him? Three considerations. First, although unpopular, the idea of the judgment of God cannot be dismissed. We must be open to the fact that the parables at times have a hardening effect on the hearts of people. Second, it is best not to take this verse in an absolute way. We must remember that this verse is part of a larger narrative where Jesus’ point is made increasingly clearer. The larger context does speak of a God who wants people to turn to him, but often times for this to take place, there must be antecedent confusion. For example, this is the paradox of the cross of Christ, where God makes the wisdom of man, foolishness, and the foolishness of God, wisdom. Third, it is important to keep in mind that confusion is not necessarily a bad place in which to be. It is considerably better than being convicted of something false. Also confusion may be the very state that drives a person to seek clarity. What parables seek to accomplish, then, is to bring about new understanding by challenging the way a person thinks, to create a shift in worldview or paradigm – no easy task.
…common sense is as totalizing as any other: no religion is more dogmatic no science more ambitious, no philosophy more general. Its tonalities are different, and so are the arguments to which it appeals, but like them – and like art and like ideology – it pretends to reach past illusion to truth, to as we say, things as they are.
In the light of this, how does a person change his or her common sense notion of the world or worldview? This, of course, is not an easy question to answer, but let me suggestion one way. It is when a person’s view of the world is challenged by not being able to explain something important. Or to put it in another way, change sometimes comes about when a person is so baffled that he or she is forced to consider something in a new way. Craig Blomberg states this point well. “A speaker of writer who has a viewpoint he wishes his audience to accept that it does not currently hold will seldom succeed by means of a straightforward explanation of his position. Rather he has to think of some innocuous method of introducing the subject, while at the same time challenging his listeners to think of it in a new way.” The outcome of this mental travail may be a shift in worldview or a new insight. From this perspective, we may view the parables of Jesus as a way God seeks to challenge and change people.
B. Parables as Allegories
In biblical scholarship, there is generally a dislike of the use of allegory as a method of interpretation. The reason for this is varied, but one of the biggest reasons is that there is a lack of control. If a text or story can be read allegorically, the potential for multiple levels of meanings seems endless. More importantly, if a text can mean anything, then it is only one step removed from meaning nothing. Allegory as a method, then, appears to be an over-spiritualized and decidedly non-academic (irresponsible) way of interpretation. For these reasons, many people prefer a grammatical and historical examination of parables. This approach, in my opinion, is only partially satisfactory. While it is always good to read texts within the historical context, but to prohibit allegory is an unnecessary stricture.
It must be remembered that Jesus’ interpretation of the parable of the sower in Mark’s text is allegorical. This point is quite clear. According to Mark 4:14-20, the seed represents the word and the various places in which these seeds fall represent the different types of people who hear God’s word. In this light of this, we must conclude that allegory is the method employed to understand this parable. Furthermore, this precedent offers solid warrant to employ allegory today. Now there remains the question of endless interpretations.
To say that there is no control with allegorical method is both true and false; it all depends on a person’s hermeneutic. Unfortunately, we cannot get into this topic, but to me, there are three levels of control for all texts. First, it is best to start with a grammatical and historical reading of a text. We should ask questions about the time in which a text was written or circulated and try to find out as much as possible about the cultural assumptions. We should also focus carefully on the text, to see what is being conveyed. Misreading is more common than should be. From these two steps, there is some control. For instance, a text that was written in the second century cannot refer to modern phenomena, such as physics or the stock market; that would be anachronistic.
Second, there is the general literary context – in our case, the gospels. The general context will provide important clues as to how a parable should be interpreted. We must keep in mind that the gospel writers were not mere transcribers of events. They were theological authors with a point to get across. So, we should ask questions of how a parable fits into a particular literary context. Finally, there is the largest context, the gospel genre. The gospels, no matter how you look at them, are about Jesus and his death and resurrection. In view of this, a good rule of thumb would be to ask how a parable relates to the person and work of Jesus. If we approach the parables with these various contexts, then there is both flexibility and control.
C. A Practical Approach
How should we approach the parables of Jesus? The best starting point is first to realize that the study of parables will not be easy and that often times we will be challenged. We may even been offended. Second, we should read the gospels and not just the parables to gain a better understanding and feel for the narrative flow. Even if this process seems slow and unproductive, we will learn much more than we think. Third, since the parables are allegories, try to figure out what the chief elements of the parables correspond to. Keep in mind that not all elements of a parable will correspond to something. The important elements of a parable will be marked by way of emphasis or repetition. Fourth, analyze the dynamics of the parable and begin to ask what is the main point. Talk of the main point is not to suggest that all parables have only one point. Parable may have many points, especially the longer ones, but these points will be subordinate to and compatible with the main point. Finally, spend time thinking about and discussing these parables in community. In time, something amazing may take place. You may find that you no longer think that way you once did.
D. Questions for Reflection
1. How do people change? Is it an easy process? More specifically, think about how you became a Christian, especially if you became a Christian as an adult. What were the dynamics?
2. Do you agree that sometimes a person needs to be brought to confusion before a change in worldview or the emergence of a new insight?
3. According to the parable of the sower, what are some of the challenges of allowing a Christian worldview to take root in a person’s life? Would you agree that there are competing worldviews that they are all zealous to win people over? If so, what does this imply?
4. How does anxiety or desire for other things hinder a seed from taking root?
5. How does a person become a mature Christian according to this parable?
 Mark 4:9-20.
 The idea of the judgment of God might seem problematic, but so is a religion without judgment.
 Clifford Geertz. Local Knowledge. (Basic Books, 2000), 84.
 Craig Blomberg. Interpreting the Parables. (InterVarsity Press, 1990), 54.
 For a great book on this topic, see: Thomas Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago), 1996. He argues that a scientific community accepts a theory, which he calls a paradigm, over others, because one paradigm is more successful than the others in solving a few problems that a group believes to be important. However, to this point, he quickly adds that no paradigm is perfect. In fact, it is the imperfections of these paradigms (he actually calls them anomalies) that can lead to paradigm shifts. (24) However, it is important to keep in mind that these changes do not come quickly or easily, (82) but when they occur, Kuhn views them as shifts in worldview. (115) He even more provocatively, at times, calls these changes, conversions. He writes, “The transfer of allegiance from paradigm to paradigm is a conversion experience…” (151)Tags: Bible study, hermeneutics, interpretation, Jesus, Parables