Understanding Biblical Genres: Parables

It’s time for our look at different biblical genres to switch over to genres we see primarily in the New Testament, and specifically today we’ll look at the Parables of Jesus, which nicely bridge the gap between Old Testament Wisdom Literature and the explicitly Christian writings of the New Testament.

While there are some parables in the Old Testament (most famously, the story Samuel tells King David to bring him to repentance over arranging the murder of Uriah so he could sleep with his wife Bathsheba), mostly when we talk about biblical parables, we’re talking about the Parables of Jesus. But even this isn’t entirely helpful, because it’s a genre that’s famously hard to define — scholars have enumerated anywhere from 30 to 86 such parables, depending on how they draw the boundaries between a parable and an extended metaphor. (Personally, I prefer a broader definition and so would include somewhere closer to the higher end of that range.) Because they’re so notoriously hard to define, I’m going to bring in some help and use a definition proposed by Ruben Zimmerman:

A parable is a short narratival (1) fictional (2) text that is related in the narrated world to known reality (3) but, by way of implicit or explicit transfer signals, makes it understood that the meaning of the narration must be differentiated from the literal words of the text (4). In its appeal dimension (5) it challenges the reader to carry out a metaphoric transfer of meaning that is steered by contextual information (6). (Puzzling the Parables of Jesus (2015)).

This sounds complicated, but each of the six pieces is easy enough to understand. He’s basically saying that a Parable is:

  1. a story (e.g., a woman who loses a coin and is desperate to find it)
  2. a story that makes no claims at being anything other than a story (e.g., Jesus was not talking about a specific woman in history who lost a specific coin.)
  3. grounded in people’s lived experiences (e.g., misplacing money is something most of us can relate to)
  4. metaphorical, and is therefore not about what it says it’s about (e.g., the story is not really about losing coins)
  5. asking something of its hearer/reader (e.g., the story is told to get the audience thinking about God’s persistent love)
  6. a story that requires the audience to make the leap between the story and its meaning (e.g., making the connection between a woman losing coins and God ‘losing’ humanity)

Most of the work of a parable happens in elements four through six of the above definition. And in this way, parables fit under the broader umbrella of Wisdom Literature: they explore themes of practical philosophy (that is, how to live well) but their wisdom comes in the process of wrestling with the stories and discerning the nature of their meaning. (Just as the wisdom of proverbs comes from discerning which ones apply in which situations, or the wisdom of folk tales comes from discerning which interpretive threads are most relevant.)

We often think about parables as object lessons, used by Jesus to make it easy for his audience to understand him. But Jesus’ own words suggest the opposite is at least as true:

When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.”’ (Mark 4.10-12)

In the same chapter, he says, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen” (v.23). The idea seems to be that the meaning of the parables should be clear to those whose hearts are open and receptive to it, but remain opaque to those whose hearts and minds are closed.

In addition to this essential problem of parables, today we have to manage the further complication of cultural distance. This means that not only do we have work to do with elements 4-6 of Zimmerman’s definition, but also with element 3, since situations and customs relevant to a first-century Judean audience are unlikely to mean the same to us today, removed as we are in time, place, and culture. Take the parable of the Lost Sheep for example. What do we really know about what it would have meant to its first audience? What did they think of shepherds? Would a ‘good’ shepherd leave ninety-nine sheep to find one lost sheep? Is he set up as a hero or a fool? The answers to these questions shift how we think about what Jesus is teaching, and we can really only guess at them.

But beyond these complications of discerning hearts and cultural distance, parables also invite multiple interpretations. They are rarely straightforward and invite deep reflection and even discomfort. In this they are not unlike Buddhist koans, sayings whose wisdom lies in their mystery or impossibility of resolution. Again quoting Ruben Zimmerman:

[P]arables are meant to create understanding through their mysteriousness. Initial incomprehension results in a process of questioning, marveling, and searching that can ultimately lead to deepened understanding. Parables are incomprehensible in order to lead to comprehension. That is to say, there is a calculated potential for misunderstanding ultimately to create deeper understanding. (ibid.)

All of this means that we may likely be at a great disadvantage when approaching Jesus’ parables today. For not only do we have to deal with cultural distance, but these stories are also among the most well-known to us. Many of us know them by rote and immediately jump to the deeply-rutted paths of past interpretations. It’s almost impossible for us to hear the parables with the right ears — ears oriented towards mystery. This is a real challenge for all of us who love the Scriptures and want them to speak into our lives. The best way to know a parable is not to know it at all and come to it again fresh, to be able to be surprised by it.

So how might we get past this problem of familiarity? I think the key is to stay with the text as much as possible: to actually read the whole parable, start to finish, without turning off our curiosity after we read “A sower went out to sow his seed.” As someone who reflects regularly on these texts, I know this is easier said than done. Tools such as Gospel Contemplation and lectio divina can also help us to stay with the text and be surprised by these stories once again.

At the end of the day, a few things become clear. Jesus taught in parables, stories meant equally to illumine and confound, inspire and confuse. They remain wonderful sources of wisdom for us today if we can recapture the wonder and curiosity of hearing them again as if for the first time.

One thought on “Understanding Biblical Genres: Parables

  1. A thought occurred to me about the removal of context: we lose a lot of the humour from the parables because we are so accustomed to hearing the Gospels proclaimed with gravitas. Jesus probably didn’t have a flat, booming voice. He was using well-known joke tropes and flipping perspective.
    I can’t remember which priest was the first to mention this to me, but it has always stuck with me since that the parables of the Good Samaritan is told in the form of a joke, but the punchline is instead “do the dumb thing that you are laughing at”. If Jesus were retelling it today, he might have used “brunette, redhead, and blonde” as the characters that came upon the man at the side of the road. Everyone was expecting a “dumb blonde” joke and instead were confronted with the idea that God wants us to be the punchline. We are supposed to imitate the one we are making fun of.


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