I had the honor of asking David Gowler (the Pierce Chair of Religion and the director of the Pierce Program of Religion at Oxford College of Emory University) a few questions regarding the parables and how the modern reader can better understand them.
What can we in the modern world compare a parable to, if anything?
David: What is parabolic, in many ways, exists in the eyes and/or ears of the beholder. Perhaps if I place the parable into its ancient context, that will help clarify things.
The Greek term for parable (parabolê) typically is used to translate the Hebrew term mashal (plural: meshalim). Mashal is extremely difficult to define, but a central aspect of its meaning is “to represent” or “to be like,” and it refers to a wide range of literary forms that utilize figurative language. The Hebrew Bible tends to use mashal for whatever is “proverb-like,” with hidden or allusive truth, which means that responses of readers or hearers are essential to the process of creating understanding (assuming they understand the analogy being made). Yet the meshalim of the Hebrew Bible do not offer any definitive examples of parables like the ones Jesus created. The Hebrew Bible does contain some fables, such as Jotham’s mashal of the Trees (Judges 9:7–15), Jehoash’s mashal of the Thistle (2 Kings 14:9), and Ezekiel’s mashal of the Vine and the Eagles (Ezekiel 17:3–10), but no Hebrew Bible mashal serves as a direct parallel to the New Testament’s use of parable as a short narrative. Isaiah’s mashal of the Vineyard (Isaiah 5:1–6) might qualify as an allegorizing parable, but of all the meshalim in the Hebrew Bible, the closest we come to a narrative parable is Nathan’s mashal of the Poor Man’s Only Lamb (2 Samuel 12:1–4).
Parables play a prominent role in later Jewish literature, such as in rabbinic traditions, where the rabbis used them for preaching, interpreting Scripture, and providing guidance for daily lives. I like David Stern’s definition of the rabbinic parable as “an allusive narrative told for an ulterior purpose”—usually to praise or disparage a specific situation of the speaker/author and hearer/reader. It draws a series of parallels between the story recounted in the narrative and the “actual situation” to which the parable is directed. These parallels, however, are not drawn explicitly; the audience is left to derive them for themselves, which, again, can be confusing if the analogy/parallel is not clear enough. So the parable is neither a simple tale with a transparent lesson nor an opaque story with a secret message; it is a narrative that actively elicits from its audience the interpretation and application of its message. The social context, then, clarifies the parable by giving the audience the information they need to understand it, and, if the readers do not understand the social context, the parable can also be hard to understand (see the answer to question #3 below).
In Greco-Roman traditions, the parable is similar if not the same as the ancient fable, and rhetorical treatises can help explain what they are and how they work. The mention of Greek fables usually conjures up visions of stories with talking animals that illustrate a simple moral. Yet, in antiquity, the term fable denoted several kinds of brief narratives, but the one that serves as the best example is Aelius Theon’s definition of the fable as “a fictitious story picturing a truth.” The realistic portrayals in Aesop’s fables, for example, are similar to the parables of Jesus. Mary Ann Beavis points out that both are brief narratives that shed light on aspects of human experience and behavior, that usually involve ordinary human characters and situations—like quarreling siblings who are corrected by a loving father—and that, despite their realism, often contain an element of extravagance or surprise. Most fables, like the parables of Jesus, illustrate religious and ethical themes but do not have miraculous interventions (only two of Jesus’ parables have direct supernatural interventions: Luke 12:13–21; 16:19–31). Some fables also include a surprising or ironic element of reversal that is reminiscent of Jesus’ parables.
So, I hope that historical context explains the variety and flexibility of what could be considered a parable today.
Why do you think it is that Jesus seemed to rely on parables so much to get his point across?
David: I think my answers to all the other questions each contribute to answering this one—so perhaps the other answers should be read before this one—but let me illustrate further with someone who people would not expect to see in this context: Emily Dickinson (much of the following comes from my recent book, The Parables After Jesus). I choose Dickinson because she seems to be such an unlikely example but is such a good illustration of the power, the opacity, and the point of the use of teaching in/with parables.
At first glance, Dickinson’s poetry may appear to interact with Jesus’s parables only minimally. In reality, though, Dickinson’s fortieth and final booklet, Fascicle 40, demonstrates just how important both Jesus’s parables and the parabolic mode of expression are to her work: it was essential to her poetics, structure, and meaning. What is more illustrative is the way in which Dickinson’s poetry interacts with parables in even deeper ways than allusions in specific poems, including how her poems can operate in a riddle-like manner similar to the description of parables in Mark’s Gospel: enigmas that those “outside” cannot perceive or understand (Mark 4:11–12). The role of poet merges with that of prophet in Dickinson’s poetry, and her poetry incorporates numerous biblical literary forms, their rhythm and artistry, including parallelism and paradox, with Jesus and his parables as important models, among others:
Like Christ’s parables, in which his indirection often baffled, even frustrated, his
audiences, Dickinson’s prophetic lines often have the form of riddle or enigma
because she relies on paradox and indirection as basic techniques. Thus, although
some scholars might read her poetry as “private” or “eccentric,” the lines are no
more private than the sayings of Christ and the other biblical prophets. Christ,
the earlier Scriptural prophets . . . and Dickinson all focused on an audience of
initiates; the prophetic tradition of writers presumes this kind of audience to
be familiar with an indirection that rests most often on a contrast of spiritual
reality with a more mundane experience of perception. Dickinson’s poetry
presumes this kind of audience of initiates, an audience itself paradoxical in
its simultaneous potential openness and resistance to prophetic revelations of
spiritual truth. (Doriani 1996, 118)
Dickinson’s “riddle poems” see their task as not solving a riddle but discovering it, discerning it, and presenting it to the reader “in all its irreducible mystery” (Leiter 2007, 51). As one of her most famous poems says:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind— (Dickinson 1999, 494)
This poem describes the nature of poetry: instead of telling the truth in away that conceals from outsiders, Dickinson, in kindness, tells all the truth in a circuitous fashion, because the truth’s brightness must dawn gradually or it blinds its viewer with its brilliance. Dickinson’s poetry, like the parables of Jesus, can be indirect, polyvalent, and circuitous. Such indirectness is not just a rhetorical strategy; it is born of necessity—our own protection—and it is inherent in the nature of poetry, metaphor, and parable. Perhaps it is even at their heart, as Dickinson’s poetry demonstrates (cf. Doriani 1996, 107–18; Peterson 2008, 1–5).
Jesus’s parables “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”; they both reveal and conceal, and that is, as I explain in the next answer, why they can have so much power and impact upon their hearers/readers: We become more engaged as we become more involved in “untying the knot for ourselves.”
Many modern readers seem to read around the parables; why is it that so many are left confused after reading them?
David: Two key aspects of a parable are to provide instruction with maximum impact and to challenge people to respond. John Calvin, for example, discusses the increased rhetorical effect parables can have on their hearers/readers. Parables have more energy and force than do simple, direct expressions, produce greater impact on the minds of their hearers/readers, and also can make truths more clear. Calvin warns, however, that although the use of parables could allow God’s truth to shine forth more brilliantly, their obscurity can lead to that light being hidden by the darkness of human beings and becoming more confusing and unclear.
The reason is that parables are some of the most dialogic (polyvalent) narratives in existence. You probably know C. H. Dodd’s famous definition of a parable that includes the quote that a parable leaves “the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought” (1961, 16). That aspect of parables can give them tremendous power to affect their hearers and readers in numerous ways. The parables, as Richard Pevear writes about the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky: “… leap out of their historical situation and confront us as if they had not yet spoken their final word” (Dostoevsky 1993, viii).
I particularly like the way Soren Kierkegaard put it: Parables thus function as indirect communication because they engage their readers and challenge them to “untie a knot” and choose between possibilities of self-understanding (Kierkegaard 1978, xii–xiii): “If anyone is to profit by this sort of communication, he must himself undo the knot for himself” (Kierkegaard 2004, 117–18; see also the quote from William Blake in #4 below).
We have to “untie the knot” ourselves, but people can be confused if the parable is too “riddle-like,” if, for example, the two aspects/things being compared in the analogy are too far removed from each other for people to figure it out easily (it is too far a “distance” for people to “leap”). Another example is if people are not significantly aware of the social, cultural, and other contexts that are assumed in the parable and that can be necessary to understand the parable more fully.
In your own Christian walk, have you always been fond of the parables?
David: I think I address most of that question in my Preface to my most recent book on the parables (The Parables After Jesus), so I will quote it for most of my answer:
My father loved parables—stories that taught, stories that presented ideas and
morals in ways that made pictures in people’s minds. He used the ones he found
in the Bible, the ones he plucked from history, or from folk tales, and, of course,
he used those he saw in his life and the lives of the people he knew. He wove
stories into his Sunday sermons, his Bible classes, and his computer-delivered
history lectures. Because he believed stories were so important as teaching tools.
—Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Talents: A Novel
(New York: Seven Stories Press, 1998), 19.
I also love parables; they are stories, like Butler notes, that create vivid pictures in one’s mind, stories that enable us to experience profound truths in often deceptively simple ways, stories that challenge us to respond and act—not only to do better, but also to be better. I especially love the parables of Jesus and have spent much of my career studying, teaching, and writing about them.
Some parables are relatively simple and straightforward. “Go and do likewise,” says Jesus after he tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke (10:25–37): the command makes the parable easier to understand, perhaps, but more difficult to put into practice. Other parables are more challenging even to comprehend. How can Jesus apparently praise, for example, a steward who acts dishonestly (Luke 16:1–8)? Still other parables offer even more complexity; they permit and even sometimes encourage a range of responses and interpretations. As I read Jesus’s parables and the divergent ways in which various people have responded to them, I am reminded of the August 23, 1799, letter of William Blake to Rev. Dr. Trusler after Trusler had complained about one of Blake’s works of art that Blake had sent to him (see the introduction for details). Blake compares his own Visions of Eternity to, for example, the parables and fables of Aesop and argues: “The wisest of the Ancients considered what is not too Explicit as the fittest for Instruction because it rouzes the faculties to act. I name Moses Solomon Esop Homer Plato.” The parables are “not too Explicit”: in the famous words of C. H. Dodd, a parable leaves “the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought” (1961, 16). That aspect of parables can give them tremendous power to affect their hearers and readers in numerous ways. Parables, then, like other great works of art, challenge our hearts, minds, and imaginations. As Richard Pevear writes about the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky: “They leap out of their historical situation and confront us as if they had not yet spoken their final word” (Dostoevsky 1993, viii).
But, again, the parables of Jesus go further than just “rouz[ing] the faculties to act”: they also challenge us to act in other ways, to change our priorities, not just our perspectives; to change our behaviors, not just our attitudes.
I love the parables of Jesus because what is most important to me is to ascertain his teachings, and I think when we study the parables we are as close as we can possibly be to sitting at Jesus’s feet.
How has your approach to them changed, if at all, over the years? Who or what has helped shape your understanding and approach to the parables?
David: There are currently three main ways New Testament scholars have interpreted the parables:
Parables as they were told by the historical Jesus (not as they appear in the Gospels). These interpretations are more speculative because they involve hypothetical reconstructions of the form, content, and context in which the historical Jesus might have said them. This includes social, historical, economic and other contexts. (John Meier’s recent book on the parables and the historical Jesus radically limits the “necessity” of this approach!).
Parables as they appear in the Gospels. This approach (e.g., literary approaches) interprets parables in their current form in the New Testament Gospels. This also can include literary, social, historical, economic, ideological, and other contexts.
Most of my research since the mid-1980s has been in these two areas, and I have written extensively about parables in those two contexts.
Parables as they have been interpreted by others through the centuries to help us understand the parables more completely. My last two books and various articles over the past few years, however, have been about Reception History (Reception History is the critical examination of all aspects of the reception, influence, and impact of the Bible from the ancient world until today). The Parables After Jesus, then, explores parables’ “afterlives”: the use, influence, and impact of the parables in society, culture, economics, politics, visual art, literature, hymns and other music, plays, etc.
I have found reception history to be especially important to the study of parables because of their (parables’) distinctive riddle-like nature (polyvalency, dialogic, etc.). The resulting ambiguity makes it even more critical for interpreters to gain insight, wisdom, and greater clarity through dialogues with other interpreters. I do not mean to suggest that all interpretations are of equal value or importance—even dialogic narratives like parables provide buoys in the channel of interpretation that encourage interpreters to navigate within certain boundaries of readings—but engagement with other interpretations can make one’s own interpretations more cogent and more comprehensive.
Here is a quote (one of my favorite ones) to illustrate that point: “Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction.” – Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics.
Here is the final and perhaps most important point that guides my current work, and this quote illustrates the point I will explain below:
The question to ask of [parables] from the standpoint of poetics is not just what they mean or what they do but what they want—what claim they make upon us, and how we are to respond.
– William J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? (I have replaced “pictures” with “parables” in this quote).
Parables challenge their listeners, and that aspect needs to be emphasized:
- People often focus on what parables mean: What point do they make? That is an important task.
- They also often focus on how they work: Parables’ rhetorical aspects include such things as containing a surprise or being open-ended, not giving all the answers. That also is an important task
- It is also critically important to focus on what parables want: Parables are meant to challenge us to do things, not just to think things. Jesus spoke them with one ear already listening for our responses. For me, this task is the most important one of all: How do we respond to Jesus’s parabolic challenges and demands.
As I wrote in my first book on the parables (in 2000):
. . . parables in their polyvalency, to an extent foresee and anticipate our responses; Jesus created them with one ear already attuned to our answers. Parables, therefore, are profoundly dialogic and do not pretend to be the last word, because, in parable, the last word is continually granted to others . . . .
- David B. Gowler, What Are They Saying About the Parables?
It is no coincidence that after Jesus relates the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke, be says, “Go and do likewise.” Jesus and his parables want us to respond in word and deed. That’s what parables want.
What is your advice to the average layperson on how to approach Jesus’ parables? Besides this, what resources would you recommend?
David: I have written too much already, and there are so many resources available that it depends upon the person’s specific needs and concerns. For a compendium of a massive amount of interpretation, Klyne Snodgrass’s Stories with Intent is the best current resource. For a review of scholarship for students and laypeople, my What Are They Saying about the Parables? is a bit dated (2000) but still very helpful.
If your readers would like other recommendations, they can contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would be glad to give recommendations for books and other resources depending upon what they are seeking to know.
Thank you for your time!
Dr. David B. Gowler, the Dr. Lovick Pierce and Bishop George F. Pierce Chair of Religion, runs an academic blog and has authored five books, The parables after Jesus being the most recent. Gowler has also authored James through the Centuries, What Are They Saying About the Historical Jesus, and Host, Guest, Enemy, and Friend: Portraits of the Pharisees in Luke and Acts. The co-editor and contributing author of five other volumes, he is also the author of numerous academic articles, book chapters, and book reviews. Besides being co-editor of the series Emory Studies in Early Christianity, he has edited 18 other books.