Reading the Bible: The Treasury of Parables

This is the 2nd blog in this series, the 1st blog being Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasury.

Christ Teaching

Parables, which are one of the ways by which Jesus taught us the values of the Kingdom of Heaven, naturally require some form of interpretation.  The Twelve living with Jesus daily were themselves not clear about the interpretation of the parables and asked Jesus to explain his stories to them (Matthew 13:36, 15:15).  A parable is a story that literally makes sense, but its meaning has to be discerned and deciphered.  The use of parable by Jesus is a strong indication that He meant for His followers to study his words and to discern their meaning.   His parables point out to us that Jesus spoke using metaphor and image to offer thoughts about things like the Kingdom of Heaven and its values, rather than relying purely on straight lecture when teaching the Twelve and us how to live and how to be His disciples.

In Mark 4:33-34, we are told that Jesus always spoke and taught in parables, much to the consternation of the Twelve who questioned Him about why He used parables rather than speaking plainly to the people  (Matthew 13:10, Mark 4:10-12, Luke 8:9-10, John 16:25-30).  Of course the disciples are asking Him to explain to them the parables – they may be concerned that the public couldn’t possibly understand His stories, but mostly because they themselves didn’t know how to interpret them!

What exactly is a parable?

“A parable presents a spiritual truth, but not every detail of the parable should be taken as an article of faith.”  (Blessed Theophylact, EXPLANATION OF THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. JOHN, p 55)

Parable of the Prodigal Son

A parable is a story which presents a truth, but one has to glean the lesson or the moral from the story though meditation and prayer.  A parable is not identical to an allegory in that in an allegory each detail/character stands for something else.  The details of a parable do not necessarily each stand for something else, for the parable must be considered as a unit and a whole to learn its profound lesson.  Jesus Himself however does interpret His own parable of the sower in an allegorical fashion (Matthew 13:37-43) which is why allegory was such a positive and proper way for ancient Christians to interpret other texts in Scripture:  they were simply following the method of their Master.

“The Lord Jesus Christ Himself often made use of parables from nature – things and happenings from this world – as aids to teach men.  And He often took ordinary things and occurrences in His teaching, to show the nourishment these kernels give, and how deep are the things that are hidden within them.  Ordinary people seek some meaning in strange and rare events, like shooting stars, earthquakes, great wars and so forth, but rare are those who seek and find a spiritual meaning in the ordinary, in the most common daily happenings.  The rarest among all the rare who have ever walked the earth, the Lord Jesus Himself, deliberately took the most ordinary things from this life in order to reveal to men the mysteries of eternal life.  What is more ordinary than salt, yeast, a tree growing from a mustard seed, the sun, sparrows, grass and wild lilies, wheat and tares, rock and sand?  None of those who look every day at these things with their eyes alone could imagine seeking in them the hidden mysteries of the Kingdom of God.  But Christ paused by just such objects and called men’s attention to them, revealing immeasurable heavenly mysteries hidden under their outward form.  In the same way, the Lord made use of simple, ordinary occurrences to present and explain the whole of man’s spiritual life, the whole history of man’s fall and salvation, the end of the world, the Last Judgment and God’s mercy towards sinners.”  (St. Nikolai Velimirovic, HOMILIES  Vol 2, p 212)

Parable of the Publican & the Pharisee

Jesus used parables to challenge people to rethink their values and their own understanding of God’s Kingdom.  He used them to teach the “upside down” values of the Kingdom of God:  the Kingdom is not going to operate based on the rules of logic and fairness which appeal to humans, for it is a Kingdom whose justice is based in the love of God.  The Parable confronts and challenges the thinking and reasoning of the listener, and those who do not want to be challenged will be blind and deaf to the message, and will then be judged for their stubbornness of heart (Matthew 13:11-16).

“Finally, and most importantly, if by some chance we really do hear these stories, we often do not like what they are saying.  They challenge our quest for wealth and power, our sense of fair play, the facile optimism with which we can view the world around us.  If we were to take them seriously, these stories would threaten civilization as we know it.  They shove us on at times, at other times pull us back; they are too forceful, too demanding.  And we long for preachers and commentators who will reassure us that the stories don’t really mean what we think they do; like children awakened into reality by a harsh noise, all we want is someone who will tell us that it is alright to go back to sleep.”   (C. McCarthy & W. Riley, THE OLD TESTAMENT SHORT STORY: EXPLORATIONS IN NARRATIVE SPIRITUALITY,  p194)

Next:  Reading the Bible: The Treasury of Allegory

Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasury

Somewhere I once read that a problem with modern Christians is that they tend to read the Bible not as a treasury to enrich their understanding of God and the universe, but as an arsenal for attacking any idea that they fear. 

In what will be a collection of blog series, I intend to explore some ideas about reading the Scriptures as that treasury from which we encounter the depths of the wisdom of God.   I will be quoting some Patristic writers, some modern Orthodox writers as well as biblical commentators from other traditions.

In a world of great uncertainty, many believers are grasping for an assurance of salvation, an infallible certainty about what the Scriptures mean.  In so doing, they sometimes rob the Scriptures of their vitality and depth: that they speak across the ages, across languages, across social borders, and across denominational barriers to all the people of the world.   They do speak to me personally, but their purpose and meaning is not limited to or by my understanding of them.

“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”    (Romans 11:33)

It is our own insecurities that cause us to fear the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God, and to try to tame them and conform them to something we understand, and perhaps believe we can control. 

We 21st Century Christians are inheritors of the theological battles in the Christian West between Protestant Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church.  Part of that inheritance is a Protestant reaction against the notion that only “the Church” could know or understand Scriptures.  Protestantism rejected what they saw as fanciful interpretations of the Bible in favor of what they thought was a method that opened the Bible to anyone: just read it literally, plain and simple.  This they felt anyone could do, and thus the Church and Tradition were not necessary for all one needed was the Bible alone (sola scriptura).    The literal reading of Scripture however is also a method of interpretation, for the Bible does not say it must be read literally, and there is no doubt that portions of the New Testament clearly interpret passages of the Old Testament allegorically.  Jesus spoke in parables, and interpreted some passages of the Old Testament as prototypes of the truth.   Scripture thus does not only or always interpret itself literally.

So while reading biblical texts literally is a possible and legitimate way to interpret the text, if one only reads the text in this manner, one will miss the depth and the riches which they obviously contain.  A demand for a solely literal interpretation of the Bible can take us as far away from what the Scriptures say as could interpretations by the Roman Church which Protestantism rejected.  Of course, one may not need to know how Christians in other generations and places understood a particular text, but one will lose some of the depth of the Bible if one ignores these interpretations.

My intention in this series of blogs, and the other series that will be related to it, is to encourage us to think more about how we read the Bible.  Instead of rushing to the footnotes to find out what the text means (which really makes the footnotes the inspired Scripture rather than the text itself), as necessary and important as that may be, I want to encourage that we wrestle with the texts in our hearts and minds as we engage in reading the Bible.   We should not shy away from problems in understanding the Bible, but embrace them as revealing to us that the texts are deep and sometimes mysterious.  We are encountering the divine after all, why assume that it will be totally comprehensible to fallen human beings?   A problematic text may be given to us by God exactly to help us realize that our human logic and understanding at times are not enough to comprehend a text.  The prophets of the Old Testament were sometimes speaking about things which they only saw in a shadowy way and whose true meaning was not revealed until centuries later in the coming of the Messiah.

An oft quoted passage from the New Testament tells us something about the purpose of Holy Scriptures:  “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work”  (2 Timothy 3:16-17).   Rather strangely some use this passage in an attempt to prove that all scripture must be interpreted literally.  Yet the passage makes no mention of reading anything literally.  The point of the passage is that ALL SCRIPTURE, even the boring passages and the difficult passages and the passages we normally like to skip over and the literally unbelievable passages, have meaning and a purpose for us.   2 Timothy 3:16-17 is pushing us to search for that meaning in both the obvious and the obscure passages.   The Bible is not meant only to inform our minds, but also to form our hearts and our faith, to reform our sinful ways and to conform us to the holiness  and  image of God.

In the next blog, I will look at Reading the Bible: The Treasury of Parables.

Links to this blog series as a PDF can be found at https://frted.wordpress.com/2010/08/11/pdf-reading-the-bible-means-opening-a-treasury-1-2/