Friday, December 21, 2007

Jesus' Parables: Two Interpretations

Many of Jesus' parable stories involve a powerful person. Each of these parables has essentially two possible interpretations, depending on who the hearer identifies the powerful person as:
1) God.
2) Unjust humans.
Each interpretation leads to quite a different meaning to the parable.

A common theme I've noticed in recent scholarship on the parables is to argue that modern Christians and/or the gospel writers often interpret parables as having meaning (1), when in fact Jesus more likely intended the parable to have meaning (2).

The parable most often cited an a clear example of this is the Parable of the Talents. In the traditional Christian reading, the lord is God who gives to his servants differing levels of abilities and lets them make what they will of them. God then judges everyone at the end of time and rewards them based on what use they made of the gifts given to them, and he also destroys anyone who didn't acknowledge him as their king.

However recent scholarship seems to almost unanimously be of the view that in fact the ruler in the parable is meant to depict an unjust rich human ruler, who expects his servants to exploit others in order to make him more money because he is greedy, and who crushes those who rightly protest against him. Reading 1 thus sees the parable's theme as "make good use of the gifts God has given you", while reading 2 sees it as a critique of greedy and unjust human rulers and a warning about what happens to those who directly challenge such people.

Interestingly, it turns out that in the parables that depict a main lord, master, ruler or farmer figure as focus of the parable, can be read either with reading 1 or 2 and a plausible meaning extracted from them. The question this raises then, is which is the correct or intended meaning? (or are both equally plausible and true?)

A lot of scholars whose interest lies in studying Jesus' ministry against its socio-historical context seem extremely confident that the original meaning is almost always reading 2 and that the gospels err quite often in the explanations they provide for the parables (since they usually favour reading 1).

I'm not quite sure what to think on this. I find a lot of the reading 2 constructions quite interesting and socio-historically seem very plausible, but I am hesitant to out-and-out affirm that the gospels are absolutely wrong in their provided interpretations of certain parables.


Blogger James F. McGrath said...

I've been thinking about this topic for a while - the countercultural (or culturally negative) images of God in Jesus' parables as understood by the early Church. Perhaps an argument for the Church having been not entirely off target is the unlikelihood that Jesus' followers would take a bunch of his stories told to criticize the sorts of behaviors various characters engaged in, and identify God with those negative characters!

Blogger .stupidwhiteman said...

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