In high school math, I (barely) learned that a parabola is a u-shaped, two-dimensional geometric figure that, depending on how it intersects with our plane of existence, can also look like a line segment, one point or two points. Depending on our perspective, therefore, our perception of the parabola we’re looking at can vary considerably.
Funny how a parable is a lot like a parabola, isn’t it?
Jesus told a whole bunch of these fable-like tales during His ministry. Some of them were short and simple, others were long and complicated. Some scholars declare steadfastly that each of these parables has only one main point – but they don’t always agree on what that point is. (And people say God doesn’t have a sense of humour…)
As I’ve said in the past, I’m not a huge fan of absolutes, so I tend not to put all my eggs in that ‘one meaning per parable’ basket. I think I’ve heard a dozen sermons on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, and while they’ve all pointed at the same basic theme (God’s grace is inexhaustible), each of the emphases has been quite different. And viva la difference!
I think it’s OK for us to wrestle a bit with what parables have to say to us, and that if we disagree about the messages, it doesn’t mean one of us is necessarily a heretic (about that subject, at least). Looking at parables from multiple angles to learn new lessons is part of what it means to read the Bible for ourselves, rather than passively swallowing whatever we’re spoonfed by pastors and scholars.
But it’s also possible to have too much of good thing.
Even though parables’ many references to vineyards, fishnets, shepherds and lamp oil are tough to connect literally with our world in 2013, we can be overzealous in trying to tie the symbolism to our situations. We can also get bogged down in details that Jesus may not be all that interested in. Sometimes a fattened calf is just a fattened calf, for instance.
Similarly, we need to remember that these are made-up stories, and Jesus clearly felt no obligation to make them plausible, or to make the characters likable or worthy of emulation (in many cases, at least). As Denver Lutheran preacher/powerlifter Nadia Bolz-Weber famously tweeted a few weeks ago, ‘Reading parables as instruction on how to behave is like using riddles to get directions to the airport’.
To help illustrate the (admittedly obvious) point that we need to be open to what God might want to say to us through a given parable on a given day, but still cautious about creatively interpreting them, here are a few examples of How (Not) To Interpret Parables:
The Parable of the Net (Matthew 13:47-50)
The Moral: God views people like people view fish. Since we throw the bad fish away, but collect, gut and eat the good, there’s not much advantage to being a good fish. So pick your poison (er poisson?)!
The Parable of the Wandering Sheep (Matthew 18:12-14)
The Moral: Jesus wants us to get lost (so He can come find us).
The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)
The Moral: God rewards those who procrastinate.
The Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:1-14)
The Moral: God is very concerned about outward appearances, so don’t bother coming to church if you don’t have any nice clothes.
The Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13)
The Moral: Don’t share. Every virgin for herself!
The Moral: Don’t travel.
The Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21)
The Moral: God hates it when we take time to relax.
The Parable of the Yeast (Luke 13:20-21)
The Moral: Bread without yeast is ungodly.
The Moral: God wants us to value money above all else.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)
The Moral: God wants us to make our first-born kids do all the work, and spoil the youngest. (My parents think this one’s true, according to my older sister.)
Peace be with you.