Saturday, January 13, 2024

Perplexing Parables (Mark 4:1-20)

“… but to those who are outside, all things come in parables” (Mark 4:11).

Parables can provide great insights, but they can also create problems in interpretation. The first problem resides in the original intent of the parable. Jesus was obviously fond of using the parable as a teaching device. The puzzling question, however, is whether He used parables to elucidate His teaching or to obscure it. The debate focuses on Jesus’s cryptic words in Mark 4:10–12 where He tells His disciples that He uses parables so that people “may hear and not understand lest they return again and be forgiven.” He then goes on to explain the Parable of the Sower to His disciples.

But what did Jesus mean when He said not everyone will understand? His words in Mark 4 are an allusion to the judgment of God upon the hardened hearts of Israel and an echo of God’s commission to the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah’s famous vision in the temple (Is. 6:8–13), God says the people will hear but not understand His truth. The people would not want to listen, so He would take away their capacity to hear Him. Jesus’s common expression, “He that has ears to hear, let him hear,” suggests that not everyone who hears will understand.

Given Jesus’s use of parables, we must acknowledge an element of concealment in them. The parables were given to an audience before the cross and the resurrection, and much of the parabolic material concerns the kingdom of God. Because there was a lot of misconception about the meaning of the kingdom at that time, the parables were not always easy to understand. But this is not to say that a parable is a riddle. It is meant to be understood, at least by those who were open to it.

Another problem in interpreting parables is their relation to allegory. Not all the parables have a specific spiritual meaning for every detail. The parable of the sower does, but the parable of the persistent widow does not. The best way to interpret parables, therefore, is to look for one basic central point. As a rule of thumb, avoid all allegorizing of the parables except where the New Testament clearly indicates an allegorical meaning. Some parables, such as the Prodigal Son, have more than one point, but that does not mean that every aspect of the story has a specific spiritual (allegorical) meaning.

Read Luke 14:15–24 and 18:1–8. Try to interpret these parables allegorically, assigning every element a direct spiritual parallel. Can it be done for both? How does Jesus interpret the parable of Luke 18? What is the main point of this story? Read a few other parables in Luke or the other Gospels. Look for the main point of each.