Jesus’ parables—that is, His responding to a question by telling a story—are difficult to interpret. Difficulty arises, partly, because even how to approach interpreting the parables has generated controversy throughout the history of Christianity. Two different interpretive frameworks have been used throughout Church history, beginning at least with the Church Fathers, and deciding which is the correct framework for interpreting Jesus’ parables remains an issue today. And difficulty also arises when we don’t adequately consider what I would call the “structural unit” of a parable, which includes the parable and related elements that may come before and/or after the parable itself. Understanding the structural unit of each parable helps us understand what our Messiah Jesus is teaching through them. In this article, I will discuss these two interpretive difficulties using various parables to illustrate them, culminating in an interpretation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Two Different Frameworks
Two interpretive frameworks are most often used to interpret Jesus’ parables: analogy and allegory. We’ll start by looking at how the Jews of Jesus’ time—and thus the early Christians—understood His parables. The key to their response is found in the storytelling of the Torah (the Christian Old Testament). A story (parable) in 2 Samuel 12:1-7 illustrates the type of story that should be interpreted within the framework of an analogy.
After David gets Bathsheba pregnant and has her husband killed, Nathan comes to David and tells the following story:
Then the Lord sent Nathan to David. And he came to him and said, “There were two men in one city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a great many flocks and herds. But the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb, which he bought and nourished; and it grew up together with him and his children. It would eat of his bread and drink of his cup and lie in his bosom, and was like a daughter to him. Now a traveler came to the rich man and he was unwilling to take from his own flock or his own herd, to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him; rather he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”
Then David’s anger burned greatly against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, surely the man who has done this deserves to die. He must make restitution for the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing and had no compassion.”
Nathan then said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘It is I who anointed you king over Israel and it is I who delivered you from the hand of Saul’. (NASB)
David’s response to the story is grounded in common life experience: anyone who acts like the rich man in the story is unjust and deserves punishment. Nathan then tells David, “You are the man.” The aim of the story is for David to see that his situation is analogous to that of the rich man. David clearly sees the rich man’s injustice in the story, but he does not see the analogy to himself until Nathan says, “You are the man.” In other words, David understood the story, but he did not understand how it was analogous to his situation; he did not understand the relationship of the story to reality.
The narrative of the story and the reality of David’s situation are similar. All the features of the story, however, do not have a one-to-one correspondence to reality. David is like the rich man: he is a rich king, and he took unjustly from someone who had less. Bathsheba is analogous to the sheep, but she is not killed. And in this case, I do not think the “wayfarer” (traveler) corresponds to anyone in reality; he was just part of the story’s narrative, the excuse for the rich man to take the sheep. The interpretive point is this: the initial focus of the analysis should be on the story itself and not the one-to-one correspondence of the story’s elements to something in reality. The correspondence can be tight or loose—that is not the point. Focusing on every element of the story results in losing sight of the point of the story—the injustice of the rich man—which David understood applied to himself when Nathan said, “You are the man.” The story, then, is an analogy. The narrative of the story is similar to the reality of David’s situation.
Not all stories in the Old Testament are analogies, however, and thus they should not be interpreted in the same way. Ezekiel 17:1-24 illustrates a second type of story that should be interpreted within the framework of an allegory.
The story is about an eagle that rips off the top of a cedar tree and a vine that grows towards another eagle. This “story” uses symbolic language and does not rely on common human experience. It is like a coded message, and until the symbols have been decoded, the story makes no sense in reality. Therefore, the first step in interpreting this story is to find the one-to-one correspondence between all the elements of the story and reality. Only then can the meaning of the story be understood. In this case, God tells Ezekiel in verses 11-24 what the one-to-one correspondence is: the first eagle is the king of Babylon, the second eagle is the pharaoh of Egypt, and the vine is the king of Israel. Only after determining this one-to-one correspondence between the symbols and reality can the relationship between the story and reality be determined. The first-century Jews, and thus the early Christians, would have been familiar with both types of stories: analogies and allegories.
So how do we decide if a story (parable) should be interpreted as an analogy or as an allegory? If the story makes sense on its own according to human experience, then it is an analogy. If it does not make sense on its own, then it is an allegory. In the case of Nathan’s story, the situation made perfect sense given human experience, and David responded as such. He understood the story without at first understanding how any of its details corresponded to reality. The Ezekiel story, on the other hand, does not make sense according to human experience until the correspondence between the symbols and the reality is solved. The text itself provides the one-to-one correspondence that makes the meaning of the allegory understandable. Eagles ripping off the top of cedar trees and vines growing towards eagles make no sense until the symbolism is decoded. The nature of a story, then, guides us when deciding which interpretive framework to use.
In the history of the Church, beginning with the Church Fathers, interpreting parables through the allegorical framework was favored over the analogical and became a major source of controversy regarding how to interpret the parables. Now let us look at the example of the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 and see which framework seems correct when it comes to interpreting the parable.
And He [Jesus] said, There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to the father. “Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.” And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that county, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger? I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” And he rose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off his father saw him and felt compassion and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” And they began to celebrate.
Now the older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard the music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.” But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, “Look these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” And he said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It is fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:11-32, ESV)
This story makes sense on its own: A son leaves, squanders his inheritance, and is lost to the father. At some point, this son comes back and asks to be treated as a slave. The father responds by celebrating his son’s return. The older son does not celebrate; rather, he complains to the father that he never got such attention. Thus ends the story. Because the story makes sense based on common human experience, the parable is an analogy, which resolves our first interpretive decision: What framework should we use to interpret the parable? And because the parable is an analogy, we are primarily interested in the narrative of the story rather than matching each detail to some aspect of reality.
Now, let us move to a second interpretive decision: What comprises the structural unit of the parable—that is, the parable and any related elements that come before and/or after the parable itself? The simplest, most straightforward structural unit of a parable is three parts: First, someone raises a question (often the scribes and Pharisees); second, Jesus tells a story (the parable); and third, Jesus may tell us something about the relationship of the story to reality. However, most of Jesus’ parables—the Parable of the Prodigal Son, for example—have more complex structural units. We need to pay close attention to the structural unit of each parable to understand what Jesus is communicating. So now let us look at the structural unit of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Jesus tells the story in response to the Pharisees and scribes grumbling that He receives sinners (and tax gatherers) and eats with them (Luke 15:1-2). However, the Parable of the Prodigal Son does not follow immediately after the description of their grumbling, as it would if the parable employed a simple structural unit. Rather, Jesus tells two other, short parables before he tells the longer Parable of the Prodigal Son. Furthermore, after He tells the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus does not give us clues to the reality of the situation associated with the story. But after both of the short parables, Jesus comments on the relationship of the stories to reality. As we shall see, however, the two short parables are part of the structural unit of the longer Parable of the Prodigal Son, and they contribute both to our understanding of the longer parable and its relationship to reality.
The first of the short parables is in Luke 15:3-7:
So he (Jesus) told them this parable: What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he finds it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (ESV)
This story, based on the common experience of a shepherd, is an analogy: A sheep is lost, and when the owner finds it, he celebrates with friends and neighbors. And in verse 7, Jesus gives us a clue about the reality to which the parable refers: “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” Jesus is saying that like the shepherd finding his lost lamb, there is much joy in heaven when a “lost” sinner is “found”—that is, when a sinner repents and is then counted among the people that will inherit eternal life.
The second short parable, in Luke 15: 8-10, has a similar theme:
Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (ESV)
Like the first parable, this second parable is understandable given human experience, so it also is an analogy. The narrative is very similar to the previous parable: One coin from a group of coins is lost, its owner searches for it, finds it, and then celebrates with friends and neighbors. Then Jesus tells us the reality to which the parable points: God celebrates before His messengers when one sinner repents.
Why does Jesus tell these two very similar parables? I believe He does so to set up a contrast to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which has similar elements to the first two parables: Something is lost, something is found, and there is celebration. All three parables rely on the common experience of people who can empathize with the three situations; people whose natural reaction is to celebrate when something lost is found. However, the Parable of the Prodigal Son is different from the first two parables in this respect: it includes the reaction of the older brother, who grumbles about the attention the younger son is getting rather than celebrating with his father.
Jesus told the three parables to highlight the different reaction of the older son. In doing so, Jesus is addressing the scribes and Pharisees who grumbled about His eating with sinners and tax gatherers. He is pointing to their grumbling as analogous to the grumbling of the older son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, saying, in effect, that grumbling should not be their natural reaction to Jesus eating with sinners and tax gatherers. Why? The key to answering this question is the reality to which Jesus points in the first two parables. What is “lost” and then “found” is a sinful human being saved by his repentance. When that happens, heaven rejoices—which should be the natural reaction of all those who belong to God.
So then, while Jesus does not state explicitly the reality to which the Parable of the Prodigal Son points, He does communicate this reality through the two parables that precede it, as they are part of the longer parable’s structural unit. The scribes and Pharisees are grumbling about Jesus eating and hanging out with sinners and tax gatherers—the very people whose repentance causes rejoicing in heaven. Indeed, Jesus responds to the scribes and Pharisees by telling them that there is more joy in heaven when a sinner repents than when a group of scribes and Pharisees—supposedly “righteous persons who need no repentance”—are hanging out together. The grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees comes from hearts that are not “after God’s own heart,” from values that are not God’s. Both the structural unit of the parable and the analogical frameworks of the parables within it have helped us understand this truth.