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April 1981 · Vol. 10 No. 2 · pp. 28–30 

The Grammar of Interpretation

Response to “Interpreting the Parables” by Elmer A. Martens 10/2 (1981): 26–28.

Dalton Reimer

Through each parable Jesus intended to evoke some particular response to the new kingdom he was announcing. Our first task in each case is to understand his intention. For texts do not mean, only persons mean. Meanings do not exist independent of persons (or communities of persons). Our primary question, therefore, must be: What did Jesus intend to say? And if we can answer this question, we may put forth a second: How may we make this message “come alive” today?

A grammar useful in discerning intended meanings has been provided by the contemporary literary and rhetorical critic, Kenneth Burke, in his A Grammar of Motives. His grammar (Burke’s “dramatistic pentad”) consists of five components: “what was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), {29} who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose).” 1 One sign of a good interpretation is a harmonious “fit” among all of the components of this grammar. If we apply this grammar to the parable in our case-study, we might note in barest outline that Jesus (primary agent) is teaching (act) his disciples (secondary agents) in the apparent presence of the Pharisees (tertiary agents) in first century Israel (scene) using parable (agency) toward a particular end (purpose). If we are to understand Jesus’ meaning, we must discern the contribution of each element in the grammar to the communication situation. However, I will limit my response to the issues of “scene” (time, place, culture) and “agency” (parable form) as raised in the case-study.

The task of clarifying the “scene” belongs particularly to the churches’ trained detective, the biblical scholar. If our detective scholar makes the case too complicated, as charged in the case-study, that is an indictment of poor detective work rather than an indictment of the function of investigation. We cannot understand persons who live in another culture and time without investigation.

But where does our detective search to find data to establish the significant elements of the “scene”? To answer, “first century Israel,” seems obvious. But the available data is limited. So the case-study appears to raise another possibility: Can twentieth-century Eastern peasant cultures provide clues to the first century “scene”? Perhaps. Bailey’s work in collecting data from contemporary peasant cultures in the Middle East which have considerable continuity with the ancient past seems to hold some promise. But we should quickly note that he establishes careful criteria for utilizing data from these contemporary peasant cultures, suggesting thereby the caution with which such investigation must proceed. No evidence is provided in the case-study that Bishop Malagar has exercised any similar caution. He seems to generalize from his contemporary cultural experience to the first century without any of the safeguards so carefully articulated by Bailey. But twentieth-century “Eastern” is not necessarily first-century “Eastern,” even in peasant societies. Any generalizations across centuries are problematic if not independently verified.

Though the Bishop’s approach is problematic in establishing the interpretation of Jesus’ intention, it does illustrate what is required to make a message “come alive.” But we must emphasize that different processes are involved when we are seeking to establish the truth through detective work than when we are making our case in court. The difference between these two processes seem to be inadequately distinguished in the case-study. “Coming alive” occurs when teaching connects with our experience, but our experience cannot become the reference to establish the meaning of the teaching. If the latter should be granted, we would open ourselves to highly individualistic interpretations which may or may not reflect Jesus’ original intention.

A second set of issues pertain to the function of the parable (agency) as a {30} rhetorical form. The case-study raises questions particularly about the one-meaning thesis. Whereas this thesis has decreased the temptation to turn a parable into an allegory, it has increased the temptation to reduce a parable to a proposition. As Westerners we are particularly comfortable with propositions. They have an apparent preciseness for us which stories seem not to have. But yielding to this Western temptation leads to a reductionist interpretation. For the parable is more than a propositional truth.

Parables and stories have multiple levels of meaning. Amos Wilder puts it well: Stories and parables play a critical role in the teaching of Jesus because of “the unconscious assumption . . . that all life has the character of a story and of a plot.” The parables invite us to find our place in “the larger story of which God is the author.” 2

Furthermore, the parable implies a particular approach to developing moral sensitivities. “The road to a moral judgment is by way of the imagination,” declares Wilder. 3 Bruno Bettelheim sees similarities in the psychological function of biblical stories and fairy tales: “The question for the child is not ‘Do I want to be good?’ but ‘Who do I want to be like?’ ” Bettelheim suggests that “the child decides this by projecting himself wholeheartedly into one character” in the tale. 4 Adults, I suggest, are no different. Stories simply invite identification and participation. “Truly expressive symbolism,” declares Philip Wheelwright, “means, refers, awakens insight, in and through the emotions it engenders, and where an appropriate emotion is not aroused the full insight is not awakened.” 5

So, a parable reduced to a proposition is stripped of its multiple levels of meaning and therefore its power. Even as a novel reduced to its theme cannot duplicate the experience of the novel, so a parable reduced to its proposition cannot duplicate the experience of the parable. Preaching which goes in search of a proposition which purportedly summarizes a parable reduces the parable to something less than its original communicator intended.


  1. Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives and A Rhetoric of Motives (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1962), p. xvii.
  2. Amos N. Wilder, The Language of the Gospel, Early Christian Rhetoric (New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, 1964), pp. 78-79.
  3. Wilder, p. 68.
  4. Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment (New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1977), p. 10.
  5. Philip Wheelwright, The Burning Fountain (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1968), p. 70.
Dalton Reimer is Academic Dean of Fresno Pacific College, Fresno, California.

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