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Spring 1995 · Vol. 24 No. 1 · pp. 36–40 

Parables and Meaning

Response to “The Parable of the Prodigal” by Tim Geddert 24/1 (1995): 28–35.

John Vooys

A young man left the tiny island of Barbados in order to seek his fortune in New York City. He apparently did rather well, but refused to send money back to his destitute parents. Every time he got a promotion, his letters would boast, “Mom, I just got another feather in my cap!” After a while, however, his fortunes changed and he became poverty-stricken.

In his misery he longed to return home, so he wrote his parents asking them to send him money for plane fare. He received this reply: “You know all those feathers you talked about having in your cap? Well, just stick them in your posterior and fly on home!” (Adapted from Wickham 1994: A 16).

Here is a “prodigal son” story from the West Indies with an unexpected “punch-line,” yet it shows that parables are still being used to hammer home a point, and it also shows that they are just as fascinating to people today as they were in Christ’s day. {37}


If we were to parody a recent commercial for breakfast cereal, we might say: “The parables of Jesus: Hear them again for the first time.” And so we should. Though the times have changed since they were first spoken and recorded, their impact may be new every time one “hears” them. This is so even though what they “say” does not change; the words are fixed. However, what they communicate, that is, how they are “heard,” may change, depending on the circumstances of the reader. Here is all the more reason to interpret them in such a way as to ensure their intended impact is not lost.

A quote from Gary Inrig’s popular book, The Parables: Understanding What Jesus Meant, is appropriate. He tells that the American playwright Arthur Miller once observed, “In every successful drama there is something which makes a person say, ‘Hey! That’s me!’ ” Inrig states, “The story becomes the mirror in which self-recognition produces self-understanding” (1991:7).

“A mirror in which self-recognition produces self-understanding”? Isn’t that the effect parables often have? Don’t we see this happening in the Gospels? When Jesus told about the parable of the tenants (Matthew 21:33ff.), the chief priests and Pharisees said, “Hey! That’s us!” They didn’t like the way the mirror portrayed them, so they reacted by wanting to arrest Jesus (v. 46a). Even a short illustration arising out of Christ’s meeting with the rich young man (Matthew 19: 16ff.) evoked a similar response. The humorous statement, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” caused the disciples to say “Hey! that’s us!” They conclude, “Who then can be saved?” (v. 25).

Are the two examples, a longer story and a “one-liner,” both parables? In a sense they are. Wenham points out, “The Greek word ‘parable’ (parabole), and particularly the Hebrew and Aramaic word (mashal/mathla) are very broad terms, which can be used of pictorial sayings and stories of all sorts” (1989:12). However, the text Geddert is dealing with would better fit Scott’s definition: “A parable is a mashal that employs a short narrative fiction to reference a symbol. . . . In Jesus’ parables the symbol is the kingdom of God” (1989:8). It would have been helpful if Geddert had said something about the definition of parables.


Geddert highlights the importance of taking the text of a parable as it is given in Scripture. This is commendable and better than haggling over what and how it was actually said. There is little to be gained, other than {38} for academic interest, in seeking to find the actual words the historical Jesus spoke, or in suggesting that parables are the inventions of the Gospel writers who merely put them into the mouth of Jesus. If one wishes detailed studies on such topics, these may be found in the better commentaries and in more technical works such as Scott’s Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus. This is not to suggest that we ignore issues of sources or textual problems. However, once we have considered them, and once we have established the best text, we deal with the text as given in the canon.

I have some difficulty with Geddert’s suggestion that we abandon the idea that parables have only one meaning. It is true that if this is a fixed principle, one would miss the multi-levels of meaning of some few parables such as that of the “Sower and the Seed” and, of course, the so-called “Parable of the Prodigal Son.” However, I would still suggest that it is a good principle to hold that, in general, a parable has only one meaning, as intended by the “someone” who is seeking to communicate. So, although not a hard and fast rule, this principle guards against the allegorical approach and the very thing Geddert fears, that of exegetes making the parables say almost anything.

Dismissing the allegorical method of interpreting parables is timely, since the temptation to tackle the parables in this way is not limited to Augustine’s or Origen’s day. Likewise, any new approach which ignores the historical context, such as reader-response criticism, also needs to be rejected. Such a hermeneutic allows the parables to say almost anything. As Wenham puts it, “The trouble with such unhistorical interpretations is that they are often more a reflection of the ideas of the Christian interpreter than of the ideas likely to have been in Jesus’ own mind” (1989:15).

We are thus reminded of, and cannot stress too often, how crucial the historical, cultural or biblical context is to any exegesis of the parables. Wenham goes so far as to say that context “is probably the key to the proper interpretation of the parables of Jesus.” He adds, “We need to understand the parables of Jesus, first within their overall historical context, second within the context of Jesus’ teaching and ministry, and third within the context of the gospels in which they are found” (1989: 16).

Such context study is necessary for all parables, and especially for those which, in our world, seem to include obscure economic and cultural practices such as are, for example, found in the “Parable of the Shrewd Manager.”


Since our concern is with contemporary relevance/application, it is important to consider the context of the modern hearers/readers as well {39}. Let us not assume that the intent of someone’s communication will be adequately understood, when today’s hearers/ readers are not in, nor even aware of, the “world” of the original hearers. It is essential that the teacher or preacher, as exegete, knows about this world and also imparts that knowledge to those who are the recipients of their work. Geddert’s example of how the story of the prodigal son was received by Arab peasants is instructive. It differs drastically from how North American urban professionals would receive it. However, it does raise the question, “Did these modern peasants hear it in the way Christ intended it in the first place?” While one culture’s reaction to a parable may be quite different from another, it is possible that either one or both may be wrong! Is there a place then for contextualization as well as interpretation?

One approach, of course, is to do a re-write of the whole parable, in order to give a dynamic equivalent, to contextualize it. We could use parallel characters of the modern day, such as Fee and Stuart have done with the Good Samaritan story: the victim becomes a family of disheveled, unkempt individuals in distress; the religious leaders become a local bishop and a prominent service organization president; the Samaritan comes in the guise of an outspoken local atheist (1982:133). Contact!

One thing is very clear from Geddert’s work. If we wish people to interact with the parables, as he suggests, then we as pastors, teachers, exegetes, will need to pose relevant questions in order to allow people to probe deeper than is normally done. Such probing will thus “catch” them. This is similar to what Jesus himself did with the “expert in the law,” when he turned his question, “Who is my neighbor?” into the question, “Who acted neighborly?”

Geddert’s approach in “catching” the hearers was not fully successful. We were encouraged to move from asking “What kind of laws were disobeyed?” to “What kinds of relationships were broken?” As we focus on the prodigal’s behavior, we are tempted to excuse ourselves by saying, “What did we do wrong, what laws did we break?” However, though we may dismiss the charge of illicit sex as simply the jealous imaginings of the self-righteous brother, all the prodigal’s actions were, in fact, a contravention of an important law. This law is the fifth commandment, “Honor your father and your mother.” Disobeying it demonstrated the very broken relationship which Geddert highlights. So Geddert’s conclusion could have been reached without changing our natural question.

Clearly, any serious consideration of the parables will cause us to “see them again for the first time.” I was reminded of this once when preparing a sermon with a focus on the prodigal’s self-righteous brother. I saw his attitude displayed in a televangelist who was very self-righteous and judgmental about other people's morals. He was later found out to be {40} spending time with prostitutes. As I reflected on this, I said to myself, “At least I’m not self-righteous and judgmental.” Not a half hour later, I pronounced sharply on the failings of my two sons. I verbally lashed out at them and thus ruined their time before going off to school. I was so upset that I couldn’t even talk to my wife. Soon after, I was forced to identify with the self-righteous brother and say, “Hey, that’s me!” Parables have the power to confront again and again.


  • Blomberg, Craig L. Interpreting the Parables. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1990.
  • Brown, R. M. Unexpected News. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1984.
  • Dodd, C. H. The Parables of the Kingdom. London: Nisbet, 1935; New York: Scribner’s, 1936.
  • Fee, G.D. and Stuart, D., How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982.
  • Inrig, G., The Parables: Understanding What Jesus Meant. Grand Rapids: Discovery House Publishers, 1991.
  • Jeremias, J., Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969. Rilicher, Adolf. Die Gleichnisreden Jesu. 2 vols. Freiburg: Mohr, 1899. Kistemaker, S., The Parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980. Marshall, I.H., Commentary on Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1979.
  • Scott, B. D. Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989.
  • Wenham, D. The Parables of Jesus. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989.
  • Wickham, C. “Man Still Fascinated by Flight,” Abbotsford Clearbrook Times. Saturday, August 13, 1994: A 16.
John Vooys is an instructor at Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, British Columbia.

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