Contrary to common belief, the founder of Christianity was not much of a preacher man. He is most commonly referred to in the synoptic gospels as a teacher, and he seldom proclaims any divine truths. Instead, Jesus typically asks his audience questions and tells them stories about daily life, beggars and kings, bad fathers and their too-decent sons. One-third of Jesus’s utterances consist of such parables. They are almost exclusively non-religious and make no truth-claims. Instead, his parables refer to the listeners’ experiences and emotions.
Unfortunately, Jesus’s vivid narratives were long ago turned into boxes full of theological statements, which, in addition, are often anachronistic. In this way, the parables are stories using cover names to inform various ideas and interpretations. Not only is the original function of these stories distorted, but their credibility now depends on Jesus’s alleged divine authority, whereas he was actually referring to his listeners’ common sense or deep feelings. This alteration was a result of using allegory, an interpretive technique developed long before the rise of Christianity.
Nevertheless, Jesus’s parables continue to touch any reader’s thoughts and feelings like few other stories do. This happens regardless of the allegorical religious interpretations and irrespective of the wide historical, cultural and religious gap between Jesus and modern times – the gap that scholars so eagerly try to bridge that they pay little attention to the literary context and function of the parables.
Apparently, Jesus’s religious authority and historical information are not crucial for the readers to be affected by the parables. Interestingly enough, when the early rabbis told their captivating parables and fables, they diminished their own role as storyteller. Thus, a typical introductory phrase was: “They tell this parable…”. Likewise, the parable about The Woman with Seven Husbands (Luke 20:29–32) is compelling indeed, even though it is told by Jesus’s antagonists, the Sadducees.
What really counts is the storyline, its narrative and persuasive power. To understand the parables, one should assess Jesus as a teacher, who tried to persuade his antagonists, even though they had little if any trust in his alleged divinity. Moreover, one should read the parables in their empirical, original literary contexts instead of reconstructing any hypothetical historical situations beyond them or retrospectively placing them in religious contexts. One should resist the temptation of allegory and find out how the parables are designed to convince their audiences. To this end, specific tools are required.
Our research team at the University of Eastern Finland employs a multi-disciplinary approach to cracking the code of the parables. I have studied modern argumentation analysis, particularly Stephen Toulmin’s model, since the early 1980s and have supervised several doctoral dissertations using this approach.
Currently, Dr Niilo Lahti studies at the University of Amsterdam, utilizing the latest version of the Pragma-Dialectical Approach, the cutting edge of modern argumentation analysis. Moreover, we utilise modern narratology with special regard to emotions, as well as statistical methods and data mining. As comparative material, we focus on early Jewish parables and fables and patristic interpretations.
So how does a parable function? It consists of indirect argumentation, where a religious question is approached by referring to some non-religious example story. It illustrates a generally similar wider principle. When the audience agrees upon the principle, it can then be applied to the religious question at hand. No new information is provided. Instead, the storyline entices the audience to arrive at the designed conclusion.
For example, the parable of The Wicked Manager (Matt. 24:45–51) tells the story of a servant who is placed in charge of his master’s house. The master himself is absent but returns unexpectedly, to find that the manager has not performed his duties properly. The manager is severely punished, that is, he is literally cut into two pieces.
According to the traditional allegorical interpretation, the master is Jesus and the servant represents the leaders of the church. The moral of the story is that they should remain faithful and live wisely before the coming of the Kingdom, despite the delayed return of Jesus. Another interpretation is that the parable simply encourages giving alms to the poor. Alternatively, the servants are Jewish leaders who do not accept Jesus and who will be cruelly punished.
However, the story makes perfect sense without any such connotations. It illustrates why a servant should not behave badly: he cannot know when his master will return. In more general terms, “be prepared, as your behaviour can be controlled unexpectedly”. This rule is reasonable irrespective of any religious context.
In Matthew, the parable is a part of Jesus’s answer to his disciples’ request for signs of the end and last judgement. In this context, the story accentuates the fact that, in order to survive, there are no helpful signs. What counts is impeccable behaviour at all times. Unfortunately, the parables that follow remind readers in several ways that everybody makes mistakes. Thus, a perfect life is but an illusion.
According to most modern scholars, the gospel of Matthew an inner-Jewish document rather that a Christian one. Yet the message of this parable is easily acceptable to anybody, irrespective of religion. If one believes in a God who tolerates no sin, the parable has serious consequences indeed. The guilt cannot be allocated to the Jews or church leaders, and it cannot be alleviated by giving alms – although the numerous allegorical interpretations suggest such a solution.
As far back as the time of Quintilian, it was recognised that narratives are the best way of influencing people. Currently we know that good stories sell products in an effective way, but also shape human thinking and value systems. Thus, a dependable interpretation of Jesus’s parables is not just a matter of exegetical, theological, or historical curiosity. Since Jesus’s parables belong to the most influential stories, they can and have been used for many purposes: to support charity and neighbourly love on the one hand, but also religious oppression and anti-Semitism on the other.
Decent academic research that effectively utilises scientific tools and scholarly networks paves the way to transparent, reliable readings of Jesus’s parables. Even though one does not have to stick to their original historical usages, their applications should never contradict their original messages.
Our new paradigm for reading the parables introduces Jesus as he is portrayed in the synoptic gospels. No longer is he a preacher or a prophet proclaiming only some truths, which one can choose whether to believe or not. The synoptic Jesus is a cunning persuader, who meets his partners in discussion on an equal level, asking them intriguing questions and appealing to their emotions and common sense.
Lauri Thurén is Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Eastern Finland since 2001. He currently leads a research project Parables as Persuasive Narratives, funded by the Academy of Finland.