Letting Parables Live

by Walter Wink

Walter Wink is professor at Auburn Theological Seminary, New York City. He received his Th.D. from Union Theological Semianry, has been active in peace movements throughout the world, and is a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. His books include: The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millenium (1999), Homosexuality and Christian Faith (1999), and Cracking the Gnostic Code (1993).

This article is adapted from Transforming Bible Study: A Leader’s Guide, published this month by Abingdon Press. This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 5, 1980, pp. 1062-1064. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The parable has the capacity to tell us something we do not know and could not come by in any other way. We approach a parable shackled by the chains of rationalistic exegesis, thinking we “know what it’s all about.” We need to find ways to defamiliarize the parable, to see it from new angles, to open new possibilities for hearing, as Jesus repeatedly warns us to do.

Parables are tiny lumps of coal squeezed into diamonds, condensed metaphors that catch the rays of something ultimate and glint it at our lives. Parables are not illustrations; they do not support, elaborate or simplify a more basic idea. They are not ideas at all, nor can they ever be reduced to theological statements. They are the jeweled portals of another world; we cannot see through them like windows, but through their surfaces are refracted lights that would otherwise blind us — or pass unseen.

Parables participate in the reality which they communicate. In the words of Sally McFague, there is a “simultaneity of the moment of insight and the choice of metaphor — they appear to come together and be forever wedded” (Speaking in Parables: A Study in Metaphor and Theology). Nor can parables ever be exhausted; they always contain more than we can tell. They are the precipitate of something ineffable; they percolate up from depths wherein the Kingdom itself is working its ineluctable work. They come from the same energizing reality that causes the seeds to germinate and the leaven to rise. They rise with the leaven.

A Single Point?

Parables have suffered under the rationalism and idealist orientation of biblical scholars ever since Adolf Jülicher uttered his dictum in i886 that every parable has one and only one central point. Jülicher was, of course, trying to break the back of allegorizing, which attempts to impose a set theological meaning upon every parabolic detail. Allegorizing uses equal-signs: in the parable of the ten maidens, for example, the bridegroom equals Jesus, his delay equals the overdue Second Coming, the wedding equals the Kingdom, the shut door equals the Last Judgment, the wise maidens equal the true believers, the foolish maidens equal the backsliders, and so forth (Matt. 25:1-13).

Unfortunately, Jülicher merely substituted for an allegorizing of the parts an allegorizing of the whole. In this he has been followed by almost every commentator until recent times. The reduction of every parable to a single point (read: idea) renders it a mere illustration of more primary theological meanings. Lost is all sense of the parable’s artistic integrity, its capacity to tell us something we do not know and could not come by in any other way, its ability to evoke experiences we have never had, and an awareness of realities we have not even guessed at before.

Allegory and Allegorizing

“Allegorizing” should be distinguished from allegory. Allegorizing is a kind of reductionism. It shows its hand when details intended literally are invested with inappropriate metaphorical weight — when, for example, the ass, the inn or Jericho in the parable of the compassionate Samaritan is made a matter of deep mystical import. Or it may take the form of an intellectualism that has lost all sense of the feeling tone of the figure, and seeks to reduce the multiple meanings of a parable to just one, which is then regarded as normative and correct. Or allegorizing can involve applying a parable to a situation that it simply does not fit, or stretching the metaphor beyond its limits.

Allegory, in distinction from allegorizing, is as valid- a literary device as parable, but is not, as has long been supposed, a form at all. It is, as Madeleine Boucher has pointed out, simply a device of meaning, an extended metaphor in narrative form (The Mysterious Parable). The prodigal son, the friend at midnight, and the unmerciful servant are allegories, she believes, but they are no less authentic bearers of the mystery of the Kingdom than other figurative modes of expression.

A parable (or simile, allegory, exemplary story or any other figure) stands in an intermediate position between the known and the unknown. Valid interpretation presses through the metaphor to the unknown; allegorizing rebounds back to the safety of the known. In valid interpretation we feel our way into each symbol in order to sense the surplus of meaning that beckons us beyond ourselves to discover something new. In allegorizing we equate each symbol with something we already know, and render the parable’s meaning by a theological paraphrase. Valid interpretation is a listening to what cannot be heard without the parable; allegorizing is a speech imposed on the parable, telling it what it must mean. In the final analysis, then, allegorizing is an attitude of domination over the text and satisfaction with what one already has. It is a subtle or blatant form of arrogance. It is the death of interpretation.

Hooks to Grab Us

To hear a parable, then, is to submit oneself to entering its world, to make oneself vulnerable, to know that we do not know at the outset what it means. Parables function much as the Zen koan, or the tales of the dervishes, to tease the mind out of familiar channels and into a more right-brain view of things. Parables have hooks all over them; they can grab each of us in a different way, according to our need.

Are we discouraged about our ministry and its meager results? Then we can identify with the sower and look with new hope toward an unprecedented harvest. Have we unwittingly filled our lives with activities, cares, false loves, which threaten to choke off the ultimate values to which we once so flamingly committed ourselves? We might then see ourselves as thorn-infested soil. Are we just grazing the surface, dabbling in the life of the spirit, half-heartedly dipping into the struggle for a just and humane world? Are we perhaps the rocky soil? Or have we become stupefied by dogma or our own vaunted pride in reason, so that we can hear nothing new? Have our paths become ruts? This is but a skimming of meanings I have heard people find in the puzzling and inexhaustible riddle of the parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-9).

The fallacy of the one-point theory should have become manifest the moment it became clear that scholars themselves could not agree on what the one point was — though each was certain that he knew! The fact is that there is no one point of entree into these parables, and no single exit. That is precisely why they are so timeless, so universally potent, so masterful. Like fire-seeking rockets for air-to-air combat, they seek us out and find us. The contradictions in interpretation of the parable of the sower (Mark 4:13-20) are proof of this. The early preachers in the Christian community tried to fix the “one” meaning of the parable by providing a definitive interpretation. But they too could not agree, some seeing the seed as the word (vs. 14) and the people as the soil (vs. 15b), others seeing the people as seed (vss. 15, 16, 18, 20). They would have mastered the parable, but it overpowered them and made nonsense of their attempt.

Many of us, still shackled by the chains of rationalistic exegesis, approach a parable fairly confident that we “know what it’s about.” All the more important, then, that we find ways to defamiliarize the parable, to see it from new angles, to open new possibilities for hearing, as Jesus repeatedly warns us to do. Critical insights can sometimes help. So can identifying with various aspects of the parable, gestalting it from many angles, or miming it. You may have to work hard to keep from allegorizing it piece by piece or reducing it to a single bland “I know just what it means — it means this” statement. Feel your way into the symbols, experience the parable’s mystery, its near-numinosity, until you begin to sense that you do not understand it after all, but that possibly it understands you.