Chapter 4. The Parable: The Primary Form

Speaking in Parables: A Study in Metaphor and Theology
by Sallie McFague

Chapter 4. The Parable: The Primary Form

It was very early in the morning, the streets clean and deserted, I was on my way to the railroad station. As I compared the tower clock with my watch I realized it was already much later than I had thought, I had to hurry, the shock of this discovery made me feel uncertain of my way, I was not very well acquainted with the town as yet, fortunately there was a policeman nearby, I ran to him and breathlessly asked him the way. He smiled and said: ‘From me you want to learn the way?" "Yes," I said, "since I cannot find it myself." "Give it up, give it up," said he, and turned away with a great sweep, like someone who wants to be alone with his laughter. 1.


This parable by Franz Kafka seems, on a first reading, to invite interpretation -- in fact, to insist on it. One can immediately think of autobiographical, psychological, and theological interpretations which might "make sense" out of it. But to attempt such interpretations would be to allegorize it, to treat it as an illustration or embellishment of what we "already know." And all the interpretations do, in fact, fall flat; they are far less interesting than the story itself, and even though they may comfort us for a while with the supposition that we now understand the parable, we find ourselves returning again and again to the story, unsatisfied with any interpretation. The parable appears to be more and other than any interpretation.

This is so, I believe, because Kafka’s parable is a genuine one -- it is not translatable or reducible. It is also an excellent parable to ponder because, if anything, it is even less "translatable" than biblical parables while manifesting many of the same central qualities.

The setting is ostensibly very ordinary: someone, up early in the morning, is rushing through the streets to the railroad station. The sense of haste is heightened by the run-on phrases, punctuated mainly by commas and by the gradual build-up of the person’s awareness that "it was already much later than I had thought." A surrealistic note is introduced when the comparison of his watch with the tower clock so shocks him that he is "uncertain of the way." We pause -- is that comparison sufficient to make him lose his way? Our credulity is stretched, but not broken. Troubles seem to mount -- the person is late, the streets deserted, he is uncertain of the way, and he is apparently new in town -- but with "fortunately" we breathe more easily and feel the story will take a turn for the better. Policemen always know their way about town and our credulity is restored completely when the stranger asks the officer "the way" (though we note in passing that he does not add to the railroad station ) We are however, unprepared for the answer and even more disturbed -- even dumbfounded -- by the final reply, "Give it up." The realism of the story has been cracked and through it we glimpse something -- but what?

This parable is an extended metaphor, and, as a genuine metaphor, it is not translatable into concepts. To be sure, it is shot through with open-endedness, with pregnant silences, with cracks opening into mystery. But it remains profoundly impenetrable. It is, as we shall see, far more impenetrable than biblical parables because what Kafka’s parables are all "about" is simply the incomprehensibility of the incomprehensible. Kafka’s parables, like all genuine parables, are themselves actuality -- the parables are a figurative representation of an actual, total meaning, so they do not "stand for" anything but are life. This means we must make a very careful analysis of all the parts of the parable for they are the meaning of it. The meaning is not a separate realm, something that can be pointed to; the totality of all the processes of life and thought in the parable is its meaning. What this totality of all the processes of life and thought amounted to in Kafka’s parables was the incomprehensibility of the incomprehensible; but this is not an extrinsic meaning -- it is what the story says.

And again Jesus spoke to them in parables saying, "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, Behold, I have made ready my -dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are killed, and everything is ready;

come to the marriage feast.’ But they made light of it and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and -sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

(Matt. 22: 1-10; cf. Luke 14:16-24)


Initially we may feel on much more solid ground in this parable of the Wedding Feast than with Kafka’s parable. 1a. The parable starts off as a simile rather than a metaphor and this is a relief: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to . . . .But while the grammar may suggest a simile -- an image that illustrates what we already know -- it is obvious that we do have a genuine metaphor here, not only because we do not "already know" what the kingdom of heaven is but also because the image put forth -- the ensuing story -- is not a discrete comparison but a whole nexus of images, a total situation, an extended metaphor. So we are not much better off than we were when faced with Kafka’s parable, though, from an analysis of the parable itself, I think we will discover that what the story says is other than the incomprehensibility of the incomprehensible.

The first thing to do with a parable is to read it, several times, work out the relations of those involved, highlight the subtleties of the story -- in other words, let the story penetrate us, rather than look around for possible interpretations of it. The host is the king, an important, if not the important man around, and he gives a marriage feast for his son -- the setting is one of high import. The guest list presumably includes the "best" people (the ones with farms, businesses, well-spread tables). The setting is realistic, and in keeping with this realism the king is inviting those on the social register to his son’s wedding. The first awkward and unexpected note is introduced with "but they would not come." What possible excuses could anyone give for refusing to come to such a dinner, and why should those people especially want to refuse the invitation? The king, with unusual generosity and patience, we feel, persists; not only that, he describes in luscious detail the dinner -- appealing not to their respect for their king or even to their common courtesy, but to their stomachs! The list of delights to be had at the feast ends with a sweeping assertion, "everything is ready," and with a supplication, "come to the marriage feast." The realism is strained and we are surprised at their responses: one group is indifferent, the other violent. The molestation and murder of the servants strikes the reader with a shock not unlike the "Give it up" of the smiling policeman in Kafka’s parable. In both instances a deep crack breaks the surface realism and we glimpse something through it; the context or frame of the story is something out of the ordinary. The king’s anger, on the other hand, seems justified, and it is total -- the guests are wiped out. At this point a second movement begins in the story: the invitation to others, and the invitation is as total as was the liquidation of the first guests. Once again the frame of the story is not the ordinary one. The servants go "into the streets" and invite indiscriminately "both bad and good" until the hall is filled.

This story is by no means incomprehensible, but neither is it a story with a "moral" or with "one point," two ways of interpreting parables which many New Testament scholars have until late embraced and which many preachers still embrace. It is, first of all, as Robert Funk says, "a paradigm of reality." It is, however, a paradigm of reality as seen in a novel context -- one in which "everydayness" is no longer the accepted criterion. Funk speaks of two "logics" of viewing reality in the parable with which the structure of the story and the relations of characters present us. 2 These are, of course, the logics of merit and of grace, or to put it less theologically, the logic of those who view reality in everyday terms and those who view it in a surprising, new context, the perspective of receiving what one does not deserve. The first invitations are offered to the worthy; the second invitations are proffered with no regard to worth.

This comment leads to a second point, for the insight that comes -- the new "logic" -- is dependent on the deformation of the old "logic." We recall Owen Barfield’s comment that the aesthetic moment, the moment of new insight, always involves "a felt change of consciousness," which occurs when everyday language is used in an unfamiliar context. Metaphorical language, parabolic language, does not take us out of everyday reality but drives us more deeply into it, de-forming our usual apprehensions in such a way that we see that reality in a new way. The second "logic" like all new meaning is a deepening of reality, not an escape from it into a never-never land. What we see, then, in the parable of the Wedding Feast is not a new reality but the same reality in a new perspective. 2b. The mundane world is transmuted; no new world is created. In both "logics," the "world" is the story of the wedding feast; what changes is the guest list -- those who will accept the invitation to the feast. This is an important point, for it means that there is no two-world thinking here -- a "secular" and a "religious" perspective; rather the question is a secular and a mundane one, the question of two specific ways of comporting oneself with reality. As genuine metaphors, parables could not do other than turn us toward reality, for, as Wallace Stevens says, the purpose of "the symbolic language of metamorphosis" is to intensify one’s sense of reality. Or, as Philip Wheelwright puts it: "What really matters in a metaphor is the psychic depth at which the things of the world, whether actual or fancied, are transmuted by the cool heat of the imagination." 3 If there were a "turn" in the parable of the Wedding Feast away from the everyday, if the gracious closing invitation of the king took our attention away from the concrete story, the parable would be neither a good metaphor nor, as Gerhard Ebeling claims it to be, "the linguistic incarnation," the form of language most appropriate to the incarnation. 4.

This is not to say, of course, that the dimension of grace is passed over in silence in the story. The world of the parable includes both the secular and the religious, but with a primary focus on the secular. 4a. In Max Black’s terminology, the story is the screen or "smoked glass" through which we perceive the new logic of grace; or as Philip Wheelwright says, assertions about this dimension are made "lightly" or in "soft focus"; or as Michael Polanyi would claim, our focal awareness is on the story, our subsidiary awareness on its transcendent dimensions. A New Testament parable is a "linguistic incarnation" and, like its teller, who himself was the parable of God, works by indirection, by, as Leander Keck says, framing "familiar elements in unfamiliar plots." 5. The spectators must participate imaginatively, must so live in the story that insight into its strangeness and novelty come home to them. They are not told about the graciousness of God in a parable but are shown a situation of ordinary life which has been revolutionized by grace. In other words, parables, and Jesus as a parable, operate in the way metaphor does.

Finally we are brought to a third point: we do not interpret the parable, but the parable interprets us. This watchword of the new hermeneutic is neither a slogan nor a conundrum: it is simply the consequence of taking the parable as metaphor seriously. Metaphors cannot be "interpreted" -- a metaphor does not

have a message, it is a message. If we have really focused on the parable, if we have let it work on us (rather than working on it to abstract out its "meaning"), we find that we are interpreted. 5a. That is, we find ourselves identifying with one of the two guest lists -- our own logic toward reality is illuminated. In this parable, as in the Prodigal Son and many others (though by no means all) some hear and understand and accept the unmerited invitation and some do not. 

Parables as Metaphors

Parables have not always, or usually, been viewed as metaphors. 5b. Historical criticism tended to focus on "what a parable meant" in its historical context (C. H. Dodd and Joachim Jeremias). This approach is perhaps an advance over Julicher, whose "one-point" interpretation tended to reduce the parables to their ideational possibilities, evidencing little if any appreciation for them as metaphors, in other words, as nonreducible entities. A metaphor is neither reducible to one point nor is its "meaning" foreclosed in some historical moment: it is rather generative of new meanings in the plural. C. H. Dodd’s definition of Jesus’ parables does point to other possibilities.

At its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought. 6

The emphasis on strangeness, doubt, and teasing into active thought preclude the reduction of the parabolic form to one point or to a purely historical interpretation. Amos Wilder indicates the same direction when he conceives of the parable as a metaphor in which "we have an image with a certain shock to the imagination which directly conveys vision of what is signified." 7.

But before we can speak directly of the "certain shock to the imagination" which the parable form effects, we must look at its setting -- not its historical setting (a question for the New Testament scholars to debate) but its setting as an aesthetic object. As an extended metaphor, the parable is an aesthetic object -- and we shall have more to say about this -- but, it seems to me, an aesthetic object of a special sort. For to a greater degree than other aesthetic objects, such as an Eliot poem or a Tolstoy novel, the setting of the parable is triangular. The components of the triangle are source or author (Jesus as narrator), the aesthetic object (the parable narrated), and the effect (the listeners to whom the parable is narrated). This triangle pattern points to the original situation of the parables: Jesus told stories to people. All three factors should operate in any analysis of the parables, for they cannot be abstracted from their source or from their listeners. As Norman Perrin points out, there are three kinds of interpretation involved in any textual criticism: historical, literary, and hermeneutical; that is, criticism of who tells or writes, what is told or written, and to whom the text is directed.8.

The parables present a special case, however, for the point of Jesus’ parables is not mere illumination, aesthetic insight, or secret wisdom. There is a stress in the parables on confrontation and decision, an emphasis not evident in most other aesthetic objects. "The parables of Jesus were directed to a specific situation, the situation of men and women confronted by the imminence of the irruption of God into their world." 9 Hence, while the three components of the interpretative triangle are crucial, there is an emphasis on the third, on the listeners, though, as we shall see, the power of the confrontation occurs only because of who told the parables and what is being told to them.

The first component of the triangle, Jesus as narrator, is perhaps the most difficult. We are all well aware of the pitfalls of the Intentional Fallacy, the deleterious effects on the integrity of the aesthetic object through interpretation by means of the "intentions" of the artist. And we have no desire to fall into that trap, not because it is unfashionable but because if we take the parable as metaphor seriously, attention must be focused on the parable itself and not on its authority or source. Two qualifications can be made, however. First, it does matter, in the instance of the biblical parables, that Jesus and not someone else told them. They are, as Perrin points out, "highly personal texts" which express "the vision of reality of their author," and that vision "cannot be contemplated except in dialogue with their creator." 10. The "voice" which calls us (as Walter Ong would put it) in the parables is the voice of Jesus. 11 The best way to his vision is through the parables, for, as New Testament scholars agree, the parables not only are Jesus’ most characteristic form of teaching but are among the most authentic strata in the New Testament. Hence our attention should not be diverted from the parables to the intentions of their author, for it is only by giving extraordinary attention to the parables themselves that we hear that voice and understand that vision.

Second, Jesus is related to the parables obliquely, not directly. As we noted in the parable of the Wedding Feast, the attention of the listeners is directed not toward the speaker nor toward "religious" questions, but toward two "logics" of comporting oneself with reality. As Robert Funk points out, Jesus, as the speaker of the parable, brings the new "logic" near and in this sense the parable can be considered as "the self-attestation of Jesus, i.e., as the inverbalization of Jesus as the word," but the self-attestation is hidden and indirect -- "the parable is an oblique invitation on the part of Jesus to follow him. Since Jesus belongs to the situation figured in the parable, it is he who has embarked upon this way, who lives out of the new ‘logic’." 12 In summary, then, it is necessary to attend in a New Testament parable to Jesus as the speaker of the parables, but this can and ought to be done in a way that not only retains their integrity as aesthetic objects but in fact pushes us to focus on the parables themselves.

A second component of the triangle, the listeners, is as essential for a just appreciation of the situation of the parables as is Jesus as narrator. In fact, extraordinary attention is being paid to the listeners by current biblical scholarship: the heart of the new hermeneutic project is, as we have seen, not the interpretation of the parables, but the interpretation of the listeners by the parables. To return again to the parable of the Wedding Feast, the way in which the hearers "hear" the parable, whether they align themselves with the old "logic" of everydayness or with the new "logic" of grace, interprets them, They are interpreted, understood, defined by their response. And this emphasis by current scholarship on the hearers is not merely an attempt to make the parables "relevant" to today’s people; the parables in the New Testament are set in deeply controversial contexts -- they are told in response to questions, accusations, demands, and are meant to involve the listeners directly as participants. Implied in parable after parable is the question, "And what do you say? What will you do?" In fact, as we saw in the parable of the Wedding Feast, the structure of the story -- its two "logics" -- is predicated on the basis of bringing the listeners, indirectly, to a decision. But again, as with Jesus the speaker, the importance of the role of the listeners does not turn our attention away from the parable but toward it. For we need not and ought not commit the Affective Fallacy at this point -- interpreting the parable by means of its effect on the listeners. Rather, concern with the effect forces us back to the parable itself, for if we are to gain new insight, if the parable is to work its effect, there is no way to accomplish this but through maximum attention to its own givens, to the parable as metaphor.

We are brought, then, to the parable itself as the way to hear the voice it embodies and the challenge it presents to us. The two central features of the parable as aesthetic object are its realism and its strangeness. In Jesus’ parable of the Wedding Feast the realistic story is primary, and this is true of all of Jesus’ parables. They are about people getting married, wayward sons, widows on limited incomes, migrant workers, doctors and patients, fools and wise men, and so on. The commonness of the parables, their secularity and mundanity, has been acknowledged and appreciated by all, and it is such an obvious trait that we might be inclined to overlook its importance. But it is special when compared with other bodies of religious literature where gods and their doings (the Greeks), hierarchies of aeons and quasi-deities (the Gnostics), wise sayings and admonitions (the Buddhists) predominate. The Sermon on the Mount, a collection of Jesus’ sayings and teachings, is throughout metaphorical -- the teaching is evoked in terms of salt losing its savor, lamps under bushels, temple gifts versus brotherly reconciliation, plucked-out eyes and dismembered bodies, an eye for an eye, coats and cloaks, treasures eaten by moth and rust, lilies of the field, birds of the air, pearls before swine, loaves and stones, fishes and serpents. The list of New Testament metaphors seems endless and little needs to be said about the extensiveness and commonness of biblical imagery. But it does need to be stressed that it is there and is the dominant language of the New Testament.

This realism is not the same as Homeric realism -- it is not mere surface detail, all in the "foreground." Rather it is realism "fraught with background," as Erich Auerbach puts it, and this "background," in both the Old Testament and the New, is the "way" the Judaic-Christian tradition has handled the matter of speaking of the divine. The only legitimate way of speaking of the incursion of the divine into history, or so it appears to this tradition, is metaphorically. Metaphor is proper to the subject-matter because God remains hidden. 13. The belief that Jesus is the word of God -- that God is manifest somehow in a human life -- does not dissipate metaphor but in fact intensifies its centrality, for what is more indirect -- a more complete union of the realistic and the strange -- than a human life as the abode of the divine? Jesus as the word is metaphor par excellence; he is the parable of God.

It is entirely natural or inevitable, then, that the realism of the parables is of a special sort, that it provides again and again "that certain shock to the imagination" which Amos Wilder mentions. The way this shock is conveyed initially is the assumption of the parables that important things happen and are decided at the everyday level. The parables again and again indicate that it is in the seemingly insignificant events of being invited to a party and refusing to go, being jealous of a younger brother who seems to have it all his way, resenting other workers who get the same pay for less work, that the ultimate questions of life are decided.

The "field" which the parable thus conjures up is not merely this or that isolated piece of earthiness, but the very tissue of reality, the nexus of relations, which constitutes the arena of human existence where life is won or lost. 14.

The "shock," in the first instance, Consists in realizing, say in the parable of the Wedding Feast, that one’s casual refusal to accept a gracious invitation apparently has something to do with whether one lives or dies. How can this be? But such is the nature of metaphor, of the parables as metaphors, and of the underlying assumption in the Bible of how the divine and the human orders are related. But the particular way that the parable works the relation between the two dimensions is the crucial question, and it is on this that we must now focus. A parable, an extended metaphor, works the relation between the ordinary and the extraordinary in the same way as a metaphor. An allegory is translucent to its reality -- it is a form of direct communication which assumes that the reader or listener already knows about the reality being symbolized. Metaphor, on the contrary, is indirect, attempting to bring about new insight by framing the ordinary in an extraordinary context. That is to say, "the certain shock to the imagination" is seeing the familiar in a new way; the stress in a parable is not seeing something completely unfamiliar, or something "religious." One does not see "the divine" directly in a parable at all.

Thus in the parable of the Wedding Feast we are at no point "taken out" of the story into a "religious" world; the shock or new insight of the parable is in being brought to see that everyday situation -- the wedding feast and its guest list -- in a new way: invitation not by merit but by a gracious lack of concern about merit. The invitation by grace is brought to light, glimpsed, pointed to by means of cracks in the realism of the story -- exaggeration, hyperbole, dislocations (the refusal of all the worthy guests to come, the shameful treatment and unmerited murder of the servants, the closing invitation to the people of the streets to come to the feast). The whole movement of the story not only is kept within its own confines at every point but returns the reader who would participate fully in it and be illuminated by it again and again to the story itself.

This is to say that as an indirect mode, metaphor does not, like discursive language, direct attention to "the thing" but directs it elsewhere in such a way that "the thing" is glimpsed. If this is the case, only fuller attention to the "elsewhere" will provide further illumination of "the thing." Christianity is necessarily and always wedded to indirection. It is also a way of knowing which delimits spectator knowledge, primarily because what is being offered is not information one can store but an experience. It is a truism to say that art is not kinetic; it does not force anyone to make a decision, to do anything. Kierkegaard was right when he insisted on the hiatus between the aesthetic and the ethical, a hiatus that can be bridged only by an agent. But it is also true that those who have followed the movement of the two "logics" of the parable of the Wedding Feast find themselves provoked, stimulated, edged into a decision about which "logic" will be their own. In a sense, the parable has trapped them; it starts off on ordinary ground and catches them off balance as it switches "logics" mid-way. The parable does not teach a spectator a lesson; rather it invites and surprises a participant into an experience. This is its power, its power then and now to be revelatory, not once upon a time, but every time a person becomes caught up in it and by it.

A parable of Jesus is not only an interesting story; it is a call to decision issued from one who in some way or other is himself a parable, or, as Christians believe, the parable of God. It is, then, not just another work of art; we have stressed the aesthetic nature of the parable not merely because parables have been debased into allegories and homilies but because of the religious significance of the aesthetic quality of parables. The crucial point is that a parable is metaphorical at every level and in everyway -- in language, in belief, in life. To say that it is metaphorical in language is obvious -- the multitude of familiar images employed by the New Testament to evoke that great unfamiliar, the kingdom of God, needs little elaboration. The kingdom is never defined; it is spoken of in metaphorical language. But there is a deeper sense in which parables are metaphoric. A parable is an extended metaphor -- the metaphor is not in discrete images which allow for a flash of insight (a purely aesthetic or intellectual "Aha!"), but it is a way of believing and living that initially seems ordinary, yet is so dislocated and rent from its usual context that, if the parable "works," the spectators become participants, not because they want to necessarily or simply have "gotten the point" but because they have, for the moment, "lost control" or as the new hermeneuts say, "been interpreted." The secure, familiar everydayness of the story of their own lives has been torn apart; they have seen another story -- the story of a mundane life like their own moving by a different "logic," and they begin to understand (not just with their heads) that another way of believing and living -- another context or frame for their lives -- might be a possibility for themi.

The impact of the parables is directly tied to their qualities as aesthetic objects, their insistence that insight be embodied, incarnated; but the uncanny and unnerving aspect of the New Testament parables is that the peculiar insight they are concerned with, believing in a loving God who upsets the logic of the familiar, must be embodied, incarnated in human lives, not in the head alone but in and through the full scope and breadth of a human life. If this is the parabolic way it is necessarily metaphoric, necessarily indirect, because it is concerned not with what we believe, know, or are, but what we are in the process of believing, knowing, and becoming in our lives. Parables are not, then, riddles which give privileged knowledge to those who solve them. They are not primarily concerned with knowing but with doing (understood as deciding on a way of life based on new insight). Thus, to emphasize the parable as aesthetic object does not mean resting in whatever insight it may give us, but rather, while recognizing that its power to bring to decision derives from its aesthetic qualities, we must not forget that the goal of a parable is finally in the realm of willing, not of knowing. 14a In a parable we are, as Perrin says, confronted by Jesus’ vision of reality and challenged to decide what we will do about it.

To read a parable of Jesus is ultimately to be confronted by Jesus’ vision of reality. As an aid to this, we can and we should consider the nature and function of metaphor and of metaphorical language, we can and we should consider such literary aspects as the movement of the plot, the function of disclosure scenes, the Unjust Steward as a picaresque rogue, and so on. But ultimately what matters is the vision of reality of the author and the challenge of that vision of reality to ourselves.15

Parable and Theology

Throughout this discussion of parable as metaphor there has been the assumption that the parabolic form is not simply one of many literary forms used in the New Testament but a central one, if not the central one. We have rejected views of the parables as teaching devices, as moral illustrations, as allegories, and have stressed both the necessity of the parable as metaphor to Christianity, given the incarnation (however interpreted), and the outstanding trait of metaphor -- its indirection, its curious wedding of realism and strangeness.

But more lies here than has been so far apparent. For what is implied in these comments is the uncovering of an ancient and authentic genre of theological reflection, a genre which suggests a significantly different mode of theological reflection than is evident in the dominant tradition of Western Christianity. Let me approach this very prickly question by repeating a tentative but highly provocative suggestion that Robert Funk has made by means of the following contrast:

". . . the Gattung [genre] gospel tends to make explicit what is only implicit in the parable; and thus violates the intention of what may be the dominant mode of discourse in which Jesus taught. One could put it more incisively: the mystery of the kingdom held in solution in the parables precisely as mystery, tends to be profaned, made public, by the Gattung gospel. If we permit the "gospel" to be defined by Jesus’ parables, the question then arises: has the Gattung known as "gospel" not already transgressed the intention of the "gospel" defined as parable?16

If the parables are taken as the way to the "gospel," then Mark’s messianic secret and John’s figures and metaphors may be, in their own fashion, attempts to make their forms conform to the parable; concomitantly, the explicit tradition, the tradition that focuses on kerygma, on didache, deviates from such conformation. 16a Funk quotes the remark by Ebeling -- "the parable is the form of the language of Jesus which corresponds to the incarnation" -- and then continues:

We have come around . . . to the root theological problem: Does the kerygma, or the kerygma plus didache, faithfully mirror the "gospel" as Jesus and his word, where Jesus and his word are taken to be embodied in pure form, in the parable? (Ebehing).17

Paul Ricoeur, following the lead of Amos Wilder, insists also that there is no way to the content of the Bible apart from its literary forms.

The "confession of faith" which is expressed in the biblical documents is inseparable from the forms of discourse. . . . the finished work which we call the Bible is a limited space for interpretation in which the theological significations are correlatives of forms of disclosure. It is no longer possible to interpret the significations without making the long detour through a structural explication of the forms.18

If the interdependence of form and content suggested by Funk, Ricoeur, and Wilder is taken with utmost seriousness, as I think it must be, then theological discourse, which has for the most part been discursive and conceptual, may well be in need of radical correction. If the parable (and its close cousins, story and confession) are seen as primary forms for theology, then the content of theology might well be different than it has been in the past.

We can approach this matter in a more concrete way. The key suggestion that Funk is making in the passages quoted above is that Jesus not only taught in parabies but was himself the parable of God.18a Leander Keck fleshes out Funk’s point.

Just as the parable does not illustrate ideas better stated nonparabolically, and so become dispensable, so Jesus is not merely an illustration for the kingdom which can be more adequately grasped apart from him -- say in mystic encounters or in abstract formulations. His task was not to impart correct concepts about the kingdom but to make it possible for men to respond to it. . . . He not only tells shocking stories but leads a shocking life toward a shocking end. Just as the parables have familiar elements in unfamiliar plots, so Jesus’ life has familiar features of Palestinian life in startling juxtapostion. . . . 19.

There are two central points in this statement: Jesus, as the parable of God, did not tell people about the kingdom but he was the kingdom; and the way his whole life brought people to the kingdom was through a juxtaposition of the ordinary within a startling new context. If theology is to be parabolic, it must attend very closely to these features; that is, it must not be concerned primarily with explaining and systematizing concepts about the kingdom but must look carefully at the way parables function, both the ones in the New Testament and Jesus as a parable. For, as Keck says, the goal of a parable is not "to impart concepts about the kingdom but to make it possible for men to respond to it." This, the possibility of response, is what we have called the task of theology -- it is what contemporary theology calls "hermeneutic." It is the hearing of the word of God which results in acceptance, in faith, and the way this takes place, on the model of the parables and Jesus as the parable, is through imaginative participation. 19a It is a coming to a moment of insight when one’s ordinary situation is seen in a new setting, a startling setting (called "the coming of the kingdom" in the New Testament). This moment of insight is not a discrete mystical moment, but, again, if we take our clues from the parables, one that emerges from one’s story and has implications for all of one’s life.

It also has serious implications, as we have said, for theology. Intermediary or parabolic theology would attempt to unite form and content, to be in genre what it claims to be about. The suggestion may sound risky (which it is), but it is not novel, for it is the theological way of reflection not only of the first Christian theologian, Paul of Tarsus, but of a whole company of theologians up to and including some on the contemporary scene. We might include, to name a few, the Augustine of the Confessions, John Woolman, Luther, Schleiermacher, Jonathan Edwards, Kierkegaard, Teilhard de Chardin, and Bonhoeffer. These theologians share several characteristics, though not of course all to the same degree or with the same emphasis.

First, they use highly metaphorical language, aware that such language is the way to bring their readers to insight, to confrontation with the word of God. Their vocabulary and style tends to be neither literalistically biblical nor highly abstract; much as poets utilize the common language to evoke the uncommon, these theologians use the metaphors and images of their particular culture, whether these be the Neoplatonic metaphors of light and dark or the evolutionary metaphors of groping and process. They do not abstract from these metaphors, attempting to explain or interpret them, but for the most part let them stay in solution. If they do systematic work it arises from and remains organically dependent on the metaphorical base. 19b

Secondly, they are concerned with the process of coming to belief. These metaphorical theologians are aware that what is at stake in Christianity is not belief in doctrines correctly stated, but "believing," a process which is more like a story than it is like a doctrine. As Richard R. Niebuhr says, "Believing belongs to experience. . . . It arises in the times of testing in which human faithfulness takes shape and becomes tangible as an affection." 20 Metaphor as the way human beings get from here to there, from, in this instance, unbelief to believing, is what theological reflection is about; it is not primarily about formulations and systems. Believing has a narrative quality, for it is a process, usually a slow process, which moves from the unsurprising to the surprising with the complexity and ambiguity, the stops and starts, the insights and the setbacks of a story. 20a The novel is a prime example of metaphor as method, of the gradual development and shaping of fully concrete beings toward believing perspectives of many varieties. The intermediary theologians take with utmost seriousness the story quality of believing, and for this reason they focus on what carries the movement toward belief, the growing feeling or sense of confidence in the goodness of the power that rules the universe. It is at the level of what used to be called "the affections," the loves and fears and hopes that move one, that one’s story takes place. It is here that Paul focuses in his hymn to love in I Cor. 13, Augustine in his concern with the two loves, Schleiermacher and Edwards with their concentration on human feeling, Teilhard de Chardin in his awareness of the active and passive phases of human life. Believing comes out of experience, out of one’s story; Christian believing sees in the story of Jesus the metaphor of all believing, a life developing toward its consummation in death still believing that the ultimate power is worthy of trust.

Finally, then, such intermediary theologies, metaphorical in language and in belief, are also metaphorical in life. That is, in some fashion or other the life of the theologian is itself seen as a metaphor, a quite ordinary base for the operation of the extraordinary. Neither language nor belief can subsist except in a particular life, and our theologians are unabashedly autobiographical, not because they would boast of where they are in the pilgrimage toward believing but because they know that there is no such thing as disembodied, abstract theology. Paul, Augustine, Woolman, Luther, Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer must, somehow or other, themselves be the "human metaphor," one partner in the association of the human with the transcendent. "Confessional literature" has been a minor genre in Christian letters, but it ought to be a primary one if the metaphorical method is taken seriously, for where does one start to theologize if not with oneself?

The pain of this starting point is evident in Paul and Augustine and Woolman, for it involves looking at the deception and the inadequacies of one’s own story of the attempt to be believing -- to be believing not with one’s head but in one’s total life-style. Kierkegaard’s sensitivity to the agony of becoming a Christian, Bonhoeffer’s intuition of his own religionless Christianity, Teilhard’s struggle to be an instrument in God’s cosmic plan even in diminishment and death, are all intimations of what is at stake when the theologian’s own self is taken as the human metaphor, the reflection of the inexpressible unfamiliar, the power and love of God. It is a daring and risky venture, open to misunderstanding and misuse, but if thought and life, knowing and being are to be one, if one dare not say with one’s mouth what one does not attempt to embody in one’s life, there is no other way.

What is coming into focus from our study of parables and of Jesus as the parable of God is a model for theological reflection that insists on the metaphoric quality of language, belief, and life. As I said in the Introduction, we discover the necessarily parabolic or metaphoric character of our confession, for Christian language must always be ordinary, contemporary, and imagistic (as it is in the parables); Christian belief must always be a process of coming to belief -- like a story -- through the ordinary details of historical life (as it is in the parables, though in a highly compressed way); Christian life must always be the bold attempt to put the words and belief into practice (as one is called to do in the parables). But what are the resources of parabolic theology? Are they only the parables and life of Jesus?

Our models are certainly in these sources, but there are others as well, both within Christian letters and outside of them, which are on a continuum with the parables and the life of Jesus as a parable. Intermediary or parabolic theology has never existed in a cultural vacuum. It has always been surrounded by and learned from those sources in Western letters most intimately involved in metaphor -- poetry, the narrative tradition, and autobiography. The relations between Christianity and poetry, the novel, and autobiography are complex and symbiotic; they arose together and influenced each other so deeply that it is difficult if not impossible to separate them. Poets have found the primal metaphors and symbols of the Christian tradition to be a major source for the expression of their own meanings; novelists, as Erich Auerbach and others have pointed out, have relied heavily on Christianity’s insistence on the importance of human growth for the pattern of character development; Augustine is universally acclaimed as the first great autobiographer, and in significant ways all great autobiographies have followed his lead. Likewise, intermediary theologians have often looked to poets both to renew Christian symbols and to understand better how insight occurs through language, to novelists for deeper perception into the narrative character of the movement toward believing, to the autobiographical form for a way of grasping the interpenetration of life and thought. In poetry they have found metaphoric transformation of ordinary and contemporary language; in novels, metaphors of coming to belief; and in autobiographies, lives lived as metaphors -- all on a continuum with the parables. In each case the ordinary is seen in a new context which transforms it. In such forms we are not "told about" Christian language, belief, and life (as we are not in the parables or the story of Jesus), but we are invited to participate imaginatively in a new way of speaking, believing, and living, invited to contemplate some metaphors.

One of the major tasks, I believe, of contemporary theology is to struggle with metaphorical precision, and it is a difficult one. One does not move easily from poetic forms to discursive discourse, for metaphor is not finally translatable or paraphrasable. No literary critic would attempt to translate or paraphrase the "content" of a Shakespearean sonnet: it could not be done and it would be a travesty if attempted. The critic who does not attempt to keep his or her method and language close to the sonnet, who does not attempt to bring others to the experience of the poem, may write an interesting book or article, but it will not have much to do with the sonnet. He or she may turn out to be an aesthetician or a philosopher, but this is to move into another mode entirely -- that of discursive language.

And this brings us to an interesting point. Is the theologian more like the aesthetician and philosopher or more like the literary critic? 20b Is it his or her job to create a system which explains, interprets, and organizes the primary data or is it to help the preacher, to help people to hear the word of God today? I think it is the latter, though I am not denying the necessity of the former task as well. But its predominance in the last few centuries has eclipsed what is to my mind the primary task of the theologian -- reflecting theologically in ways that keep Christian language, believing, and life close to its primary model, the parable, so that, like the parable, it helps people to be encountered by the word of God.



1. Heinz Politzer, Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1962), p. 1.

1a. In the comments on this parable and to a lesser extent in the general discussion of parables that follows, I am indebted to Robert W. Funk, particularly his book Language, Hermeneutic and Word of God. I do not go into historical critical questions about the parables but as a layperson in the field of New Testament scholarship have relied heavily on the crucial work done on the parables by Joachim Jeremias, C. H. Dodd, A. T. Cadoux, Amos Wilder, Dan Via, and Norman Perrin. My remarks are meant not to add to that body of work but to relate their findings to my central thesis of the importance of parable to theology.

2. Robert W. Funk, Language, Hermeneutic and Word of God: The Problem of Language in the New Testament and Contemporary Theology (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), pp. 193-196.

2a. "The parable cannot be accommodated in the ‘logic’ of everydayness, but neither can it dispense with language attuned to the mundane world; the metaphorical language brings the familiar into the unfamiliar context and distorts it, in order to call attention to it anew, i.e., to bring it into a new frame of reference, a new referential totality" (Funk, Language, p. 195).

3. Philip Wheelwright, Metaphor and Reality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1962), p. 71.

4. Funk, Language, p. 130.

4a. A parallel point in regard to the focus of the parables is made by Norman Perrin: "It is a remarkable and little noted fact that ... there is only a very limited number of parables which are concerned to proclaim the Kingdom of God per Se. The vast majority of them are concerned with the experience and/or subsequent activity of men confronted by the reality of God at work" (Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus [New York: Harper and Row, 19671, p. 83). It is not primarily knowing about the kingdom that appears to be crucial in the parables, but rather deciding when confronted by it. The emphasis is secular, human, and individual

5. Leander Keck, A Future for the Historical Jesus: The Place of Jesus in Preaching and Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971),p. 246.

5a. ". . . the word of God, like a great work of art, is not on trial. The work of art exists in its own right, to he viewed and contemplated, received or dismissed, but not reconstructed. The text, too, although shaped by human hands, stands there to be read and pondered, but not manipulated . .

(Funk, Language, pp. 11-12).

5b. Of recent Biblical scholars, only A. T. Cadoux, Amos Wilder, Norman Perrin, Dan Via, Robert Funk, and John Dominic Crossan so view them consistently

6. C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (New York: Scribners,

1961), p. 16.

7. Wilder, Language of the Gospel, p. 80.

8. Norman Perrin, "Historical Criticism, Literary Criticism, and

Hermeneutics: The Interpretation of the Parables of Jesus and the

Gospel of Mark Today," Journal of Religion, 52 (1972), 361-375.

9. Ibid., p. 365.

10. Ibid., pp. 370-371.

11. Walter J. Ong, "Voice as Summons for Belief: Literature, Faith, and the Divided Self," Literature and Religion, ed. Giles B. Gunn (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), pp. 68-86.

12. Funk, Language, p. 197.

13. Ibid., p. 154.

14. Ibid., pp. 155-156.

14a ‘The analogies developed in parables are not just any analogies. They are those which help us to develop our policies for living and decide on their adoption. The central analogies are ones which suggest roles and rules in life, such as the role of sonship and the rule of neighborly love. They are rarely analogies to impersonal features of the universe. designed to aid in speculating about anything as abstruse as ‘being as such’" (Peter Slater, "Parables, Analogues and Symbols," Religious Studies, 4 [1968]. 27).

15. Perrin, "Historical Criticism ...," p. 374.

16. Funk, "The Parables: A Fragmentary Agenda," p. 295.

16a Helmut Koester and James M. Robinson (Trajectories through Early Christianity [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971]), make the point that the Gattuiig gospel in the early church provided the necessary context for the interpretation of the parables, guarding against Gnostic misinterpretation of the parables as allegorical revelation hy setting the parables within the context of an earthly human story. This is an important point for it suggests by implication that theology dependent on parable -- what I am calling intermediary theology -- and theology dependent on the gospel or kerygma, both have a crucial place in Christian reflection. It suggests that a metaphorical theology alone, apart from the more direct tradition of systematic theology, is liable to aberrations or obscurity. It is still my contention that the theological temper of our time is such that the form which holds the mystery in solution is more needed than the one that confronts it directly; but neither tradition can do without the other.

17. Ibid., p. 299.

18. Paul Ricoeur, "Philosophy and Religious Language," Journal of Religion, 54 (January 1974), 76, 78.

18a. Or, as Leander Keck puts it, "Jesus preferred parables not merely because there is an inner connection between the parabolic mode of speech and the mode and motive of his work. Jesus concentrated on parabolic speech because he himself was a parabolic event of the kingdom of God" (A Future for the Historical Jesus: The Place of Jesus in Preaching and Theology) [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971], p. 244.

19. Keck, Historical Jesus, pp. 245, 246.

19a. ". . . it is clear that the failure of encounter with the New Testament is to be seen as much in the failure of imaginative participation as it is in the failure of loyalty. Those who are most consciously loyal to the faith expressed in the New Testament often fail to understand what the faith is. One reason for this failure arises from a situation which the New Testament shares with all other creative literature, namely, that its original impact was made by a ‘deformation’ of language, a stretching of language to a new metaphorical meaning which shocked the hearer . . . into a new insight. With the course of time such ‘deformations’ lose their newness, and often even their original metaphorical character, and become flat, commonplace words" (William A. Beardslee, Literary Criticism of the New Testament [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970], pp. 10-11).

19b. The fatherhood of God, for instance, is both a major metaphor and a major model in Western Christian thought. The development of a metaphor into a model is a movement from revelatory insight to the possibility of conceptual and systematic elaboration. Ian Barbour speaks of the distinction between metaphor and model in the following way: "Metaphors are employed only momentarily . . . but models are more fully elaborated and serve as wider interpretive schemes in many contexts . . . models offer ways of ordering experience and of interpreting the world. . . - They lead to conceptually formulated, systematic, coherent religious beliefs which can be criticized, analyzed and evaluated" (Myths, Models arid Paradigms, pp. 16, 27). An interesting and important exercise would be the analysis of major theological positions in terms of the dominant models they employ, for the difficult question of the way in which theology moves from primary religious images to systematic thought would be illuminated, I believe, by attention to such central models.

20. Richard R. Niebuhr, Experiential Religion (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), p. 77.

20a. For a superb discussion of this, see Stephen Crites, "The Narrative Quality of Experience," Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 39 (September 1971), 291-311.

20b. On this point H. Richard Niebuhr makes the following comment: ". . . theology is related to faith somewhat as literary criticism is related to poetic action and expression. Here again participation is indispensable. The literary critic must know by direct participation what the aesthetic experience is, what the poetic creation requires in the way of both inspiration and labor, and what sort of movement takes place in the poet’s mind between sensuous symbol and meaning. . . . The theological critic is in a similar situation. Without participation in the life of faith he cannot distinguish between its high and low, genuine and spurious experiences and expressions, between symbol and meaning. But as the work of literary critics presupposes and is ancillary to the work of poets, so the activity of theologians is secondary to that of believers" (Radical Monotheism and Western Culture [New York: Harper and Brothers, 1960], p. 15).