Jesus the Storyteller 2 Interpreting Jesus’ stories

  • Realist or metaphoric/ symbolic?
  • How much detail?
  • Narrative dimension?
  • Clear or obscure?
  • Timeless or specific to context – single or multiple readings?
  • Are al readings equally valid

Metaphor or realist? – the rebellious tenants


Vineyard: Israel Father/ owner: God Servants: OT prophets Son: Jesus Result: AD 70 Gentiles replace Israel

A recent reading

A tragic but simple story exemplifying the truth that violent resistance to powerful figures operating under Roman hegemony will end only in misery and death .. Both audiences [Jewish leaders and the crowds] … see risks taken which have horribly misfired, and brought together in a shared bad taste in the mouth, a sense of the futility of an entire system founded on and generating violence.

Jesus points to inevitability in the way that violent revolt will be treated.
He does not, however, imply that such revolt is itself inevitable. In this way, the story acts as an indirect plea … Even at this stage a change of heart was possible. (Stephen I. Wright, Jesus the Storyteller)

Allegory <-> Realism

From one level to another Everything means something else

Story at face value Things mean only themselves

In between: appeal to imagination

At its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness and strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought (C.H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, 1936.)

How much detail?

It is clear that … we have nothing but the elaboration of a single comparison, all the details being designed to set the situation or series of events in the clearest possible light, so as to catch the imagination …This leads us to the most important principle of interpretation. The typical parable, whether it be a single metaphor, or a more elaborate similitude, or a full-length story, presents one single point of comparison. The details are not intended to have independent significance. (C.H. Dodd)

The hearer’s judgment is required – but only where the point of the parable is directed to just this verdict, i.e. not on the moral quality of the man who has found the treasure or of the pearl-merchant or on the institution of slavery or upon imprisonment for debt. (R. Bultmann)

Problem of representing God

But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be a king over them–bring them here and kill them in front of me. (Luke 19:27)

What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” (Luke 20:15-16)

The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city (Matt. 22:7)

Structural parallels: roles within a worldly story qualitatively different, yet analogous to roles on a spiritual plane?

The ‘how much more’ principle

“Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones (Luke 18:6-7)



• Action: surprise, unexpected twists

• Setting

• Characters

• Reception: interaction between story and hearers?

• Narrator perspective: relation to context – why did Jesus tell the story?

The Labourers in the Vineyard

• Repetition

• Chimes with experience of some hearers

• Audience’s increasing surprise at owner’s behaviour

• Curiosity about ending

• Shock at end

• Context:

We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

Parable of the Prodigal Son – Cornelis Massijs

Timeless or specific?

The Prodigal son

Who is the returning son?

• Sinners and tax-collectors (Luke 15:1)

• Gentiles

• Israel (cf. NT Wright)

• Any individual

• Mankind (cf. Genesis 3)

Narrative’s appeal to the imagination – can be ‘appropriated’ by hearers/ readers in relation to their circumstances

The Sower (Matt. 13/Mark 4/Luke 8)


As explained by Jesus (Matt. 13:19-23 etc.) Each element has a corresponding reality

Realist reading of the Sower

The invitation was to focus on the everyday situation of a Jewish farmer who found that only a proportion of his seed landed on soil where it could bear fruit, but that that proportion did indeed produce a successful crop, full of promise for years to come … It asks hearers to recognise the harsh yet hopeful reality of their situation and, through pondering on this simple scene, ask questions about it.

(Stephen I. Wright, Jesus the Storyteller, 2014)


Timeless practical wisdom: success despite failure, disappointment

What preaching is like

• ‘Seed’: ‘the message of the kingdom’ (Matt. 13:19)

• Soils: human hearts and minds, revealed by ‘seed’

Steve Robinson



Jesus the Storyteller 1. Stories and their interpretation – two examples – Luke 11 &amp; parables

6 thoughts on “Jesus the Storyteller 2 Interpreting Jesus’ stories

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