The parables of Jesus are among the most fascinating writings in the New Testament scriptures. In general, readers attempt to draw some analogies between the details of each parable’s storyline and some aspect or attribute of God, man, the kingdom, redemption, etc. Since the parables are obviously symbolic and therefore veiled (Matthew 13:11), leaving each Bible reader with the task of attaching meaning to the parable story. The use of poetic and symbolic language, such as in the parables, invites a very personal interpretation of the thoughts and symbolism expressed. The very use of such a linguistic device challenges the idea that the Bible is black and white in its interpretation.
Given that most assume that the lesson of the parable lies in its analogy to some spiritual truth, everyone is left to determine what is analogous with what. Naturally, each interpreter tries, either consciously or subconsciously, to arrive at an interpretation which supports what they already believe about God, Jesus, man, redemption, the kingdom, etc. I have heard expositors warn that we are not to make too much of the attempt to find analogies between parable details and corresponding spiritual truths. That warning is not very helpful because each of us are left to determine individually what parable details are significant and what message to gain from those details. That is again the very nature of this type of linguistic expression. The idea of a fixed meaning and understanding is not a realistic aspect of writing of a symbolic or poetic nature.
At this moment, I am focused on two specific parables of Jesus. The first is that of the prodigal son and the second is the story of the good shepherd with one lost sheep out of one hundred.
In the well known account of the prodigal son, my attention is first drawn to the fact that the son separated from the father and not the other way around. The father does not leave home to search for the son, but he actively longs for the son’s voluntary return throughout the episode. One can imagine or speculate about a myriad of additional details in this story. For instance, would the father have ever given up on the prodigal? If the son had returned ten years later of fifty years later would the reception by the father have been any less joyful? Apparently the prodigal son doubted his father’s willingness to receive him back, but it is evident that those doubts were unfounded. What separated the one son from his father had nothing at all to do with the father’s rejection or the withdrawal of love. Despite the lack of a valid reason for the separation, the separation was real and consequential.
In a another sense the older son, the one who stayed at home was also separated from his father, not spatially like the younger one but attitudinally. His mindset dictated that the father’s approval and blessings should be predicated on the son’s faithfulness and not simply based on the bond of love between a father and his son. The father pointedly did not see the relationship that way at all. The son had been lost due to his own volition, but his return was a joy without regard to anything that preceded it. Love overruled everything else.
The parable of the lost sheep, one out of one hundred, is equally intriguing to me. I can again imagine how the ninety nine “unlost” sheep might have felt, if like human beings, they had been left by their guardian because one of their number had carelessly wandered off and out of sight. It is easy to speculate that the ninety nine would object to the shepherd leaving them unguarded while he searched for the lost one. Fortunately, sheep are known for their docility, so they don’t react as humans might under the same circumstances. The intense desire of the good shepherd not to lose even one of his sheep is central to the story in my opinion. Less than 100% safety and security is unacceptable to the shepherd. We don’t know for sure what motivates the desire for 100% success. Is it genuine concern for the sheep or merely a matter of maintaining his reputation as a good shepherd? Even though that question is unanswered, the fact that the shepherd requires perfect success of himself is evident and powerful. None of the sheep need ever fear being abandoned by the shepherd. Abandonment is not in his nature.
In each instance, one’s interpretation of the lesson of the parables is greatly impacted by how one see’s God and the rest of the Bible. No one comes to the parables without a prior picture of God’s nature and operation. Thus, different people approach the parables with different basic assumptions upon which they will rely in trying to draw from the stories their meaning and importance. Again this is inherent in the very use of poetic and symbolic language. The author may have a certain picture in mind, but meaning is ultimately formulated in the mind of the hearer or reader. In using a literary device like a parable, Jesus invited those who hear them to form their own personal opinion about their message and application. This is very significant because it challenges the idea that the Bible is designed to impart objective truth, a truth which must be understood the same and responded to in the same manner by everyone.