Not Exactly Warm and Fuzzy
In the TV show The West Wing, Deputy White House Chief of Staff Josh Lyman and his secretary, Donna Moss, have a conversation about the White House's budget surplus. Donna thinks that since the government collected too much in taxes, she should get some money back in tax relief.
Josh tells her that the government won't give the money back because they don't trust how individuals will spend it, so instead they'll use it to do things like pay down the national debt and beef up Social Security.
A little while later, Josh asks Donna to pick up sandwiches. When she gets back, they have the following conversation:
JOSH: How much were the sandwiches?
JOSH: I gave you a twenty.
DONNA: Yes. As it turns out you actually gave me more money than I needed to buy what you asked for. However, knowing you as I do, I'm afraid I can't trust you to spend the change wisely. I've decided to invest it for you.
JOSH: That was nice. That was a little parable.
DONNA: I want my money back.
By referring to Donna's response as "a little parable," Josh is, of course, being a bit snide, mockingly comparing an everyday response to an elevated literary form to point up that (in his opinion) it's petty. It's something of a theme (and an unfortunately classist and misogynist one) in which the Harvard- and Yale-educated, East-Coast born-and-bred political appointee mocks his Midwestern, state-school-educated secretary—e.g., when she quotes a line from a Robert Herrick poem to him, he shoots back, with an eyeroll, "Interpreting the classics with Poet Laureate Donnatella Moss." (Donna regularly shows herself to be the smartest and most perceptive person in the building, but it's not clear whether her colleagues or even, ironically, Sorkin himself actually recognize that.)
Josh is being sarcastic here because Donna is using a narrative to allude to and make a point about a real-life situation without naming it directly (at least until after Josh acknowledges that he understands the point), and he wants to underscore what he sees as pettiness on her part by comparing her story to a form that most people think of as making profound spiritual and theological points, a form that they may even see as sacred, given how closely the idea of parables is associated with Jesus. In other words, Donna has an ulterior motive in telling her story—she's expressing something she can't or won't say directly through this indirect speech—and Josh wants to let her know the message was received.
While Donna's point (that the government should be using the money for tax relief rather than social services or debt reduction) might not seem, to some people, to stand in worthy company like loving your neighbor, forgiving those who hurt you, or persistently maintaining religious faith, and Donna herself might not resemble Jesus, her use of a sly, indirect narrative to make her point is actually very in keeping with the nature of Jewish parables, including those of Jesus.
Parables, Fables, and Similes
Many of Jesus's parables aren't stories; they're similes: Jesus is simply giving a one-sentence comparison that this one thing is like this other thing. To say that any scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out new treasure as well as old is certainly an evocative bit of speech, but it's not a story.
That said, in excluding one-sentence similes, I am hewing to the modern definition of parables as stories, because there's a significant amount of what, in software, we'd call "fuzziness" about the definition of the word itself.
When the translators of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Tanakh (the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible, the equivalent (although not an exact one) of the Christian Old Testament), came to the Hebrew term mashal, they matched it with a word familiar from Greek rhetoricians like Aristotle: parabole.
However, a parable, to the Greeks, was a comparison that orators invented to illustrate a concept in their speeches. In Aristotle, these parables are usually closer to similes than stories. The word shares roots with parallel and comparison: that para- element has the sense of something set beside something else to show similarities or differences. For stories that serve the same purpose, Aristotle uses the word logoi, which is usually translated as fable. Later rhetoricians gradually extended the term "parable" to cover stories as well as similes, and the use of fable-type allegorical stories as well as similes to teach the audience made it appear to the translators to be the best equivalent for both the mashal as it existed before Jesus and for his stories and those that came later.
Mashal, Nimshal, and Ma'aseh
Meanwhile, Jews developed a set of Hebrew terms, both prior to the time of Jesus and in later rabbinic discourse, to describe a form of storytelling that didn't exactly parallel the Greek equivalent.
A mashal is an illustrative story that the discourse acknowledges as fictional. Strong's Concordance identifies it as coming from a root referring to rulership or superiority. Gesenius, noting the oddity of deriving a word indicating a comparison from a term for kingship, theorized that the connection was the ability or authority to judge. I read a paper that claimed the term has the sense of "sharpness," but I can't find it again; that meaning, however, would fit the emotional sense it evokes in the Tanakh.
The most famous mashal in the Tanakh is the story in 2 Sam 12:1-20 that the prophet Nathan tells David after David has arranged for the death of Uriah so he can claim Uriah's wife, Bathsheba. Nathan tells a story of a rich man with ample flocks butchering the beloved lamb belonging to a poor man to feed a guest. He then asks David what should be done to the rich man, and David says the man deserves death.
אַתָּ֣ה הָאִ֑ישׁ, says Nathan. Atah ha-ish, you are that man.
This mashal illustrates the nature of the form--as Dr. Amy-Jill Levine likes to point out, Jewish parables are bear traps. They indict the listener.
The other thing to note is that the parable, while alluding to the situation upon which it's meant to comment, isn't a straight-up allegory for it. Is Uriah, who's been killed, the lamb and Bathsheba the poor man? Or is Uriah the poor man and Bathsheba the lamb whom the rich man takes from him? The more you try to draw exact parallels between each element of the story and each element of the real situation, the more unclear the parable seems to get. That's intentional, and we'll come back later as to why mashal-tellers do it.
The term "mashal" also has another sense in Hebrew--that of being a cautionary tale or warning:
וְהִכְרַתִּ֣י אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל מֵעַ֨ל פְּנֵ֤י הָאֲדָמָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר נָתַ֣תִּי לָהֶ֔ם וְאֶת־הַבַּ֙יִת֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הִקְדַּ֣שְׁתִּי לִשְׁמִ֔י אֲשַׁלַּ֖ח מֵעַ֣ל פָּנָ֑י וְהָיָ֧ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל לְמָשָׁ֥ל וְלִשְׁנִינָ֖ה בְּכָל־הָעַמִּֽים׃
then I will sweep Israel off the land which I gave them; I will reject the House which I have consecrated to My name; and Israel shall become a proverb [mashal] and a byword among all peoples. (1 Kings 9:7)
וָאֶתְּנָ֣ה לְבוּשִׁ֣י שָׂ֑ק וָאֱהִ֖י לָהֶ֣ם לְמָשָֽׁל׃
I made sackcloth my garment; I became a byword [mashal] among them. (Psalms 69:12)
A mashal is usually accompanied by a nimshal, a direct application or connection to the situation at hand. While that may sound at first like the moral of an Aesop's fable, it's not so straightforward. Rather than providing a simple, one-line moral, the nimshal provides the context in which the mashal should be understood. Drawing direct conclusions about what it's saying is left to the audience.
Finally, a ma'aseh is a story similar in structure to a mashal, but purported to be actual history as opposed to a fictional story used to illustrate a point. As David Stern, probably the expert par excellence on meshalim (plural of mashal), explains in Parables in Midrash: Narrative and Exegesis in Rabbinic Literature:
The ma'aseh marshals historicity as proof of its truth... Since what happened once is likely to reoccur in the future, the fact that a particular form of behavior once won reward or punishment is a revealing index to its virtuous or wicked character. Moreover, since whatever the ma'aseh narrates actually did happen (at least according to its own claims), the audience of the tale are assured that the ma'aseh's implied or explicit promises of reward and punishment are not based on its author's private fantasies.
Most of Jesus's parables fall, in Greek, in the category of either parabolai or logoi; I am interested in those that fall in the Hebrew category of meshalim.
It appears to be the trendy academic thing to do in academic circles, ever since Adolph Jülicher protested almost 2000 years of banal Christian allegorization of these stories, to resist the idea that parables should be read as allegories. Jülicher and those who followed him insisted that they be read more as simple similes, as "illustrative parallels," instead.
At first, I found myself in sympathy with Jülicher's position, since I am uncomfortable with the Christian rush to derive allegory—and from allegory, meaning—from Jesus's stories. The traditional, allegorical meaning seems to have eclipsed the literal one, to the point where listeners are unable to hear the story itself. The shorthand "Good Samaritan" has rendered invisible the enigmatic details of the story of a man injured on the road to Jericho.
That said, my position is that one should always approach the parables first as what they are: stories. One should hear them without the heavy hand of allegorization and traditional interpretations hanging over them, and let the characters and the story be seen for themselves before one reduces them to symbols.
A hard stance against allegorization, as it turns out, may actually have theological, rather than literary, motives. As Stern notes, regarding Jülicher's school's insistence that parables are, in fact, the opposite of allegory:
First predicated by Jülicher, partly out of the conventional nineteenth-century view of allegory as an artificial, intrinsically inauthentic mode of language, and hence as a particularly unsuitable medium for Jesus' divine speech, this belief has had a powerful impact on all subsequent research on parables... In Rabbinic scholarship, in turn, the mashal's allegorical features, particularly during the Amoraic period, have been interpreted as some scholars as evidence of the literary form's degeneration, its fall from "parabolic purity."
In other words, the impetus for departing from the traditional allegorical reading of parables is not in the interest of hearing them afresh, of acknowledging their ambiguity, of hearing them as stories, or of opening them up. It is only the belief that one-note traditional interpretations were correct in their strictness, but wrong in their type. It is not driven by a desire to hear the words for themselves, but to hear them as divine speech.
Moreover, the assumption that Jesus's parables represent some sort of "pure" divine speech has been used to characterize the development of Jewish literary forms after his time as a degeneration or corruption of a divinely inspired form. It's nice when the world acknowledges that Judaism didn't freeze into an archeological artifact as soon as Jesus came along, but characterizing the living and evolving culture of the Jewish people as a degeneration of a pure Christian prototype is just another form of supercessionism.
Stern points out that the Hellenistically derived categories of "allegory" and "parable" are simply the wrong paradigms from which to approach the mashal:
Granted, if the term allegory is taken in its largest sense, to describe all discourse that is referential, then the mashal possesses allegorical features: the characters portrayed in its narratives, the deeds those characters perform, the situations they find themselves in—all these routinely refer in meshalim to something beyond themselves. But even if the mashal overlaps with allegory in this respect, it is not itself a mode of literary discourse as allegory is, a type of speech that says one thing and means another. Rather, the mashal is a literary-rhetorical form, a genre of narrative that employs certain poetic and rhetorical techniques to persuade its audience of the truth of a specific message relating to an ad hoc situation.
The Missing King-Parables
For me, one of the strongest pieces of evidence in favor of reading Jesus's parables about people as representing people and how they treat one another rather than interpreting a particular character as an allegorical representation of God is that the mashal tradition has a convention for representing God. This subgenre even has its own name—the king-parable—and the appearance of a king signals that the story is to be understood as speaking about the divine.
Jesus tells only a handful of king-parables, such as the story of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:21-35) and the great banquet (Matt 22:1-14).
Admittedly, because even those sayings attributed to rabbis who predate or were contemporaries of Jesus are only accessible to us through the work of later writers (much like Jesus's own sayings), it's hard to identify when the king-parable became a recognized convention, and it may not have been a recognized trope at Jesus's time.
However, I think that the choice to tell a story about a king giving servants money, or throwing a banquet, rather than a rich man or landowner--and vice versa--is a deliberate one. There is no reason that the landowner who wants to uproot a fig tree couldn't be a king, and one does not need to be a king to give a servant money and go on a journey.
I'd argue that if Jesus wanted a character in a story like the father with the prodigal son or the landowner with the disappointing fig tree to be automatically read as a stand-in for God, he would have made that character a king. If the character is merely a rich man or a father, his behavior should be read first as representing human behavior.
So What Is a Mashal?
Stern defines a mashal as "neither a simple tale with a transparent moral nor an entirely opaque story with a secret or esoteric meaning, the mashal is a narrative that actively elicits from its audience the solution of its meaning, or what we could call its interpretation."
Donna's "parable" was in fact quite rabbinic in this regard.
The mashal is illustrative, but just as importantly, it is a demanding narrative—one that requires the participation of the audience.
In Rabbinic Parables, Stern describes the mashal as working "through indirection and obliqueness; it can thus suggest meanings to its audience that are, perhaps, best not spelled out too explicitly." In The Rabbinic Parable and the Narrative of Interpretation, he uses a rabbinic parable to illustrate how that works. (You can read both of these articles for free on Academia.edu, and they're both highly worth reading. Rabbinic Parables provides 10 example parables, and The Rabbinic Parable and the Narrative of Interpretation dissects how rabbinic parables work.) If you have access to an academic library, you may want to check out Lieve M. Teugels' The Meshalim in the Mekhiltot, which is a very good survey of the current state of research on meshalim.
The mashal leaves strategic gaps in the information it gives the listener, in explicating a character's thoughts or motivations, in describing others' responses to their actions, etc. in order to prompt the audience to interpret it.
Jesus's parables, I'd argue, are no different. Attempting to allegorize every element of them quickly leads them to collapse on themselves, and the more questions one asks, the more that are likely to arise.
This is a good thing. it invites participation, and allows them to remain relevant across the centuries.