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April 1981 · Vol. 10 No. 2 · pp. 31–32 

A Helpful Impasse

Response to “Interpreting the Parables” by Elmer A. Martens 10/2 (1981): 26–28.

Theodore Hiebert

The impasse in parable interpretation which Professor Martens’ case-study points to, as I see it, is the problem of multiple meanings. Interpreters using various approaches are capable of coming up with quite different interpretations of the same biblical text. The Bible reader is then left in the quandary of trying to decide which interpretation is in fact the right one.

It is impossible to deal with this impasse without first understanding the nature of it clearly. The reason for different interpretations of the same parable or biblical text is simply that each reader brings to the biblical text a collection of individual experiences. These experiences in turn throw a unique light on a text which highlights special elements within it and allows each reader a unique perception of its message. In this regard the “analytical” scholar is no different from the “casual” reader, the western reader no different from the eastern reader. Bishop Malagar brings to his reading of this parable his knowledge of his own Indian culture; Tony brings his seminary education and his pastoral experience in America; Kenneth Bailey brings his knowledge of Middle Eastern peasant life, ancient and modern; J. Duncan M. Derrett brings his knowledge of oriental law; Dan O. Via brings his knowledge of literary forms. Each collection of experiences allows each individual to see things about this parable which others would overlook.

I have come to the conclusion that as long as God allows human beings their individuality and freedom they will continue to hear unique things in his Word to them. If this is what we mean by an impasse, I do not think there is any way out of it. The church has, in fact, seldom been content to leave one biblical text with only one meaning. This is already clear in the early church’s understanding of the parable of the unrighteous steward, where the same story (Luke 16:1-8) is followed by three different interpretations, one which stresses preparation for the next world (v. 9), another which emphasizes faithful day-to-day living (vv. 10-12), and a third which urges absolute dedication to God (v. 13). Luke himself thus gives us a glimpse into the fact that the early church, like the summer school class of the case-study, connected different meanings to this story.

But at the same time I do not think this “impasse” should trouble us greatly. Multiple interpretations need not be considered barriers to a correct understanding of a text but may be viewed as aids to help us appreciate the different layers of meaning which are always present in a text. One example of a person who has recently enriched our understanding of biblical texts by reading them from a new perspective is Phyllis Trible. By reading the Old Testament from a woman’s point of view, she has been able to point out things about the role of women in certain texts that masculine interpreters have overlooked for generations.

Multiple interpretations may also provide checks on one-sided and narrow-minded interpretations. Scholars who try to read the parables from {32} the perspective of the ancient world in which Jesus lived can help us guard against reading our modern experience into places where it does not belong. “Casual” readers can in turn help scholars guard against reading the biblical text from perspectives which are so technical and minute in their attempt to recapture the ancient setting that they miss the simple point of a text and its universal human truths.

The one standard by which to determine whether an interpretation is reasonable or not is always whether it makes sense in light of the text itself. Within this simple limitation, the Bible reader will gain much more by using the various insights gained from different human perspectives in order to explore the richness of a biblical text than by spending a great deal of energy trying to eliminate all but one of these insights as misconceptions.

Theodore Hiebert is a doctoral candidate in Old Testament Studies at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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