I like to use Luke 16 as a training ground in interpreting parables, because so many of the possible problems are presented within a few verses. On Monday, I wrote a devotional, Outside the Box, in which I use what I believe is the primary focus of the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-9) in challenging Christians to think outside the box.
In my essay Interpreting Parables I state that the primary key to interpreting a parable is to discover what the single point of that parable is. This could be stated in a different way by asking just what question is the parable intended to answer.
In the case of the Unjust Steward, try reading the parable as an answer to two different questions. 1) What is proper behavior for a steward? or 2) How diligent and creative should a follower of Jesus be in building the kingdom? If the parable were intended to answer the first question it would give an answer that is contradictory to much of the moral basis of scripture. If taken as an answer to the second question, the parable tells us to exercise great diligence and to be willing to think outside of our normal parameters–outside the box–in order to build the kingdom. (Note here that I believe verses 10-13 are not part of the parable itself, but are a collection of sayings that Luke placed here because of the theme.)
An additional issue that a Bible student should address is the difference between an allegory and a parable. In simplified terms, a parable is intended to make a single point, and that other elements of the story need not have specific meaning. An allegory attaches meaning to many elements of the story.
The first response of new students is to believe that the idea is to achieve high accuracy in identifying which is which. But in fact, the boundary is not nearly so clear. The question is important because it gets the student to consider just what is and is not part of the purpose of the story.
And that is where the next parable comes in, The Rich Man and Lazarus, Luke 16:19-30. Often it is interpreted more as an allegory, and arguments can be made in favor of that interpretation. In order to examine this issue, let’s ask just what it is that Jesus is trying to teach, or what question he is answering.
Let me suggest some questions:
- What is the fate of those who die?
- Can people in hell communicate with those in [tag]heaven[/tag] (or paradise as the case may be)?
- Is a reading of the Torah (Pentateuch) equal to the presence of someone raised from the dead in convincing someone to believe?
- Do riches show that one is especially blessed by God?
- Is indifference to the poor a sin?
Now I would suggest that Jesus is answering something between questions four and five. You can look through the parable at other elements and decide whether the parable should be regarded as the final answer on those particular points. I personally would not use this parable as a proof of heaven, hell, or any communication between them. I would say that judgment and final reward and punishment are strongly implied, but the details should be found elsewhere.
I have, however, heard this parable preached as the one final proof of an eternally burning hell. But you will not find people who make that argument arguing equally forcefully that people in heaven can communicate with those in hell. If you make one argument and not the other you should ask why one element is has meaning while the other doesn’t.
But a more interesting point is the meaning of verse 30: What is it that the brothers will not believe? Apparently the testimony of of the law and the prophets should make them believe something they will not believe even should someone rise from the dead. What is this?
It’s easy to think something like “believe in Jesus” or even “belief in God” but those do not fit with the question. How about acceptance of the truth that caring for one’s neighbor is the basis on which one will be rewarded or punished?
This is just a suggestion and hopefully a pointer toward how to work it out.