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Parables. Mark 4:1-9

In this post, I’m quoting some extracts (in italics) from an article by Walter Wink. 

The Parable of the Sower:  Over the centuries, scholars have debated the correct way to interpret the parables.  For a long time, people read the parables as allegories, where each part of the parable stood for a single idea.  in the parable of the ten maidens, for example, the bridegroom equals Jesus, his delay equals the overdue Second Coming, the wedding equals the Kingdom, the shut door equals the Last Judgment, the wise maidens equal the true believers, the foolish maidens equal the backsliders, and so forth (Matt. 25:1-13).

There are problems with reading parables in this way.  It not only fixes the interpretation of the parable to one meaning, it also fixes the way in which we read the parables.  In time, this method of interpretation was rejected by scholars, and over the course of the 19th century, it became the norm to believe that a parable had one, and only one central point.  That view has held sway pretty much since then.  However, Walter Wink makes the point that parables are meant to point us to something new, and that once we decide that it has only one meaning, we pretty much close the door on the parable speaking to us in the way that parables are intended to speak.  This ‘one point’ view of interpretation is actually just a variant on the fixed allegorizing that it was meant to replace.

The fallacy of the one-point theory should have become manifest the moment it became clear that scholars themselves could not agree on what the one point was — though each was certain that he knew! The fact is that there is no one point of entree into these parables, and no single exit. That is precisely why they are so timeless, so universally potent, so masterful. 

A parable (or simile, allegory, exemplary story or any other figure) stands in an intermediate position between the known and the unknown. Valid interpretation presses through the metaphor to the unknown; … in valid interpretation we feel our way into each symbol in order to sense the surplus of meaning that beckons us beyond ourselves to discover something new. …  Valid interpretation is a listening to what cannot be heard without the parable; 


To hear a parable, then, is to submit oneself to entering its world, to make oneself vulnerable, to know that we do not know at the outset what it means. Parables function much as the Zen koan, or the tales of the dervishes, to tease the mind out of familiar channels and into a more right-brain view of things. Parables have hooks all over them; they can grab each of us in a different way, according to our need.

Are we discouraged about our ministry and its meager results? Then we can identify with the sower and look with new hope toward an unprecedented harvest. Have we unwittingly filled our lives with activities, cares, false loves, which threaten to choke off the ultimate values to which we once so flamingly committed ourselves? We might then see ourselves as thorn-infested soil. Are we just grazing the surface, dabbling in the life of the spirit, half-heartedly dipping into the struggle for a just and humane world? Are we perhaps the rocky soil? Or have we become stupefied by dogma or our own vaunted pride in reason, so that we can hear nothing new? Have our paths become ruts? This is but a skimming of meanings I have heard people find in the puzzling and inexhaustible riddle of the parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-9)

I have found that one very rich way of approaching the parables is through the medium of Godly Play. 
Godly Play teaches children the art of using religious language – parable, sacred story, silence and liturgical action – helping them become more fully aware of the mystery of God’s presence in their lives.

In Godly Play, we ask wondering questions to go deeper into the sacred story or parable.  If we were looking for fixed meanings, there might be a danger of allegorizing the parables, but the Godly Play method itself is a safeguard, as it gently leads us to open our hearts to new things that God might be saying to us.

 So, when telling the Parable of the Sower, we could ask: ” I wonder what makes the good soil good ?” And “I wonder if the rocky (and thorny) ground will always be rocky (thorny) ?”

As I read the parable today, I am thinking about the last few weeks, and praying that what I have learned becomes a part of me, and bears fruit in my life for peace.

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