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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Spiritualizing of the Parables

SPIRITUALIZING OF THE PARABLES.—‘The legs of the lame,’ says a Hebrew proverb, ‘hang loose; so is a parable in the mouth of fools’ (Proverbs 26:7); but it is possible to err in the opposite direction by pressing a parable too far, and, if the expression may be allowed, riding it to death. Such was the manner of the ancient interpreters, and it has been imitated by not a few in modern times. The error lies in forgetting that a parable is designed to teach one broad lesson, and insisting on discovering some significance in every detail. A glaring instance is Theophilus of Antioch’s exposition, quoted approvingly by St. Jerome,* [Note: ad Algas. Quœst. vi.] of the parable of the Steward (Luke 16:1-12), which inculcates simply the duty of being as shrewd in spiritual matters as men are wont to be in worldly affairs. The rich man, according to Theophilus, is Almighty God; the steward, St. Paul; the debtor who owed 100 baths of oil, the Gentiles, ‘qui magna indigebant misericordia Dei’; the debtor who owed 100 cors of wheat, the Jewish people, ‘which had been nourished by the wheat of God’s commandments.’ Euthymius Zigabenus, whose interpretation of ‘the fatted calf’ (Luke 15:23) as ‘the holy body of Christ’ is saved from being blasphemous only by the good monk’s simple piety, makes out that the rich man is God (τὸν φιλάνθρωπον καὶ ἀνενδεῆ θεόν); the steward, every possessor of riches, such being ‘not lords but stewards’; the steward’s dismissal, death. Some modern interpreters have gone quite as far in extravagance. Schleiermacher makes the rich man represent the Romans, the steward the tax-gatherers, the debtors the Jewish people. According to Olshausen, the rich man is ἄρχων τοῦ κόσμου, while the steward is the man who applies earthly riches to spiritual uses.

Origen’s exposition of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) is a masterpiece of ill-applied ingenuity. The traveller is Adam; Jerusalem is Paradise; Jericho is the world; the robbers are hostile demons; the Priest is the Law; the Levite is the Prophets; the Samaritan is Christ; the wounds are disobedience; the beast is the Lord’s body; the inn is the Church; the two denarii are the Father and the Son (the New and the Old Covenant, says Euthymius Zigabenus); the innkeeper is the Bishop.* [Note: In Luc. Hom. xxxiv. St. Augustine (Quœst. Ev. ii. § 19) gives a similar interpretation, but with still greater luxuriance of fancy.]

The parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) has furnished another fruitful field to spiritualizing interpreters. According to St. Chrysostom the lamps are the grace of virginity (τὸ τῆς παρθενίας χάρισμα); the oil is philanthropy, alms (τὴν φιλανθρωπίαν, τὴν ἐλεημοσύνην); the sellers are the poor, who afford the opportunity for alms-giving; the sleep of the virgins is death; the cry at midnight (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:16) shows that the Resurrection will take place by night. The lesson of the parable is that virginity without philanthropy is darkness. According to Origen and St. Jerome, the five virgins are the five senses. According to the latter, the oil is good works; according to the former, it is teaching, the vessels being the souls of the learners. There is much shrewd sense in Calvin’s caustic remark: ‘Some greatly torment themselves about the lamps, about the vessels, about the oil; but the simple and real gist is that eager zeal for a brief space does not suffice, unless unwearied constancy be added thereto.’ See, further, artt. Parable and Circumstantiality in the Parables.

David Smith.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Spiritualizing of the Parables'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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