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Chapter five Parable Characters, <BR>Representations of God and People<BR>and Problems of Interpretation

Chapter Five

Parable Characters,
Representations of God and People
and Problems of Interpretation

by Susan Marie Praeder
from The Word in Women’s Worlds, Four Parables
Published in 1988 by Michael Glazier, Inc. Wilmington, Delaware.
Published on our website with the necessary permission

This concluding chapter outlines some areas of study and issues of interpretation pertaining to all four parables as expressions in NT word and of women’s worlds: men and women as parable characters, parable characters as representations of God and people, possible first-century interpretations of the four parables, and problems of interpretation in twentieth-century readings. Most of the parable characters in early Christian literature are men. Women and their worlds are assigned complementary, subordinate, or supplementary roles in the story worlds of the parabolic universe. In terms of their representation of the sexes, the relationships and roles of parable characters provide a noninclusive model for the relationship of God and the people of God. The standard relationship is hierarchical relationship of characters in dominant and subordinate roles. Women were among the first-century interpreters of the four parables. It does not seem that the four parables were told by or for women or that their interpretative responses to the four portrayals of women would have been uniformly the same. Problems of interpretation arising from our study of the four parables provide material for a short reader’s guide to further study of these and other story worlds.

Parable Characters in Early Christian Literature

Early Christian literature attributes some thirty or forty parables to Jesus, and most of the examples of this form of religious discourse occur in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and Thomas.(1) Of the thirty to forty parables in canonical and noncanonical literature, only five portray women and their worlds: Mt 13:33/Lk 13:20-21 /Gos. Thom. 96; Lk 15:8-10; 18:1-8; Mt 25:1-13; and Gos. Thom. 97.(2) The telling of the parable of the leaven in Gos.Thom. 96 comments on the size of the leaven and loaves and is separated from the parable of the mustard seed, its synoptic pair, “Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of the Father is like a woman. She took a little leaven, hid it in wheat flour, and made it into large loaves. Let the one who has ears hear.’ ” (3) Gos. Thom. 97 also likens the kingdom to a woman who is tending to production of bread or food:

Jesus said, “The Kingdom of the [Father] is like a certain woman who was carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking [on] a road, still some distance from home, the handle of the jar broke and the meal emptied out behind her on the road. She did not realize it; she had noticed no accident. When she reached her house, she set the jar down and found it empty..”(4)

Most of the other parables portray the relationships and work worlds of men. For example, there are portrayals of fishermen, merchants, shepherds, and sowers of seeds and relationships of fathers and sons and masters and slave men. One character is in a controlling, ruling, or senior position as father, householder, king, or master, and the other character or group of characters is in a dependent, junior, or serving position as day laborers, slaves, or sons. (5) Only the parable of the judge and the widow and the parable of the ten maidens portray relationships of men and women. Both the widow and the maidens are cast in subordinate roles. The judge is the center of the widow’s story-world existence, and the ten maidens, whether sleeping or waking, exist to meet the bridegroom. There are no portrayals of men and women in relationships of fellowship or partnership, women in dominant roles, or women’s relationships such as mistress and slave woman or mother and daughter.

The synoptic parable of the leaven and the parable of the lost coin are the second parables in sequences of paired parables. The parables set in women’s domestic worlds follow parables set in the men’s worlds of agriculture and animal husbandry. These sequences suggest complementary or supplementary functions for the second parables in the pair. The parables set in women’s worlds fill in or round out the pictures sketched in the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the lost sheep. The first and second positions of the parables are not necessarily signs of the primary and secondary importance of their story worlds. Still the fact remains that no parable featuring a woman’s world occurs alone or as the first parable in a pair. The sequences seem to contribute to preferential treatment of the first parables in modern scholarly readings. The role of sequence in forming the responses of first-century hearers and other twentieth-century readers of the pairs is an open question.(6)

The parables in Gos. Thom 96-97 are the first and second parables in a loosely related sequence of three kingdom parables. All three are similitudes of “the kingdom of the Father,” but there are no striking similarities in structure, theme, or vocabulary apart from the initial comparisons of likeness. The third parable in the sequence portrays a man who commits premeditated murder.(7)

More important than our finding that four NT parables portray women in complementary, subordinate, and supplementary roles is the fact that women and their worlds are not portrayed at all in most of the canonical and non-canonical parables of Jesus. The invisibility of women and their worlds in the parables is no surprise by the standards of ancient literature and society but is bound to disappoint modern readers, men and women, who are looking for precedents for inclusive religious discourse in early Christian literature. Since the issue of inclusion is not limited to representations of men and women, it should also be noted that animals, children, and uncultivated plants are under-represented in the parabolic universe.(8)

Parable Characters as Representations of
the Relationship of God and the People of God

Matthew and Luke understand the parables as illustrations of the relationship of God and the people of God. This shared understanding is apparent from their use of interpretative conclusions and introductions and traditional characters, settings, and terms. In addition, Matthew is fond of kingdom parables and furnishes the parables of the sower and the wheat and tares with special point-by-point interpretations (13:18-23, 36-43; cf. Lk 8:11-15).

The only overt interpretative clue in the parable of the leaven itself is the comparison of likeness involving the kingdom. Matthew’s method of interpreting the parable of the wheat and tares suggests the possibility that the woman bread producer represents the Son of Man. The sower of the wheat, his field, and the good seed receive the interpretative identities of the Son of Man, the world, and “the sons of the kingdom” (13:24, 37-38). The comparisons of likeness in the intervening parables of the mustard seed and leaven are formed around three similar elements: a man, his field, and a mustard seed and a woman, wheat flour, and leaven. If we read these elements from Matthew’s christological and ecclesiological perspective, it would seem that the man and the woman represent the Son of Man, the field and the wheat flour are the world, and the mustard seed and the leaven represent “the sons of the kingdom” or the people of God in the world.(9) Luke’s interpretative scheme for the parables of the mustard seed and leaven is unclear.(10)

The interpretative conclusion in the parable of the lost coin points out that the shared joy of God and the angels is similar to the joy which the woman shares in her party. It is also possible that her losing, seeking, and finding of the coin are supposed to illustrate the relationship of God and repentant sinner. The characterizations of the judge and the widow rework the OT antitype to God the righteous judge and the traditional image of widows as oppressed people of God. The interpretative conclusion relates these characterizations to God and the chose ones. In the closing verses of the parable of the ten maidens, the bridgegroom and the foolish maidens converse as Lord and community. The widow’s persistence is a model for the prayer of the chosen ones, and the fate of the ten maidens serves as a preview of the possible fate of foolish and wise member of the Christian community.

The parabolic form of the four portrayals of their relative infrequency limit their value as representations of God and people as women or in women’s worlds. The illustrative or “is like” story worlds of the parables do not support the assertion that God and the Son of Man are womanlike as a general claim. All that is indicated is that certain situation in women’s worlds are like kingdom situations or salvation historical situations. If wheat flour is the world, then and only then a woman bread producer plays the role of the Son of Man. If a repentant sinner is like a lost coin, then a woman’s losing, searching, finding, and sharing of joy resemble God’s role in relation to sinners.

Simplicity is the rule in portrayals of parable characters; personal traits are limited to one or two items per character.(11) The widow and the ten maidens are portrayed as a persistent or troublesome widow and as foolish and wise maidens. Women as awhole persons are not models for the present and future Christian community, and nothing is revealed about the roles of maidens and widows in the communities of Matthew and Luke.

In the frequent portrayals of men there seem to be some preferences for certain character roles and relationships. The character roles of bridegroom, fisherman, judge, peral merchant, shepherd, and treasurer seeker appear only once in the NT parables, but other character roles and relationships such as householder, king, father and son, master and slave man, rich man, and sower recur several times or more. The infrequent portrals of women, each role appearing only once, do not allow us to form conclusions about preferred or standard portrayals of women. From the surviving parables it seems that the bread producer , domestic searcher, widow, and ten maidens belong to the group of nonstandard character roles. Like the bridegroom, the fisherman, and the rest, they were in on parable but did not occupy prefered places in thecreative imaginations of those who told and retold the parables.

A further limitation is theunderrepresentation of women’s roles , relationships, and worlds in NT times. Complements and supplements to the preferred men’s roles, relationships, and worlds were available in the real world but not selected for representation in the story worlds of the parables: mistress and slave woman, mother and daughter, rich woman, supervisor of domestic chores, and woman ruler. Of the traditional roles of women as daughter, wife, mother , and domestic worker, only the last receives some, albeit very little, attention.

The infrequency and underrepresentation of women in the parables suggest to me that the four portrayals should not be used as precedents or standards for inclusive portrayals of God and people in contemporary religious discourse. Since the four portrayals are limited, precedents and standards must be sought elsewhere. Among the possible sources for such materials are the precedents and standards of contemporary religious experience and expression, NT traditions outside the prables and non-Christian traditions, and imaginative reconstructions of parables telling the untold story of women’s roles, relationships, and worlds in NT times.

Four Parables and Their First-Century Interpreters and Tellers

Several stages of tradition are represented in the parables in Matthew and Luke: the communicative situations and story units of Jesus and his hearers, the tellers and interpreters in the synoptic tradition prior to Matthew and Luke, and Matthew and Luke and their readers. Some parables were told by Jesus and retold in the synoptic tradition. Other parables originated in the synoptic tradition or with Matthew and Luke. In the course of historical-critical study various proposals have been made about the stages of tradition represented in the four parables.

The parable of the leaven is usually understood as a parable told by Jseus and reold in Q, a source of synoptic tradition used by Matthew and Luke. An unresolved question is whether the parables of themustard seed and leaven were always told as a pair.(12) Jesus, Q or Luke’s special source L, or Luke could be responsible for the parable of the lost coin and its position as a the second parable in a paired set.(13) According to redaction critical studies, all three stages of tradition contributed to the parable of the judge and the widow. One solution sees the characterizations of the judge and the widow as a parable of Jesus, the question and answer in the interpretative conclusion as L material from the synoptic tradition, and the introduction and concluding Son of Man saying as materials supplied by Luke.(14) Sometimes it is suggested that the parable was paired with the parable of the friend at midnight in synoptic tradition prior to Luke.(15) As we observed in our study of the parable of the ten maidens, some scholars approach the parable as an allegorised parable of Jesus, and others read it as a pure allegory originating in the Christian community. The story unit retold by Matthew could come from Q or Matthew’s special source M. Although there is no parallel story unit in Luke, the parable is similar to several passages in the third gospel. (16)

Nothing is known about women’s involvement intbe communicative situations of the four parables. During the rist stage of tradition the teller of theprables was a man, and if the traditional identifications “Matthew” and “Luke” are any clue as to the authorship, men were tellers of the parables in the third stage of tradition. Although it is possible that women were among the anonymous and now unknown tellers of parables inthe second stage of tradition, there are no traces of women’s interpretative perspectives in the final form of the four parables. My guess is that the four parables, like most ancient traditional literature about women, are stories about women which were told and retold by men.

Matthew, luke, and other NT texts suggest that women were included in the audiences of the parables told by Jesus, the tellers n the synoptic tradition, and Matthew and Luke. In Matthew and Luke Jesus practices a public ministry; he attracts crowds and encounters men and women. The NT letters portray men and women as participants in the communicative situations of early Christianity. Be this as it may, I tend to doubt that the four parables were told and retold especially or only for women. The parables about women were told and retold for men and women, just as the parables about men were told women and men. Men’s roles, relationships, and worlds were the norm in the parables told and retold to men and women.

As the four parables circulate in the synoptic tradition, the cultural and social profile of the interpreting audiences diversified and shifted. Eventually, the four parables were heard and read by women residing in Palestine and the provinces of the eastern Roman empire and representing peasants, townspeople, and the urban poor and rich. At all stages of the tradition, memebers of a single audience could have been drawn from different classes. For our purposes, the significance of the diverse or shifting audience profile is its suggestion that women’s interpretative responses would have been marked by a corresponding diversity. It seems that their responses to the four portrayals of women, only one part of their interpretations of the parables as whole story units, would have varied within audiences and from audience to audience.(17)

Women who were bread producers would have recognized something of their individual workl roles in the parable of the leaven. It seems worth suggesting that their relationship to their work, negative, positive, or somewhere between the two extremes, would have colored their interpretative responses. Women who were not bread producers might have responded to the portrayal as something more or less only remotely a part of their self-identities or work roles - as a portrayal of a woman carrying out a chore that they or their mothers used to do or that their slaves did for them. As the parable circulated from audience to audience and from community to community, the status and work situaton of the women who recognized their work roles innthe portrayal would have changed; for example, from poor free women in the rural areas to slave women in cities.

Rich or moderately well-to-do women must have had some trouble in trying to see themselves in the question “Or what woman...does not...?” in the parable of the lost coin. The woman’s intensive search for a small sum of money does not seem to represent their domestic worlds. The parable of the judge and the widow is set in a small town where personal communication is still part of the relationship of powerful men and powerless women. The character roles of judge and widow would have been familiar to some women in large cities from their study of the OT, but they would have had few opportunities for similar personal encounters with representatives of the local or regional systems. The parable of the ten maidens would have made sense to women who had participated in wedding processions and parties. They might have remembered the anticipation and excitment of participating in the processionb or used their experience as a means of imagining the disappointment or trauma of exclusion from the party - even though the emotions and thoughts of the foolish and wise madens are not reported in the parable.

In the sum, it seems that the four parables should be classified as parables about women, but not as women’s parables. There is no evidence that they were told and retold by or four women. Various interpretative responses to the four parables would have been forthcoming from women, but responding to portrayals of women occupied only a small portion of their interpretative time. Most of the time they were expected to understand the relationship of God and the people of God by interpreting parables with portrayals of men and their worlds.

Four Parables and Problems of Interpretation

The problems of interpretation facing us as interpreters of the parables of the leaven, lost coin, judge and widow, and ten maidens represent fundamental problems of interpretation. New methods for reading the four parable cannot promise to rid us of problems of interpretation, and new discoveries pertaining to the four parables could not solve the problems for us once and for all. Ambiguities, problems, risks, and uncertainties are a fact of interpretation of the four parables and of interpretation of the other parables in the pages of early Christian literature. Among the problem areas to keep in mind in our further study of the parables are the limited sources for study of ancient texts and contexts, the relation of account and illustration, and our roles as modern interpreters.

As ancient texts, the four parables present us with accounts of women’s worlds which are removed from our experiential worlds by some two thousand years. In order to understand the story qworlds of these parables, we need to form some idea of bread production, coinage, lighting, domestic searching, systems of justice, and wedding processions and parties in ancient times. The sources for studying and understanding these topics are limited in several respeccts. Over-representation and under- representation of certain source materials mean that we never see the total picture behind the selective story worlds. Our reconstruction of women’s worlds are usually limited to the level outlines or overviews. We should be distinguishing women’s worlds according to age, century, class, and region, but the lack of sources often makes it difficult to do so. Women bread producers, domestic slaves and workers, widows, and maidens do not seem to have exercised the controlling or shaping influence of architects, artists, authors, or craftsmen in the production of the surviving sources for their lives. Literary sources usually represent the efforts and perspectives of men of the ruling or upper classes.(18)

NT scholars interpret the four parables in the context of the communicative situations of Jesus, the synoptic tradition, and Matthew and Luke. Our reconstructions of the possible communicative contexts of the four parables are tentative overviews obtained from our reading of these and other texts in Matthew and Luke. The exact circumstances of the tellings and retellings are not available to us from the synoptic gospels or sources outside the gospels. Some scholars interpret the four parables as parables of Jesus, but others tend to doubt that similar story units existed in the first stage of tradition. The parables represent one side of the communicative situations of Matthew or Luke and one voice, a voice speaking from the christological and ecclesiological perspective of the evangelist author. We should not assume that Matthew or Luke speaks for first-century audiences. Other sides and other voices in the communicative situations, such as those of women interpreters, are not included and thus lie outside the limits of our reconstructions. Overviews such as “the delay of the parousia” do not describe the precise community situation of Lk 18:1-8 or the special contribution of Mt 25:1-13 to the apocalyptic discourse. The proposed overviews for the first stage of tradition vary from reading to reading.(19)

As we first observed in our study of Mt 13:33/Lk 13:20-21, there are several interpretative options for linking the accounts in the four parables to their illustrations of the relationship of God and people. It is possible to understand the illustration on the basis of all the elements in the account, some of them, or a separate idea. Outside sources come into play in our assessment of the possible significance of the elements in the account or the illustration. Instead of settling the relation of account and illustration, outside sources offer several lines of interpretation and leave us with the task of sorting irrelevant and relevant comparative materials. In addition, the basis meaning and special significance of certain elements remain unclear. Analysis and interpretation of Lk 15:8-10 and Mt 25:1-13 are assisted by their respective immediate contexts or “inside sources” in the parables chapter in Luke 15 and the apocalyptic discourse in Matthew 24-25.

The persistence of certain proble areas and issues in interpretation of the four parables is not reason for resigning from critical study. They are sufficient reason, however, for rethinking the traditional approaches and expectations of modern scholarly methods of analysis and interpretation. Since no interpretation is free from the personal perspective of the interpreter nor represents all the intepretative possibilities of a text, modern interpreters should be critical of their readings and willing to consider other perspectives, proposed solutions, and styles of analysis and interpretation. The idea that interpretation, must be right or wrong is an inadequate model for the multiple interpretations of the four parables, none of which can be shown to be right or wrong. All interpretations are “right” because they contribute something to the continuing history of interpretation. All interpretations are “wrong” because they represent one moment in the history of interpretation. For the most part, the history of interpretation from the gospels to the present day has been a chronicle of the interpretative perspectives of men who have identified with the Christian tradition and used the standards methods of interpretations of their periods. Modern interpretation is no longer the sole privilege of this select group of men. Instead we are privileged to hear and read the interpretations of men and women representing various perspectives and persuasions. At first hearing or reading, this variety usually seems unsettling. If we are willing to continue hearing or reading, however, it is possible that we will perceive a new vision of the history of interpretation of the four parables and other NT texts, a history of interpretation preserving something of the fullness of the views and voices of the people of God.


1. J. D.Crossan (Sayings Parallels: A Workbook for the Jesus Tradition [Foundations and Facets: NT; Philadelphia: Fortress. 1986]) counts thirty-three parables in early Christian literature. My discussion depends on his collection of 503 sayings units.

2. I count the three versions of the parable of the leaven as one unit.

3. This is my translation of the text in A. Guillaumont, et al.. eds., The Gospel According to Thomas (Leiden: Brill, 1959). For interpretation of the logion, see M. Aldinofi, “Le parabole della rete e del lievieto nel Vangelo di Tommaso,” Studii Biblici Franciscani Liber Annuus 13 (1962-63) 33-52; J.-É. Ménard, L’Évangile selon Thomas (NHS 5; Leiden: Brill, 1975) 196-97; W. Schrage, Das Verhältnis des Thomas-Evangeliums zur synoptischen Tradition. Zugleich ein Beitrag zur gnostischen Synoptikerdeutung (BZNW 29; Berlin: Töpelmann, 1964) 183-85.

4. J. M. Robinson, et al., The Nag Hammadi Library in English (Leiden: Brill, 1977) 12S. The translator is T. O. Lambdin.

5. For the portrayal of parable characters, see W. Harnisch, Die Gleichniserzählungen Jesu. Eine hermeneutische Einführung (Uni-Taschenbücher 1343; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1985) 29-32. As I see it, he underestimates the importance of the portrayals of social unequals. Antithetical pairing and difference in status often appear together or overlap as elements of characterization.

6. It is possible that sequence reinforced and reinforces already-formed preferences for the portrayal of men and their worlds.

7. For interpretation of Gos. Thom. 96-97 or 96-98. see H. E. W. Turner and H. Montefiore, Thomas and the Evangelists (SBT 35; London: SCM, 1962) 70-71; E. Waller, “Leaven,” 103.

8. E.g., Mt 13:47-50/Gos. Thom 8 (fish); Mt 18:10-14 Lk 15:3-7/Gos. Thom. 107 (sheep); Gos. Thom. 21 (children).

9. For the parable of the mustard seed in the christological and ecclcsiological perspectives of the evangelists, see A. Jülicher, Gleichnisreden, 2.576.

10. According to I. H. Marshall (Luke. 508-9, 560), they conclude Lk 12:1- 13:21 (“Readiness for the Coming Crisis”) and serve as a commentary of sorts on the immediately preceding miracle story.

11. For characterization in the parables, see W. Harnisch, Gleichniserzählungen, 32-36.

12. For the pair in the synoptic tradition, see J.A.Fitzyer, Luke 2.1015-16, 1018-19; O.Linton, “Coordinated Says and Parabes on the Synoptic Gospels: Analysis versus Theories, ”NTS 26 (1980) 153-54; I.H.Marshall, Luke, 559-60.

13. For the pair and source critical questions, see J.J.Bartolomé, “Comer en común.” 681-86; J.A.Fitzmyer, Luke, 2.1072-74; J.Jeremias, “Tradition und Redaktion,” 181-85; O.Linton, “Sayings and Parables,” 154-56.

14. E.g., H.Paulsen, “Witwe,” 16-28. For another solution, see D.R.Catchpole, “Search,” 104.

15. A. Julicher, Gleichnisreden, 2.288-89; W.Ott,. Gebet, 71-72; G. Scholz, Gleichnisaussage, 226-29.

16. See chap. 4nn. 30, 41.

17. Since diversity was involved in audience responses to other parables and men’s interpretative responses, we should not view the response of “the community” as one unanimous or uniform response.

18. For problems of historical reconstruction and restructuring of historical study, see B.J.Brooten, “Early Christian Women and their Cultural Context: Issues of Method in Historical Reconstruction”, Feminist Perspectives on Biblical Scholarship (ed. A.Y.Collins; SBL Bibical Scholarship in North America 10; Chico: Scholars, 1985) 65-91.

19. On this last point, see M.A.Tolbert, Perspectives,24-30.

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