Proper interpretation of Scripture is absolutely critical for the health of the Christian church. But, as we look at church history, we find that the greatest leaders have not always consistently employed sound interpretative methods. When we look to the church fathers, for example, we marvel at the ways in which they defended the deity of Christ from the Bible. However, we are taken aback by the way in which many of them read the parables of Jesus. Many church fathers used an allegorical method of interpretation whereby they found many layers of meaning in the parables and even said that every specific character in every parable represented some other individual or spiritual trait. The best of the church fathers were restrained in how they used this method, but others drew absurd conclusions based on this hermeneutic (method of interpretation).
Thankfully, our understanding of the parables has matured such that we now recognize that most parables convey one specific point. There are some exceptions, of course. A few parables may teach several points or lessons. The parable of the sower, for example, has at least four points, with each type of soil corresponding to a different way in which the Word of God is received by its hearers (Mark 4:1– 20). But that parable is an unusual case. Most of them emphasize one primary lesson, and the specific details do not usually have an exact correspondence or symbolic relationship to something else.
Take the parable of the unjust judge, also known as the parable of the persistent widow, in Luke 18:1–8. Clearly, the unjust judge does not represent anything beyond himself. He is not a symbol for God, or the devil, or anyone else. Instead, he is a character that Jesus invents in order to develop a comparison that stresses the Lord’s willingness to hear and respond to the prayers of His people. This judge, who in defiance of Deuteronomy 27:19 was not at all concerned to execute justice for widows, finally gives in to the widow’s demands because she refuses to leave him alone until he does. He finally acts justly, not out of a concern to do what is right but simply so that he can have some peace.
If evil judges will act justly in such circumstances, how much more will God, who never tires of hearing the pleas of His people, do what is right? The Lord, who can do no injustice, will move quickly to help when His children cry out to Him (Luke 18:7).