Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM
Allegory or Analogy?
Jesus’ manifesto in Luke 4:18-19 says:
THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD.
The beauty of this manifesto is powerfully illustrated in The Parable of The Prodigal Son in Luke 15.
There is something in the prodigal son story that resonates with almost everyone who reads it. In one sense, every sinner who has come to Jesus is a prodigal come home, for every heart is born far from God, and it is only through repentance that we return to that place from which our first parents fled—God is our home.
Interpreting the Prodigal
The Parable of the Prodigal Son has been a powerful witness to Jesus’ mission but has also fallen victim to bad interpretation. Being imagined to possess meaningful applications to life and worship that can be found in the smallest of details, The Parable of the Prodigal Son has been picked over like a chicken carcass. Not infrequently this feeding frenzy is done without regard to the rules of parable telling in Jesus’ own day and in complete obliviousness to the context of its telling.
One of the biggest confusions is that some approach the prodigal son as an allegory while it is, in actuality, an analogy. The difference is monumental.
Now I love a good allegory (I cut my teeth on Pilgrim’s Progress) but if one treats an analogy like the Parable of the Prodigal Son as an allegory even its good things can warp into ugly things. This is because, in an allegory, we treat everything as having meaning. The smallest points suggest to our seeking minds the most significant truths… even if we have to add to the picture to do so.
Luke 4 As Allegory
In an allegorized Prodigal son, specific reference is sought in every detail of the parable. The Father represents the heavenly father, the prodigal represents the sinners and tax-gatherers, and the older brother represents the religious leaders. So far so good. How far should we push the details though?
Should we seek specific meaning in the famine? The pods of the pig slop? The pigs? What about those around the prodigal who “gave him nothing?” What specific meaning should we give to the ring? The robe? The shoes? The fatted calf? Who do the servants represent? Honestly, do we really want to go there? Do we believe Jesus intended us to go there?
More pointedly, if the older son represents the religious leaders of the day, do we really want to suggest that the father’s words to his older son in the parable are point-for-point words of Jesus to the religious leaders? Does Jesus preach to Pharisees, Scribes, and Sadducees, on behalf of the Father, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours”?
If we go with allegory rather than analogy, is the younger son is still out of his inheritance? If all that the father has belongs to the older brother, what remains for the younger brother? “Welcome back, Son, but you are still impoverished.” “Now that the party is over, let’s talk about that new job as a hired hand.”
How much crazier could we get if we began to imagine details drawn from the world of family farms and sought meaning in them? There is no end to the possible mischief we could get up to if we allegorize. I’ve seen it… it gets ugly.
Luke 4 As Analogy
As an analogy, however, one seeks in the prodigal son story a broad situational comparison. The details are present to add commonly recognized realism to the story. In analogy, we learn simple lessons about one thing drawn from general similarities between it and some other common occurrence.
Jesus is dining with those whom the Pharisees have labeled tax collectors and sinners. These are, however, people who have become Jesus’ followers. Do the religious types want to know why he would allow them to become part of His ministry? Jesus answers their question with three connected parables. We might label these three together as—The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and The Lost Son. While there are some vague representations found in the audience (Each person in the audience is supposed to find himself or herself somewhere in the stories) the details must not be pushed too hard. The big picture speaks.
Jesus asks twice, who wouldn’t rejoice if a lost precious thing were found?
The answer is found in the final story, but the details are meant to enhance the main point rather than making independent points of their own. These are analogies NOT all-encompassing allegories.
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