The Parables of Christ
What are the parables of Christ?
Parables were a form of teaching employed by Jesus Christ to communicate spiritual truth primarily to his followers, asrecorded in the New Testament.
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Parables: A Teaching Method
1. The Name "Parables"
Etymologically, the word "parable" ( παραβάλλω , parabállō ) signifies a placing of two or more objects together, usually for the purpose of a comparison. In this widest sense of the term there is practically no difference between parable and simile (see Thayer, Dictionary of New Testament Greek , under the word). This is also what substantially some of Christ's parables amount to, which consist of only one comparison and in a single verse (compare Matthew 13:33 , Matthew 13:44-46 ).
In the more usual and technical sense of the word, "parable" ordinarily signifies an imaginary story, yet one that in its details could have actually transpired, the purpose of the story being to illustrate and inculcate some higher spiritual truth. These features differentiate it from other and similar figurative narratives as also from actual history. The similarity between the last-mentioned and a parable is sometimes so small that exegetes have differed in the interpretation of certain pericopes. A characteristic example of this uncertainty is the story of Dives and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 .
The problem is of a serious nature, as those who regard this as actual history are compelled to interpret each and every statement, including too the close proximity of heaven and hell and the possibility of speaking from one place to the other, while those who regard it as a parable can restrict their interpretation to the features that constitute the substance of the story. It differs again from the fable, in so far as the latter is a story that could not actually have occurred (e.g. Judges 9:8 ff; 2 Kings 14:9 ; Ezekiel 17:2 f). The parable is often described as an extended metaphor. The etymological features of the word, as well as the relation of parables to other and kindred devices of style, are discussed more fully by Ed. Koenig, in HDB , III, 660 ff.
2. Histotical Data and Parables
Although Christ employed the parable as a means of inculcating His message more extensively and more effectively than any other teacher, He did not invent the parable. It was His custom in general to take over from the religious and linguistic world of thought in His own day the materials that He employed to convey the higher and deeper truths of His gospels, giving them a world of meaning they had never before possessed.
Thus, e.g. every petition of the Lord's Prayer can be duplicated in the Jewish liturgies of the times, yet on Christ's lips these petitions have a significance they never had or could have for the Jews. The term "Word" for the second person in the Godhead is an adaptation from the Logos-idea in contemporaneous religious thought, though not specifically of Philo's.
Baptism, regeneration, and kindred expressions of fundamental thoughts in the Christian system, are terms not absolutely new (compare Deutsch, article "Talmud" Literary Remains ) The parable was employed both in the Old Testament and in contemporaneous Jewish literature (compare e.g. 2 Samuel 12:1-4 ; Isaiah 5:1-6 ; Isaiah 28:24-28 , and for details see Koenig's article, loc. cit.). Jewish and other non-Biblical parables are discussed and illustrated by examples in Trench's Notes on the Parables of our Lord , introductory essay, chapter iv: "On Other Parables besides Those in the Scriptures."
3. Christ's Use of Parables:
The one and only teacher of parables in the New Testament is Christ Himself. The Epistles, although they often employ rhetorical allegories and similes, make absolutely no use of the parable, so common in Christ's pedagogical methods. The distribution of these in the Canonical Gospels is unequal, and they are strictly confined to the three Synoptic Gospels.
Mark again has only one peculiar to this book, namely, the Seed Growing in Secret (Mark 4:26 ), and he gives only three others that are found also in Mt and Lk, namely the Sower, the Mustard Seed, and the Wicked Husbandman, so that the bulk of the parables are found in the First and the Third Gospels. Two are common to Matthew and Luke, namely the Leaven (Matthew 13:33 ; Luke 13:21 ) and the Lost Sheep (Matthew 18:12 ; Luke 15:3 ff).
Of the remaining parables, 18 are found only in Luke and 10 only in Mt. Luke's 18 include some of the finest, namely, the Two Debtors, the Good Samaritan, the Friend at Midnight, the Rich Fool, the Watchful Servants, the Barren Fig Tree, the Chief Seats, the Great Supper, the Rash Builder, the Rash King, the Lost Coin, the Lost Son, the Unrighteous Steward, the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Unprofitable Servants, the Unrighteous Judge, the Pharisee and Publican, and the Pounds.
The 10 peculiar to Matthew are the Tares, the Hidden Treasure, the Pearl of Great Price, the Draw Net, the Unmerciful Servant, the Laborers in the Vineyard, the Two Sons, the Marriage of the King's Son, the Ten Virgins, and the Talents. There is some uncertainty as to the exact number of parables we have from Christ, as the Marriage of the King's Son is sometimes regarded as a different recension of the Great Supper, and the Talents of the Pounds. Other numberings are suggested by Trench, Julicher and others.
4. Purpose of Christ in Using Parables
It is evident from such passages as Matthew 13:10 ff (compare Mark 4:10 ; Luke 8:9 ) that Christ did not in the beginning of His career employ the parable as a method of teaching, but introduced it later. This took place evidently during the 2nd year of His public ministry, and is closely connected with the changes which about that time He made in His attitude toward the people in general.
It evidently was Christ's purpose at the outset to win over, if possible, the nation as a whole to His cause and to the gospel; when it appeared that the leaders and the great bulk of the people would not accept Him for what He wanted to be and clung tenaciously to their carnal Messianic ideas and ideals, Christ ceased largely to appeal to the masses, and, by confining His instructions chiefly to His disciples and special friends, saw the necessity of organizing an ecclesiola in ecclesia , which was eventually to develop into the world-conquering church.
One part of this general withdrawal of Christ from a proclamation of His gospel to the whole nation was this change in His method of teaching and the adoption of the parable. On that subject He leaves no doubt, according to Matthew 13:11 ff; Mark 4:12 ; Luke 8:10 . The purpose of the parable is both to reveal and to conceal the truth. It was to serve the first purpose in the case of the disciples, the second in the case of the uncleserving Jews. Psychologically this difference, notwithstanding the acknowledged inferiority in the training and education of the disciples, especially as compared with the scribes and lawyers, is not hard to understand.
A simple-minded Christian, who has some understanding of the truth, can readily understand figurative illustrations of this truth, which would be absolute enigmas even to an educated Hindu or Chinaman. The theological problem involved is more difficult. Yet it is evident that we are not dealing with those who have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, for whom there is no possibility of a return to grace, according to Hebrews 6:4-10 ; Hebrews 10:26 (compare Matthew 12:31 , Matthew 12:32 ; Mark 3:28-30 ), and who accordingly could no longer be influenced by an appeal of the gospel, and we have rather before us those from whom Christ has determined to withdraw the offer of redemption - whether temporarily or definitely and finally, remaining an open question - according to His policy of not casting pearls before the swine.
The proper sense of these passages can be ascertained only when we remember that in Mark 4:12 and Luke 8:10 , the ἵνα , hı́na , need not express purpose, but that this particle is used here to express mere result only, as is clear too from the passage in Matthew 13:13 , where the ὅτι , hóti , is found. The word is to be withheld from these people, so that this preaching would not bring about the ordinary results of conversion and forgiveness of sins. Hence, Christ now adopts a method of teaching that will hide the truth from all those who have not yet been imbued by it, and this new method is that of the parable.
5. Interpretation of the Parables
The principles for the interpretation of the parables, which are all intended primarily and in the first place for the disciples, are furnished by the nature of the parable itself and by Christ's own method of interpreting some of them. The first and foremost thing to be discovered is the scope or the particular spiritual truth which the parable is intended to convey. Just what this scope is may be stated in so many words, as is done, e.g., by the introductory words to that of the Pharisee and the Publican.
Again the scope may be learned from the occasion of the parable, as the question of Peter in Matthew 18:21 gives the scope of the following parable, and the real purpose of the Prodigal Son parable in Luke 15:11 ff is not the story of this young man himself, but is set over against the murmuring of the Pharisees because Christ received publicans and sinners, in Luke 15:1 and Luke 15:2 , to exemplify the all-forgiving love of the Father. Not the Son but the Father is in the foreground in this parable, which fact is also the connecting link between the two parts. Sometimes the scope can be learned only from an examination of the details of the parable itself and then may be all the more uncertain.
A second principle of the interpretation of the parables is that a sharp distinction must be made between what the older interpreters called the body ( corpus ) and the soul ( anima ) of the story; or, to use other expressions, between the shell or bark ( cortex ) and the marrow ( medulla ). Whatever serves only the purpose of the story is the "ornamentation" of the parable, and does not belong to the substance. The former does not call for interpretation or higher spiritual lesson; the latter does.
This distinction between those parts of the parable that are intended to convey spiritual meanings and those which are to be ignored in the interpretation is based on Christ's own interpretation of the so-called parabolae perfectae . Christ Himself, in Matthew 13:18 ff, interprets the parable of the Sower, yet a number of data, such as the fact that there are four, and not more or fewer kinds of land, and others, are discarded in this explanation as without meaning. Again in His interpretation of the Tares among the Wheat in Matthew 13:36 ff, a number of details of the original parable are discarded as meaningless.
Just which details are significant and which are meaningless in a parable is often hard, sometimes impossible to determine, as the history of their exegesis amply shows. In general it can be laid down as a rule, that those features which illustrate the scope of the parable belong to its substance, and those which do not, belong to the ornamentation. But even with this rule there remain many exegetical cruces or difficulties. Certain, too, it is that not all of the details are capable of interpretation.
Some are added of a nature that indeed illustrate the story as a story, but, from the standpoint of Christian morals, are more than objectionable. The Unjust Steward in using his authority to make the bills of the debtors of his master smaller may be a model, in the shrewd use of this world's goods for his purpose, that the Christian may follow in making use of his goods for his purposes, but the action of the steward itself is incapable of defense.
Again, the man who finds in somebody else's property a pearl of great price but conceals this fact from the owner of the land and quietly buys this ground may serve as an example to show how much the kingdom of God is worth, but from an ethical standpoint his action cannot be sanctioned. In general, the parable, like all other forms of figurative expression, has a meaning only as far as the tertium comparationis goes, that is, the third thing which is common to the two things compared.
But all this still leaves a large debatable ground in many parables. In the Laborers in the Vineyard does the "penny" mean anything, or is it an ornament? The history of the debate on this subject is long. In the Prodigal Son do all the details of his sufferings, such as eating the husks intended for swine, have a spiritual meaning?
6. Doctrinal Value of the Parables
The interpreters of former generations laid down the rule, theologia parabolica non eat argumentativa , i.e. the parables, very rich in mission thoughts, do not furnish a basis for doctrinal argument. Like all figurative expressions and forms of thought, the parables too contain elements of doubt as far as their interpretation is concerned. They illustrate truth but they do not prove or demonstrate truth. Omnia similia claudicunt , "all comparisons limp," is applicable here also.
No point of doctrine can be established on figurative passages of Scripture, as then all elements of doubt would not be eliminated, this doubt being based on the nature of language itself. The argumentative or doctrinal value of parables is found in this, that they may, in accordance with the analogy of Scripture, illustrate truth already clearly expressed elsewhere.
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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain (with minor edits).