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The teaching of Jesus in the synoptic gospels has come down to us in various forms, including proverbs, parables, and poetry (poetry, not as some might expect, in our meter or rhyme, but in the style of Hebrew poetry, the chief characteristic of which is parallelism)—yes, and prose, too. In the case of his teaching, the medium, especially parables, has become as well known as the message. 
     

Types of Parables

In spite of the popular notion of parables as stories, the parables in the gospels are quite varied, including similitudes, some of which are quite extended, but with no story line; narrative parables, with a story line; and example stories. With the exception which will be noted, parables have in common the quality of comparison, or, as the etymology of the term suggests, placing two areas of life together to observe their similarity. 

A parable is told for the illumination of an idea, or for persuasion. For its success, it depends upon realism, which in the case of the parables of Jesus is so well achieved that they are actually a way of reconstructing what first century life was like. The success of a parable depends upon its being able to illustrate or enforce a single point. Regrettably, parable interpretation has often struggled under the illusion that its task is to torture as many meanings out of a parable as possible, thus defeating and distorting its original purpose. 

     Similes. The simile is a form of figurative speech which expresses a comparison, usually employing as or like (in contrast to a metaphor which expresses the comparison as an equivalent, without as or like). A simile is protoparabolic in the sense that it is the stuff from which parables are made. Examples are found in the Jewish Bible and in the gospels. 

Hosea 5:14  For I will be like a lion to Ephraim, and like a young lion to the house of Judah. I myself will tear and go away; I will carry off, and no one shall rescue, [says the Lord].
   [As a metaphor: “I will be a lion to Ephraim . . . .”]

Hosea 6:4  What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early.

Luke 13:34 || Matthew 23:37  Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  

     Similitudes. The similitude is a somewhat developed form of the simile, in which a simple comparison is made. We find no narrative.

Mark 4:30-32  30. . . With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.

Matthew 13:33  . . . The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.

     Extended Comparisons. A number of the gospel parables are more elaborate similitudes, but still with no narrative. The parable of the Sower in Mark 4:1-9 || Matthew 13:1-9 || Luke 8:4-8 is an example of this type. The seed sown on the pathway is eaten by birds; that sown on rocky ground withers in the scorching sun; and that sown among thorns is choked without any yield. But the seed sown in the good soil is productive, increasing thirty-, sixty-, and a hundred-fold.

     Narrative Parables. These of course have a modest plot, with an element of conflict, leading to a resolution. The Vineyard Workers, in Matthew 20:1-16, describes the moral dilemma posed when the owner pays all the workers the same wage, whether they have worked twelve hours, or nine or six or three hours, or even only one hour. Is there a rule against paying the one who worked only one hour the same wage as the one who worked all day in the heat? We find other plots in the parable of the Two Sons in Luke 15:11-32, one of whom is a spendthrift, the other, loyal and hardworking, but peevish; in the parable of the Rich Man Tearing Down the Old Barn (Luke 12:13-21), with its rich irony; and in others.

     Example stories are a special case, in that, paradoxically, there is no comparison to be made, but only an example of conduct to be emulated or avoided. The familiar parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is of this type, as is the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14), with its surprise ending, when it is the penitent tax collector who goes down to his house justified. 
     

Problems in the Interpretation of Parables

Some of the parables of Jesus which have come down in the synoptic tradition are luminous and pointed, as well as being unforgettable. Others are troublesome for the interpreter, a fact which seems counter-intuitive, since a parable is supposed to facilitate understanding, not frustrate it. We will address some of these problem parables below, but it is useful to remind ourselves of why we do encounter such difficulties.

How We Got Our Parables

Would that each of the parables could tell its story, how it originated, how it got orphaned by separation from its frame, how it was passed from one foster parent to another, how it found a home which did not look like the home where it was born at all, and how it sometimes spoke in muted voice because it was among strangers.

Or perhaps it is like a fine painting which was taken out of its frame, viewed in strange places in which it had never been seen before, was damaged or touched up, and finally was framed in a way that did not show it off to best advantage.

We can use the following model to show what may have happened to any particular parable from the time when it was first spoken, until it found a place in one of the gospels.


THE MYSTERIOUSLY GROWING SEED  

Mark 4:26-29  26The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.

The parable is fairly straightforward: the farmer sows seed, which grows in ways he does not understand; but at its maturity he harvests the crop.

 
Stage 1

The occasion when it was originally spoken

  .. The original “frame” no longer survives

  .. We are uncertain whether it was originally a Kingdom of God parable

Stage 2

Oral Transmission

  .. The “frame” is lost, but the parable continues to be retold
Stage 3

Inclusion in a gospel

  .. The parable is placed by Mark in a group of parables, in what we now call a parable chapter (Mark 4) and becomes a Kingdom of God parable, though it is not clear what the similarity to the kingdom is

  .. The parable is not used by Matthew and Luke

There is not much we can detect that has happened to the parable in transmission. As noted, we can not be certain what its similarity to the kingdom is, and it is possible that the connection with the kingdom is a later development. We wish we knew how this farmer’s portrait was originally framed, but as it now stands it is exhibited together with two other parables of growth in Mark 4. We remain uncertain about the point of the parable: is it the gradual growth of the seed? its hidden germination and growth? its inevitable coming to maturity? or the decisive action required at harvest?

Things are not quite so simple in the interpretation of other parables; click on Manager, for a discussion of the notoriously difficult parable of the Corrupt Manager, in Luke 16:1-13.
     

Allegories?

Confused? Abused? Such is the relationship between the parable and its cousin, the allegory. Each enjoys its own identity, each has a function, and each deserves respect. But parables have sometimes been treated as allegories, with details having their own allegorical interpretations, and thus the main point of the parable has often become obscured. This abuse of parables is no longer as fashionable as it once was. Allegories have had their notable creators: the allegory of the Eagle, in Ezekiel 17; and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

Parables and allegories do have something in common, their use of comparison. But their differences are considerable, as shown in this table:

Parable

Allegory

An expansion of the simile A series of metaphors
Generally, a single point of comparison Many points of comparison
Realistic, true to life Typically unrealistic, even surreal
Useful for argument, challenge, persuasion

    

Useful for figurative, picturesque portrayal, especially of ideas already accepted, but not for persuasion

Allegorical material in the synoptic gospels is of two types: two narratives which are allegories, and two allegorical interpretations of already existing parables.

Allegories

   §  The Allegory of the Vineyard (Mark 12:1-11 || Matthew 21:33-43 || Luke 20:9-18). The narrative begins innocently enough with a vineyard being rented to tenants, and the owner departing to another country. In due course he sends a servant to collect the rent, in kind, but he is beaten and sent away empty-handed. Another is sent, who is wounded in the head and treated shamefully. [At this point we begin to suspect that details are beginning to slip in which are not true to life.] Yet another is sent, and he is killed. [More unrealistic details.] Many others are sent, some beaten, and some killed. [Serious problems of realism: how many servants are expendable?] Finally, he sends a beloved son. [His son, expendable, too? In real life, this would be an inexcusably risky move for a father to take.] The tenants plot: if they kill him, they will inherit the vineyard. [A fanciful notion.] They kill the son, and throw his body out of the vineyard. [An unnecessarily provocative gesture.]  Belatedly, the owner realizes [!] that there is a problem, and he (single-handedly?) destroys the tenants. [Well, maybe they deserved it, but where is the gendarme?

If the narrative when viewed as a parable labors under a burden of implausibility, it is brilliant as an allegory, with its lively depictions of God’s relationships to Israel: 

   •  The owner of the vineyard = God
   •  The vineyard = Israel
   •  The tenants = the Jewish establishment
   •  The sending of servants = God sending his prophets, who are abused and killed by the establishment
   •  The beloved son = Jesus (echoes of Mark 1:11; 9:7), who is killed by the establishment 
   •  The destruction of the tenants = the destruction of Jerusalem, 70 C.E.
   •  The vineyard given into the care of others = the church, as the new Israel

As an allegory, this story does not seek to persuade the Jewish leaders, but in a vivid, dramatic fashion simply announces their condemnation. Not surprisingly, they respond with an attempt to arrest Jesus. (We are not here trying to settle the question of authenticity, concerning which one may reasonably have some doubts.)

It may be confusing to readers that the material we have identified here as an allegory is called a parable in all three gospels (Mark 12:1 and parallels). In Judaic usage there was not a separate word for allegory; instead, the Hebrew mashal was used to refer to parables, proverbs, and allegories alike.

     

   §  The Allegory of the King’s Marriage Feast (Matthew 22:1-14; compare Luke 14:16-24). From a comparison of this narrative with the corresponding parable in Luke (All Kinds of People Invited to the Great Banquet), we may conclude that Matthew has transformed what was originally a parable of Jesus into an allegory. The implausible details of the story, and the Matthean features which emerge from the “moral of the story,” are described in the connecting link, Marriage Feast.

     

Allegorical Interpretations

   §  The Allegorical Interpretation of the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:13-20 || Matthew 13:18-23 || Luke 8:11-15). The parable of the Sower, as it stands in Mark 4:3-8 ( || Matthew 13:3-8 || Luke 8:5-8), is a perfectly realistic representation of the farmer’s work, its failures but especially its successes. In spite of setbacks, the work of Jesus and his disciples will prosper.

To this parable an interpretation has been added which renders allegorically the assortment of agricultural failures. The seed sown on the path represents Satan’s influence; that sown on rocky soil represents persecution, which causes some to fall away; and that sown among thorns stands for worldly cares and riches which discourage religious growth. Curiously, this allegorical interpretation ignores the main point of the parable, the farmer’s success, which goes uninterpreted. While it is not inconceivable that Jesus himself added the interpretation, it is early Christian teachers who are more likely to have reflected allegorically upon the problems of nurturing and sustaining new converts; and from these teachers the interpretation would have passed into the synoptic tradition, along with the parable.
     

   §  The Allegorical Interpretation of the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). However we assess the parable itself, which probably circulated in the tradition without its original “frame,” the interpretation is neatly worked out in allegorical terms, giving evidence of the literary activity of the author. Click on Wheat and Weeds.

     

Revised July 21, 2003

 

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