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Contents of Jesus
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
[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.
|| 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!
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
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
|| 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.
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
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.
The occasion when it was originally spoken
| .. The original “frame” no longer survives
.. We are uncertain whether it was originally a Kingdom of God
| .. The “frame” is lost, but the parable
continues to be retold
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
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.
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:
|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
§ 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:
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
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
§ 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
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
July 21, 2003
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