The range of meaning of the term "parable" (Gk. parabole [parabolhv]) in the New Testament closely parallels that of the Hebrew masal [l;v'm] in the Old Testament and related Hebrew literature. As well as referring to narrative parables, the term identifies similitudes ( Matt 13:33 ; B. Pes. 49a), allegories ( Ezek 17:2 ; 24:3 ; Matthew 13:18 Matthew 13:24 Matthew 13:36 ), proverbs ( Proverbs 1:1 Proverbs 1:6 ; Mark 3:23 ), riddles ( Psalm 78:2 ; Mark 7:17 ), and symbols or types ( Heb 9:9 ; B. Sanh. 92b ). "Parable" is a general term for a figurative saying.
The conceptual background for the concept of parable in the New Testament was Semitic, not Aristotelian Greek. This single insight could have saved the history of interpretation of the parables of Jesus from several key misconceptions. From Jülicher on, based on the Aristotelian Greek idea of parable as "pure comparison" conveying only a single point, there has been a significant school of interpretation that has regarded all allegorical traits as foreign to the parables of Jesus and has insisted that each parable has only one point. This narrow definition of parable has led interpreters to regard the allegorical interpretations of parables in the Gospels (e.g., Mark 4:14-20 ) as later misinterpretations, even though the earliest written gospels have the highest percentage of allegorical elements, and the latest, the Gospel of Thomas, has the least. It has also led to a seemingly endless series of variations of exactly just what was the "one point" of each parable. A study of the many interpretations shows a wide range of views of just what that one point must have been. For many parables, such as the prodigal son, limiting the interpretation to "one point" has proved to be a procrustean bed.
Nathan's parable of the ewe lamb in 2 Samuel 12:1-4 foreshadows in several respects many of Jesus' parables. The story of the rich man who slew a poor man's beloved pet lamb caused David to judge the rich man worthy of death. Nathan's "You are the man!" struck David to the quick precisely because he recognized the parallels between his actions and the rich man's, between Uriah and the poor man, and between Uriah's wife and the ewe lamb. This is reinforced with specific imagery ("It shared his food, drank from his cup, and even slept in his arms") that could be applied just as well to Uriah's wife. Similarly, many of Jesus' parables elicit a judgment that invites repentance, such as the good Samaritan. His parables lead us to a new way of seeing life and invite us to adopt a whole new perspective that changes how we live.
The parable of the vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-6 is immediately interpreted in verse 7 with explicit allegorical identifications: "The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight." Thus, the allegorical interpretations of Jesus' parables in the Gospels follow the pattern in the Old Testament, a pattern that is abundantly exemplified in rabbinic literature as well.
Jesus' narrative parables are probably best understood as extended metaphors. The story (the image) is a window through which a larger reality (the referent) is depicted. Understanding the message of a parable is more than identifying its "point, " though many parables do have a focal point that is reinforced by the parable as a whole. Thus, it is crucial both to understand the story as it would have been understood by Jesus' original hearers, and to understand the referent, the wider reality about which it gives insight. Typically the referent is some aspect of the kingdom of God, the reign of God in people's hearts, or the realm of God's sovereignty. In order to let the parable have its full impact, we need to see the referent in a new way through the parable story.
To understand a parable we first need to listen to the story. We need to appreciate how its various details support the focus of the whole. For instance, the words describing the fate of each of the seeds that did not bear fruitdevoured, scorched, chokedhave terrifying overtones. This is a story about the reception of seed in various soils. The three examples of multiplied fruitfulness balance the former three examples of fruitlessness. By their concluding position the multiplied fruitfulness of the good soil offers hope in contrast to the devastation where the Word does not take root. The interpretation in each of the Synoptics fits the story perfectly: a person's destiny depends on his or her response to the Word. It both offers hope and warns of devastation to those who will not accept the message. Such a combination of cursing and blessing seems to have been typical of Jesus' contrast parables: eschatological blessing for those who respond properly to God's invitation, but cursing for those who do not.
Of Jesus' fifty-two recorded narrative parables, twenty seem to depict him in imagery that in the Old Testament metaphorical use typically referred to God. The frequency with which this occurs indicates that Jesus regularly depicted himself in images that were particularly appropriate for depicting God. Such self-portrayal appears to be unique to Jesus. In the vast corpus of rabbinic parables there seems to be none in which a rabbi depicted himself. This distinctiveness, like the distinctive artistry of Jesus' parables, is further evidence that the parables recorded in the Gospels are authentic to Jesus.
The imagery that Jesus used to depict himself is an integral and often necessary part of the parables in which they occur. For instance, take the "father" out of the prodigal son, the "bridegroom" out of the bridegroom, the "shepherd" out of the lost sheep, or the "rock" out of the two houses and the parable disintegrates. Furthermore, these symbols for God applied by Jesus to himself in the parables are not interpreted in the Gospels as divine claims. In light of these factors, we can be confident that they were not later, theologically motivated insertions.
The argument implicit in many of these parables depends on the hearer's making an association that equates Jesus' act with God's act. Jesus implicitly claimed to be performing the work of God: as the sower, sowing the kingdom and implanting his word in people; as the director of the harvest, assuming God's role as judge in the endtimes; as the rock, providing the only secure foundation; as the shepherd, seeking out his lost sheep and leading his own; as the bridegroom in the wedding feast of the kingdom, where fasting is unthinkable; as the father, welcoming repentant sinners into the kingdom and calling his children into his service; as the giver of forgiveness, even to grievous sinners; as the vineyard owner, graciously giving undeserved favor; as the lord, who has final authority over his servants, who calls them into responsible participation in the kingdom, and who will ultimately determine the destiny of each of them, depending on their response to his lordship; and as the king, who has authority to allow or refuse entry into the kingdom, and to increase the responsibility of people who develop his resources, or to take away those resources from people who fail to develop them.
Not only do these parables depict Jesus as performing the work of God; they implicitly apply various titles of God to Jesus: the Sower, the Rock, the Shepherd, the Bridegroom, the Father, the Lord, and the King. Each of these parables adds to the overall impression that Jesus implicitly claimed to be God. Most parable studies that deal with the sort of implicit claim Jesus was making through the parables assume that it is a messianic claim, but most of this imagery was not used in the Old Testament to depict the Messiah. Even those symbols that were occasionally also used of the Messiah in the Old Testament (shepherd, king, stone) in Jesus' parables refer more naturally to God.
However, could Jesus' use of these symbols for God mean simply that he saw himself, as all of the prophets did, as doing God's work and speaking God's word? A few of these parables, like the two houses and the two sons, with their particular focus on obedience to Jesus' word, could be interpreted in this way. But three points support the view that Jesus was in fact presenting himself as God:
This is of vital relevance to the current debate on the deity of Jesus. Did he really understand himself to be deity? Here in the parables, the most assuredly authentic of all the traditions about Jesus, is a clear, implicit affirmation of Jesus' self-understanding as deity. His sense of identification with God was so deep that to depict himself he consistently gravitated to imagery and symbols that in the Old Testament depicted God.
Jesus' parables depict many aspects of the kingdom of God. God's reign requires total devotion to him and a life exemplifying repentance, trust, love, and obedience. The forgiving quality of God's love and his merciful invitation to the kingdom inspire trust, the rejection of prejudice, and love for our neighbors.
Philip Barton Payne
Bibliography. K. Bailey, Poet and Peasant; idem, Through Peasant Eyes; C. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables; C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom; J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus; P. B. Payne, Trinity J2 ns (1981):3-23; R. H. Stein, An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus; D. Wenham, The Parables of Jesus.
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(Gr. parabole), a placing beside; a comparison; equivalent to the Heb. mashal, a similitude. In the Old Testament this is used to denote (1) a proverb ( 1 Samuel 10:12 ; 24:13 ; 2 Chr 7:20 ), (2) a prophetic utterance ( Numbers 23:7 ; Ezekiel 20:49 ), (3) an enigmatic saying ( Psalms 78:2 ; Proverbs 1:6 ). In the New Testament, (1) a proverb ( Mark 7:17 ; Luke 4:23 ), (2) a typical emblem ( Hebrews 9:9 ; 11:19 ), (3) a similitude or allegory ( Matthew 15:15 ; 24:32 ; Mark 3:23 ; Luke 5:36 ; 14:7 ); (4) ordinarily, in a more restricted sense, a comparison of earthly with heavenly things, "an earthly story with a heavenly meaning," as in the parables of our Lord.
Instruction by parables has been in use from the earliest times. A large portion of our Lord's public teaching consisted of parables. He himself explains his reasons for this in his answer to the inquiry of the disciples, "Why speakest thou to them in parables?" ( Matthew 13:13-15 ; Mark 4:11 Mark 4:12 ; Luke 8:9 Luke 8:10 ). He followed in so doing the rule of the divine procedures, as recorded in Matthew 13:13 .
The parables uttered by our Lord are all recorded in the synoptical (i.e., the first three) Gospels. The fourth Gospel contains no parable properly so called, although the illustration of the good shepherd ( John 10:1-16 ) has all the essential features of a parable. (See List of Parables in Appendix.)
An utterance that involves a comparison.
And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his PARABLES, they perceived that he spake of them. ( Matthew 21:45 )
(The word parable is in Greek parable (parabole ) which signifies placing beside or together, a comparison, a parable is therefore literally a placing beside, a comparison, a similitude, an illustration of one subject by another. --McClintock and Strong. As used in the New Testament it had a very wide application, being applied sometimes to the shortest proverbs, ( 1 Samuel 10:12 ; 24:13 ; 2 Chronicles 7:20 ) sometimes to dark prophetic utterances, ( Numbers 23:7 Numbers 23:18 ; 24:3 ; Ezekiel 20:49 ) sometimes to enigmatic maxims, ( Psalms 78:2 ; Proverbs 1:6 ) or metaphors expanded into a narrative. ( Ezekiel 12:22 ) In the New Testament itself the word is used with a like latitude in ( Matthew 24:32 ; Luke 4:23 ; Hebrews 9:9 ) It was often used in a more restricted sense to denote a short narrative under which some important truth is veiled. Of this sort were the parables of Christ. The parable differs from the fable (1) in excluding brute and inanimate creatures passing out of the laws of their nature and speaking or acting like men; (2) in its higher ethical significance. It differs from the allegory in that the latter, with its direct personification of ideas or attributes, and the names which designate them, involves really no comparison. The virtues and vices of mankind appear as in a drama, in their own character and costume. The allegory is self-interpreting; the parable demands attention, insight, sometimes an actual explanation. It differs from a proverb in that it must include a similitude of some kind, while the proverb may assert, without a similitude, some wide generalization of experience.--ED.) For some months Jesus taught in the synagogues and on the seashore of Galilee as he had before taught in Jerusalem, and as yet without a parable. But then there came a change. The direct teaching was met with scorn unbelief hardness, and he seemed for a time to abandon it for that which took the form of parables. The worth of parables as instruments of teaching lies in their being at once a test of character and in their presenting each form of character with that which, as a penalty or blessing, is adapted to it. They withdraw the light from those who love darkness. They protect the truth which they enshrine from the mockery of the scoffer. They leave something even with the careless which may be interpreted and understood afterward. They reveal on the other hand, the seekers after truth. These ask the meaning of the parable, and will not rest until the teacher has explained it. In this way the parable did work, found out the fit hearers and led them on. In most of the parables it is possible to trace something like an order.
2. Historical Data
3. Christ's Use of Parables.
4. Purpose of Christ in Using Parables
5. Interpretation of the Parables
6. Doctrinal Value of the Parables
Etymologically the word "parable" (paraballo) 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 13:33,44-46). 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; 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.
2. Histotical Data:
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; 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). 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 (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; 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; 10:26 (compare Matthew 12:31,32; 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 hina, 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 hoti, 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 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 15:1 and 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, 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, 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 aimilia 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. Compare especially Trench, introductory essay, in Notes on the Parables of our Lord, chapter iii., 30-43; and Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, Part II, chapter vi:
"Interpretation of Parables," 188-213, in which work a full bibliography is given. Compare also the article "Parabel" in Hauck-Herzog, Realencyklopadie fur protestantische Theologie und Kirche.
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