It has been said that two things are known about Jesus, absolutely beyond historical doubt, whether you’re a Christian or not: that he was crucified in the first century AD, and that he taught in parables. Jesus’ use of parables was a defining and distinctive feature of his teaching ministry. We find Jesus’ parables in the so-called Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke); but, in the strictest sense of the term, there are none in the Gospel of John. Sometimes, the same parables are found in all three Synoptic Gospels, others occur only in two of them, and some parables are unique to a particular Gospel. Some dearly-loved parables which are unique to Luke include the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), and the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
What is a Parable?
Most of us only know the word “parable” from the Gospels… what actually is a parable? It comes from the Greek word, parabole (para – beside; bole – to throw or cast), literally meaning “to throw or cast beside” – or, to draw a comparison between two things.
Importantly, Jesus’ parables are largely concerned with the incoming kingdom of God. So, his parables might be defined as a figure of speech in which a comparison is drawn between the kingdom of God (its realities and expectations), and familiar, earthly realities or stories. Jesus uses parables to communicate realities about the kingdom of God.
Much could be said about the parables, but two key elements are especially helpful to notice.
Firstly, the “earthly side” of the comparison Jesus draws is almost always based on the experiences and features of the common, ordinary, everyday life of his listeners. Jesus lived in ancient Israel, a predominantly agricultural society – so, many of his parables are stories or illustrations about farming, fishing, shepherding, weeds, trees, and growth. He also tells many parables centred around household life (bread-baking and yeast, sweeping, saving and investing money), relational life together within the family, work situations, and broader society, and other familiar settings. Jesus’ parables were firmly grounded in the everyday realities of his listeners’ lives.
Secondly, Jesus’ parables frequently subverted his listeners’ expectations of God’s kingdom. The Jewish people who heard Jesus’ parables had particular ideas and expectations of what God’s kingdom would be like. Ideas and expectations which, whilst usually grounded in some way in an interpretation of the Old Testament, were starkly out of step with the kingdom Jesus was establishing, and its shape, virtues, and realities. So, in his parables, Jesus provocatively, perceptively and persuasively subverted their expectations; questioning their assumptions, and painting a powerful alternative picture of the kingdom which God himself was unstoppably bringing to bear upon a broken and waiting world.
Why Did Jesus Speak in Parables?
So, are parables just illustrations? Is Jesus just being a good teacher, and putting profound heavenly realities into simple, understandable analogies and stories which we human, earth-bound creatures can understand? Well… yes and no.
Yes, Jesus is a good teacher.
A truly Good Teacher. One who knows and loves, and would even die for, his students; and knows what they need. And yes, at one level, the parables do function to compare kingdom realities with familiar earthly realities, particularly suited to his specific audience, so that they might hear, and understand. What a beautiful thing. As we behold and hear the parables upon Jesus’ lips in the Gospel of Luke, we perhaps catch a deeper glimpse of his incarnation. The eternal Son of God didn’t only leave his place in heaven to enter our broken world and take on human flesh: in his life, he truly entered into the experiences and lives of these ordinary Jewish folk, even communicating the earth-shatteringly, incomprehensibly glorious realities of the kingdom of God, not in fancy, inaccessible philosophical categories, but in earthy, familiar, agricultural, social terms. In stories, and brief, pithy, imaginative illustrations, such that massive crowds of people were drawn in to hear him. In this, we see the heart of our God – who has come all the way to us – at work, as Jesus spoke his parables.
But, on another level, Jesus’ intention in using parables is not just that his listeners would understand… he also uses them so that people would not understand.
There is a deep sense of mystery and paradox in Jesus’ use of parables. Jesus himself says that he speaks in parables so that those to whom God has granted it would understand, but also so that others would hear and not understand.
And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’” (Luke 8:9-10. See also Isaiah 6:9-10, quoted here by Jesus).
Jesus’ parables are both to reveal, and to conceal. His parables are designed to reveal the kingdom, and give understanding to those who would come to him in faith, belief, and a desire to understand. Yet, for those who come with scepticism, ambivalence, resistance, and unbelief, his parables yet further conceal the kingdom from them. Understanding is not given to those who will not hear, and the hard hearts of those who do not accept Jesus are hardened even further. The parables thus serve a sobering function: separating all people into only two groups – those who believe in Jesus Christ, and have been given a place in God’s kingdom; and those who remain eternally outside in their unbelief.
What part do the parables play in Luke’s unique portrayal of Jesus?
In one sense, the four Gospels all tell the same story – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the long-promised Messiah. Yet, each author has their unique way of telling the story, with particular emphases, and ways of structuring and re-telling the events which took place. What is significant about Luke’s recounting of Jesus’ parables?
In Luke’s Gospel, the parables usually flow from, and are related to, the particular ministry of Jesus which immediately precedes them – a miracle, a conflict, or his wider teaching about the kingdom of God. This placement of the parables means that we find in them a double layer of meaning: the first being the meaning of the parable itself as a powerful, subversive, standalone saying of Jesus, the second being the interpretive meaning that the parable injects into the preceding incident or teaching.
For example, the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32 is a beautiful and profound story on its own, which powerfully shows us what God the Father is like in his inexhaustible grace, kindness, and relentless love, and challenges us to see ourselves in the prodigal son, and/or the older brother. But it also, critically, is told in the immediate context of conflict with the Pharisees, who are criticising Jesus for eating with sinners (Luke 15:1-2). This context is important, for suddenly the parable doesn’t only teach fundamental truths about the character of God, and of sinful human beings in their selfishness and bitterness, but also interprets the events which are unfolding in Jesus’ ministry. It invites us to see the Pharisees as the resentful and short-sighted older brother, and to turn our gaze towards Jesus… wondering if perhaps he could be the older brother, replacing Israel’s current leadership, and bringing in a whole new way in salvation history – the true, loving, sacrificial older brother that the Jewish people, and the whole world, needs. One who welcomes sinners, and shares his Father’s heart. (See Tim Keller’s book, The Prodigal God for an extended gospel reflection on this parable.)
How Do We Interpret the Parables?
A big question, which has been debated across the centuries, is how to actually read and interpret the parables of Jesus. As we’ve already seen, the parables are not without paradox and mystery, and the question of their interpretation has by no means enjoyed a simple answer.
A very brief history:
For many centuries, allegorical interpretation of the parables took precedence – in which virtually every detail of the parable in question was assigned a symbolic meaning. Such interpretations were often very creative and sincere, but could also stray far from the intended meaning of Jesus’ teaching in the Biblical context, and far from anything his original audience could have understood or even imagined. (Augustine’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable is a famous example). However, this all changed at the beginning of the 20th century, with Adolf Julicher’s argument that the parables should not be interpreted allegorically, but rather, as teaching one key lesson, with other details simply there to support that key point. More recently, something of a “middle position” has been suggested by scholars such as Craig Blomberg, namely, that a limited allegorical, or symbolic, interpretation (i.e. where something in the parable represents, or is a symbol for, something else) is actually suitable for many parables, and that they aren’t all necessarily limited to only one key lesson. This fits with the symbolic interpretations that Jesus himself provides for a few of his own parables, most notably, for the parable of the sower (Luke 8:4-15); and also the parable of the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). Blomberg also suggests that often, several lessons might be present, especially in the longer parables – with a key point associated with each main character or point of reference in the story. The parable of the prodigal son (as discussed above) is a good example of this – with lessons drawn from each of the father, the prodigal, and the older brother; teaching listeners about the character of God, his relationship towards sinners, and what the right response of the older brother should have been, respectively.
Whilst Blomberg’s suggestions seem helpful, and consistent with Jesus’ own interpretations, interpretation of the parables is still a debated topic. But perhaps this brief history most importantly should remind us that Jesus’ parables are there to be wondered about, wrestled with, and prayed about – just as the disciples wondered, wrestled, and asked Jesus for help in understanding. They might be simple stories, but their meaning is deep, profound, and tied up with the whole sweep of salvation history, which centres upon Jesus himself. We ought not assume that their meaning will come quickly and easily, but rather, with humility, meditation, desire, effort – and ultimately, the Spirit’s help.
Finally, and importantly, as readers and listeners to Luke’s Gospel, we are not only called to interpret and understand Jesus’ parables rightly, but also to respond rightly. Jesus’ parables demand a response. Will you, like many in the crowds, listen and be entertained, but ultimately walk away unchanged? Will you, like the Pharisees, respond with resistance and unbelief to Jesus and his kingdom, which comes not with victory but surrender, in which the last will be first, and the first last, and the marks of which are humility, faith, and death to self? Or will you, like the disciples, draw closer to Jesus, praying for help, understanding, and clarification, respond with faith (even if imperfectly), knowing that no one else has words of eternal life (John 6:68)?
How are you responding to Jesus’ words in his parables? We enjoy a blessed privilege that even the listening disciples (who, despite their belief, would ultimately abandon their master in fear and faithlessness at his darkest hour) didn’t have. We know Jesus died and rose. We know that the parables of the kingdom of God are all speaking of Jesus-centred realities, and that he gives us life, faith, and ears to hear, even when we are faithless and ignorant. As those saved by his blood, his parables invite us to read, understand, and wrestle with them in the light of that hope – and seek with our whole hearts to respond rightly, with faith, joy, and obedience, by his power at work in us.
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