UNDERSTANDING THE PARABLES

1.      Extensiveness of Parables: How often did Jesus use parables?

·         It has been estimated that roughly one-third of the recorded teaching of Jesus consists of parables and parabolic statements (such as “you are the light of the world”), totalling some 40 of the former and 20 of the latter. (Lk 4:34; Matthew 13:34-35)

2.      Definition of the Term: What is the meaning of “parable”?

a.   Defintions

·         The Greek word parabole means “a placing beside”. The parable is therefore a comparison or an illustration.

·         real life stories to relate a spiritual truth

·         a story drawn from everyday life to convey a moral or religious truth; it is designed to convey essentially a single truth rather than a complex of truths.

b.   Uses in ancient writing and by Jesus

·         In ancient writing, such as Homer and the OT, the use of figurative speech was widespread in giving concrete, pictorial and challenging expression to religious ideas for which there were no corresponding abstract concepts.

·         The parables Jesus taught are marked by brevity and simplicity. These parables sparkle in their brevity; they come to life; they are the vehicles that convey a profound message in simple terms--the proverbial “earthly story with a heavenly message”.

·         It is important to seek the central truth and not dwell on peripheral details. Parables should not to be interpreted allegorically, eg. meaning of the inn, the innkeeper, etc. in the story of the good Samaritan. For some parables, the meaning behind the story is given by Jesus to His disciples after He told the parable to the crowd (Mt 13:37-43; Lk 8:11-15).

3.      Role of the Parables: Why did Jesus use parables?

a.   Reasons for using parables

·         There are 2 reasons why Jesus use parables: (1) in order that His words can be understood and that they would be remembered by people (parables are unforgettable!), (2) to keep His secret and to preserve His own mystery (parables convey a sense of mystery).

·         These two simultaneous effects form a paradox: they are hidden and yet they can be universally understood; at the same time.

b.   Clarity and real life

·         The clarity of the parables can be illustrated by their transformation into common idiom today, eg. good Samaritan, prodigal son, good shepherd.

·         The parables are clear because they draw from real life experience, though occasionally including deliberate exaggerations.

·         The parables are clear because of the marvellous psychological and spiritual accuracy of the stories.

c.   Hiddennes

·         New Testament scholar Jeremias holds that the parable means a riddle. The real meaning remains hidden to those outside the kingdom of God, as clearly described by Jesus in the following Bible verses: Mk 4:11-12; Mt 13:10-15; Lk 8:9-10.

d.   How clarity and hiddenness can coexist

·         A parable requires a responsive attitude of mind, a desire to unravel the real meaning of the parable and a determination to come to terms with them. Without such attitudes, the parables fall on deaf ears and are therefore hidden. For those who respond, the parables are clear.

·         Jesus’ teaching never handed out truth as it were on a plate.  For the truth about God and man cannot be learnt directly as if it were a series of mere facts which involved no personal commitment. The parables challenge a personal response.  They constitute disclosure situations in which the listener becomes aware of his relationship with God through identifying himself with the people in the parable.

4.      Teachings in the Parables: What did Jesus teach in the parables?

a.   There are two main classes of parables. Both classes demand a spiritual response from the listeners: parables requiring action, and parables requiring understanding.

b.   Parables requiring action – these are parables that demand:

(1)  commitment of repentance and faith

o        prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32)

o        sower (Lk 8:5-8,11-15)

o        Pharisee and tax collector (Lk 18:10-14)

(2)  commitment of discipleship.

o        watchful servant (Mt 24:45-51)

o        sawdust and plank (Mt 7:3-5)

o        wise and foolish builders (Mt 7:24-27)

o        talents (Mt 25:14-30)

o        good Samaritan (Lk 10:30-37)

c.   Parables requiring understanding (about the kingdom of God) – these are parables that describe:

(1)  the storyteller king

o        seeking the lost sheep & lost coin (Mt 18:12-14; Lk 15:3-10)

o        hidden treasure & pearl (Mt 13:44-46)

(2)  the kingly reign (self-disclosure parables)

o        weeds (Mt 13:24-30,37-43)

o        workers in vineyard (Mt 20:1-16)

o        mustard seed & laven (Lk 13:18-19,21)

5.      Effectiveness of the Parables: Did the parables achieve their purposes?

·         The parable form has shortcomings but is excellent in achieving its primary purpose.

a.   Parables may cause misunderstanding.

·         To those who were willing to receive the message of Jesus, his parables helped to make it clear. To those whose ears were stopped, the parables were so many riddles that obscured the truth. These people will as a result encounter judgment (Mt 13:11-13).

b.   As a pedagogical tool, parables are deliberately limited.

·         Parables are not always readily understood as Jesus needed to provide interpretations of some of them. For believers, they have to accept the parables in faith and understanding, even though full comprehension might not be evident at first.

c.   As a tool for life changing experience, parables are excellent.

·         Parables are sometimes humourous and sometimes tragic but they are all provocative, aiming to demand a response, a personal commitment (in terms of faith or action).

·         Sometimes, the parable is a message of salvation, calling the listeners to repent and to believe. Sometimes, it is an urge to exercise watchfulness. By making the commitment of faith or action, the listener takes the decisive step to enter into discipleship which changes the whole life. This life changing experience is exactly the main purpose of the parables.