Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Why Jesus Spoke in Parables

Posted by foryourfaith on February 13, 2010

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Jesus was a storyteller – his speech was filled with images.  He put great emphasis on the special stories called parables.  In the body of Jesus’ teaching found in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), some 40 separate parables appear.  Certainly many other teachers in the ancient world used parables, but practically no one gave them such prominence or made them the hallmark of his work.

Jesus’ parables were full of subjects easily recognizable in the everyday life of ancient Palestine – fishnets, seeds, wheat, and sheep, servants, farmers, and kings.  The parables were usually brief, vivid, and, quite simply, entertaining.  But they were also more.  In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ disciples asked him why he spoke in parables.  In answering, Jesus linked understanding his parables to knowing the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus also said that he spoke to the crowds in parables “because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matthew 13:10-13).  Evidently, he believed that in these stories, so apparently simple and accessible, the innermost mystery of his mission was both revealed and hidden.

How was it possible for these brief stories to play such an important role?  Part of the answer seems to lie in the very nature of a parable.  The kernel of a parable is a comparison.  In the New Testament the Greek word parabole (“parable”) is applied to a wide range of literary forms that include some element of comparison or metaphor, from a simple simile to a long and fully developed narrative.  In the Gospel of Luke, for example, Jesus used the term parabole for the three-word proverb “Physician, heal yourself” (4:23).  It could also describe much more detailed stories like that of the “Prodigal Son” (Luke 15:11-32).

Because of the element of comparison and metaphor, there is always more than one level of meaning in a parable.  The story may be very entertaining in itself, but it always points beyond itself to something else, something more mysterious that Jesus wanted his audience to perceive more clearly through the story.  That something else is what Jesus called the kingdom of God.  Jesus wanted the simple story to become a door that allowed access to the mystery.  For most of Jesus’ audience, that door remained unopened; some, however, penetrated the mystery.  The parables gave them glimpses of a new word and allowed them to step across the threshold and become disciples.

How did the comparisons work?  How was the story related to the mystery?  Two of Jesus’ briefest parables, the “Hidden treasure” and the “Pearl of great value,” may help illuminate the process:

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44).  “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:45-46)

In these stories Jesus directed the attention of his audience to two situations in which a person’s everyday life was interrupted when he found something wonderful and unexpected.  Realizing the value of his discovery, the person immediately broke from his past and all that he held secure by selling everything he owned in order to obtain what he had discovered and start a new life.

The very brevity of Jesus’ stories leaves a lot of questions hanging.  Jesus did not ask whether it was ethical or legal to buy a field knowing that it contained a treasure without letting the owner know what he he was selling.  Nor did he dwell on the prudence of selling all one’s belongings in order to buy a single pearl.  The two men’s experiences, Jesus said, reveal the kingdom of heaven.  No exact explanation or moral application accompanies the stories.  The parables “teased” the minds of the hearers into active thought and perhaps began the process of their own discovery.

Many of the other parables elaborate in some way the simple pattern of discovery, reversal, and action contained in these two parables.  Several focus on the kingdom of God as something hidden, as a surprising discovery, as a joy.  The parable of the “seed growing secretly,” for example, compares the kingdom of God to the situation of a farmer (Mark 4:26-29).  He scatters seed at the beginning and reaps a joyful harvest at the end.  But in between the real work is done by the seed, mysteriously growing, “he knows not how” and by the earth which produces of itself “first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.”  In this mysterious, productive interaction between farmer and seed and earth, is an insight into the kingdom of God.  Again, the brief parable of the “leaven” sees the kingdom of God revealed in yeast “hid” in the flour.  The yeast is unseen, but the flour is transformed into dough (Matthew 13:33).

Other parables center on the idea of a reversal of the past and its expectations (for example, the “Prodigal Son” and the “Good Samaritan”).  Many emphasize decisive action (for example, the “Rich Fool”; the “Talents”; and the “Dishonest Steward”).  Some use the same pattern to provide a warning.  The “Unmerciful Servant,” for example, was unexpectedly forgiven a massive debt by his master, and thus escaped slavery for himself and his family.  He could not, however, bring himself to forgive a small debt owed by his fellow servant.  When the master found out, he reversed his kindness and threw the servant into prison.  The warning to “forgive your brother from your heart” is clear (Matthew 18:23-35).

Throughout the history of Christianity, the parables have been interpreted in a variety of ways.  For centuries, for example, the parables were interpreted as elaborate allegories that revealed the story of salvation.  A favorite for this kind of interpretation was the parable of the “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:29-37).

Jesus told the story of a man going from Jerusalem to Jericho who “fell among robbers” and was stripped, beaten, and left “half dead.”  By chance, both a priest and a Levite, men engaged in the service of God in the Temple, approached, but each “passed by on the other side.”  Then a Samaritan, religious renegade from the point of view of Jesus’ audience, happened to come along.  It was he, Jesus said, who “had compassion,” bandaged the victim’s wounds, “pouring on oil and wine,”  took him to an inn, and paid the innkeeper for his care, promising to return and repay the innkeeper for what was spent on the victim.

An understanding of this parable as an allegory of humanity’s fall and redemption began to develop in the Church of the second century and reached its full form with Saint Augustine in the fourth.  The traveler is Adam representing all mankind.  Jerusalem is the heavenly city; Jericho is the fallen world.  The robbers are demons who strip off Adam’s immortality leaving him half dead.  The priest and the Levite are the law and the prophets, while the Samaritan is Christ himself, who heals mankind with oil and wine, comfort and admonition.  The inn is the Church; the innkeeper, the Apostles Peter and Paul; and the Samaritan’s return is the Second Coming of Christ.

The allegory worked quite neatly and certainly pointed to something hidden in Jesus’ parable.  It made good sense in the fourth century but would have made no sense to Jesus’ audience, who knew nothing of Paul or Christian theology.  In such an allegory, the parable does not lead the hearer into a mystery but is a code for something already understood.  One must know the story of the fall and redemption before one can decipher the code.

It is in the very nature of the parables, however, that they call forth more than one interpretation as different individuals in different times hear them.  In the well-known parable of the “Prodigal Son” (Luke 15:11-32), the younger of two sons took his inheritance and traveled to a far country, where he squandered everything he had in loose living.  When famine struck, he had nowhere to turn, and so he decided to return home.  “But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.  And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’”  The father quickly forgave but the elder brother was angry and refused to rejoice in his brother’s homecoming.  “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends.  But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf.”  And the father replied, “It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”

some interpreters have seen this story principally as a story of repentance and restoration for the younger son who left home.  Others have thought Jesus was emphasizing the elder brother who stayed at home and was unable to forgive.  Many have seen the father as the central character.  The remarkable thing about Jesus’ parable is that it has room for all three.  In a few sentences, he created three characters who reveal by their interactions not only the breakdown of love and the degradation of life, but also the possibility of self-discovery, of restored love, and of joyous welcome.


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