Of all the words and teachings of Jesus Christ in the Gospels, none so accurately reflect his distinctive expression as do the more than forty parables that the evangelists attribute to him. Indeed, for theologians as much as for Christians in general, no other passages seem to so perfectly capture distinctive voice and genius of Jesus as do the parables.
This being said, however, it must be acknowledged that there is considerable controversy over the structure, the theology, and the very purpose of the parables themselves. For example, some theologians argue that differences between the parables in the various Gospels reflect differences in the theological approach of the evangelists. Other theologians argue that parables were intended by Jesus to fascinate "outsiders", while being largely unnecessary to those with an intimate relationship with Him and His Word.
This paper will examine the tradition and interpretative of the parables. It will be argued that - although minor textual differences exist between parables in different gospels - all nonetheless reflect the singular theology and ministry of Jesus. Moreover, the interpretation of the purpose of the parables as differentiating between an "in" and an "outsider" group will be shown to be based on a misreading of a Gospel passage. Finally, it will be demonstrated that the significance of the parables for modern Christians lies in their power to translate complex theological issues into everyday terminology and, in the process, 2 allow us to establish an intimate awareness of the presence of Jesus in our lives.
Any discussion of the parables must first address the question raised in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus seems to imply that the purpose of parables is to confuse his mass audiences while, to his Apostles, he explains everything. Indeed, few passages in the Gospels have received as much critical attention as has this one.
When Jesus was alone with the Twelve and his other companions they questioned him about the parables. He answered, 'To you the secret of the kingdom of God has been given; but to those who are outside, everything comes by way of parables, so that (as scripture says) they may look and look, but see nothing; they may listen and listen, but understand nothing; otherwise they might turn to God and be forgiven.'2
Some theologians have interpreted this passage as signifying a "certain in-group who alone understand the parables". However, this elitism also seems to contradict Jesus well known attention to those who are considered "outsiders" by society of his day such as tax collectors and prostitutes. Moreover, the final line of the above passage appears to have Jesus saying that He must confuse His listeners with parables or else they may "turn to God and be forgiven"! When one considers that one of the key reasons of Jesus' incarnation in the world was to attain forgiveness for the sins of humanity, this explanation of the purpose of parables seems to defy rational comprehension.
Some theologians have addressed this problem by arguing that the passage as it exists in most modern Gospels today is actually a corruption or mistranslation from the original Aramaic, where "otherwise they might turn" (dil ma) should be read as "unless". In this analysis, repentance may be seen as the key to understanding the parables, rather than the parables being seen as an obstruction to repentance. However, while this resolves one problem is does not deal with the apparent question of interpretative elitism in the parables.
Some Biblical scholars contend that the distinction between "inside" and "outside" made here is not one of association but one of faith. From this perspective, those "outside" are those who do not seek repentance and refuse to witness Christ's ministry:
"Inside" and "outside" are existential, religious categories, determined by the kind of response one makes to the demands of Jesus. One of the great paradoxes in Mark is that Peter, the one first called (1:16-17) who stands at the head of the Twelve (3:16), in his final appearance in the Gospel, goes "outside," where he denies that he ever knew Jesus (14:68-71).
When read in this light, Jesus' explanation of the intent behind His parables becomes consistent with our general understanding of His ministry in the rest of the Gospels. Having dealt with this important problem, we may move on to a general consideration of the function of the parables in the Gospels as a whole.
In attempting to discover the function of the parables, we must first situate them in the context in which they were delivered. This is a particularly significant point for, as Biblical scholars have noted, modern Christians see Christ - through the eyes of the Apostles - as God. However, most of the audiences of these parables were not believers. They were, at best, ignorant but curious, and at worst, actively hostile to Jesus and His ministry:
There can be found only a few, if any, parables, which Jesus directed explicitly to his disciples: most are spoken to his opponents, to men who took offense at his behaviour or were indignant at his sayings.
Jesus did not invent the parable; it already existed as a literary device commonly employed by rabbis to clarify points of law. Textual analysis, however, reveals that Jesus' parables are fundamentally different from the tradition of the parable as employed by those Jewish authorities to whom He often addressed them. His parables are not so much intended to clarify or illustrate particular points as to provoke insights on the part of His audience into the relationship between God and man. Scholars argue that this unique usage of the parable form allows modern readers to discern the authentic "voice" of Jesus across centuries.7 It is a voice that is both teacher and poet, and the parable is designed to provoke and inspire as much as illustrate:
Their [rabbis’] stories are didactic figures, those of Jesus are poetic metaphors; theirs are subservient to the teaching situations, those of Jesus are subservient only to the experienced revelation, which seeks to articulate its presence in, by, and through them. . . . The teacher and the poet go different ways, but if one wishes to insist that Jesus was a teacher one must add that he taught as a poet!
In this view, the parables were originally intended to function as "a form of argument". Christ intended them not for those who actually believed - although His Apostles, like modern Christians, found them intriguing and thought provoking - but for those who did not. Among these, whom Christ hoped to convince to repent, a parable's "power of persuasion is used to overcome the resistance that stands in the way of doing good".10 With an awareness of this purpose in mind, we may begin to investigate the nature and theology of Jesus' parables.
Throughout the history of the exegesis of Christ's parables, there has been general agreement as to their fundamental nature. For example, most Christians have tended to read them as allegories wherein the details of each parable are not just about a human activity, but also function as signifying a "heavenly reality".11 This perspective has, however, been challenged by theologians in the 20th century who have argued that the search for allegories in the parables only serves to divert Christians into profitless avenues of inquiry. For example, in the case of the famous parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), the robe given to the son by his father has been variously interpreted over the years as signifying "sinlessness, spiritual gifts, the imputation of Christ's righteousness, or the sanctity of the soul". To rectify this problem of "reading" too many allegories into a parable, modern theologians have tended to argue that a parable is usually about one overarching theme - in the case of the Prodigal Son, "the boundless joy of God's forgiveness" - with no one-to-one relation to any transcendent interpretation.
However, it should be noted that theologians are not in agreement on this point, for some - if not many - parables appear to demand allegorical interpretation. Parables as a genre are, particularly in the hands of an admitted master of the form such as Jesus, inherently complex. Given this, many theologians argue that to deny the possibility that Jesus was - in the modern computer language - "multitasking" when He delivered His parables, is to deny the fundamental nature of the form.
In this context, it is clear that a consensus as to the nature of the parable is perhaps unattainable. However, most scholars concede that the parable form is capable of supporting a number of meanings and is open to a variety of interpretations. To illustrate this, we may examine the controversy over conflicting theological themes in Jesus' parables.
Despite the fact that textual analysis has concluded that most (if not all) of the parables of Jesus in the Gospels are the product of a single author15, there remain theologians who argue that the parables often reflect the particular theology of the evangelist in whose Gospel they are cited.16 The impact of this argument is significant for it appears to challenge the authorship of Jesus with regard to the most commonly known manifestation of His "voice". This interpretation of the theology of the parables has implications for all the evangelists, but "has particularly affected the assessment of a number of the parables peculiar to Luke, especially those which so marvellously encapsulate Luke's theology of grace (e.g., the prodigal son or the Pharisee and taxcollector)."
This is a complex issue for theologians and Biblical scholars agree that the different evangelists often represent the same parable in different ways. However, common sense would suggest that it would be surprising if the Gospels were otherwise. The evangelists, of course, were different men who had different experiences of Christ's ministry. Thus, for example, the parables found in Matthew - although often shared with Mark and Luke - emphasize dramatic effects, sharp contrasts, and the power of faith in human life.18 In Luke's Gospel - which contains the most extensive collection of parables - the parables often seem to revolve around the theme of God's grace in offering mercy to sinners, the role of prayer in our salvation, and God's concern with the outcasts of society.
However, other theologians point out that a comparison of the parables that are shared by evangelists indicate that the differences between them are more stylistic than fundamentally theological. Indeed, it may be sign of excessive scholarly "rehashing" of comparatively insignificant points of distinction that "critics often made too much of an evangelist's minor additions to his sources . . . [or] too much has been made of a minor omission".20 In this analysis, while each evangelist would logically have particular aspects of Christ's ministry that he desired to emphasize, this does not detract from the theological unity of the parables or of the Gospels as a whole:
The individual theologies of the various Gospel writers never come into irreconcilable conflict with each other or with the traditions which preceded them so as to prevent a subsequent synthesis of their thought, even if they do have important distinctiveness which such a synthesis blurs.
Having settled the key issues of authorship and theological interpretation, we may proceed to an examination of several of the more well known parables in order to appreciate their vision and inspiration for modern Christians as much as for Christians of the 1st century AD.
The parable of the "Good Samaritan" - found only in Luke (10:30-37) - illustrates the capacity of the parable form to invite and support a wide variety of interpretation. Over time, it has been read variously as: "a damning indictment of social, racial, and religious superiority"; "the challenge to decide between the life of involvement or non-involvement"; "the example of true neighbourliness" or that "the law of love called him [a believer] to be ready at any time to give his life for another's need".
The interesting thing about the parable for modern Christians is the discovery that it can support all of the above interpretations. However, all of these exist under the broader theological paradigm of "compassionate vision which is the presupposition for ethical action". The significance of the travellers - the priest and the Levite - who see the man lying half-dead by the side of the road after being robbed and who pass by on the other side, resonates across the centuries. Who, among modern Christians today, can say that they have always reached out and shown compassion - in effect, witnessing to their faith in Christ through their actions - when it may mean a sacrifice of time or money or even an inconvenience.
This parable reflects the general theological stance of the New Testament that to be a Christian is more than just a title or reciting empty prayers; it demands an active engagement with the world around us and with the continuing ministry of Christ in that world.
This view may be seen in the famous parable of the "mustard seed" in Matthew 13:31-32. The Kingdom of Heaven is like this seed, Christ tells his Apostles and other listeners, for when it is planted (in men's hearts) it is tiny, but eventually, it will grow into an immense plant. Although the parable is radically different from that of the Good Samaritan in Luke, the theological import may be seen to be related. In both parables, Christian grace is not something that is bestowed capriciously upon individuals; rather it is something that grows in us when "watered" by our actions.
It is a sign of the unified theology of the Gospel parables that Mark's version of the "Mustard Seed" (Mark 4:230-32) differs from Matthew's only in minor degrees. Indeed, Mark's representation of the seed being scattered suggests that mankind has the free will to accept or reject Jesus' ministry. Although the sower (Christ) has cast the seed of His Word upon the ground, it is in the power of individual Christians to accept or reject this seed for, as Mark notes, the "ground produces a crop by itself" that is beyond the control of the sower (Mark 4:28). When interpreted in this light, the theological message of this parable is consistent with that of the Gospels as a whole. Although God does His best to plant the seeds of His grace in us, the question as to whether they will take root and grow lies entirely within our power. We are available to write a dissertation for you quickly and efficiently
As we have seen, the parables of Jesus in the Gospels have provoked considerable controversy among Biblical scholars for years. However, it may be seen that the form and purpose of this literary genre achieved perhaps its finest moments at the hands of Jesus Christ. Although there exist differences of interpretations among theologians regarding such important issues as the number of issues that can be discussed in a single parable, or whether each 13 parable inevitably reflects the influence of the evangelist who is explicating it, it may be generally conceded that there exists a general theological unity among most of the parables.
From this perspective, the theology of the parables demonstrates both the challenges facing Christians, and the rewards that lie in store for us when we witness the Word of God in our daily lives. The blurring of the distinction between teaching and poetry in the parables of Jesus demonstrates that - although they were often designed to meet the questions and tricks of the Jewish authorities - they were nonetheless intended to be relevant far beyond their original context. In this analysis, the reality of the parables - and the challenges they pose for Christians - is as "real" today as they were in Christ's age.
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