COMMUNICATION 13 – Jesus' use of parables

Passages on the use of parables

Luke 8:9-10 > quoting Isaiah 6:9-10

“Then his disciples asked him what this parable meant. 10 He said “to you is given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but to others I speak in parables, so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand’.

Mark 4:10-12 > quoting Isaiah 6:9-10

“When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables, 11 And he said to them, To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes I parables: 12 in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not tun again and be forgiven.”

Mark 4:33-34

“With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to him disciples.”
Why parables?

Who gets explanations?

  • Does Jesus not want people to understand? Does he not want them to be forgiven? Why is he quoting the unpopular Isaiah 6:9-10 passage?
  • Mark 4:10 makes is very clear that all who ask for an explanation of the parable get an explanation, not just the twelve disciples, but any disciple or follower, anyone caring enough to hang around and ask.
  • Therefore it is clear that Jesus doesn’t disqualify or exclude any interested seeker, but he definitely doesn’t throw around the interpretation either.

The nature of learning

  • This is not a case of exclusive knowledge for the initiate few nor a secret cult of the enlightened; it is not an issue of the twelve apostles having special authority to teach
  • But why then is Jesus selective in who he explains parables to?
  • Jesus is a master teacher, he knows that ‘availability of information’ itself is not the problem or the limiting factor. That is a too shallow view of learning.
  • We say: ‘If only we had sufficient knowledge!’ But much more important for gaining knowledge is the state of one’s mind and heart, one’s attitude and one’s desire.
  • But one must ask, one must wonder, one must engage, one must want the answer. Jesus screens for those truly engaging and seeking.
  • To understand a parable takes engagement, a willingness to think, a degree of submission, a humility to ‘sit with it’, a patience to allow to be ‘left hanging’ for a bit.
  • Parables engage thinking, raise questions and make people draw own conclusions.
  • We tend to spoon-feed answers to questions people have not yet even learnt to ask. Parables do precisely the opposite. Parables do not shot-cut true thinking, for first the question must be understood, only then the answers help, only then the conclusion has weight.
  • Your must want and seek truth to understand truth. The unwilling will not recognize the answer for what it is, even if it is given to them.

Memorability, learning styles & ongoing thinking

  • Story is a common form of teaching in many cultures, especially oral cultures.
  • Everybody loves stories and remembers stories, though formal or systematic teachings are seldom retained.
  • Most people could give a rough version of the parable of the sower or the prodigal son, few can give even three points of the preaching last Sunday.
  • Parables are meant to stir up thinking and emotions, not just when hearing them. Rather parables keep working in and on the mind of the hearer for days to come.
  • Parables are meant to catch the hearer: As the story is told one naturally identifies with a figure, thinks thoughts and feels feelings like that person. Then a twist in the story catches the hearer in a wrong attitude or thought.
  • Parables cater to several learning styles by using story, mental picture and drama.

God's commitment to let us know

  • If God didn’t want us to understand, why did he give us 1000 pages of explanations in the Bible? If he didn’t want us to know, what is the point of telling parables at all?
  • God is absolutely committed to teach us, far beyond anything we dream of, or even wish for. God is not the limiting factor, we are.
  • The unwilling not even God himself can teach! This is because of the sovereign will he has given to us. We rule our minds. If I refuse, nobody can teach me anything.
  • Jesus was the master educator, but not even He could teach everybody. Example: the scribes around him, clearly educated and religiously interested, didn’t get it.
How to understand parables

In order to understand parables right, look at the context in which Jesus spoke them:

Observation Questions to ask

  • Who is standing around Jesus when he tells this parable?
  • What event, discussion, question or conflict happened just before the parable?
  • What are the main points of the story? Who would the listeners identify with?
  • What is the twist of the story? The shock? The surprise? The trap?
  • Who is being caught?

Interpretation Questions

  • What response does the parable call for?
  • What response did the hearers give after the parable was told?

Application Questions

  • What timeless truths are taught in this parable? What can I learn?
How not to understand parables!
  • Parables are not allegories. They are not stories with a hidden, secret meaning, where everything means something.
  • But historically, parables have been interpreted precisely in an allegorical manner.
  • Because Jesus said that the meaning of parables would be hidden to those outside (Mark 4:10-12), parables have been considered to be simple stories in which “mysteries” are hidden, which then need to be uncovered.
  • Example: Church Father Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD)’s interpretation of the parable of ‘the Good Samaritan’ (Luke 10:30-37):
Parable                               Meaning according to Augustine

a man was going down            = Adam
Jerusalem                                  = heavenly city of peace, from which Adam fell
Jericho                                        = the moon, therefore Adam’s mortality
thieves who rob him                 = Satan and his angels
stripped him                              = stripped him of his immortality
beat him                                     = by persuading him to sin
leaving him half-dead               = lives, but died spiritually, therefore half-dead
priest, Levite                              = priesthood, ministry of the Old Testament
Samaritan                                  = guardian, therefore Christ
bound his wounds                    = binding restraint of sin
oil                                                 = comfort of good hope
wine                                             = exhortation to work with a fervent spirit
own beast                                   = flesh of Christ’s incarnation
inn                                                = church
the next day                                = after the resurrection
two denarii                                  = promise of this life and the one to come
inn keeper                                   = Paul

  • Remember that the context of this parable was to understand the need to care for those around us, not to teach salvation history:
  • Luke 10:27-30  “love your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “you have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho …”
  • Also: this would constitute a quite obtuse way to predict the church and Paul!
Types of parables – Gospel of Luke

There are different types of parables. Here Luke’s parables are listed by category. Those marked with a star * are parables unique to Luke.

Parables of the Kingdom: “The Kingdom of God is like ..."

           Luke 8:5-8                              Sower and soils and explanation (Luke 8:10-15)
           Luke 13:18-19                       Mustard seed
           Luke 13:20-21                       Yeast mixed with flour

True parables catching the audience, mostly told against the Pharisees

           Luke 7:41-43             *           Creditor and debtors
           Luke 10:30-37           *           Good Samaritan
           Luke 14:16-24                        Great banquet and reluctant guests
           Luke 15:4-6                             Lost sheep
           Luke 15:8-10             *            Lost coin
           Luke 15:11-32           *            Prodigal son
           Luke 18:10-14           *            Pharisee and tax collector
           Luke 20:9-16                           Wicked tenants

Teaching parables, mostly told to disciples to illustrate teaching

on prayer         Luke 11:5-8         *    Friend in need
                          Luke 18:2-5         *    Persistent widow, unrighteous judge
on riches          Luke 12:16-21          Rich fool
                          Luke 16:1-8         *    Dishonest steward
                          Luke 16:19-31    *    Rich man and Lazarus
on judgement  Luke 12:35-40         Alert servants
                          Luke 12:42-48          Faithful steward
                          Luke 19:12-27    *    Pounds
                          Luke 21:29-30          Fig tree as herald of summer

Word pictures or illustrations of Jesus’ teaching

                       Luke 5:36                     New cloth on an old garment
                       Luke 5:37-38               New wine in old wine skins
                       Luke 6:47-49               Houses on rock and sand
                       Luke 8:16-17               Lamp under a jar
                       Luke 11:33                  Lamp in cellar
                       Luke 13:6-9         *      Fig tree without figs
                       Luke 14:8-10       *      Places of honor at wedding feast
                       Luke 14:28-33            Counting the cost
                       Luke 17:7-10       *      Master and servant

Interpreting parables by context – Gospel of Mark
  • Mark wrote his gospel to the church of the city of Rome at the time of Nero’s violent persecution of the Christians (64-67 AD). His gospel therefore has three overarching themes:
    • 1 The power of Jesus, proving he really is the Messiah … you are not dying for a lie!
    • 2 The self-sacrificing life & death of Jesus, proving his love … He loves you, though he doesn’t rescue you right now!
    • 3 The cost of being a disciple      in your suffering you are like Jesus!
  • Mark therefore majors on Jesus’ acts of power and his suffering. Mark gives very little of Jesus’ teaching and only a few parables. He chose such parables as have an additional applicability for his persecuted Roman readers:

Parable of the Sower                                                        Mark 4:1-9, 13-20

  • seed on the rock, dying off when persecution arises > challenge to persevere.

Parable of Lamp on a stand giving light                        Mark 4:21-25 

  • Christian being burnt as street lights at Nero’s parties, in the arena > your death & testimony is visible,… all Romans watch your courage and know your innocence.

Parable of small mustard seed becoming big tree      Mark 4:30-32

  • every martyrs contribution counts, God will make your witness fruitful beyond belief.