from jesus to christ - the first christians

The Parables

Madeleine Boucher discusses the different types of parables used by Jesus and their role in his teaching.

From The Parables By Madeleine I. Boucher
Michael Glazier, Inc. Wilmington, DE

The importance of the parables can hardly be overestimated. They comprise a substantial part of the recorded preaching of Jesus. The parables are generally regarded by scholars as among the sayings which we can confidently ascribe to the historical Jesus; they are, for the most part, authentic words of Jesus. Moreover, all of the great themes of Jesus' preaching are struck in the parables. Perhaps no part of the Gospels, then, can better put us into touch with the mind of Jesus Christ than the parables. They still today present us with the challenge with which Jesus encountered his hearers in first-century Palestine. These little stories (together with the Lord's Prayer and the Beatitudes) are the best known of all Jesus' words. It is a measure of the value which the Church places upon them that every parable without exception occurs in the Sunday lectionary readings.


The Parable in the Ancient World

When Jesus preached so strikingly in parables, he did not create a new literary genre. Rather, he made brilliant use of a genre which was already of long tradition and which was familiar to all throughout the Mediterranean world. In Greece and Rome, parables were employed by rhetoricians, politicians and philosophers. Perhaps the most illustrious among those who made use of them were Socrates and Aristotle. An interesting question is to what extent the classical parables are like those of the Bible. (The reader may wish to peruse Aristotle's discussion of the parable in The "Art" of Rhetoric, Book II.) In Israel, parables were uttered by prophets and wise women and men. They appear even in the oldest books of the Old Testament. Parables were often used by Jewish rabbis who were contemporaries of Jesus.

A famous and quite ancient Old Testament example is the parable of the Ewe Lamb which the prophet Nathan addressed to David. After the king had arranged the death of Bathsheba's husband on the battlefield so that he might himself marry Bathsheba, Nathan told him this story:

12 There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his morsel, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb, and prepared it for the man who had come to him.
(2 Sam 12:1-4)

When David condemned the man who had done this as deserving to die, Nathan revealed that the story was a parable, saying, "You are the man" (v. 7). For other Old Testament parables see 2 Sam 14:5-l3; I Kgs 20:39-42; Isa 5:1-7; 28:2129; Ezek 17:1-24; 19:1-14; 20:45-49; 24:3-14. The rabbinic parables are of course the closest in both time and place to those of Jesus. The following example is interesting for its similarity to the Gospel parable of the Two Builders (Mt 7:24-27; Lk 6:47- 49):

He whose wisdom exceeds his works, to what may he be likened? To a tree whose branches are numerous but whose roots are few. The wind comes along and uproots it and sweeps it down.... But he whose works exceed his wisdom, to what may he be likened? To a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are numerous. Then even if all the winds of the world come along and blow against it they cannot stir it from its place.... (Pirqe Aboth III. 18)

The parables which most closely resemble Jesus' are those in the Old Testament and rabbinic literature. These Semitic parables (as distinct from the classical) are no doubt the predecessors of those

we find preserved in the Synoptic Gospels. Anyone who compares the parables in the Gospels with those in other sources is led to conclude that Jesus was a master of the genre, perhaps its most brilliant author ever. Even today parables, and in particular those of Jesus, remain among the most beautiful and memorable works in the history of literature.

The Three Types of Parables

It has been noted, since the late nineteenth century, that the parables in the Gospels fall into three groups. These are usually given the names (1) similitude, (2) parable, and (3) exemplary story (sometimes called illustration). It is unfortunate that the word "parable" is thus used in two senses, in the broad sense to refer to all the parables generally, and in the narrow sense to denote one of the three types of parables. The resulting confusion is often deplored, but as yet no other term for the narrower type has been widely adopted.

All of the parables, that is, all three types, have this in common, that they present an implied comparison between an experience or event from ordinary, everyday life, and a reality of the moral or religious order. The characteristics which distinguish each type from the other two are here described, and will be explained in greater depth in the following chapters.

1. Similitude

The similitude is the most concise type of parable. It briefly narrates a typical or recurrent event from real life. It tells a story which everyone would recognize as a familiar experience. Since it has to do with the recurrent or typical, the similitude is usually told in the present tense, although the past tense is occasionally used. The similitude gains its persuasiveness by recounting what is widely recognized as true. No one, on hearing a similitude, is likely to deny that this is the way life is. Such is how anyone would rejoice on finding a lost coin (Lk 15:8-10); this is how seed always grows to full harvest (Mk 4:26-29). Many of the similitudes in Luke's Gospel begin, "Which of you?" (e.g. Lk 11:5; 14:28, 31), "Or what woman?" (Lk 15:8), "Or what king?" (Lk 14:31). Those in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew often begin by stating the comparison: "The kingdom of God is as if" (e.g. Mk 4:26, 30-31; Mt 13:33). Some twelve similitudes appear in the Synoptic Gospels.

Two examples of this type of parable are the following similitudes of the Lost Coin and the Growing Seed. In the first, God's love for the sinner is compared to the homely experience of a poor woman seeking and finding one lost coin, and celebrating with her friends. The interpretation in Luke's Gospel (v. 10) makes explicit the story's meaning:

Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

(Lk 15:8-10)

In the similitude of the Growing Seed, the coming of the reign of God is compared to the grain's ripening to harvest, a natural occurrence familiar to anyone living in farm country, and yet a mysterious and wonderful event:

And he said, "The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how. The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come."

(Mk 4:26-29)

2. Parable

The parable is often (though not always) longer and more detailed than the similitude. The parable tells a story, not about something recurrent in real life, but about a one-time event which is fictitious. While the parables are fictitious, however, they never indulge in the fanciful or fantastic, but remain true-to-life. They derive their persuasiveness from being told in a simple, vivid and fresh way which engages the hearer. Though the Gospels do not use these words, the parables are "once upon a time" stories. They are usually narrated in the past tense. Typical beginnings are these: "There was a rich man" (Lk 16:1); "A certain creditor had two debtors" (Lk 7:41); "A sower went out to sow" (Mk 4:3; Mt 13:3; Lk 8:5). In Matthew's Gospel, however, we again find the beginning which explicitly states the comparison: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to" (see Mt 13:24; 18:23; 20:1; 22:2). Approximately sixteen of the parables in the Synoptic Gospels belong to the type called parable (in the narrow sense).

Examples of this type are the Persistent Widow and the Two Sons, two of the briefer parables. The Persistent Widow has to do with God's liberation of his chosen ones from injustice, need, oppression:

And he told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor regarded man; and there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, 'Vindicate me against my adversary.' For a while he refused; but afterward he said to himself, 'Though I neither fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming.'" And the Lord said, "Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 'And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?'

(Lk 18:1-8)

The parable of the Two Sons is spoken in the temple to religious leaders, the chief priests and the elders (Mt 21:23). Jesus says to them:

What do you think? A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' 'And he answered, 'I will not,' but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered, 'I go, sir,' but did not go.

(Mt 21:28-30)

Jesus asks his hearers which son did the father's will, and when they reply, "The first," he pronounces this conclusion: "Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you" (v. 31).

3. Exemplary Story

The exemplary story, like the similitude and parable, presents an implied comparison between an event (real or imagined) drawn from life and a reality of the moral or religious order. The distinction lies in this: the similitude and parable present an analogy between two very different things (e.g. the reign of God is compared to seed, a sinner to a lost coin). The exemplary story presents, not an analogy, but an example, one specific case which illustrates a general principle (e.g. the good Samaritan illustrates love of neighbor in Lk 10:29-37; the tax collector stands for the humble and repentant sinner in Lk 18:9-14; the rich man exemplifies those with materialistic concerns in Lk 16:19-31). In the similitude and parable the two things compared are dissimilar, whereas in the exemplary story they are similar. The exemplary stories resemble the parables (rather than the similitudes) in these respects, that they are fictitious and somewhat developed stories told in the past tense. We find only four exemplary stories in the Synoptics, all in the Gospel of Luke: the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:29-37); the Rich Fool (Lk 12:16-21); the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31); and the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Lk 18:9-14).

Perhaps the most beautiful and best known of the exemplary stories is the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells this story, according to Luke, in response to the lawyer's question, "Who is my neighbor?'

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, 'Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.'

(Lk 10:30-35)

The lawyer grants, when Jesus questions him, that of the three passers-by the Samaritan alone "proved neighbor to the man." Jesus concludes: "Go and do likewise" (vv. 36-37).

The Use of the Parable in Jesus' Ministry

We come now to the next question: how was the parable employed by Jesus himself during his ministry? Certainly it could not have been Jesus' intention to use parables in order to render his message incomprehensible. We may dismiss that notion out of hand. Yet, as we look at the parables in the Synoptic Gospels, we cannot help but observe that there is variation with respect to how easy or difficult they are to understand. For example, the Growing Seed (Mk 4:26-29) is quite abstruse. The Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32) is considerably more lucid. Most parables fall somewhere between these two. Some are quite clear and require little or no explanation; others are obscure enough to need interpretation of some sort. There is no hard and fast rule here.

The first circle of hearers, those who heard the parables from Jesus himself, must have asked, "What does the man mean?" They must have wondered, that is, what his point might be in telling this story. The meaning of a parable would have been conveyed to them in different ways. In some instances, the social situation in which the parable was told, its context, would indicate what the lesson might be. In others, the question or discussion preceding the parable would give the clue to its meaning. Many of the tropes appearing in the Synoptic parables were standard and well known in first century Judaism. For example, God was often represented as a ruler, a judge, a parent, the owner of a vineyard or field; the people of Israel were depicted as servants, children, a vine or flock; the judgment was represented as a harvest or a reckoning; and God's reign as a feast or wedding. Jesus' audience would immediately have understood these tropes. Perhaps ~ Jesus sometimes gave an interpretation following the parables. We can observe that the parables in the Old Testament and the rebbinic literature are often accompanied by explanations. The rabbis no doubt interpreted their parables explicitly, at least sometimes; there is no reason to believe that Jesus would have employed the parables differently from other rabbis. Thus, in one or all of these ways, the hearers would have been able to grasp the meaning of the story Jesus told.

An observation made by a New Testament scholar writing at the beginning of this century, M.- J. Lagrange, seems to me sound. Noting that the parable is not always absolutely clear, Lagrange explained this by saying that the purpose of a parable is to strike the imagination, to pique the curiosity, to make the listener reflect and work to arrive at the meaning, but only so that the lesson will be more deeply engraved on the mind.

Again, this is not to say that Jesus employed parables with the aim of making his subject obscure. A parable is an implied comparison. The comparison is not always obvious; but once it is perceived it sheds new light on the subject under discussion. The purpose of a parable is to move to decision or action; paradoxically, that purpose is perhaps more effectively achieved precisely because the speaker proceeds indirectly rather than directly.

From The Parables By Madeleine I. Boucher
1980 Michael Glazier, Inc.
Wilmington, DE

Read more about Jesus' parables in our commentary by John Dominic Crossan.

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published april 1998

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