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The Stories of Jesus: Interpreting and Applying the Parables
The Stories of Jesus: Interpreting and Applying the Parables
The Stories of Jesus: Interpreting and Applying the Parables
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The Stories of Jesus: Interpreting and Applying the Parables

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About a third of all the teachings of Jesus was in the form of parables. Some of these stories are well-known, such as the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. The challenge for Christians today is to know how to interpret the stories of Jesus. What was their intention and how should we apply them in our daily lives? This book briefly explains how Christians have interpreted the parables in the past and draws some useful pointers on how to read and apply the parables. The book then proceeds to examine 19 parables, showing how they can be interpreted and applied. In the process, many new perspectives and insights are presented. The Stories of Jesus is very useful for personal Bible study and for teaching and preaching.

Release dateAug 26, 2020
The Stories of Jesus: Interpreting and Applying the Parables
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    The Stories of Jesus - Robert M Solomon

    Praise for The Stories of Jesus

    Robert Solomon brings incisive scholarship and a lifetime’s pastoral insight and sensitivity to his reading of the parables of Jesus. Here the stories of Jesus spring to life and carry across the centuries to our own day, as challenging and as fresh as they must have been to those early followers of Jesus. But Robert does more than bring the parables to life. At the same time he teaches, with careful methodological reflection, those who themselves would open the parables to other hearers. It is a book for both preachers and hearers.

    Rev Dr Tim Meadowcroft

    Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies

    Laidlaw College, New Zealand

    Scholars are in agreement that Jesus spoke a great deal about the dominion or kingdom of God, and that the main form of his public teaching was parables, a form of metaphorical wisdom speech that as Dodd said teases the mind into active thought. Bishop Emeritus Solomon’s introduction and guide to the parables reflects a good knowledge of the history of the interpretation of parables, and is a reliable guide to what those parables can and should mean for us today. Written in clear and understandable prose, Solomon distils wisdom for our journey into the uncertainties of the 21st century.

    Rev Dr Ben Witherington, III

    Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies,

    Asbury Theological Seminary

    Emeritus Professor of Doctoral Studies,

    St Andrews University, Scotland

    Once again, this new book by Bishop Emeritus Dr Robert Solomon does not disappoint me. Even though I am a New Testament scholar, and have been teaching and preaching on the parables of Jesus for so many years, Bishop Emeritus Solomon pushes my understanding and appreciation of Jesus’ teaching even higher! I really marvel at the way Bishop Solomon handles the biblical texts—making them come alive! At times you can even imagine yourself sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to Him speaking as He invites us to take up the cross and follow Him. I warmly recommend this book to preachers, teachers and scholars alike.

    Rev Dr Ezra Kok

    President, Chinese Annual Conference,

    The Methodist Church in Malaysia

    Former Principal, Seminari Theologi Malaysia

    (Malaysian Theological Seminary)

    Following in the footsteps of the Master he loves and adores, Dr Solomon offers the reader profound insights into Jesus’ parables, but in language that is simple and elegant. His adroit bridging of Jesus’ context and ours should place this book high on the list of resources to acquire for church groups’ study of the parables.

    Dr Tan Kim Huat

    Academic Dean and Chen Su Lan Professor of New Testament,

    Trinity Theological College, Singapore

    Masterful biblical teacher, Bishop Emeritus Robert Solomon, has given us another book of accessible, useful, faith-engendering biblical interpretation. Turning his attention to the gospel Story found in the stories of Jesus, Bishop Solomon gives us fresh readings of some old favourites and introduces us to new dimensions of the ministry of Jesus.

    Bishop Will Willimon

    United Methodist Bishop (retired)

    Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry,

    Duke Divinity School, Durham, NC, USA

    I love our Lord’s parables and Bishop Emeritus Solomon’s The Stories of Jesus has deepened my appreciation for these timeless stories. Bishop Emeritus Solomon’s wonderful expositions show the fruit of a life of serious biblical scholarship and practical pastoral experience. This book will feed your mind, warm your heart and challenge your Christian living.

    Rev Michael Raiter

    Director, Centre for Biblical Preaching,

    Melbourne, Australia

    the stories of jesus

    Copyright © Robert M Solomon 2018

    Published by Genesis Books

    An imprint of Armour Publishing

    Block 1003 Bukit Merah Central #02-07 Singapore 159836

    23  22  21  20  19

    6    5     4     3      2

    All rights reserved.

    No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the Publisher.

    Unless otherwise stated, Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, IncTM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

    Scripture quotations marked ESV are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

    Scripture quotations marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version®.

    Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission.

    All rights reserved.

    Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188.

    All rights reserved.

    Cover design by Sharlyn Solomon

    Printed in Singapore

    ISBN 978-981-48-0718-0 (paperback)

    ISBN 978-981-48-6391-9 (e-book)

    National Library Board, Singapore Cataloguing in Publication Data

    To my wife Malar



    PART ONE: Interpreting the Parables

    Early History of Interpretation

    Views on Interpretation in the Modern Period

    Lessons for Preachers and Teachers

    PART TWO: Understanding the Kingdom of God

    The Hidden Treasure and Pearl

    Mustard Seeds and Yeast

    Taking Root, Bearing Fruit

    The Workers in the Vineyard

    Missing The Great Banquet

    The Wheat and the Weeds

    PART THREE: Entering the Kingdom of God—Through Faith and Repentance

    A Father and His Two Lost Sons

    The Two Who Prayed in the Temple

    The Rich Fool

    The Parable of the Five Brothers

    The Treacherous Tenants

    Forgiven to Forgive

    PART FOUR: Living in the Kingdom of God

    The Reluctant Judge and the Needy Woman

    Good Lessons from Bad Men

    Who is My Neighbour?

    The King and His Servants

    Good and Faithful Stewards

    Keep Watch: Ready and Steady

    The Storm-Proof House Built on the Rock





    If we are to put all the recorded sayings and teachings of Jesus together into one text, we will find that His parables, the stories that He told His many listeners, comprise a third of the content.¹ This suggests that the parables of Jesus are an important part of what He taught. Some of these stories have entered into popular imagination and have been powerfully conveyed in art and literature. In church, these parables are taught and preached, though how this is done can vary widely. The difficulties concerning the parables, even though many of them seem like simple stories, is firstly how to interpret them, and secondly to apply them in our present situations.

    For centuries, the church has attempted to understand the parables that Jesus told. For a large part of this history, the prevailing method of interpretation was allegorical in nature. This began to change during the Reformation, and took an even more significant step in the modern era of textual criticism of the Bible, resulting in the popular view that each parable has only one major lesson to teach. In more recent times, this has been modified, resulting in a rather complex field of parable interpretation by Bible scholars.

    The first two chapters of this book deal with this history of interpretation and provide a background that readers may find helpful and interesting. If you find these chapters a little too heavy, you may go on to chapter 3.

    For the regular preachers and teachers in Bible study groups, youth groups and Sunday School classes in the local church, the challenges remain. How should we interpret and apply the parables? Chapter 3 spells out some practical guidelines for those who are called to preach and teach. This includes parents who are called to teach the Word of God to their children.

    The rest of the book contains material covering different parables recorded in the Gospels. They seek to provide an example of how these parables can be interpreted and applied. These chapters are largely based on actual sermons I have preached on the parables over the years. I am not suggesting that they are the only way to handle the parables; others may have a different approach. What these chapters provide is gleaned from how scholars and preachers have approached the parables and represent my own insights on the parables. They provide an example and guide to those who have to teach and preach.

    The parables are divided into three sections: Those that reveal the nature of the kingdom of God, those that show how to enter this kingdom through faith and repentance, and those that spell out how to live in this kingdom. This would give some clearer idea of what the parables are meant to reveal.

    There is a widely varying list of parables among scholars. Some include simple similes in their lists, such as the reference to believers as the salt and light of the world (Matthew 5:13–16) or Christ as the Good Shepherd (John 10). The parables covered in this book are limited to those stories with a narrative flow. Some parables do not have a special chapter dedicated to them but are mentioned along with other similar or related parables. It is important that in interpreting the parables, sufficient consideration is given to their context in the biblical text. Regardless of scholarly disputes on how the parables are to be considered in the light of critical understanding of the Gospels, we will take the position that the Holy Spirit has inspired the writing and arrangement of the Bible, and therefore we should take the integrity of the texts as we read them seriously. Also, when we think of the context of the parables, we must remember the background of biblical teaching, phrases, metaphors and ideas,² which may be helpful in understanding the parables.

    It is hoped that readers will find this book useful in the study of the parables, and in how they present them to those whom they serve. For others, it may simply be for personal edification. Reflection questions are provided at the end of each chapter to help readers think more deeply about the parables and to apply them personally.

    As Eugene Peterson puts it, may the stories we will consider bring us to The Story³—and the Story Teller.

    All glory be to the One who told us, and continues to tell us, these marvellous stories.

    Robert M Solomon

    the stories of Jesus

    Chapter 1

    the stories of Jesus

    Early History of Interpretation

    Jesus Himself did not write down His teachings, but His disciples passed on what they heard from Him, and here we must note that the parables of Jesus were oral/aural events. It was storytelling at its best, and had an impact on its listeners.

    Initially the disciples spread the teachings of Christ orally, through their preaching and teaching. As churches were planted in the ancient Mediterranean world, and as the Christian community grew, the sayings of Jesus and the apostolic testimonies about Him began to be written down. Within a few decades of the death of Jesus, the epistles of Paul were collected and read as Scripture. Soon after that, the four Gospels were written as a record of eyewitness accounts of Christ’s words, thoughts and actions to help the growing young church know who He was and what He had done for them.

    As already mentioned, a third of the recorded teachings of Christ were in the form of parables. Some of these appear in more than one Gospel, while others are unique to the Gospel recording them.

    The following table⁴ produced by David Brown will help us see this more easily.

    the stories of Jesusthe stories of Jesus

    Different scholars have different lists of parables; the list can vary from 30 to 60 parables,⁵ depending on what one views as parables.⁶ In a very general sense, parables (parabole in Greek and mashal in Hebrew) can be used of pictorial sayings and stories of all kinds,⁷ and refer to expanded analogy.⁸ However, most scholars would limit their list of parables to only stories with a narrative flow.

    To summarise David Brown’s list:

    Four parables are found in all the Synoptic Gospels

    (Matthew, Mark and Luke)

    Three are found in Matthew and Luke.

    Ten are unique to Matthew.

    One is unique to Mark.

    Fourteen are found only in Luke.

    One is found only in John.

    Where a parable is found in all three Synoptic Gospels, the account (text and context) may vary. The variation may be due to the overall intentions of the Gospel writer. This may be more so when a parable appears solely in a single Gospel. Each Gospel writer has a particular pastoral perspective, writing to specific Christian communities in the early church in the first century. How they place and use the parables in the general context of their Gospels may lead us to a richer understanding of the parable in question. This follows various hermeneutical (how we interpret the Bible) principles such as paying attention to the context, using Scripture to shed light on Scripture, and so on.

    It would be helpful to examine how the early church interpreted the parables.

    The Two Schools of Interpretation

    After the resurrection and ascension of Christ, the gospel spread to many parts of the ancient world, through dispersion of persecuted Christians and the missionary efforts of the apostles, the most famous missionary being the apostle Paul. There emerged several centres of Christianity: Jerusalem where the church was born at Pentecost (Acts 1–7), Antioch (where the scattered Christians had brought the gospel, and Paul and Barnabas had later taught further (Acts 11:19f; 13:1–3), Alexandria (where, according to tradition, Gospel writer Mark had brought the gospel, and mentioned in Acts 6:9; 18:24; 27:6; 28:11), Constantinople (originally Byzantium, and presently Istanbul), and Rome (where Christians had brought the Gospel and in which Paul had been imprisoned twice and martyred for Christ; presumably Peter suffered martyrdom there too).

    Among these various centres, two became well-known for their Bible interpretation theories and for their view of the Person of Christ (which became major issues in later centuries). These were Alexandria and Antioch. Alexandria majored on taking an allegorical approach to Bible interpretation while Antioch championed a more literal way of interpreting the Bible.

    Alexandria—The Allegorical Approach

    This leading city in Egypt was a major centre of Christianity. It was the city of Philo, the famous and influential Jewish philosopher. Philo was a Hellenised Jew who tried to understand the Jewish scriptures in the light of Greek philosophy. He held that a literal interpretation of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible believed to have been written by Moses) would diminish the truth and will of a God whose existence is characterised by mystery and majesty. He thus proposed an allegorical approach to reading Scripture, which focused on digging out the hidden spiritual meaning in the biblical text. One of his ideas, the Logos (the Word of God), may have been borrowed by the apostle John in his Gospel, according to some scholars (John 1:1–2), and by the early Christian apologist Justin Martyr (100–165).

    It was in Alexandria that some early Christian leaders promoted the allegorical interpretation of Scripture, including the New Testament. Chief among these church fathers were the illustrious Origen and Clement.

    Origen (184–253) was a foremost biblical scholar in the early church. Being a prolific writer, he wrote extensively on the Bible, producing commentaries and homilies. He went along with the allegorical interpretation of Scripture and had great influence in Alexandria and beyond. He had some quirky ideas, though, that were not accepted by the church, such as the eventual salvation of all, even the devil. Because of this, he was never made a saint in the church, unlike many other church fathers. Yet his influence in theology and biblical scholarship has held great sway for a long time, including in the modern era.

    Clement of Alexandria (150–215), like Origen, was also influenced by Greek philosophy and tried to find connections between Scriptures and Greek thought. In doing so, he also accepted the influence of Philo and Origen, and interpreted the Scriptures generally using an allegorical approach. Both Origen and Clement held to the verbal infallibility of Scripture;⁹ that is to say, the words of the Bible can never be wrong, having been inspired by the Spirit of God. How then does one interpret obscure passages or those that may seem irrelevant to Christians, like many of the passages in the Old Testament? They believed that allegorical interpretation was the proper way of understanding Scripture in this case. It has been observed that in Clement we find the allegorical method of Philo baptised into Christ.¹⁰

    For example, Clement interpreted the Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:32–32) by saying that the mustard seed represents Christ and His influence in the life of the believer. Using ancient medical beliefs about the therapeutic value of mustard seeds, he then suggested that in a similar way, Christ brings about healing and true health for the soul.¹¹

    On his part, Origen, in interpreting the same parable, used his ideas of the many meanings of Scripture: The literal (in this case, the mustard seed as seen in nature), the moral (the seed represents faith which must be exercised) and the spiritual (the seed and its progress represents the kingdom of God). Origen’s interpretation of other parables brings out his allegorical approach more clearly.

    For example, in interpreting the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37), he goes into elaborate detail. In the parable, Jerusalem stands for heaven, Jericho is the world, the robbers are the enemies of the soul (the devil and demons), the priest is the Law, the Levite represents the prophets. Christ is the Good Samaritan, the donkey is Christ’s body, the inn is the church, the two coins are the Father and the Son, and the Samaritan’s promise to return points to the promise of Christ’s second coming.

    Such was the influence of Origen and Clement that it had powerful impact on how other church fathers handled the Bible in general and parables in particular. Take, for example, the great North African theologian and Bible scholar Augustine (354–430). In his explanation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, he not only followed Origen but seemed to have outdid the Alexandrian!¹²

    the stories of jesus

    Such an imaginative interpretation holds that through this parable, Christ offered a course on theology (man and his condition, Christ and His salvation, the role of the church and the Christian life, and the life to come). But surely this was not what Jesus had in mind when He told the story; carefully studying the context in which Luke wrote this parable would make that clearer as we will see later.

    Augustine confessed that preparing his sermon on the parables exercised his imagination and ingenuity, something that he enjoyed very much. He also observed that his congregations enjoyed hearing such interpretations. But are these valid reasons for employing the allegorical method of interpreting the parables? Origen did point out that Scripture had various meanings, including the spiritual meaning, but did he and the other Alexandrians (and the fathers they inspired) g